We met outside a lecture theatre, second semester 2009. I was leaning against a huge concrete pillar, trying to cool off after coming inside, so I suppose it must have been at least October. I was standing there, undoing the second button on my shirt and trying not to look too much like a weird sweaty guy, when I noticed her walking towards me. I'd seen her in class all semester, since there were only about 20 people who regularly came to lectures for that course. It was an optional extension to a core economics course, so only the dedicated, interested or pretentious students came. I had been sneaking glances at her for a few weeks, I liked the look of her. She looked smart, thoughtful, and pretty in a strange kind of way. She had short, dark hair that made her head look somewhat like a coconut from afar. She was walking towards me, and smiling.
She said hi, and so did I. In retrospect, it's strange to see that she said it in exactly the same way that she still does each time we meet. And it's strange to think that she could just as easily have said hi to someone else. I was sweating even more now, shifting my weight, trying to find the stance that looked the most natural. We talked a bit about the course, rumors we had heard about the lecturer, a group assignment that was coming up. Nothing personal. When everyone started drifting into the theatre, I wasn't sure whether to pick a seat myself, or ask her where she wanted to sit. So I was looking behind me, to see if she was following me to a seat, all the while worrying, "what next?"
We did the group assignment together, with another guy called Mike. He seemed to be always ill, blowing his nose and apologising. We three met in the library a few times a week until the end of the semester to work on the assignment, never for anything else. I began looking forward to seeing her, but did my best not to let her see it. We worked together well, but there was a tendency for us to end up spending most of the time talking instead of working. I don't know about her or Mike, but I liked it that way. I found it easy to spend an hour or so talking to her, we didn't run out of things to say, which is usually the way it goes with other women and me. When the assignment was finished, we didn't see each other until the final exam, and after that was the Summer holidays.
First semester 2010 was good. My marks were good, the climate was good, college life was good. I was finally making some proper friends at college, but I didn't tell any of them about her. I didn't want them to think that something was happening when it wasn't, or even worse, that I thought something was happening when it wasn't. So it was best to say nothing. I was very happy to find out that she and I shared two classes that semester, so we sat together for at least six hours a week. Waiting outside lecture theatres for her was a small, stupid thrill that I relished. And even when I had seen her just earlier that day, she still walked up and gave me the same little greeting, with her eyes almost closed for an instant, a small wave, saying "hi!" I would do my best to look cool.
We started hanging out together outside class, with the excuse that we had nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. Although I hoped it wasn't, I was never sure whether that really was the only reason why she spent time walking around and talking with me. Either way, politeness would dictate that she couldn't ignore me while we still had classes together, so I had at least until the end of the year, and that was far enough away. The more we talked, the more I liked her, mainly because we could keep talking, there was no idle chit-chat, and I sometimes made her laugh. We were always learning something about one another, and it seemed to me that she was genuinely interested to know. I certainly was. I learned that she was half-Indian, half-Pakistani (Bhatan, to be exact). I made the lame joke that that was the reason why she was so indecisive, that her two halves had been in conflict since before she was born. She had spent a year each on three other degrees before deciding to try Economics, so she must have been a fair bit older than me, especially since I started university a year earlier than most. I was the same age as her little brother. I liked the way she had a kind of curiosity about everything, as if there was almost nothing that she didn't want to know. And I felt as if she was, in some deep sense, stronger than me.
A friend gave me some advice on women. He considered himself quite an authority on the matter, since he had had two French girlfriends. He knocked on my door late one night, with a bottle of scotch and a plate of microwaved hot chips. He had just finished a major assignment, he wanted to celebrate with someone, and nobody else was around. I wasn't insulted that mine was one of that last doors he had tried, since I usually didn't drink anyway. After a few hours of talking and laughing and drinking (him much more than me), we had reached that hushed, sombre part of lengthy conversations, and he told me his philosophy regarding women.
"The real thing when you're with them is not to try, you know. If you try too hard, you just look like a dickhead," he said. This was not news to me. I had been embarrassed enough times in high school that I already did my best not to try. Perhaps it's tenuous to trace it all back to a few fumbling phone calls, perhaps I'm just generally too risk-averse to go out on a limb with women. Either way, I'd made something of a reputation at college for avoiding women, or at least not pursuing them. It was just a lot easier that way. And it had been my strategy all along with her.
"Yeah, well, if not trying were the best strategy, I'd be swimming in it, you know what I mean," I said. That made him smile.
All the while, though, I had not been playing it as cool as I had planned. Underneath a calm exterior, my mind was racing every time we were speaking. How to impress her, without showing off? How to interest her, without making myself the centre of attention? How to seem more complex than I really am? I couldn't help but lie. To make us seem more similar in mind than we really were. To make conversations and myself seem more interesting. To stand out from others a little. To be less ordinary. No big lies, I didn't say that I was rich or a sports star or in a band or a genius or a motorcyclist, but I peppered every conversation with a huge collection of small lies and exaggerations. I said that my mother was much more neurotic than she really is. I said that my Dad used to be a part-time nudist. I said that I had read books and seen films that I had only read about on Wikipedia. I said that I listened to Jazz. I didn't know why I kept saying such things, because their only consequence was that she would eventually find me out as the liar that I was, and am. Not even a courageous liar, who would take a big risk and commit to something outrageous, but a petty, inconsequential liar.
This, together with my lack of romantic ambition and a suspicion that she thought of me as a child, should have made see the reality of our relationship. But it was something much smaller that did that. During the Spring, we were walking through a courtyard in the evening. It was cold, and she was wearing a hooded overcoat that she had been wearing all winter, it seemed. We walked past a tree that was blooming with white flowers, and leaving a strange smell in the air. It smelled like semen. Perhaps it wasn't the tree, but I could smell it there for a week or so. I asked her if she could smell it, but she had a cold and couldn't smell anything. I found her sniffles extremely endearing. She asked me what the smell was. I said no, I shouldn't say, it was disgusting. She smiled and pressed me for an answer. I eventually caved and said, "well, it smells like that yellow stuff that accumulates under your toenails." I didn't have the guts to tell her the truth. She screwed up her face in half-serious disgust and wailed, "eeeeewww!", and I think it was at that moment that I decided that we would never be more than friends.