I force my legs to move faster, hugging my sheepskin coat around my body as I hurry through the cobblestone streets. By day, I’ve gotten decent at navigating Oxford—it’s not as big as London, so I can remember most of the major streets around the colleges. But it’s not as well-organized as London, either, so when I try to guess where a side street ought to be based on which road it runs parallel to, it doesn’t end well.
And, of course, I still haven’t fixed my US cell phone, so I don’t have GPS service either, only a basic text and call plan. I am actually using a paper map to get around.
Mary Kate had better be grateful I’m coming to this damn party.
I pause in the glow of windows from a corner pub to study the paper.
“Need a hand there?” drawls a Scottish guy, a cigarette drooping from one lip and a foamy beer cooling in his fist. Beside him, an older guy is chugging a Guinness like there’s a prize for first to finish.
“I’m looking for, um.” I squint at the text she sent me once again.
Hey there my favorite USian pen pal. So excited you are finally coming to Englandia for more than just a week! You’re gonna love Oxford. I get into town the night before term starts—my friends are having a fancy dress party at 5 Pusey St. You better come or else!!! How long has it been since you were last in London, 2 years? You owe me a visit Xoxo. P.S. —wear your best habit! ;)
“5 Pusey Street?” I say.
The man shakes his head and takes the map from me. “This is us.” He points at one side. “You gotta go back up Broad to St. Giles, hang a right—you know where the Bird and Baby is?”
I shake my head.
His friend finishes his beer and belches. “The Eagle and Child,” he corrects the first guy. “Can’t you hear she’s not from around here?”
“You don’t sound like you are either,” I snap, though I feel bad the moment I do. He’s from closer to here than I am. “Sorry. I know it. Thanks,” I tell them both. I’m just grumpy because it means I walked fifteen minutes in the dead wrong direction.
I trudge past the row of stately buildings and colleges that look like they were plucked from a medieval movie set and plunked down in a modern-day parking lot. The Eagle and Child was the first pub I visited on my first day in Oxford. I’ve been trying to soak up the literary scene here, and that pub is famous for being Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s haunt back in the day.
My grumpiness eases as I study the side streets I pass, where old-fashioned street lamps illuminate cobblestones and chatty gaggles of students, voices loud from drink and white with smoke. Even the air smells inspiring. Fall mixed with the faint musk of rain on its way later.
If there’s anywhere in the world I’m going to forget about Derrick—no, don’t even think his name, I scold myself—it’s here. If there’s anywhere I can find my inspiration again, anywhere I can start to write the poetry that I’m starving without, it’s here.
And now I’m on my way to my first-ever British college party, to meet up with the girl I’ve been best pen pals with since we were 11 years old.
Life is good.
I have a huge grin on my face once more by the time I find the turn off of St. Giles and onto the side street where she sent me. At the entrance, I ring the buzzer and unbutton my jacket to smooth down my gray silk blouse and knee-length black skirt. It hugs my hips just right to show I’m fun, not enough to show I can’t handle myself at a high society event.
Mary Kate said fancy dress party, after all, and her joke about me dressing like a nun aside, I assume she meant I should wear my classiest outfit.