Sunday mornings came softly in Oxford. They were so unbearably still.
Stillness didn’t relax her. Stillness didn’t calm her. It irked her: it slowly layered onto itself until it triggered the unrelenting urge to flee. Even though she felt the first pangs of that urge as she lifted herself from bed around dawn, she ignored them. Instead, she thought of the chapter drafts she needed to write, the articles she had to read, and the emails she needed to answer. No, she wouldn’t give into her desire to escape. She’d try to push through.
After getting dressed and eating breakfast, she gathered her belongings, left her flat, and headed down Botley Road toward the city centre. Walking through the freezing cold, she planned her day: some hours of work at a café, a break for lunch with a friend, a few more hours of work at the library, dinner and drinks with some of her cohort, and then a bit of reading before bed. It sounded feasible enough. It sounded satisfying enough, but she still couldn’t rid herself of the restlessness that said, “Go. Run. Escape.”
Often, escape meant catching the train to London where her closest friends were enmeshed in an insular but thriving Black arts scene. If she wanted to, she knew she could send Vanessa a short text: “I’m on my way.” As long as Vanessa wasn’t at work, she would meet her at Paddington Station, and they would take the tube and then the overground to Vanessa’s flat in Hackney. They’d grab food from the Brazilian place around the corner, visit one of the outdoor markets, and eventually find themselves at Kristen’s place for drinks. They’d drink wine, eat too much Jollof, and light up a blunt or two. Kristen would complain about all of the Goldsmiths faculty invested in *political* Blackness and swear she was abandoning her visiting fellowship at the Centre for Cultural Studies to pursue film production full-time. Vanessa would complain about her lack of creative freedom as an assistant curator at the Tate Modern and promise that she’d hand in her resignation the following morning. For reasons beyond their control, neither Kristen nor Vanessa would follow through on either promise, but there was something comforting about creating a space where improbable yearnings begot possibility. Even if just for a moment…
And if Vanessa and Kristen were busy, she could always, call him. Adrian always answered her calls, but nothing about their time together made her feel settled….
Adrian had a gorgeous flat in Kensington, one that his job as a senior financial analyst at Google’s London office made easily affordable. Bajan mother, English father. Two Oxford degrees. Both with distinctions. He was so beautiful in the ugliest of ways, the kind of man who’d been raised with the assurance that the world was his oyster and acted accordingly.
They met in Oxford. Adrian came to speak on a panel called “Black Entrepreneurs and New Economic Visions.” She’d hung around afterward to wait on her flatmate, one of the conference organizers, but Adrian saw her and thought she was waiting to talk to him instead. He approached her, charmed her into a smile, dazzled her into a laugh, and asked her out to dinner. And so they began.
Late one night, after they’d vibed to Afrobeats and dancehall and had one too many shots of rum, they stumbled into his place. His hand gripping her thigh, her leg hooked around his waist, his other hand at the small of her back, and her arm hooked around his neck, he brought his lips to the tip of her ear and whispered, “I’ve never been with any woman like you.” She reveled in it because she thought he was talking about her brilliance, her integrity, her fun-lovingness, her beauty. But when she asked him to explain, he lifted his head, looked into her eyes and said, “You know. So…” His hand moved from her thigh to the nape of her neck. He began pulling at her curly fro, rubbing his fingers across the strands with unmasked fascination at the texture. He brought his nose to her temple, buried it into her fro, and inhaled deeply. “So real. Really…” His sentence trailed off as he began peppering her temple with light kisses.
That was when it hit her. For this mixed guy with a Caribbean mother and British father, she was “exotic,” a transgression from the fair-skinned South Asian, Persian, and other not-quite-white but-still-very-light women she would later learn he was used to. She slept with him that night and immediately regretted it. Every time he touched her hair or stared at her skin for a beat too long, she felt herself come unraveled. Whatever ephemeral happiness the sex had brought faded when she remembered that moment, his hand in her hair, the fascination in his eyes…It just wasn’t right.
So no, she wouldn’t board that train to London. As much as she adored Vanessa and Kristen and be whatever her conflicted emotions towards Adrian were, she had to remember that she couldn’t find fulfillment in other people. She had to be whole on her own.
When she arrived at the intersection of George Street and Cornmarket, she took in the mixture of empty streets with imposing gothic architecture. Something about it made her feel. She couldn’t name the emotion, so she decided to take a picture since a photo would capture the texture of the moment…
She turned onto Cornmarket, but didn’t continue all the way to High Street. She made a left at Market Street, passed the Covered Market and continued straight through the alleyway. Coming out of the alley, she paused and looked around her. The Old Bodleian Library to her left, Radcliffe Camera and Hertford College straight ahead, Brasenose College and the University Church to her right. So hauntingly beautiful. More than 700 years of history embraced her.
The sun was rising, and the sky was covered in splashes of orange, pink, purple, and blue. Something about it centered her, and she felt her soul settle into something that felt like peace.
The longer she stood there, the more the blistering cold cut through her jacket and her gloves. Though her hands were in her pockets, they were so numb that she was sure even the blade of a knife slipping through her skin wouldn’t jog her senses.
An unexpected gust of wind made her eyes water, and the low-temperature caused her nose to run, but she continued moving east towards the horizon. The streets were still empty, the cobblestones unburdened. She was alone, chasing the sun in the heart of empire, trying to escape the hollowness of her own bones.