I can’t be happy unless Dash is miserable at Christmas. It’s like it’s my job to turn his holiday scowl into a smile.
A happy-looking face doesn’t come naturally to Dash. Things that I think should provoke a grin, like a great dog, or cute toddler twins stumbling around a sandbox like drunken pirates, or a rained-on person finally hailing a cab, won’t turn his frown upside down. Things that will: a hipster Instagramming their walk through the park and then slipping on that great dog’s poo; toddler twins using their yogurt tubes for a sword match that quickly escalates into a not-so-cute food fight involving a lot of sand and angry parents; or a cab discharging an arrogant Wall Streeter directly into an ankle-deep puddle of water.
I don’t want to seem like a needy girlfriend, but I kind of live for those rare moments of Dash’s smile. It’s so pure, maybe because it’s so unexpected, and never forced. Dare I say, it could light a whole Christmas tree. (If he heard me say that, it would instantly disappear and threaten never to come back.)
I am determined to bring him some smiles this Christmas. It’s too long since I’ve seen his face, in any expression! He had two great choices last spring before we both graduated high school. He got into Columbia, which would have kept him in New York City and made me very happy, and he got into Oxford University, which, as an Anglophile and a book lover, made him very happy, with the ocean’s distance from his parents a big bonus. (They’re nice, I guess. But complicated. Not in the fun way.)
Dash and I have been together two years, and although I’m not usually selfless when it comes to letting go of the people or animals I love, I actually encouraged him to go to Oxford. It had always been his dream--he should live it! I deferred admission to Barnard College so I could take a gap year and focus on my dog-walking business and volunteer at my grandpa’s assisted living facility. The big bonus for me--for us--and what made the separation feel okay at the time of the big decisions was that I’d have more free time to travel to England to visit Dash since I wasn’t in school.
That’s how it was supposed to work out, at least. My business grew beyond my wildest expectations and occupied more time than I ever imagined. I haven’t seen Dash in person since August. I want to run my hands through his mop of hair, which has grown even longer since he’s been studying so hard he hasn’t bothered to get it cut. He also hasn’t bothered much with shaving. I never thought an unkempt look was my guy type, and it’s not just how hard I’ve been missing Dash--I like it. I can’t wait to kiss his scruff.
His new life in England is not what Dash expected, either. I’ve gotten the sense he doesn’t like it as much as he thought he would. Or maybe it’s Oxford, with all its rules and traditions. Dash is vague about it, but I’m his girlfriend. I sense these things. (His mumbling that maybe he’ll look into transferring elsewhere next year was also a clue. I’m not a clairvoyant. I’d like to be, though!)
I figured we’d talk about it more when he came home for Christmas, but a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, he dropped a bomb on me. He called me for a “talk.” The kind that required a text announcing the “talk” ahead of time, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a good “talk.” Luckily, it turned out not to be the kind of talk that one of our favorite singers, Robyn, suggests some boys have with their girlfriends. Or the “maybe we should see other people” talk. Instead, Dash dropped a Christmas bomb. The I’M GOING TO STAY AT MY GRANDMOTHER’S IN LONDON OVER CHRISTMAS INSTEAD OF GO HOME TO NEW YORK TO BE WITH YOU bomb.
Trigger warning: full-on Lily meltdown.
Deep breaths. Cleansing breaths. Eating feelings.
That’s how I kept it together. When I emerged from the shock, I saw that I had two choices. One, I could rationally accept his decision and spend Christmas at home with my family like every other year, which is the joy of my life, although there would be a lot of missing Dash this year.
I hate being rational.
Or two, I could--
“This was a terrible idea, Lily Bear,” my cousin Mark said as we both looked with concern at the wall clock behind his cash register. It was 6:10 in the p.m., or 18:10 as they say in England because I don’t know why they talk in military time. “This is not the kind of surprise a boyfriend wants. Especially a snarly one. I shouldn’t have said you could crash with us while you waited to spring this on him.”
Or two, I could just show up in London as a surprise!
It was a last-minute, spontaneous decision that required a lot of schedule juggling and angry-texting with my mother, whose pre-Christmas plans did not include me sabotaging her expectation that I’d be available round-the-clock to help with cooking, cleaning, and shopping preparations for the big day. But she may have been as relieved as me to get a break from each other. Ever since I decided to put off college for a year, Mom’s made it her mission to remind me that my gap year is “just a temporary gap, Lily.” You’d think she would applaud me for cultivating a successful dog-walking business and social media presence--and now spinning those off with a collection of dog crafts that people are actually buying. But Mom thinks my entrepreneurial efforts are a “distraction.” She won’t let go of reminding me that getting a college degree should be my priority. “Accumulating likes and knitting sweaters for Chihuahuas won’t prepare you for how to think, Lily.”
I don’t just think she’s wrong. I know it.
I definitely thought I needed to see my boyfriend, sooner rather than later! Escaping my mother and what lately feels like our very, very small apartment was a bonus.
“He’ll be here,” I said to Mark, although I was starting to get concerned. “And please don’t call me Lily Bear in a foreign country. I get to be a new person here, not the family baby.” I couldn’t believe I was in London! I’d never traveled so far abroad and already I was enamored. The Tube! The accents! The Cadbury chocolates! Of course, I’d experienced a lifetime of public transportation, the English language, and quality treats, but in London, they all felt exotic and new. I loved when the subway conductors told passengers getting on and off the train cars to “Mind the gap.” Every time I heard the conductor’s “Mind the gap” announcement, I felt like it was a secret nod to my gap year, and a secret acknowledgment that maybe London would be the place I’d figure out what I’d do once that gap period was over. Not what everyone else wanted me to do--what I wanted. Mind that gap, Mom.
The event was supposed to start at 6:00 p.m., I mean 18:00, I think? Too much math! Mark assured me that bookstore events never start on time, but the room was filled with people expecting it to start, and Dash was nowhere in sight, despite my very specific invitation in that day’s Advent calendar gift from me to him. It was, simply, a note:
Daunt Books/Marylebone, 6PM, 21 December.
For the pure thrill of unreluctant desire.
How could Dash resist? He loves a treasure hunt, especially if it’s a literary one. Our relationship started because of clues we left each other in a red Moleskine notebook at the Strand Bookstore during the Christmas season two years ago. This year, I decided to continue that tradition, but with a British spin. Just after Thanksgiving, I mailed Dash a handmade Advent calendar. There’s little I love more than adding a new Christmas tradition, and I love the British for their Advent calendars, which begin on December 1 and end on December 24, to herald the days till Christmas. It was quite a project, as there are infinite ways to make an Advent calendar. Thanks, Pinterest--I literally lost a week of my life to researching craft ideas. But I loved the final result.
The Advent calendar I made for Dash was crafted out of a wooden book storage box. The cover opened to reveal twenty-four custom-crafted little boxes within, each having a window to open on the designated day, revealing a little gift inside. Most of these presents were of the stocking-stuffer variety, like Christmas socks, teas, and chocolates, but others were more personal, like:
December 1--a £50 gift card for Pret a Manger, Dash’s favorite English lunch haunt. He’s obsessed with their cheddar and chutney sandwiches and says they’re far superior to the ones Pret sells at their locations in NYC.
December 5--a ticket to see this season’s Christmas blockbuster movie, Cyborg Santa, in 3-D. Dash’s review of the movie: “Die Harder, Santa.”
December 8--a gift certificate for infinite CuddleBucks. I knew he’d never redeem such a corny gift but just imagining him squirm at the sight of it gave me a good giggle.
December 14--my personal favorite, a mini-USB stick that has a photo series I personally wrangled (and by wrangled, I mean wrangled) of my dog, Boris, a giant bullmastiff who does not like being dressed up in Christmas decorations, dressed up in Christmas decorations and “posing” in front of some of Dash’s favorite New York locations, like the Strand, the Prospect Park Bandshell, and the New York Public Library.
December 17--a Lego minifigure of Truman Capote.
Today--the invitation to Daunt Books. When I originally sent the Advent calendar with this day’s gift, my intention was to beckon Dash to a London event I knew about through my cousin Mark that I thought Dash would enjoy. I hadn’t known then that Dash’s real gift for the day would be me showing up in person!
Mark’s new wife, Julia, joined us at the cash register station. “I think I should start soon,” she said.
“Please can we wait a few more minutes?” I asked her. “I know he’ll be here soon.”
“Maybe there’s a delay on the Tube,” Julia said, trying to be kind. “I’ll give it a few more minutes.”
Her voice was hesitant, which I thought unusual for someone so confident. I knew she was nervous, but not because of whether or not Dash showed up. When I’d arrived at her and Mark’s flat the night before, she’d gone through all the details of how this literary scavenger hunt she’d masterminded would work, and after hearing it? Yes, I’d be nervous, too.
My cousin Mark, who used to work at the Strand Bookstore in New York, took a vacation to England a year ago, and one of his destinations in London was Daunt Books, a bookstore that had been recommended to him as being particularly enchanting. For him, indeed it was. At Daunt’s Marylebone location, in an Edwardian three-level store with oak balconies, blue-green walls, a conservatory ceiling, and stained-glass windows, he met Julia Gordon, a Jamaican-Jewish Londoner who had just taken a marketing job at Daunt after finishing her PhD in English literature at Cambridge. We still can’t believe she got Mark to move to London or that Mark got her to marry him.
Julia dreams of starting a literary tour business, and she was looking for ways to promote the bookstore at the holidays, so she created this first-ever Daunt Books Bibliophile Cup Challenge, which Dash would learn about if he showed up when the Advent calendar told him to show. It wasn’t my jet lag bewildering me about whether Julia’s plan could work. I was more concerned she was one of those people who are brilliant but with no practical sense. I’m from a family of academics--I know these people. When she’d explained how the hunt would work, I could see there were details she hadn’t thought through. Like, is there a foreign dignitary visiting who would cause traffic problems or massive protests? Is there a Santa convention that’s going to cause foot traffic to get out of hand? Fickle customers. WEATHER. I’m a dog-walker in New York. I always have to think about these practical things. Julia lives inside books. She doesn’t have to deal with reality as frequently as the rest of us. But I supported her entrepreneurial ambition and wanted to encourage it the way I wish my mom did for mine.
“Good turnout,” Mark said proudly to his new wife, looking relieved. Julia had spread the word through social media, but who knew if people would really show up to chase book clues right before Christmas?
There were probably twenty people gathered in the center of the store, at the designated meeting area. Then my heart dropped. And it wasn’t because Dash wasn’t there yet. It was because of who was there. I spied a young couple. I wasn’t sure they were indeed who I thought they were until the girl--she wore a lovely, emerald-colored silk hijab just like one I’d seen in Oxford photos Dash had sent me from university--said to the guy, “Olivier, Team Brasenose for the win, right?” And the Olivier guy smiled at her in a way Dash never smiles at me, with a fierce sense of entitlement, and said, “Azra. Darling. It’s done.”
Fa la la la FROCKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!
It was Olivier Wythe-Jones and Azra Khatun, two of his classmates at Oxford. He associates them with everything he dislikes about Oxford.
British universities are very different from American ones. You don’t major in a subject, you “read” it. You “sit” for exams (while wearing academic robes!) rather than “take” exams. Freshmen are “freshers.” You only study one subject at school and nothing else. Instead of semesters, there are three eight-week terms with funny-sounding names: Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity. (I know, it makes as much sense as how Brits tell time or why they refer to their money in terms of weight.) Universities are actually a collection of different colleges, each with their own unique identity, like Hogwarts houses, which is very cool of them. At Oxford, Dash applied to “read” classics and literature at Brasenose College specifically because the rooms there are singles. While he didn’t get a roommate, he still shared too-close proximity with students he had no desire to befriend. The power couple of Brasenose were this Olivier Wythe-Jones and Azra Khatun duo--or, as Dash described them, “Like if Draco Malfoy was dating Fleur Delacour.”
I was almost starting to hope Dash didn’t show up.
But I was getting irritated as well. No one knows Dash better than me, or so I thought. He would never not accept a literary challenge. He’s that much of a nerd. It’s why I love him so much. And we’ve been together for two years. Shouldn’t he, like, sense that I was nearby? Shouldn’t he sense how much his beloved had sacrificed to give him this great Christmas surprise? I walked away from dog-walking at the busiest time of year! I allowed my brother to cover my job while I’m away! I gave Langston as much training as possible, but I was worried. Would I have dog-walking clients to return to when I got home to New York?
Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Cohn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.