“For the first time in my life, the prospect of approaching an attractive woman did not fill me with mortal dread.” For his next two years at college, Andy Bodle proceeded to do nothing but.
“American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.”—W. Somerset Maugham
My first year at Oxford sucked, but not for the reasons I was expecting.
The workload was staggering—an essay, a translation and nine lectures a week, and a reading list that worked out at three books a day—but I kept more or less on top of it. Despite my fears about being a state school student at a private school-dominated university , I’d made a few friends. I’d found a new hobby in rowing. And over the past year, thanks to my first adult relationship with a woman, a short spell as the lead singer of a very poor rock band and a random summer holiday with a group of glamorous bohemians, I no longer felt like a complete social tardigrade. It would be an exaggeration to say that I’d become confident, but some of the debilitating shyness was gone. For the first time in my life, the prospect of approaching an attractive woman did not fill me with mortal dread.
So for the next two years, I proceeded to do nothing but.
A typical night in the college bar would proceed thus. I’d have a couple of drinks, see a woman I liked the look of, approach her, work out within a few minutes that she wasn’t interested … and then walk up to the next woman I liked the look of and begin the whole process again
It wasn’t sex I wanted. Well, not sex per se. What I wanted was a girlfriend (one who, in an ideal world, would not be averse to the odd bit of sex). But since I failed to make this clear during my opening gambit, there were few takers, and by the end of winter term, I had been assigned the nickname that would haunt me for years to come: the Shark. (Although as far as I’m aware, marine biologists have yet to identify a single species of shark that circles its prey, then swims off with its tail between its fins at the first sign of resistance.) Somehow, I managed to earn a reputation as a sexual predator without ever actually having sex.
It didn’t seem fair. My friend Guy, among others, was pursuing a similar strategy, to greater effect and much less censure. But a plaintive cry of “I don’t want a shag, I want a relationship” probably wasn’t going to do much to improve my standing. So, for the remainder of my time at Exeter College, I resigned myself to the fact that every time I came within two feet of a member of the opposite sex, the person behind me would break into a stirring rendition of the theme from Jaws.
There was one glitch in my otherwise barren year. It was a Friday night in the bar towards the end of spring term, and I, as usual, was on the Pac-Man pinball machine. I had just triggered a multiball when someone brushed past me. I turned my head, and my balls dropped.
I’d never really gone for redheads before, perhaps because being one myself had taught me that ginger hair wasn’t particularly desirable. But this particular coppernob was attached to a body that made my heart do a reverse one-and-a-half somersault with four-and-a-half twists in the pike position.
Marie was from Williams College, Massachusetts, with whom our college operated a strange exchange programme: every year, they’d send a couple of dozen students to us, and we’d send no one back. I’d seen her before, across the quad, with her buddies. But never before had she reduced me to bug-eyed, wolf-whistling lust.
I did a sweep of the vicinity. Miraculously, there were no hands held to foreheads miming dorsal fins. The coast was clear.
Posterity has, alas, not recorded my opening line. All I remember is that she told me she swam for her state—that explained the physique—and that when I asked if she fancied coming back to my room for a coffee, she said yes.
It was 7.30pm, and we were both completely sober.
I have no idea why she came. Maybe I said something brilliant. Maybe she was impressed by a chest and shoulders beefed up by 16 weeks of pulling oars. Whatever the explanation, we were both naked before the kettle had boiled.
That evening was my first and, to this date, my only act of carefree, unbridled, atavistic, no-frills, all-thrills, wham-bam, don’t-know, don’t-care fornication, and it was fucking brilliant. But by 8.30, she was back with her friends and I was back on Pac-Man.
Now, undergraduate communication in 1989 was inefficient, to put it mildly. Email had been invented, but wasn’t yet in widespread use. Ditto mobile phones. All colleges were equipped with a handful of public payphones, but these were all permanently engaged, and if you did get through, you had to hope someone would a) know who you were after and b) be kind enough to go and fetch them. There was the good old Royal Mail, of course; and there was the internal university postal system, which may well have made use of a pony and trap.
The only way to be absolutely sure of getting hold of someone was delivered in good time was to go and see them in person.
So the following Monday, I paid a visit to the Williams College lodgings. I found out her room number from the porter, and went and knocked. No answer.
A tall, athletic-looking guy was loitering at the entrance to the common room. I pulled myself up to my full height. “Excuse me, do you know if Marie’s around anywhere?”
“Sorry, man, no clue. Haven’t seen her since this morning.”
And if he had only been able to keep a straight face while saying it, I might never have guessed that Marie was hiding from me.
Was our tryst just a meaningless act of pleasure, never to be repeated? Had I disappointed her in some way? Or had word of my infamy reached her somehow?
I never found out, because Marie stayed hidden until the summer, when all the Williams students returned home.
It was only the following year, when a lonely and impoverished 10-month stint as a foreign language assistant in north-eastern France gave me ample time to reflect, that I saw the error of my ways. I realised that I had been using what is called a scattergun approach: firing a wide spread of bullets in the hope that one hit. But the trouble with guns is, when you fire them, they make a noise.
Yes, I was 20 years of age before I realised that women, like men, have ears. And eyes. And egos. If you chat up one girl, fail, then move on to the next, there’s a fair chance that the next girl will have witnessed every second of your failure. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the fact that she’s the next one down on your list is not going to make her feel special. And nowhere do we like to feel special so much as in the arena of dating.
That’s why desperation is so unattractive; because it makes other people feel unattractive.
Immediately after this revelation, of course, I changed my ways and met the love of my life. Well. That’s how it should have gone down.
“Cultural customs that warn against sex on the first date may have emerged for such practical reasons as avoiding pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, but they’re also there for tactical reasons. Males or females who volunteer their babymaking services too freely may not be offering up very valuable genes. Those who seem more discerning are likelier to be holding a winning genetic hand—and are in a better position to demand one in return.”—Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine, 2008
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