As she walked into the cafe her eyes scoured the room, she assumed he would already be here. Her attentiveness had begun before she reached the entrance as she flitted her gaze through the windows and failed to find her subject among the crowded throngs.
This was okay, Alex thought to herself, it would make a change for her to be the one waiting for Samuel. But it was anything but acceptable, Alex hated the awkwardness of being on her own, which was especially unfortunate as she had a tendency to spend more time alone than in company. And she was never quite sure if that was the way that she wanted it, or if it was a unhappy product of some antisocial gene she had inherited via a great aunt on her mother’s side.
Her time was not particularly precious, but there was still an in built need to occupy every moment of it. So time spent in a chair, with a latte, and doing nothing, was not something she appreciated. That trial was still to come as she joined the queue taking advantage of every possible delay, not wishing to be abandoned with no clear sense of activity any sooner than absolutely necessary.
Alex eventually forced her way to an empty chair and and table and contemplated the next frustration that might occur. Before her sat her drink, waiting to be drunk. She looked back up at the queue, still snaking round the counter and realised that even were he to arrive at this very moment she would have pretty much finished her drink before he joined her. For a moment she wondered if he might have the sensitivity to her anxiety and skip the drink. As this unusual train of thought pulsed through her mind she also realised she had chosen her seat poorly so swiftly switched sides to maximise her observance of the entrance. Not that this would make him arrive any earlier, and it also presented her with yet another challenge, how to watch out for him coming down the road while minimising the chance that he might catch her starring into the street betraying her visual enquiries as to his presence.
It was a wonder that all these people managed to navigate their way through this obstacle course to ensure that two people were in the same place at the same time to consume warm beverages together. It was also a fairly typical response from Alex. She found that she relied on other people to provide her social stimulus, but got agitated when their offers dried up. Social norms were an odd thing, they helped others navigate these complicated waters but for her they were another obstacle that prevented an easy life.
Alex realised it was perhaps unusual to give this much attention to the minutiae of social interaction. And it also immediately occurred to her that this very thought process might contribute to the complexities she encountered when trying to build this unusual thing called friendship. Which was why she was glad Samuel found it just as hard, not that he’d ever admit as much but it comforted her to know that someone else was in the same boat.
By the time he eventually made it through the door the queue at the counter had subsided and he found his way to her table. She couldn’t decide what his lack of acknowledgement meant as he got his drink without even a nod of the head to show he’d seen her.
“Sorry I’m so late, you wouldn’t believe what I’ve had to do today.” Usually when struck with a fresh challenge Samuel relished it, so his demeanour suggested something else. More likely boredom Alex felt, but that would not explain his delay. He slowly disentangled his bags and coat to make his way into the armchair. “I’ve been to Brighton and back this afternoon.”
“Why?” Alex dutifully enquired, knowing their conversation was going to take a while to get round to what she wanted to talk about.
“The reverend doctor Adam decided that he wasn’t sure he could make it from our church to where he is speaking on Sunday afternoon so he dispatched me on a trial run.” He paused for breath, grasped his cup, tried to sip and failing to cope with the heat swiftly picked up his flow. “The most ridiculous part of it was I was told to walk from the station to the church because he didn’t want any unnecessary expense on Sunday and needed an accurate time.”
Alex got the point, but thought it best to let him spell it out, “Surely the cost of two train tickets is more expensive?”
“Absolutely, and there’s no way he’d be unable to make it unless he decides to take a unicycle to economise further.”
“The church are paying for your train ticket?”
Samuel suddenly discovered a sense of dread had descended. “I sincerely hope so, they’ve said they’ll pay for my travel expenses on top of my allowance so I’ll just add it to that.” But Samuel was far less confident than he made out. After less than two weeks working with the reverend doctor he’d come to realise that he should be surprised by very little. And when money was concerned, today’s little escapade should have pointed him to this conclusion before Alex prompted him.
It took a while to realise that there was little else to say on this. It frustrated Samuel that even after knowing each other for two years there was still this acute awkwardness between them on occasions. She was grateful that Samuel took the hint and moved the conversation on. “How have you been? Has term started well?”
Alex let his ignorance slide. Holidays were not so plentiful any longer, since she’d started her PhD Alex had found that everyone assumed the life was just like any other student, lazy holidays, the odd lecture scattered around and work that was supposed to be done, but if skipped without any serious repercussions. “Well the students are back so I’ve got a couple of classes to take.” In the end she couldn’t resist the chance for a corrective nudge. “But there’s still so much research to do, I’m not anywhere near where I need to be. Other than that, not much is happening.”
Samuel could never get his head round this. There was clearly plenty going on, she’d asked to see him to chat and now she was stonewalling him.
“It’s just that, well, I’ve had a bit of a weird couple of weeks.” Alex grabbed her cup and finished it off in a single gulp, composing herself slowly. “Why are men such trouble?”
He had nowhere to go with this. Nothing to offer, the past was too complicated to make this a straightforward question.
“Some of them are just wimps, most are confused, a few are freaks, and there’s just not enough of them.”
Samuel was not sure where he fit into this. And couldn’t work out if this was an invitation to defend himself, or a hint to stay quiet because anything would make it worse.
“And which am I?”
“Um, you don’t count.” Which was probably the worst of all. “Oh, I don’t mean it like that,” Alex corrected herself rather belatedly, “it’s just I don’t think of you like that, you know that, I’m talking about other people. I’ve tried so hard over the summer to work out what’s going on, but every time I think I’m starting to understand, it all changes.”
“It’s mostly that guys just don’t seem to ever ask girls out. I’ve not been asked out on a single date in the past year.”
This was going to be difficult. Samuel knew that he couldn’t leave this hanging in the ether, it needed some sort of response. He also wondered exactly which girls she was talking about, maybe she was right, but he couldn’t understand why. That though, was the problem, he was not an impartial observer.
“Alex. What am I supposed to say to this? You suggest that I’m not even worth counting and you seem to want my advice in confirming to you what a pile of junk guys are. I can do that if you want, I can call us all a bunch of wimps and freaks, I can say that we’ve not even got the balls to cross the road. I can make up whatever sort of crap you like if it’s going to make you feel better. But I’ve got a feeling it won’t.
“You want something that I can’t help you with. Especially if you won’t tell me what’s going on. I’ve tried to stay out of interfering, I don’t want to do anything that’s what you’d describe as inappropriate, but you’ve hardly given me any choice. Last year I told you how I felt, I asked you on a date, and now you come and complained that no one else has asked you since. If it’s being asked out which you’re after then I’m sure I can oblige. But I don’t think that’s what you want either.”
“Sam, I’m sorry. I just hadn’t got anyone else to talk to. I’ve missed talking to you. And you’ve been a gent this past year, and I’m an idiot. This is what’s happened: basically I liked a guy, I thought he liked me, but when push came to shove he walked away. And in my definition that makes him a jerk. That’s not you.
“To begin with I thought there was nothing going on, I’d make sure I turned up when he was around, I even started going to the morning service because I knew he’d be there. To be honest, I even changed what I wore, don’t laugh.” Maybe Samuel had failed to catch the smirk as she said that. “I had pretty much convinced myself that he wasn’t interested, I made sure we were alone every now and then, making sure I was walking home alone so he’d feel duty bound to walk with me. And nothing. But then he went to America over the summer and we messengered each other pretty much every day. The first Sunday he was back he gently turned me around by the elbow as he went for his doughnut.”
Samuel thought this last encounter was stretching the bounds of credibility but let her go on. “I was waiting for what I was sure was just around the corner, but it never came. So last week I again made sure we walked home together and asked him straight if he fancied me.”
The shop was thankfully nearly empty because as she came to her peroration tears had started to form and edge out of their ducts and shimmer down her cheeks. “He said he didn’t. That he had just started seeing someone he’d met online. He said he had no idea I liked him, for God’s sake, he’d lent me his jumper, what kind of mixed signal is that! I nearly slapped right there, I should have waited to ask until we were at least close to home. I had to struggle through them the never ending minutes as we picked up our pace to make it home before the awkwardness killed us both.”
“I guess, it’s hard for him to know whether someone’s interested, you said you didn’t know if he was, maybe he was just trying to be friendly.
“It’s not very nice right now, I know, but in a couple of weeks I’m sure you’ll be glad that he said no.” This was not what Samuel should have said. But the tears were falling to fast for it to make much of a difference.
“I want to help you if I can. I know you’re hurting, it’s hard. But maybe it’s a tad too soon to write all guys off.”
Alex tried to breathe deeply now very aware of what a scene she’d made. “It’s not your fault. I just needed to have a bit of a rant.”
The tears shifted to an uneasy laughter and Samuel took this as his que, “You know what, maybe it’s time to try something a bit different. My sister’s just started going to this church, it’s a bit different to Holland Park, but they run date-my-mate. Seems they want to get everyone married off, it’s open to anyone, maybe you should go?”
Samuel hadn’t thought this far ahead. “Well, yes, but the whole point is that you go with a friend who you don’t want to date, and you find someone for each other.”