I could remember the day I turned thirty like it was yesterday. The big three-o, a dreaded milestone for all single women who, like me, were still at a loss when it comes to their life’s purpose. Way overplayed if you ask me. I didn’t feel any different from the day prior. But it was an interesting time in my life, to say the least. I had just moved to London, leaving my beloved California behind to pursue a dubious career as an interpreter in Europe. The culture shock was just as brutal as my mother had warned me it would be. I had only been a week into my new job and when I hurried back home that evening, under a typical British overcast sky, all I wanted was to slump into our cozy second-hand sofa, pull a wool blanket right up my chin, and maybe share a couple of large glasses of Chardonnay with Blake – my cheeky rascal of a flatmate.
I realized something was wrong the moment I stepped into the badly-lit entryway. The blinds had been drawn and a deathly, unsettling silence had enveloped the place. Still in the dark, I had mechanically tossed my set of keys on the small dish at the edge of the kitchen plan, and because of the unusual hush, the click of the bulky metallic bunch on the ceramic plate came crashing back into my ears like a bomb detonating right in my face. My heart rate went through the roof. I had been running on just a few hours of sleep for days in a row, and the excessive stress of the new job seemed to have gotten to me by way of hypersensitiveness. Really, all I needed then was the soothing glow and scent of perfumed candles, the mushy comfort of my sofa and the calming aroma of a velvety red.
Instead, what I got was another assault on my frail, sleep-deprived self. The lights came on like a curtain drop in a pitch-black opera room, and two dozen mirthful heads popped up behind the kitchen counter, sending my heart racing all over again.
Just as my brain recognized that the threat wasn’t real, the happy bunch launched into a commendable yet poorly-coordinated a capella effort, humming and singing me a very happy birthday. Blake was standing in the middle of the huddle with a triumphant, mischievous grin - her trademark full-blown smile that was beginning to carve out crow’s feet on the side of her eyes. She was holding a gorgeous three-piece frosted cake and right then, I knew I wouldn’t be able to scold her once this ordeal was over. The damn thing looked like a mouth-watering gift from the Gods and I was pretty sure it was home-made. It was ornate with chocolate chips and just by admiring it, I could tell it was moist to perfection and probably filled with warm fudge. It was clear in hindsight that Blake had baked the culinary work of art because she knew that the lineup of invitees wouldn’t cut it for me.
“The only thing I despise even more than surprise birthday parties,” I said, recounting the evening, “must be surprise birthday parties with total strangers.” Our two dates for the night laughed in good heart.
Blake chose to plead her case, once more. “It was your thirtieth birthday, Lilybird! That’s no regular day in a woman’s life. And let me remind you that we knew nobody at the time. Two years ago already. How far have we come since then!”
She knew I hated to be called Lilybird, it made me feel like I was being patronized, but I let it go.
“So let me get this straight,” Aiden said, clearly more interested in Blake’s shameless ingenuity than the menu being handed over to him by the waiter. “You knew none of the invitees?”
“Nope,” I said. “They weren’t even acquaintances. Blake went on Facebook and, unbeknown to me, created a public event in my honor. She invited whoever was available on short notice. Thank God only twenty people showed up. Mostly broke international students actually. What did your message say again? Surprise birthday party, no-limit fun, free-for-all, booze on the house, seek and ya shall find?”
“Something along those lines,” Blake said, then playfully hiding her face behind the open menu. Her big hair was showing above it; which was fairly preposterous. I knew she was grinning broadly, but found solace in the knowledge that the sardonic smirk was accentuating her nascent wrinkles. Blake was three years older than me, yet had a youthful exuberance to her that I found fascinating. This morning’s double date was her idea, of course, and it wasn’t a stretch to say that she had forced my hand. In fact, she had dragged me to the other side of London for a boozy brunch with Aiden and Piotre–the two beaux she had met at her art class that very week.
I was hardly convinced that dating two random art students would solve our celibacy woes, but slowly I warmed up to the idea after she mentioned that the well-intentioned chaps intended to take us to Hakkasan for Dim Sum Sunday. So there we sat, in the upscale Mayfair restaurant, dying to get stuck in their famed five-course feast, taste buds ready to salivate. The clock had just struck eleven A.M. but I was already insanely famished, having skipped breakfast in anticipation of what promised to be a Cantonese orgy full of exotic flavors and tantalizing aromas. I had no intention of washing down my steam dumplings and crispy duck salad with tap water, so I went for the “signature” breakfast, which came top-and-tailed with two cocktails and a half bottle of champagne for an extra £20. Thank you Aiden!
The two blokes were obviously in it for the kill. Hakkasan was arguably the best restaurant in town, and the bill would rise upward of £300–for bloody breakfast. Too bad nothing would happen. The moment I had shaken Aiden’s hand in the doorway of the restaurant, it was clear to me that we wouldn’t have a thing and live happily ever after, and I felt somewhat unsettled at the thought of refusing the advances I knew were coming. By all accounts, Aiden and Piotre were handsome fellas, with strong jawlines and abs of steel and ripped chest and all the good stuff, but they reminded me more of hapless Californian surfers scouring the ocean for meaning than the dependable Don Juan I was desperately longing for.
As I slowly but surely pressed on into middle age, I started to feel deep down a growing need for a masculine backbone in my frivolous life. Not that I was sleeping with everyone. Far from it. My last solid relationship had been five years earlier, and the sporadic flings that had punctuated my love life ever since–all three of them–had left me with a sense of unfinished business. I was ready for a committed and meaningful relationship, and ready to be swept off my feet. The only fly in the ointment was that reliable arms were in short supply, at least in my immediate surroundings. By that point, I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt the proverbial butterflies in my belly. I had made peace with the fact that I would most likely not stumble upon my gracious prince charming anytime soon. No matter how I approached the issue, my rumblings inevitably led me to the same depressing conclusion–I would have to settle for a toned-down replica. Having said that, there were still a few non-negotiable traits that any aspiring suitor would need to possess–unbounded professional ambition, an unbridled passion for life and a desire for fatherhood. And failing that, just a bulldozer that’d hold my hand as I jostle my way through tourists on Oxford Street. That would do as well.
Needless to say that from that perspective the two wannabe dandies sitting across the table weren’t exactly cutting it. Aiden was witty but I almost chocked on my fried dumpling when I felt his shoeless feet brush my naked ankle halfway through the puddings. Blood rushed to the back of my head, and the disgruntled look on my face must have been so unequivocal that the poor lad stood quiet until the end of the date. It didn’t help that I refused to hold eye contact with him thereafter, instead turning my gaze at Piotre and his scruffy facial hair. On two occasions I had to suppress a guffaw as I pictured Blake scratching her cheeks tomorrow morning, complaining about the beard rash her beau gave her.
You’d think that you were meant to come across your soulmate sooner or later in a city like London. A city boasting three million singles ready to mingle. Believe me when I say that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Here like in any other major developed metropolis, I suppose, if you failed to jump on the online dating bandwagon and to download the half dozen most commonly used dating apps–which I categorically refused to pollute my phone with–you could kiss goodbye a pool of millions of eager single men, and with it any whimsical love affair and wild encounter.
Let’s face it, I didn’t exactly help my own case. Back then I was a real piece of work, with my nagging insecurities, my borderline life-threatening hypertension and my ailing interpreter career. For a few weeks, back in my first year in London, I had become so jaded with the whole dating business that I seriously considered becoming a lesbian. The egregious culmination of that short yet confused meandering had been a moist kissing session and a hasty groping in the women’s room of a gay club in Soho. During the week, most establishments of the vibrant neighborhood were overtly targeting a homosexual mostly masculine crowd, but on the weekends, the entertainment center turned into a massive melting pot of genders, races and sexual orientations. That very evening I’m referring to, I was downing my third mojitos when I suddenly found myself at the heart of the dance floor, at least ten yards away from my friends. I remember looking up, slightly disorientated, as my eyes landed on a lone girl who looked just as lost as me. I noticed her instantly because she was at a perfect standstill, long cocktail in hand, right in the middle of a circle of raging party-goers dancing the night away. As the blinkering lights caressed her outline, it felt like a scene from a video clip starring Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Our eyes locked instantly and, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, we walked toward each other, deliberately, and lost ourselves into a warm embrace, cutting out any awareness of our vociferous surroundings. Mind you, I was already plastered beyond reason by that point, and not for the first time, alcohol seemed to have the annoying side-effect of exacerbating every last fantasy buried deep in my subconscious.
Moments later, the girl and I were grabbing each other’s backsides, our tongues twisting in and out of our mouths and over our wet lips. I looked around furtively when the first opportunity to catch my breath presented itself and realized that we had moved to the ladies room. It dawned on me then that I was having my first woman-on-woman piece of action, and I recall feeling torn between the desire to thoroughly explore these enticing unchartered waters and the knowledge that it was nothing more than a whimsy impulse that I’d be ashamed of once the alcohol wore off. The concept of time hardly meant anything anymore by that point, but I would say that the surreal makeout party had lasted at least fifteen minutes.
The security guard calling us out from outside pierced our silken cocoon at last, stopping us in our stride just as the promiscuous girl slipped her stiff fingers inside my panties. I remembered that the frantic pounding on the door of our small toilet cabin had felt like a wake-up call.
For some reason, as my mind drifted in and out of the ongoing conversation at Hakkasan, I thought back at that perplexing experience. In hindsight, the numbness creeping inside me as my chest got savagely molested and my lips chewed on without mercy, climaxing with the bouncer’s stern admonition, had had a profound psychological effect on me. The memory of it seemed funny enough now, but I still feel in my bones the absolute horror that crept inside me as my inebriated alter ego made way for my judgmental; rational self the next morning. In the end, I think that this episode and its anti-climactic were just the fillip that I needed, the little push that prompted me to shift my approach and think: stop fooling around Lily, stop slacking like you had decades ahead of you. Go and seek the man of your dreams, make things happen. Or face the sadness of the cramped, filthy bathroom stall all over again.
“So what do you think of my gorgeous babe, Aiden?” Blake asked as innocently as she could mutter, pulling me out of my reverie. Her eyes shone with a sanctimonious glow. As it should be obvious to you by now, Blake was unafraid to put her foot in her mouth. I flushed as she uttered those words, I think more out of rage for being exposed so bluntly than out of sheer embarrassment. I knew that the feeling of annoyance was overblown, but at the same time, I felt that I couldn’t mess around anymore and blow up opportunities with decent lads, so I could feel myself clamping up each time Blake put me under the spotlight of the sort. Those were times when an abysmal fear of ending up all alone typically seized me, and as I digested the words just uttered; that same feeling threatened to turn my face crimson. I recognized the silliness of that guttural reaction though, and did my best to fight it off, even if it enraged me to unfathomable depths that Blake would do that to me, whether she was cognizant of the effect it had on me or not.
To Aiden’s credit, his humorous reaction put me at ease immediately. “Wife material, no doubt about that,” he said, flashing a wry smile. “Unruly blond mane, sparkling hazel eyes, and an hourglass figure to die for.” He cleared his throat, and added, his eyes staring deep into mine, “What I like most about the beast, however, has got to be those freckles that she’s trying so hard to hide under a thick layer of foundation.”
The intensity of his gaze threw me off a little and I knew I had turned scarlet despite the coat of makeup he so rightly pointed out. I hated myself for blushing because his description was so obviously and absurdly inaccurate. Chubby little midget would have been more precise. Not that I have anything against midgets, I belong to them. So yeah, the man was good, although it did feel like he had read it his spiel from a script, and I could smell a player a mile away, so it took only a sip of my litchi cocktail to regain my composure.
I ignored Aiden’s playful response, instead passing the buck right back at my brash flatmate. “It is pretty tough to be that good-looking,” I said, narrowing my eyes at her in defiance. “I gotta say, you’re lucky to be all brains, Blakey. At least you know men like you for who you are on the inside.” Of course, Blake was outright stunning. I wouldn’t have dared teasing her that way otherwise.
Before anyone could bat an eye, she replied, somewhat pensively, “I am a smart cookie, that is true,” and then gulped a steamed crab and chive dumpling, the piece almost falling off her chopsticks as she brought it to her mouth awkwardly. Her eyes turned noticeably glossier as the whirlwind of savors hit her palate. “After all,” she added, chewing in delight, “I tricked your hot ass into sharing a flat with me.”
Piotre was beaming at the flirtatious turn the conversation had taken, and taking it as a cue, he said with his best crooner voice, “Well, let’s see what else you girls can be tricked into.”
That did it for me. I had found the meal pleasant enough, and Hakkasan definitely lived up to the hype, but the barely-concealed salacious vibe those boys were projecting was just miles away from what I was about. I glanced over at Blake for any hint that she–too–was ready to take off and wasn’t all that surprised to see her smiled back at Piotre in an overtly sensual way. I suppressed the urge to spit out my macaron in disgust, and proceeded to finish my glass of champagne in haste. Then, looking down at my watch conspicuously, I whispered over to Blake, just loud enough so that the whole table could hear, “Babe, I’ll have to excuse myself pretty soon. I’m way behind on my preparations for next week.” I did feel like a total party-pooper for ending the date of the sort, but this wasn’t a complete lie; I had a tedious task ahead which involved a lot of work and which I wasn’t exactly looking forward to.
This time around Blake cut the jokes short, fully aware of how momentous that project might be for my career. “Oh right,” she said and marked a pause for good measure. “That’s perfectly fine, Lilybird, I know work is hectic at the moment.” Then, addressing everyone, she said curtly, “Gents, we’ll have to sail off soon, shall we get the bill?”
I know it might sound absurd, but hearing her pronounce those words filled me with pride. Even though Blake could be an insensitive bitch at times, she also had her moments, and she certainly had my back when it really mattered.
Aiden’s face instantly turned a shade whiter at the sudden plea to end the brunch, but when he replied, his delivery was strikingly composed, which brought him back in my good graces momentarily. At the very least, he had regained some of some of the respect I had for him before he squandered it with his tactless advance. “Of course, the bill,” he said. “I almost forgot that you guys were workaholics, and all that jazz. What would we silly boys know about that, we’re just talking art all day long.” Chuckle. Forced chuckle.
Piotre’s chagrin was glaring, but he quickly followed suit, “Work before fun, isn’t that right? Someone’s got to be reasonable and add some value to the economy! We certainly aren’t those people.” We all laughed at that, and while the boys finished their puddings, the conversation drifted to a less sexually-charged subject–the great abstract impressionists. Eventually, I said, “I’m sure you guys are really talented.” I felt responsible for the obsequious ambiance that had obviously pervaded our jolly group. This same feeling was probably what prompted me to add, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t we all come together again the next time you guys exhibit your paintings? I’d be curious to scrutinize your art and peer into your souls.” I regretted those words as soon as they’d come out of my mouth, but I felt better for them.
The shift in Aiden’s swagger was blatant. He had been somewhat subdued since the ankle incident, and the mask of consternation he had been sporting since then had been replaced with a merry glow. And an infectious, sexy grin. As he went on explaining why Rothko, Richter and Kline had spurred a new generation of wannabe artists to take up painting, I observed that he was purposely dragging out the inevitable dismantling of the praline and chestnut dome posing on his plate.
More than anything, I was relieved to see the general mood brighten up, and I noticed for the first time that Aiden had a charming aloofness to him, but not in a daft way. I was beginning to surmise that he wasn’t the unbridled libertine he’d first appeared to be, but before I could ponder this thought further, he was calling the waiter over for the check. As expected, he graciously split up the cost of our shared culinary indulgence with Piotre, and Blake and I showed our appreciation by way of warm hugs and the promise of a second date. I suspected my wanton flatmate would work out plans of her own with her beau in the background, but as we all sauntered into the deserted street, my mind has already leaped to the daunting undertaking that was to occupy my every thought for the following months. The task that would ultimately lead me to meet him.