I’m a sucker for a good story. I always have been.
I love the rise and fall, the mirrors, the surprises, and satisfaction of an ending which, even if I don’t like it, makes sense. And I don’t believe in chance—never have—so I can find satisfying stories everywhere. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together correctly.
Eighteenth birthdays tend to be a big deal. Overnight, children become adults, at least in the eyes of the law. Suddenly, you don’t have to ask for permission to do x or see y–and, depending on the country, you can drink or drive without parental supervision and late into the night. It’s a major milestone, and I had approached it with a kind of hopeful uncertainty, the way one might approach a large animal–it might kill you, but it also might change your life.
So I had expected something special from it: special food, a party, extra affection from my friends, maybe a surprise.
I certainly received a surprise.
On the morning of my 18th birthday, I awoke to find my phone blowing up, though not literally. Well over one hundred people had requested to follow me on Instagram—which, having been raised to protect myself from the who-knows-what of the internet, was on private—I’d received countless direct messages, and there were dozens of snaps waiting to be accepted. (This was the era where putting your Snapchat username in your Instagram bio was cool… To be fair, it may still be cool—I don’t know. I’m not quite down with the kids anymore.) Most of these messages said something along the lines of “hey Amy” or “I saw you at my exam today!”
I was, to say the least, perplexed. My name is not Amy. I hadn’t taken any tests recently, except in my nightmares. And I didn’t know who any of these people were, though they all seemed to know who I was. There was only one possible explanation: these people were crazy. Well, such is to be expected from the internet. I began to delete requests and messages, but then I noticed something, a pattern: most of the people requesting to follow me were English. I was not—and am still not—English.
I paused. I scrolled through the messages and snaps. And I started to reply.
I started studying French when I was fourteen. I’d done a few years of Latin in middle school and thought that French was a beautiful—and living—alternative: “the language of love.” Practicality isn’t something that concerns most fourteen-year-olds. Of course, I was thrilled when I learned about the language’s history as the language of diplomacy, but it was love that dragged me to French—love and the romance of it all.
I actually enjoyed the memorization and conjugation, I was so enchanted with the language. I color-coded words based on gender and wrote each noun, verb, and adjective with the proper spelling and the phonetic spelling. Of course, this level of fervor only lasted for the first few weeks of school and then dropped off with the rest of my energy, but I stuck with the language all throughout high school, even taking the higher-level IB French test, lured on by the promise of a trip to France if I could attain a high enough level of French to survive in a francophone country.
So when the time came to choose a university, I took the presence of a French department into account. After all, I’d already given the language four years of my life. Why not a few more?
On the morning of my eighteenth birthday, I had been back in the United States—from France—for about a week-and-a-half. It was the day before my IB French exam. I’m writing this from a cafe in Paris, France, so you can probably imagine how that exam went. (I passed.)
I spent my day answering a lot of direct messages and snapchats, bouncing from potential conversation to potential conversation, doing my best to sort out who these people were and avoid douchey vibes. (The internet is a terrifying place, remember.) Finally, I found someone on Snapchat who seemed decent—fairly low snap score, fully formed sentences, a fully existing face, the whole nine yards. I forget his name now, but he was the first person to reply to my “what are you talking about” with a “wait, you don’t know?”
And then the whole story came out. In short, the British exams are organized by subject but are mandatory like the ACT or SAT in the United States, so one student specializes in a few subjects and then only tests in them. Since memes are a universal Twenty-First century currency, British students treat terrible standardized test problems the same as we do in the US: by turning them into memes on Twitter even though we’re not supposed to do so. My picture—or, more specifically, a series of photos of me—was used to illustrate one of those terrible problems. The photos were found, then I was found, and then the whole thing went viral.
I pieced together the rest of the details later on. My dad uses online databases to store photos and, being a type-a kind of guy, tags everyone, in each photo, by name. And, because of the way he sets his copyright, anyone can use those photos so long as they give him credit. All it took was someone to notice my father’s name and the database below the (truly hilarious) photos, do a little googling, and boom! There I am, present on Instagram (and Snapchat). Then, because that terrible problem had been trending on Twitter, all it took was a quick tweet and then, voila! Suddenly, scores of British high-schoolers—not that they’d use that term, of course—suddenly knew exactly where on social media to find out how Amy—the character in the problem who just so happened to have my face—from their GCSE exam was doing.
I switched my account to public.
I forget exactly how it happened, but I went from talking to a few different people to being added—along with a dear friend who, poor gal, was also in the viral photos—to an Instagram group chat for a French class in an English, Catholic school not too far from London. And although I’m fairly certain we’d been talking earlier, I think it’s safest to say that that’s where I met Luca.
My favorite novel is Pride and Prejudice. My favorite movie might be The Holiday. (I’ll have to get back to you on that, but it’s certainly a movie I’ve rewatched many a time.) Anyway—the idea of England, the comedy, the romance: I love it. I’ve internalized it. And I’ve looked for it myself. Things that seem to fall so perfectly in place, like they could become a box office-worthy romantic comedy—
I’ve already established that I don’t believe in coincidence. And, funnily enough, neither do the Catholics.
To finish a French minor at my university, one has to take French 301 and 302 and then (successfully) spend a semester abroad in an approved Francophone country and program. C’est tout. I was able to skip the classes leading up to French 301 and begin with my minor requirements right away. ‘Great!’ you think. ‘What a deal!’
The unfortunate side effect of this was that I had a year off of French classes, as 301 and 302 were the highest courses offered. I worked for the French department to keep some semblance of an ability to use the language, but I was haunted by a fear that I would arrive and find that I was mistaken. I could not speak French. I could not understand French. Je me suis trompée. And that wouldn’t be poetic or beautiful.
I had decided to go to Paris. That would hardly do.
I FaceTimed Luca one afternoon. I was eating an early dinner of ramen; he was making another questionable life decision—the same that I and many others have made—and was staying up far too late on a school night. I ribbed him about this for a while; he said something snarky back. We’d been in contact—mostly via Snapchat—for a year and a half, if not longer. But it was the first time we’d actually been on video chat together.
Later, he posted a screenshot he’d took during the conversation to his sinsta (that is, second Instagram), captioned “only the real ones know.” One of the English girls from the old French class group chat commented, and he replied, “we’ll meet her one [day,] I bet.”
Time plodded on. I booked my tickets for Paris and silently agreed.
Dreaming of Paris is one thing; living there is another.
I got off the train, having already spent over a month in Switzerland and a week-and-a-half in France, along its eastern border, and followed the signs for taxis. I’d yet to feel comfortable traveling in French; it’s hard enough to meet the necessary deadlines and jump through the necessary hoops in English. But I managed a cab and gave the address to the cabbie and watched as he wove through the midday traffic of the city.
The apartment where I would be living was a dream; my host mother was (and is) a sweetheart; the weather was lovely. But by the end of the first evening, the sensation of malcontent was settling down. The city was Paris—but, somehow, it wasn’t what I had pictured. It wasn’t a lack in the city itself—it was just as beautiful as promised—but something was off.
My classes began. They weren’t hard, but they were challenging because the language was—is—challenging. And my classmates weren’t just my age; most of them were older. This wasn’t a fault of theirs, of course, but it meant that friendship with them wasn’t going to come naturally. They had lives, jobs, children. I didn’t. I was alone. By the end of week one, I would have a name for the emotion: disappointment.
I messaged Luca. He was leaving for university soon, in the northern part of England.
“If I come to London next weekend, will you be around?” His response was prompt.
Within forty-eight hours, I’d booked bus tickets—there and back—and a room above a pub in the same town he’d grown up in.
I’m a planner, too. It’s hard to be a romantic and a planner at the same time, but I’ve somehow managed all these years. This trip was, without a doubt, the wildest thing I’d ever done. I mean—on a whim (two-and-a-half years in the making), I booked tickets and a room in a foreign country, on my own. I was high on my own power. So this was what it was to be an adult!
And then it sunk in that I was going to England to meet a boy. It didn’t mean anything—but could it? I couldn’t decide if I wanted it to or not. But I wanted the story. I’d never had a good one—but oh, this one had such a good beginning. Two. Point. Five. Years. It was too good to ignore.
The bus is not the way to travel, especially if you’re going to another country. I’m from western America, where travelling long distances is a part of life, but seven hours on a bus is a lot when you can’t read on moving vehicles and are very, very excited. I watched the countryside pass by, smiled my way through customs, accepted the misery of riding a bus on a train under the water, and then watched more countryside—this time hilly and English—pass by on the way to London.
I hadn’t been to London in years—not since that odd month in my life where my family lived in England while my dad started his doctorate—and it wasn’t what I had imagined either. Of course, I had no great, imagined love for London—I’m much more interested in an idealized life in the English countryside, thank you very much—but it was still a rather odd homecoming. It really did feel like a homecoming, though. For the first time in months, I was expected to speak English and could confidently speak with whoever I wished without worrying about being judged for my butchery—this may be a slight exaggeration, but such was my emotional state—of the language. It was glorious.
By the time I left London and headed north, the sun was out and all the world was beautiful. The train station wasn’t far from my lodgings, so I followed a path along the river to the center of town. The world was green and blue, with trees hanging over the water and birds of all sorts singing. It felt a little bit like heaven. This was nature allowed to be what it was, untamed and lolling. I carried my backpack—that was all I’d needed—but felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders. This is what I had imagined. And once I’d arrived at the pub to check-in for the night—well, it was like I was a minor celebrity. Americans don’t come to this part of England often, apparently. I was an anomaly and a welcome one at that.
I slept well that night. Luca and I were to meet the next day and as far as I was concerned, that evening bode well for my future in England.
I waited for Luca under the clock tower in the middle of town, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland in hand on that sunny Sunday morning. He was running late. I lounged on the bench, back against brick, and read. He laughed when he saw me.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the first time anyone’s ever read a book there.” I grinned. He was wearing a white t-shirt—a move I which, in all-black, respected—and, for once in my life, I’d actually imagined someone’s height fairly accurately. And off we went, car to train, train to museum, museum to lunch, and then lunch to wandering about Oxford street. It was surreal, talking and laughing with someone I’d only ever seen in photos or videos.
Five-o-clock approached. “I told my mum I’d be home for Sunday dinner,” he said. (He may have actually called it the Sunday roast; I’m not sure if that’s an accurate memory or my brain substituting in what he was for something more suitably British. The world may never know.)
“And you should go,” I replied, and meant it. It was his last Sunday dinner at home. He couldn’t miss it. We arrived at the proper train station—he could go home, and I could catch the train to the bus station. And then, waiting for a train, I realized that I needed to take the train in the opposite direction to go where I needed to go; he thought I was coming back to his town before leaving England. Mais, non.
“I need to take that train,” I said.
“I promised my mum I’d be home at—”
“It’s okay.” Wind rushed past. The train was coming. “Well—” I gave him a hug, quick, but with a squeeze. “This has been really fun.”
“Yeah, it has.”
“Bye.” I stepped away, he stepped onto the train, and that was that.
I went looking for a coffee shop. It was ten hours back to Paris, I had class in the morning, and I needed to charge my phone.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Alexander Pope when I read him in British literature, but he once said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed” and I can’t spite him that. We’re not exactly encouraged to do this in society; films, books, and even the stories we tell each other push us to dream and idealize the world around us, to expect the best. These stories matter. I mean, my parents fell in love after my dad rejected my mother and then, a year later, when they were just friends and she went on a date with some other guy, he realized he liked her after all. That’s a terrible “how we met” story, not because it’s a bad story, but because it’s the outlier.
It’s not the reality of who someone is or what the situation entails that catches our attention, but what it could be.
And we love outliers. It’s not the reality of who someone is or what the situation entails that catches our attention, but what it could be. A seemingly random meeting on my eighteenth birthday with someone I got along far too well with and who I stayed in contact with for so long—it was too good a story to ignore, to not dream on. He was cute—still is, in fact; you’re welcome, Luca—and I don’t believe in chance.
So that ending—passing goodbyes after a brief day—
It didn’t fit.
The longer I thought about it, the sadder I felt. It just didn’t fit, no matter how I spun it. I’d thought that we would meet and the reason we had met—romantic or otherwise—would be clear. It wasn’t. The dissatisfaction, the disappointment, festered. I told him, eventually. It was a terrible ending, I said, thoroughly unsatisfactory. He agreed.
“We should’ve fallen in love,” I added. “It would have made a better story.”
“Yeah, but we met for a reason.”
“Yeah, I just don’t know what that reason is.”
“Me neither,” he replied. “But let me know when you figure it out.”
It’s been a month. I haven’t yet. And maybe I never will.
I still don’t believe in chance. But I’m learning to accept, to live, in the incompletion—in the “I don’t know why, and maybe I never will.”