Jenny goes to Oxford and reads English.
She befriends spotty, unattractive girls who can recite poetry and speak multiple languages and goes out with boys who blush and stutter away from the lecture hall when she holds a cigarette between her fingers and asks them questions that are far too personal.
She wears dresses that are just a little too big and lets her hair hang loose and reads whatever she wants to read, and it’s everything she’d hoped it’d be and more.
She doesn’t think about before if she can help it, which of course means that there are times she can think of little else; she wonders if she was happy then the way she’s happy now. Wonders if something with a tragic ending can ever have really been happy to begin with.
She shuts her eyes, blows smoke from her lungs, and pretends she was never sixteen and naïve even if being sixteen and naïve is the only reason she has the luxury to make believe.
Pretending never hurt anyone.
(Except for how it did.)
She isn’t surprised to see him (which is maybe the surprise itself).
He looks away first.
She counts it as a victory.
He doesn’t ask her how she’s doing, if University is everything she’d dreamt, and she’s glad for that. He looks the same, young and beautiful and like he knows every secret in the room, and perhaps he does; he was always the smartest of them.
“You look good,” he says, and there’s a glint in his eye but he’s not lying.
“So do you,” she says, and he raises an eyebrow for a moment but accepts the compliment anyway.
“Shall we have a drink?” he asks. “As old friends?”
Jenny smiles. “I’m sure we’re many things, Danny, but old is certainly not one of them, and I’m not entirely sure friends is either.”
“Ah,” Danny laughs, “you’ve become a cynic. Excellent. There’s hope for you yet.”
She doesn’t let him take her arm but she goes all the same.
“How’s London?” she asks. “How’s business?”
“Good,” Danny says, flicking a cigarette between his fingers and watching the ash scatter across the pavement. “But you don’t want to talk about that.”
He raises an eyebrow and she mirrors it until he laughs, eyes dropping until his lashes cast shadows against his cheeks.
“Fair enough,” he says. “I suppose the best way of proving it is to point out that I’m not in prison.”
Jenny smiles because it’s true, and wonders if she’ll always be so disregarding of the things that ought to shock her. Few things shock her anymore; another thing to blame on the past.
“Shall we have dinner tomorrow night?” she says, and Danny blinks in surprise, just once, before grinning.
“Alright,” he says, “where do you suggest?”
Jenny shrugs, the arm of her dress slipping just a little further past her collarbone, and watches the way his gaze follows it down. “I’ll think of somewhere.”
“Excellent,” he says, and she leans in a little closer as she echoes it.
Jenny takes him to a small, well-hidden place her third Oxford boyfriend had introduced her to. It’s nice but not ostentatious and she watches Danny’s face for a reaction, sees the moment the strain around his jaw eases at the first hints of piano drifting towards the door and smiles.
The food is spectacular and they fill pauses with talk of art and music and literature, and Jenny feels alive as she watches her own passions reflected in the slight flush of his skin, the widening of his pupils.
He doesn’t say “in Paris” and she doesn’t either; part of her wonders if he’s not being kind and it’s strange to think that he might feel the need with her.
Instead she says “in Prague”, watches his eyes light up in surprise, and for a moment they’re not old friends at all, have no history anchoring them down, and Jenny breathes it in with a laugh.
Later, the night barely cool on their skin, it is Jenny who curls her fingertips against his wrist, Jenny who curves her lips into a question, and Danny who smiles an answer into the space between them.
“I don’t need you,” she says, because that’s the fundamental truth of all this.
“Of course you don’t,” Danny says seriously. “I wouldn’t be here if you did.”
Jenny takes his arm and leads the way.
When Danny kisses her she thinks of champagne and jazz and dancing, of late nights that sung of possibilities and lies that read too much like truths.
She falls onto the mattress, pulls him down over her, and pretends the past doesn't exist.
Someone’s practicing the cello upstairs, the notes low and haunting, lingering between the walls, and Jenny keeps her eyes open and is twenty years old.
Danny’s already gone when she wakes up, and she’s not surprised and not hurt. She stretches her arms above her head, lets her heels skid again the sheets, and feels the pleasant way her body aches.
She goes to class, has tea with her friends and smiles vaguely when they ask what she’s been doing the last few days. Flirts with the boy at the bookstore who asks if she likes Faulkner while rubbing a hand across his neck, blush flooding over his cheeks, and then goes home, content.
There’s a note on her desk that she’d missed that morning, and she unfolds it with steady hands.
See you soon, D.
She smiles, slips it in a drawer, and sits down to study before the words begin to coil into promises behind her eyes.
(And if they do, just a little, then that’s alright; she is only twenty after all.)