The night hundreds of men kissed me was also the night I slept in the bed of one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Both adventures descended upon me as a college student from the American heartland. Far from home for the first time, my long legs, barely covered by tiny skirts and black tights, carried me confidently through the streets and into the lecture halls of Cambridge University. For my short life, my family’s love and the courtesy of Midwesterners protected me. Now, while my open gaze, wide gestures and long strides may have bemused the residents of this university town, their sense of class consciousness and button-downed reserve protected me just as effectively.
Unused to the densely populated streets of an English market town, I’d regularly whap hapless passersby as I used my arms as a conversational tool. The person I bumped into or poked in the eye would turn to me and say, “Sorry.” I hit them, they’d apologize and they’d mean it.
Or, at dinner with friends, I’d say something innocuous such as, “Please pass the salt.” The person at the far end of the table would pick up the salt shaker, smile, say, “Sorry,” and pass it my way. Always that apology, as if they should have anticipated my need of salt and this was the rudest of oversights on their part.
Sorry. They said it all the time. These poor restrained folks spent their lives, as far as I could see, apologizing for living.
They also spent their lives knowing their place and keeping to it. Except……
Except for my lover, Johnny, with whom a Saturday afternoon stroll along the Cam River, a weekend occupation that with anyone else would have been pleasantly predictable, became wildly unpredictable. A random encounter with other strollers became amusing street theater.
A pub owner would look at me with sad fatherly eyes, say, “What’s a pretty thing like you doing with a ruffian like this,” then kick us out because Johnny refused to put on his shoes.
At the next pub, the owner would buy us a round because Johnny was increasing his business by entertaining the other patrons.
But that was him, the eccentric outlier in this buttoned-down world.
All that I had learned to expect of the English, based on six months of experiencing their reserve and class consciousness, broke down when Johnny took me to London’s Piccadilly Circus on New Year’s Eve.
No restraint here. None at all. Not one person said “sorry” to me that night. They jostled me, whapped me in the arm or poked me in the eye as they gestured, grabbed me, pulled me into a close embrace, kissed me on the lips, without one apology spoken. The young men, many of them university students like my Johnny, dropped all traces of the staid lives as barristers or doctors or bankers for which they were training. They sang, staggered drunkenly and grabbed every young female who came within reach of their lustful grasp.
Sorry? Not a one of them was sorry.
Class consciousness? Forgotten at the outer edges of Piccadilly Circus. Citizens of every outpost of the former British Empire emerged from the restaurant kitchens, back rooms of hotel laundries and hospital corridors where they swept, cleaned and sweated, all of them bent on one goal; to kiss as many as possible of the girls who were not even aware of their existence on any other day.
Hundreds of men kissed me that night. Redheads from Edinburgh, blondes from Wale, men from Kenya with skin as black as the sky above our heads, olive-skinned men from the Sudan, dusky men from Pakistan and India. They didn’t speak, had no interest in getting to know me, they just wanted kisses…kisses…hundreds of kisses.
Until I had enough.
This was a detail to which Johnny and I had given no advance consideration. We didn’t have a hotel room waiting for us, nowhere to snuggle, just the two of us and enjoy our own, private kisses. Johnny said, “I’ll call my friend Richard. He’s a great guy, has a place not too far from here, he’ll let us stay with him.”
We pooled the change in our pockets, found a red phone box and Johnny made his call. The answer was that we had just caught Richard as he was heading out the door to a friend’s, but we were welcome to crash at his place, Johnny knew where to find the key and we were welcome to his bed.
His bed turned out to be on a houseboat on one of the canals.
I didn’t meet Richard that night, or any other. Instead, back at Cambridge, Johnny pulled out back issues of the magazine they had worked on together and told me about laying it out together, working in the office and racing around London, selling copies on the street.
My days as a student at Cambridge ended, Johnny and I slipped out of contact with each other and the night on Richard’s boat was long forgotten until the Sunday evening 20 years later when my then-husband, Alan, and I were watching a profile on 60 Minutes of the richest man in Great Britain, a self-made man who became a millionaire by the age of 23 and started his career with a magazine he named Student.
I turned to Alan and said, “I slept in that man’s bed.”
He replied, “Nothing you tell me surprises me.”
Happy New Year and wishes for joyous adventures in 2013 for us all!