What can I say about this first meeting? It was a beginning and an end for me, though I didn’t realize any of its significance at the time. At the time, I thought I had grown into myself, fully and finally, and that my trip around the world was just an interesting adventure and this meeting was just another interesting diversion along the way.
There is a girl standing in the sun across the busy London street, talking on her phone in front of the Shakespeare Pub. Her skin is the color of coffee and cream, her hair long and black, curling at the ends. She’s small and slim, with high cheekbones, and she’s shielding extraordinarily dark eyes against the sun as she watches the crowds. I realize, with a start, that this is Shreya.
She sees me at almost the same moment and smiles, waving. She hangs up as I cross the street, and we stand and look at each other for a long moment before she holds out a hand. “Hi,” she says.
I take it. “Hi,” I say.
“It’s so good to finally meet you,” she says. Her voice is deeper than I’d imagined, with an educated Indian accent, every vowel and consonant precisely enunciated. It strikes me; I’ve seen her picture before, but this is the first time I’ve heard her voice.
“Come on,” she says, nodding into the pub, “let’s get something to drink.”
We go inside and order something ice cold and full of fruit. As Shreya sits down across the table from me, I feel a sense of unreality; this person on the other side of hundreds of emails and online conversations, on the other side of the world, is solid, and right beside me.
“Wow,” she finally says, and laughs. “I can’t believe I’m finally here.”
I cast around for some response that will be clever and suave and wordly and stumble into a nervous “How was your flight?”
“It was fine,” she says, and looks out at the busy London traffic with a wry shake of the head. “It’s so strange,” she says. “I’ve been living in an organic collective for the last month. We grow all of our own food, and there are no cars.” She fixes me with a serious gaze, thin eyebrows drawn together over dark eyes. “It’s very wonderful. You know?”
I swallow. “Sounds like it.” I feel a sense of frustration–why are my thoughts so sluggish and disconnected? The collective she describes is just the sort of place I want to learn more about. Is the only response I can muster really, it sounds like it? Irritated, I brush my self-consciousness aside and allow my curiosity to draw me out of my nervousness. “What kind of food?”
As we talk, I relax, and she loses some of her serious veneer, laughing more often, cracking jokes in the casual way we always did online after we got to know each other. She’s as interesting in person as she is in our letters, and within a few minutes of talking I’m engaged enough in the conversation to lose some of my awkwardness. We talk about feminism in India, about philosophy, and about cats; she’s a fan, and a shameful addict of the online variety. With several hours to wait before our bus to Edinburgh, we walk out into London, across the Thames, through the park. The sky is a high clear blue, and the sun is pleasantly warm in the way it only can be in places where the status quo is rain. In the center of a sprawling grass field is a marble Buddhist shrine with a child playing on the steps, and Shreya laughs as she watches her. Her laugh is as musical as her voice, and I find myself smiling to hear it. “She’s so beautiful,” she exclaims, waving to the young mother the girl runs to.
We talk and talk. I am enjoying myself immensely, but inside, even as I try to ignore it, to deny its very existence, I’m checking her against a thousand different points, comparing her against the idealized image I have in my mind. I do not consciously think that I am attracted to her or that I hope she might be attracted to me. That kind of self awareness is beyond me. Instead I temporize, I tell myself that I am looking for human potential and competence, I am looking to spend time only with people who I respect and that this is what I am judging her for. It’s easy for me to lie to myself this way. I look for the same things in women that I do in men, after all, so why should my interest have anything to do with her beautiful eyes or her playful laugh? No, I look for intelligence, independence, competence, mastery, people who will challenge me and teach me in their particular areas of expertise. All academic of course. She does well, and my ideal vision of her grows stronger. I think, this is a woman who is always strong, always passionate, always active in the world, never passive. I think, this is a woman who couldn’t be otherwise.
We find a patch of grass on the bank of the Thames and sit down to watch the city sprawl across the river. The muddy water churns and glitters in the wake of slow fat river barges plowing their way up from the Channel, and fishing lines dangle like spiderwebs from the high stone bridge. Everything is perfect, and I would like to sit here in this spot all day taking in this new city with this new and interesting girl. But we have a bus to catch, an appointment with Edinburgh to keep. I take a breath and check my phone. “It’s time,” I say, and she nods. The shadows of the city lengthen as we cross the bridge and plunge back into the busy urban sprawl around Victoria station.
Our bus, puffing exhaust in a last patch of sunlight, is cramped, smelly, and hot. We have to go all the way to the back before we find a place to sit, and when we do, it’s directly over the rumbling engines. The heat rises up in waves off of the floor.
We continue to talk as we roll north into the English countryside. Hours pass and as the sun sinks, the bus slowly empties and we sink into a companionable drowsy silence. An hour or two south of Newcastle the sun finally sets and Shreya nods off, leaning her head on my shoulder to sleep.
My body tenses under the weight of this unexpected contact, and my mind grasps desperately for the correct interpretation, the appropriate response. It’s a small thing, a friend leaning on your shoulder as they nap across miles of uneventful distance between here and there. For me it is a thing that exists almost without context; the little I have been taught tells me that this kind of intimate gesture on her part calls for a definite and direct response.
The religion of my childhood and young adulthood taught that social interaction between genders is dangerous and must be regulated. The rigidity of interpretation that my religion allowed was such that any kind of touch between a boy and a girl beyond a simple hug automatically developed romantic undertones. But I am no longer religious. I no longer believe in these rigid interpretations and rules.
I grew up in Montana, where concepts of personal space fit with the sprawling scale of the landscape; friends stand in loose groups, a few feet between each other. Men are expected to be stoic, unemotional, distaining the comfort of human touch. But I am no longer just a boy from Montana, I am a traveler in search of new horizons and the world out here is different, wider and more intimate all at the same time.
I tell myself the truth: that a kindly girl who thinks I am safe and a friend has chosen to use my shoulder to sleep on. It is a gesture of trust, but not sexuality. Slowly, carefully, and with great concentration I relax my muscles, one at a time, and try not think about anything but the rolling scenery outside my window. Still, this cocktail of suppressed craving for touch and my lingering notions of strict social rules plays with my emotions as the miles fall away, making me happy, flustered, nervous, all at once, while Shreya sleeps on beside me, oblivious to it all.