I was an exchange student who felt the weight of homesickness, so far away from my sleepy beach town and even my University in the States. England felt cold, damp, the people distant and judging. As we progressed toward winter the sun seemed to hover just at the horizon, never moving too far into the sky and the day seemed to end at 3 pm. I felt myself begin to turn inward, not knowing how to deal with this cold climate and the cliquish nature of the people around me.
My sister called on one particularly grim afternoon laced with darkness and rain and dared me to go to the nearest pub. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
I hung up thinking, she would never know whether I went or not, but then again, somehow she would.
I pulled on my insulated slicker and headed down the three blocks to the pub trying not to mind the rain or the chill that embraced me far too intimately. I hadn’t been before because I thought they might be too much like the bars at home, dark and cold and someplace where a girl like me could feel ultimately lost.
As I entered, viewed the fire roaring at the center, the warm brick and wood, the laughing chatter of accented voices, I thought for the first time that maybe I had been missing out.
There was an old man in a wheelchair, an oxygen tube hooked to his nose, sipping on a pint of stout. There was a lovely blonde with blushed cheeks leaning against a boy in a leather jacket, his chestnut hair curly and dark around his head. Three women, bright cheeked from drink, sat and giggled, at intervals throwing their heads back and laughing, then pausing with fingers over their lips as if they had indiscreetly allowed something to slip.
I watched and wondered if somehow I could become this.
While I hadn’t been indoctrinated, I knew I needed to put in an order at the bar and then find a table. I stared at the labels on the taps, what was a bitter? Bitter. It didn’t sound very nice. I chose a nut brown.
“Where you from, luv?” the bartender asked, his blue eyes dancing.
“North Carolina,” I said.
I nodded and smiled, barely able to keep his gaze.
“Might have to visit if the birds look like you,” he said.
I blushed and smiled at the unexpected complement.
I sat at a table near the fire, but I looked at everyone around me. I wanted to be part of this, all of these people living, laughing, drinking, enjoying.
He approached without me noticing and he sat at my table without asking. “You’re new here,” he said. He had grayish blue eyes that to me felt as if they absorbed emotion. They reminded me of a stormy sea, but his face, his full lips seemed kind, gentle.
“I’m an exchange student,” I said, watching him carefully.
He leaned back and fingered the coaster in front of him, twirling it between his fingers, with practiced ease. He watched it and then raised his eyes to mine. “From America?”
He grinned. “I thought you might be from Ireland.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“You seem a little quiet for an American,” he said. “The American girls usually are giggly and loud.”
I shrugged. “We’re not all like that.”
“Obviously,” he said. “What are you studying?”
I hesitated because I knew that someone like him would find this amusing. “Drama.”
His eyes brightened. “Really?”
I nodded and looked away from his brilliant eyes to my drink.
“You’re an actress,” he asked.
I nodded again and then raised my eyes to look at him. My heartbeat quickened. He was spectacular to look at. His eyes were bold, but together with his full lips, he was the most sensual boy I had ever seen. His look was something beyond me. In my town, there were no boys who looked like this. There were the pretty boys and the athletic boys, but there were no boys who imbued the air with sensuality. This was not an American quality. I stared at him a bit longer than I should and then lowered my gaze, wondering what, if anything, he thought about me.
“You’re at Uni?” he asked.
“Are you going to do the town showcase?”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so. I haven’t been here long enough.”
“You must,” he said. “People get discovered that way. I’m just signing up. We should sign up together.”
And, I could find no reason to say no, especially to those eyes.