Sometimes when she rushes through the streets of Oxford, late for lectures because she slept through her alarm after staying up half the night reading Joyce and Hardy and Dickens, or on a quick grocery run in town, she pauses and remembers the first time she came here. How larger-than-life everything seemed back then, like something pulled straight out of her dreams and into the real world: something fantastic and amazing, a place that spoke to her and said, This will be your future.
Now her future has arrived, though, and it has turned into her present. Oxford has changed from a mythical place where dreams are built and realised into a real life town like any other where you go about your business and do mundane things like buy milk or fight with your roommates over who's in charge of laundry or try to finish your reading in due time.
Being here, reading English, living among people who share her interests - it's exactly as she thought it would be, but at the same time it isn't because that's what happens when dreams become reality: they lose their splendour and their mystery and all the fear and anticipation you felt gives way to familiarity and habit.
Life is funny that way.
* * *
"Are you eating properly?" she asks, finally releasing Jenny from the restraints of her hug and looking at her with worry-lines etched into her face. "You're looking so thin. You haven't been sick, have you?"
"She'd better not!" her father grumbles from his spot on the couch. "We're not paying all that money for higher education so she can lie in bed and run a fever."
Jenny rolls her eyes and pulls off her scarf, wondering why she ever thought things at home would change once she was an adult. "I'm fine. I haven't been sick. I'm eating well and I'm sleeping well and I'm making use of all the opportunities higher education has to offer, so your money hasn't been wasted."
That night, sitting at the table and having dinner with her parents and later when she closes the door to her room behind herself, the house seems so much smaller than it used to. It's odd, Jenny thinks, because she would have expected this feeling last summer when she was dancing in night clubs and going away to Paris and eating in fancy restaurants. But her childhood home still felt like home back then, a place she may have wanted to escape and yet an unchanging constant. Now it seems small and old, not like something that suffocates her but rather a relic of a time long gone, even though it's only a few months since she left for Oxford, and Jenny realises that this must be it, the difference between playing at being a grown-up and actually being one.
* * *
"Hello, fancy meeting you here."
He blushes when she smiles at him and stumbles onto an explanation of how he took the year off and went travelling through Europe. "I wanted to figure out what to do with my life at first, you know. But it dragged on too long and I kept thinking of what your dad said, and I didn't want to be a wandering Jew forever, so I send out my applications, and here I am."
"Here you are," Jenny agrees, amused.
"I'm going to be a writer," Graham says. "I thought about being a musician? But I don't think it's for me. And my parents think it's not a real profession." He says 'real profession' with the mocking kind of scorn that he might as well have made little air quotes with his fingers.
"I told my dad you might be a famous writer one day," Jenny tells him, even though she didn't really believe it back then and she still can't quite picture it: Graham, who tends to get either tongue-tied or keeps rambling on, having a way with words? It seems quite the paradox. But maybe it's different when he's writing the words down rather than having to speak them out loud. Sometimes people can surprise you that way. People can surprise you in all kinds of ways.
"Really?" Graham's eyes light up as if her belief in him alone can make it happen. "Hey, do you want to go have a coffee later, maybe? Or you could show me around town? It's my second week here and I still get lost all the time."
"Sure." Jenny laughs. "Don't worry about getting lost; it still happens to me sometimes," she lies.
* * *
Graham is a virgin when she pulls him towards the bed, and his hands are nervous and fumbling and he's blushing so hard that she's afraid he might give himself an aneurysm. The next morning he gets her breakfast and holds her hand on the way to the lecture hall.
It's kind of endearing in a way she hadn't expected, but most importantly, it's safe. Graham is not going to hurt her or break her heart, not so much because she's known him half her life and she knows that deceit and cruelty are not in his nature, but rather because she won't let herself be vulnerable like that again.
She tries very hard not to break his heart in return, but even on that first morning, looking at the way he was smiling at her, she knew that it would happen anyway.
Graham is her first boyfriend at Oxford, and he's not the last. They're all remarkably like him, the ones that follow: fresh-faced, sweet boys who know nothing of life and treat her like a queen. She isn't malicious with them, she doesn't lie when it counts and she never cheats, and she tries to let them down easily. She doesn't say I love you once, not even when Thomas takes her to Paris the summer before her final year and they stand on the top platform of the Eiffel Tower watching the sun set.
* * *
It makes no sense, because she was never in Paris with Helen or Danny, and there's no reason at all why any of them would be here. Even if they were, Paris is not the suburbs, where you run into the same people all over the place. They could all be in Paris for years and never once cross each other's paths.
But she can't help but think that there would be a sort of ironic twist of fate to run into them here, and she isn't quite sure if she would like that or not, if it would forever ruin Paris for her or give it the kind of significance she always hoped it would have.
It doesn't matter because it doesn't happen. She spends three weeks in Paris with a boy she's not in love with, has never been in love with, and will never fall in love with, a boy she will probably break up with as soon as the new term starts. She doesn't wear black because it's too hot for that, and she doesn't listen to Jacques Brel because they're entirely too busy rushing about doing appallingly touristy things, and she spends too much time talking about things that don't matter at all.
Paris is beautiful and buzzing with life and exuding an air of sweet melancholy, but it's not the city she dreamed about when she was lying in her childhood bedroom staring at the ceiling and listening to Juliette Gréco. Though, perhaps it is. Perhaps it's just her who's nothing like she thought she would be if she came here.
* * *
She's there with a boy from Oxford, who'd gone to the bar to get them drinks, when a familiar figure approaches her table. Danny looks exactly the same, immaculate and unruffled, smiling at her like he's not at all surprised to see her.
For a moment, she thinks about turning and walking out, assaulted by an onslaught of memories she doesn't want. But there's a part of her that's curious, who genuinely wants to hear how Danny's been, who longs to talk to someone who knows her.
"Hello stranger," he greets her, fishing a packet of cigarettes from his inside pocket and offering her one. "I was wondering whether we'd lost you to the strange-looking university population of Oxford, but I see that I needn't have worried. They didn't manage to get you."
His eyes slide over her, head to toes and then back up, and she feels herself blushing under his appraisal. She can't remember the last time she blushed. It's like she's a flustered, silly schoolgirl all over again, and she hates the feeling and simultaneously revels in it.
"I've been trying my best not to let them assimilate me. I'm sure Helen will be pleased with me," she says, leaning forward to let him light her cigarette. She takes a drag from it and blows the smoke up into the air before turning around to check if she can spot Helen amongst the crowd, but the only familiar face she sees is her companion making his way over from the bar, a drink in each hand. "Where is she, anyway?"
Danny offers a nonchalant shrug. "She finally wised up and left me. She's engaged to a lawyer now. Nice guy. Treats her like a goddess, and she deserves no less."
It surprises Jenny more than she thinks it should. She's always known that Danny and Helen were ill-fitted, but she still thought of them as a unit, a constant even as the world around her crumbled. Helen-and-Danny, Danny-and-Helen, David's fabulous, sophisticated, unattainably attractive friends, people with impeccable taste and less-than-impeccable morals who would always be happy and successful and together.
It shouldn't surprise her that she was wrong about that as well.
"I'm sorry," she says, even though Danny doesn't look like he needs her pity. But that's what you tell people after a break-up, isn't it?
Danny smiles. "It's quite alright. It was always going to end like that. We weren't fooling ourselves that it would be forever."
His words hit home in an uncomfortable way, and she's thinking of a suitably scathing reply when her boyfriend has found his way back to the table, setting her glass down in front of her and eyeing Danny with suspicion, clearly believing him to be some scoundrel hitting on his girl.
"Rupert, this is Danny, an old friend of mine."
She doesn't introduce Rupert as her boyfriend because she knows what Danny would make of him – and by extension, of her, for choosing someone so utterly safe and artless. Knows it even before Danny briefly looks at Rupert and dismisses him with the briefest flash of a fake smile and a quick handshake before turning his attention back to her.
When Danny holds out his hand and asks her to dance, she doesn't say no like she should. She stubs out her cigarette and slips her hand into his. His fingers are warm and firm against her skin as he pulls her in. They sway to the music, the smoky voice of the singer filling the air around them, and Jenny feels light-headed and drunk even though she barely had time to touch her martini.
"Come home with me," Danny says, his voice soft and intimate and his lips brushing the shell of her ear when he speaks.
"I'm here with someone else," she reminds him. Or perhaps it's her who needs the reminder.
He pulls back just enough to look her in the eyes. He looks more serious than she's ever seen him before. "You were with someone else the last time we danced, too. And if I hadn't let that stop me and I'd taken you home with me that night, none of that whole mess would have happened."
It takes her breath away and in her mind, an alternate chain of events unfolds: Danny kisses her at the club and she goes home with him, leaving David and Helen behind, and David never asks her to marry him and she never learns of the extent of his betrayal and never gets her heart broken and never quits school and—
She reels back, pulling out of his hold, and slaps him, hard. The noise her palm makes when it impacts on his cheek tears through the music, making the people around them stop and stare, and Jenny stumbles back, pushing through the crowd towards their table where Rupert is dutifully waiting. He looks alarmed.
"What's going on? Did he—"
"Just take me home," Jenny says, and she feels herself starting to cry.
"Take me home. Please."
Rupert still looks like he wants to do something stupidly heroic, like drag Danny outside and punch him, but he nods and complies.
They never talk about it. Any of it, really. Jenny breaks up with him the next morning.
* * *
It didn't take her long to figure out that David was a coward and a pathological liar with a self-destructive streak, someone driven to destroy any sort of happiness he achieved. He asked her to marry him when he knew he wouldn't be able to, when he knew that it would only make the truth come out faster. He could have strung her along instead, could have waited for their relationship to eventually come to its natural end when she went to Oxford. It would have been so much easier and a lot more painless for everyone involved, and the only reason why it didn't happen like that is because David will sabotage himself wherever he can. She can't hate David; she just pities him.
Danny, though... She used to think Danny was her friend. And even if he wasn't, at least he was David's friend. He could have saved all of them so much pain if he'd just stopped David before he went too far. Instead, he sat back and watched it all unravel. He didn't look happy about it – she still remembers the way David joked that Danny was jealous – but he never did a thing to stop it.
Knowing that he liked her, that he wanted her for himself, makes it harder to wrap her head around how he could have let it happen, how he stood by and watched her walk straight into disaster like a lamb to the slaughter.
* * *
"I feel like I should apologise, even though I'm not entirely sure what for," he says, falling into step beside her. His tone is glib, the words obviously rehearsed.
She doesn't turn to look at him. "If you really don't know that, then there's no point at all in your being here."
He draws in a sharp breath, and she realises that he isn't used to this hard, unrelenting side of her. It's not necessarily a new side to her character – even back at school, she used to be like this with her parents or her teachers whenever she thought they treated her unfairly, but she never allowed herself to be this way around David and his friends because she was too dazzled and too eager to belong, afraid they'd lose interest if she was being sarcastic or demanding or bitter.
She's not afraid to scare him off now. Part of her wants to, and the rest is curious to see what he'll make of her like this.
"You're right. I'm sorry. I should have said something. I shouldn't have let David carry on."
"Then why did you?"
"I enjoyed having you around. Someone who got it, who liked the same things I liked, who I could talk about art and music with. Someone smart, with genuinely good taste. I didn't want it to end. It was selfish." He stops her, his hand on her arm. "I'm sorry. I really am."
It's not enough. It doesn't change anything. It doesn't heal the scars, it doesn't even put a band-aid on them. Nothing he or David or anyone can tell her will undo what happened. And suddenly Jenny is tired of talking about it and rehashing the past because it's not going to get her anywhere.
"It doesn't matter," she says. "What's done is done."
His hand is still on her arm, and even through her jacket she can feel the warmth of his touch. "There's an exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate. I'd love to take you."
She shakes her head. "I can't. I have to study for my finals next week."
"We could go the weekend after, then. Have dinner afterwards, celebrate a little, maybe go see a concert."
He's standing too close and he's smiling that charming little smile of his and she can't think. It's been too long since she's talked to someone interesting, someone whose knowledge of life doesn't come straight from the printed pages of the great novels, someone who'll take her somewhere rather than follow her footsteps.
It sounds altogether too tempting and she wants so much to say yes. She bites her lip, smiling. "Maybe. You know where to find me."
* * *
He drives a dark blue convertible, and they fold down the roof as they make their way to London.
The exhibition is not as exciting as either of them had hoped – too much Hunt, not nearly enough Burne-Jones. "All the good ones are in private collections anyway," Danny tells her with a wink, and she laughs so loudly that the security guy gives her stern looks.
He kisses her in front of Millais' Ophelia.
Seventeen-year-old Jenny would have searched for a significance in that, a hidden meaning for why it was happening right then and there, facing the picture of a woman who chose to drown herself because love made her go crazy, eternalised by a model who drank herself to death because her husband made her unhappy. At twenty-one, Jenny has come to realise that there's not necessarily a deeper implication to everything. It doesn't mean it's doomed to fail. It doesn't mean that it's epic. It doesn't mean anything, really.
Jenny closes her eyes and kisses him back.
* * *
They're lying in bed, naked, not touching, a sheen of sweat on their skin and the smoke from their cigarettes mingling in the air above their heads.
Jenny thinks about it: Montmartre, the Louvre, watching sunsets from the Eiffel Tower, walking hand in hand along the Seine. It was magical the first time, and fun enough the second time. She doesn't need a third time.
"No," she says, rolling onto her side and facing him, a smile lighting up her face. "Let's go to Rome."