In the summer of 1994, I fell in love at first sight.
It was a true summer romance in all its glory, white hot in intensity, and I remember every moment. Passion completely consumed me from the first glance. I was hopelessly, irretrievably — joyously — lost. There was so much to know, and so little time. The depth of my love transformed my life forever. And then, all too soon, it was over. The parting broke my heart. I have never recovered and I cannot forget.
***image1*** Oh, yes, there have been fleeting flirtations, other brief romances, but nothing to compare to the depth of that obsession. All it takes is the first breath of summer, certain strains of music, or the look of sunlight reflected on pale stone, and my heart will ache for days with remembered passion. I can close my eyes and see my beloved’s features in every detail.
Oh Passion! Oh Beauty! Oh Amore! Oh — Oxford!
The object of my intense affair was the City of Oxford, England.
That summer I had been accepted into a study program located in the Oxford, with lodging on the grounds of Balliol, one of the oldest colleges at the University. I knew of Oxford, of course, through books, and movies, and television. Inspector Morse and Lord Peter Wimsey. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. “American Friends” and “Shadowlands.” I leapt at the chance to visit that city of “dreaming spires.”
It was gray and overcast the morning I arrived in Oxford, a damp wind blowing down my neck At Oxford Railway Station, lugging my heavy bag, I hailed a cab and requested the driver to take me to the Balliol College entrance. I was tired and disoriented and the first glimpses out the taxi window at the streets of Oxford did not serve to impress.
Then, just as the taxi pulled onto the Broad, the sun broke through the clouds.
Nothing had prepared me for the thunderbolt of love that hit me when I saw the sun shining on the butter-rich Palatine stone of the buildings lining that street. Passing the Sheldonian and the Museum of Science, the cab made a U-turn just above the gates to the Bodleian Library, gliding by Blackstone’s bookstore and the entrance to Trinity College, I was caught in a passion so intense I couldn’t speak. We pulled up to the ancient, weather-stained oaken door of Balliol College, and I got out of the cab, knees weak, to embrace the city of sunlit stone.
Over the next weeks I surrendered myself totally to Oxford in a way I had never done with a human lover. I needed to spend every single moment I possibly could embracing its body, discovering its soul. While other students in the program headed for London each weekend, I walked the streets of Oxford, drunk on the beauty of the buildings, the intrigue of its narrow, winding streets, the small hidden treasures of its history. I studied every inch of the city as if it were a lover’s body, reciting the names of the colleges to myself like a rosary: Balliol, Brasenose, New, Jesus, Magdalen, Trinity, Queen’s, Keble…. I visited the gates of nearly every college, reveling in their eccentric glories, entranced with the heads, faces, gargoyles and grotesques that were everywhere.
I adored the view from the window of my little room at Balliol: the ancient church and graveyard of St. Mary Magdalene on its own little island between busy streets; bicycles chained to the iron fence surrounding the tombstones, the elaborate entrance to the public ladies’ room, the glimpse of the Martyr’s Monument, the tree-shrouded elegance of the Randolph Hotel across the way.
I selected a favorite pub right on the Broad. The White Horse was a small but comfortable establishment and was not heavily frequented by tourists or younger students. In addition to its excellent cider, its other salient features were that the White Horse was directly across the street from the Sheldonian Amphitheatre and within easy walking distance of the Balliol gates. On concert nights, I could sit on the convenient bench outside, my drink in hand, and listen to the music that floated from the Sheldonian and spread itself out across the Broad, drink my cider and be home within five minutes.
During daytime visits to the pub, the local residents and I, pints in hand, would sit on the same bench and shake our heads at the passing tourists whose behavior alternately irritated and amused us. In large groups and small they went by, maps clutched with fervor, drifting haphazardly, or trooping in orderly formation through the maze of Oxford, sometimes marching straight on past “closed” signs and irate porters — those long-suffering guardians of the gates and grounds of Oxford Colleges. Our conspicuous presence outside the pub made us the local Tourist Board, and I fielded as many questions as any professional tour guide.
Bounded by the ancient streets of Cornmarket at one end and Holywell at the other, the Broad is the very heart of Oxford. With Balliol and Trinity Colleges on one side and the magnificent Bodleian Library on the other, the Broad provided everything I needed, from the mental stimulation of book stores and print shops, to used clothes at Oxfam and the uniquely tacky mannequin dioramas at the Oxford Story. Wren’s magnificent edifice of the Sheldonian — home to ceremonies and concerts – dominated the street, rubbing shoulders with the Museum of the History of Science which, among other treasures, displays a blackboard with formulas written by Albert Einstein during an Oxford lecture.
Outside the tiny Oxfam storefront, a plastic skull rested on a sandwich board, advertising a walking tour of Haunted Oxford. The guide arrived nightly at exactly 9:00, attired in tuxedo and white silk scarf. His spine-tingling walk led tourists through the narrow streets, past old college walls and into hidden alleys and graveyards. I discovered the lure of Oxford by street light. Crooked streets and stone walls, reflecting centuries of architectural styles, took on a new patina when viewed with the glamour of ghosts, mysterious murders, revenge and whispers of satanic practices.
In daylight I enjoyed walking the narrow, twisted streets, turning a corner to suddenly find tiny flower-bedecked cottages, unique jewelry stores, or little churches and overgrown graveyards. I made a mental collection of the myriad sundials decorating church towers and college buildings. On the Woodstock Road into North Oxford, where “gown” and “town” blurred, were small Victorian cottages now in great demand, and in the area known as Jericho were the Oxford University Press buildings and the winding Oxford Canal.
But I loved most the center of Oxford. I made frequent trips down St. Aldgate’s to explore the gardens at Christ Church or attend evensong at the Cathedral. The High Street held pleasures all along its length from Carfax bell tower at the top to Magdalen Bridge at the end. In between were art stores and print shops, the dignified Church of St. Mary the Virgin at the center, then the graceful facades of Queens College and the Examination Schools, Magdalen College and its Tower framed the street on either side. The Bridge crossed the River Cherwell over the lush greenness of Angel Meadows, and on the other side were St. Hilda’s College buildings and playing fields. Cowley, a bit beyond, was the section of Oxford where ethnic and alternative lifestyle communities had their homes, restaurants and shops.
I had a special fondness for the grounds of my host College, Balliol, as one will find oneself inordinately fond of a beloved’s crooked nose. Its architecture is viewed with disdain by many of the other old Colleges, who considered it rather bad form of the Fellows to tear down the original medieval buildings and erect second-rate paeans to Victorian excess. But to me, it was beautiful. I knew and loved every inch of the place, from the flower boxes decorating the windows of the Bursar’s Office, to the little carving of a man eating a loaf of bread found on the window of the library. I was charmed by the dining hall with Latin inscriptions gracing its dark wood paneling, and the frowning portraits of past Masters of the College gazing down while we ate. I loved climbing the stairs to visit the library, and peered into the forbidden Fellows’ Garden with longing. A highlight of my stay was a brilliantly sunny afternoon when Balliol Chapel was open for a wedding rehearsal. I sat, admiring the splendor of stained glass and carved wood, reveling in the amazing fact that no one questioned my right to be there.
I didn’t care that it was the hottest summer England had faced in 177 years, or that an air-conditioned building was rare. I didn’t care that ghastly modern buildings on the Cornmarket faced more charming, ancient ones, such as the venerable, leaning Tudor structure which housed a Laura Ashley store. I was blind to the Burger King, Hagen Däz and HMV decorating Oxford’s proud beauty like modern junk jewelry on a beautiful antique ball gown. I saw past all that and as I wandered through the streets and alleyways, I felt my knotted soul and confused thoughts relaxing and settling down. I had time and love and acceptance to discover what I really wanted in my life. I knew on my return home – the dreaded and all too looming return home – that I had to find some way to live the life less ordinary.
In those streets, I longed to join the students and dons mounting the steps to the inner sanctum of the Bodlein Library to study arcane subjects. I yearned to wear sub fusc — the traditional student garb — and cycle through foggy streets in the chill of an autumn morning, college scarf flying behind me. I imagined a small house on the Parks Road where I would write and paint as I explored St. Michael’s in the North Gate, and St. Giles and its churchyard. I pictured myself having tea at the Randolph dressed in eccentric elegance while I rummaged at jumble sales in church basements and attended afternoon concerts at the Holywell Music Room. I dined elegantly on steak and wine at the Mitre, an inn and restaurant since the 16th century, and with equal pleasure downed flash-fried chips from the fast food van conveniently parked on the Broad late at night when pubs and restaurants had closed.
On my last weekend in Oxford, the wind changed direction and the heat and humidity disappeared. Knowing it was nearly the end, I walked for hours around what I thought of as “my Oxford,” visiting again the bizarre, yet pleasing, arrangement of thirteen staring and anonymous heads on the stone pillars around the Sheldonian; the graceful arch of the “Bridge of Sighs” connecting two parts of Hartford College. The house where Edmund Halley, lived, worked and discovered his comet, the wonderfully diverse marvels housed in the Ashmolean, and the simple beauty of the corner of Parks Road where a letter box was set into the old stone wall and vines curled over the top. I drank in the allure of little shops and old cottages, far more appealing in their settled distortions than newer and more well-aligned buildings.
I capped my time in Oxford with a decadent and sumptuous high tea at the Randolph, and had no time for crying in the flurry of activity necessary to make the train to Scotland on time.
It wasn’t until weeks later that the devastating sense of loss hit me. In London, preparing to return to New York, I was offered a day trip to Oxford. The thought of it reduced me to tears. To spend only one day in Oxford – Oxford, whom I loved – would have been the same as an exile being offered but one day in a beloved and yearned-for home. I left for New York determined to one day return to Oxford, to once again embrace that enchanting city of “dreaming spires” and buttery sunshine, darkened pubs, ancient traditions and its forward-looking, international body of students.
I haven’t made it yet.
My love is still fresh in my heart, the memories as vivid to me as the moment they happened, but, alas, these days they must remain there. Eventually, even your best friends sicken of hearing every single moment of your affair dragged out and examined over and over again They beg you to get over it and move on. But I can’t.
I am filled with dreams of Oxford. I pour over my photographs and well-worn maps, revisiting memories of my favorite places and planning for the day of my inevitable return. I search all sources in hopes of finding grants or monies that would allow me to spend time in Oxford researching a novel, or writing a paper for some learned journal. I read any book, old or new, that is set in Oxford – my copies of the Inspector Morse books and Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” reduced to tatters. I recite my litany of College names: Balliol, Brasenose, Christ, Queen’s, Somerville, St. John’s, St. Catherines, New, Trinity…
I know that Oxford does not yearn for me. It has laughed and moved on. Each year the city weaves its spell on others — a passing traveler, a casual visitor, a new student, approaches Oxford from the sunlit Broad and is hit by the thunderbolt of love.
I am not jealous. Oxford deserves it. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Someday — maybe next year, maybe ten years from now but most certainly someday — I will return to my beloved and, as in love as ever, rest in the beauty of its heart. Warmed by the sun-lit stone.