Conference Love: The Girl in Room 233

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic


Dani went away on a conference trip and met Claire; we have here one of those painful examples of "meeting the right person at the wrong time". Apparently, feeling attracted to people other than
your partner is normal; the trick is how you cope with it.

Submitted: July 16, 2018

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Submitted: July 16, 2018

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Conference Love: The Girl in Room 233 by Finn McCuail

finnmccuail@gmail.com

He took off his wedding ring to remove some dirt that had got stuck under it, rinsed it under the shower, and put it back on his finger. He was enjoying that shower as that had been the first time he had felt alone in weeks. He had gone to Spain on a research trip and to see his family but things were always quite intense there. Visiting parents, siblings, nephews, other lecturers in linguistics from different universities…, it all made him look forward to this conference trip. He had only been in Germany for a couple of hours and he was enjoying being by himself. After his shower, he got ready to go to the university to pick up his delegate pack.

It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon and he was planning on reading through the programme over a couple of German beers at a bar. Before leaving, he made a conscious effort to text his wife to let her know that he had arrived safely at the hotel. In Spain, he realised that he actually didn’t miss his wife when he went away; however, he wasn’t sure if it meant that he didn’t love her or if it was just the consequence of a hectic trip.

He left his room on the third floor and walked downstairs. On the second floor, he saw a girl coming out of room 233. He didn’t see her face but he really noticed her hair: black, long, shiny, just like the hair you see on a TV advert. He wandered around the small university town and eventually made it to the registration office on campus. He was walking up the stairs when he noticed the girl from room 233 coming down with a conference bag. “A bit too young to be a lecturer”, he thought. She looked like a PhD student from some country in the Eastern block: slim, tall, and a very beautiful face.

He spent that evening going over the conference programme, enjoying some German beers and watching a football match in a bar. He read through the list of presenters and there were lecturers from all over the world, but a name caught up his attention. It was a pretty English name with a long Greek surname of someone who worked at an American university he had never heard of before.

The next day, he arrived at the conference venue very early to start networking with other lecturers. However, with a strong focus on literature and with just a few panels on linguistics, he didn’t think that it would be the most fruitful of events. Some people were standing by themselves checking their phones, “bad form”, he thought, “you come to a conference to meet people, not to chat to your mates on WhatsApp”. Some people were greeting others they had met at past conferences, so he just went to the first venue for the welcome presentation. “People must be going there, so it’ll be a good place to start networking”, he said to himself. He had been chitchatting with some lecturers in their fifties for a few minutes when a young girl called Marissa arrived. She was German, they chatted in Spanish, and her friend joined them a couple of sentences into their conversation. He immediately recognised her as the girl in room 233.

- “Hi, my name’s Claire”, she said with a perfect Northern Spanish accent. - “Hi, I’m Dani”, he said while shaking her hand.

He didn’t like her at the beginning. From his past as a single man, he had always been a bit weary of extremely pretty girls; it was a self-defence mechanism. It was very easy to start showing interest in pretty girls, so the way he had fought this as a single guy was to start with the assumption that an extremely pretty girl was a bitch until proven otherwise. He didn’t necessary think that that was the case, but he did all he could to make sure that he didn’t fall just for a pretty face. “Physical appearances change; personality traits and values not really”, he used to say to himself.

Dani found Claire’s hand and personality a bit cold, and he found her a bit snooty to start with, so he mentioned his wife at the earliest opportunity. As some of his friends would say, he had just disabled the bitch shield: that mechanism that some girls have which makes them act distant and dismissive when they think they’re going to be hit on by a guy. A few more people joined the conversation and Dani excused himself and went into the lecture theatre for the welcome presentation. Somehow, there were three different welcome presentations on the same day; it was some kind of Austrian or German protocol.

It was time for the first coffee break and the attendees gathered around the foyer. Dani saw Marissa and started the conversation with the standard “what presentation did you see?” They got engaged in some small talk until she went to get some fruit. Dani was left standing by himself, awkwardly, and he then saw Claire walking towards him. He saw her badge and noticed her long Greek surname.

-“How was the presentation you saw?” she asked in a friendly manner, which surprised Dani. -“It was actually really good, not my field but very well presented. What about yours?” -“It was crap; the presenter read from a piece of paper for 18 minutes”, Claire replied.

Dani loved the comment and laughed. - “Great critique, I can see we’ve gone passed the polite small talk”. - “Yeah, we can officially say we’re over that”, she said. - “I like that. So, you definitely don’t come across as the usual socially-awkward academic?” - “I can be, but I try not to”, she added.

They exchanged life stories and they bonded over their commonalities. A Spanish guy who did a PhD in linguistics in England and who was working there as a lecturer, and an American girl who had done a PhD in Spanish literature in Spain and who was lecturing in the US. He no longer saw her as a potential bitch with a pretty face, but as a nice girl with a good sense of humour.

Marissa joined them and the three of them decided to go to the café across the road for another drink before the next presentation. The girls ordered a coffee, but Dani took out of his pocket a list with different types of beer, ordered the next style from his list, and ticked it. The three of them enjoyed their drinks on a nice day and they also enjoyed each other’s company, and it felt as if they had been friends for a long time.

After the third welcome speech of the day, Claire went back to room 233 in her hotel for a Skype meeting, while Dani and Marissa went for dinner and to tick off a few more beers from Dani’s list.

Dani and Claire did not talk again after the coffee break the following morning. Dani could not read Claire’s reaction when he told her that he had gone out for dinner with Marissa the previous night, but she certainly reacted to it. They were exchanging opinions on the different presentations that they had seen and Marissa came to tell them that she had to go to attend some family issues, so Dani and Claire decided to explore the small university town while the AGM took place.

On their way out of the university campus, Dani complemented Claire for her skills at walking on the cobbled street.

- “I had 5 years of training in Spain”, she said, “but I’m nowhere as good as Spanish girls. Some Spanish girls master the art of walking on cobbled streets with heels with such elegance”.

That word stuck in Dani’s head. He had been trying to find a word to describe Claire and that was it: elegant. He thought he was getting old, as he had never really seen elegance as an important quality in women, but she had the elegance and perfect posture of a piano player.

He noticed how tall she was, about 3 cm taller than him and he stretched his back slowly. His concern about looking shorter than her was the first thing that told Dani that he liked her.

Neither Dani nor Claire admitted to it, but they both enjoyed exploring the town without anyone else’s company. It felt like some kind of date without it being a date. They had been talking about life, family, work, and travelling experiences, but neither of them mentioned anything about past or present partners. A friend once told Dani that if a girl mentions a boyfriend very early on in a conversation, it is a way of saying that she’s not available or into the guy she’s talking to, but that if girl has a boyfriend and doesn’t mention him all night, it’s a sign that it’s game on. Dani didn’t like that remark, but he kind of agreed with it. His friends always backed up that theory with the fact that two girls only told Dani about their boyfriends when they were in a taxi on the way back to his. On both occasions, Dani got out of the taxi and gave money to the girl for the taxi fare back to hers; he despised cheating more than any of his male friends. His friends always said that one guy could only afford to be such a gentleman if he was a Spaniard in England, with a cool accent that girls loved. Dani never told them this, but he had been cheated on once by a girl he really liked. Some girls he had met before had also been cheated on and used that as a licence to justify cheating on others, but Dani had always refused to be part of that cycle.

Dani continued walking between Claire and the road, which was totally full of people riding bikes. It was an automatic habit he had developed after his dad told him as a kid that any respectful gentleman should always walk on the outer side of the pavement when walking with a girl to protect her from the dangers of the road.

Dani and Claire passed a Pandora shop and he stopped for a second, looking through the glass for a gift for his wife. Claire’s face changed and she looked down in shame. It was then that Dani realised that they had passed the point of talking about partners without hurting each other’s feelings. Dani said he’d buy something at the airport and they continued walking around the town.

They took photos on their phones but they both felt like taking photos together would be a bit too couple-like. They stopped to have lunch at a bar, sitting outside in the German sun. It was the kind of day you see on wedding brochures: sunny, light, warm, and with a bright and happy blue sky. They both admitted that they enjoyed people watching and they smiled at the same time. At one point, both of them moved their eyes in the same direction: from each other’s eyes, to the lips, and back up to the eyes. They both had to make a conscious effort to stop looking into each other’s eyes. Claire started applying some lip gloss while Dani looked at her in silence, but then his wedding ring hit the table and made a loud and uncomfortable noise.

They thought that talking about work had never been that much fun. He shared stories about teaching in a dodgy school and she shared fond stories of her time in Spain. She was trying to get a tenure position at a university, Dani asked if she was flexible to go anywhere and she said that she had not restrictions, which Dani took as I’m single.

Her beautiful blue eyes were wide open when he talked. At one point, he caught her rolling her hair with her left hand. She leaned forward a few times to confess some little secret and she arched her back when he shared a few stories from injuries practising extreme sports. He knew what those signs meant; he grew up with two elder sisters and he was familiar with women’s subtle signs, and his friends had always been jealous of him for that. The topic of age came up. He said he was 33, like Jesus, and she said she was 28.

-“Wow, I could be your dad”, he said. - “Nah, you’re not that much older than me; five years is nothing”, Claire replied crossing her legs towards him.

Dani could hear his friend Finn in his head “mate, it’s official, she likes you”.

She was Leo and he was Virgo, and they bonded over how many of their friends were of each other’s star sign. He said he’d remember her birthday and told her that he’d ring her in a few weeks to wish her happy birthday. She smiled when she heard that and her toes felt tingly for a few seconds.

On the way back to the venue, they moved on to the topic of personal qualities they liked in others. To them, this sounded like a topic from a date, but they both loved learning about each other. Dani really liked that girl, and he was glad that he had made such a nice friend. He loved everything about her and he genuinely enjoyed her company. Above all, he thought, he loved her voice. It was sweet, it had the perfect pitch, it sounded confident, clear, and he loved the Northern Spanish accent that she had picked up in Spain. He hadn’t spoken much in English with her, but he even liked her American accent, which he had learned to dislike after 9 years in England.

She didn’t like frat boys, and he didn’t like bimbos; she didn’t like lazy guys who partied like a teenager until their daddies got them a job at a serious firm, and he didn’t like girls with no family values; she liked opera and he liked punk music. She had lunch with her family every Sunday and he liked that, although he wondered if it was one of those lunch after church kind of events. He found himself correcting his posture and straightening his back, and at that point he thought she would be an excellent mum. Maybe it was because he was getting broody, but he remembered being single in his mid 20s and judging girls by how good a mother they would be. He never found that demeaning, as he didn’t think women were born just to be mothers; he perceived being a good mum as having great personality traits: caring about others, putting someone else’s feelings and needs before their own, setting good examples, and raising someone to be a good person. A few years after that, he started judging himself and his male friends according to how good a dad his friends or he would be in the future.

Dani and Claire sat together at a plenary presentation and they listened to a professor reading from her notes. Within 30 minutes, they could see some older people asleep in the audience in the back and middle rows. An older man even reprimanded his colleague for waking him up during his snooze. Dani and Claire started writing messages to each other in her diary, like two teenagers in love during a maths class. He loved her cheeks and her smile. He realised how much both of them were enjoying each other’s company and he thought about writing “do you think we are married in a parallel universe?” but he thought it’d be too creepy. Somehow, he felt as if she had read his mind, as she looked at him deep into his eyes and blushed before looking away. He wanted to write down in her pad “can I take you out for dinner?”, but he didn’t know how she’d take that wording.

-“What’s the plan now?” Dani asked as they walked out of the presentation. -“Dinner!”, Claire replied.

Marissa texted Dani a minute later. Dani and Claire would have preferred to have dinner by themselves but they couldn’t leave Marissa out, especially after her family issues, so they agreed to meet her at the hotel the three of them were staying at. On their way there, Dani and Claire chatted to someone from the University of Seville.

-“We should have invited him to have dinner with us”, Dani said after the other guy left. “Actually, you haven’t said, have you got a boyfriend?” - “Not yet”, Claire replied. - “It looks like you have something planned. Well, that guy seemed nice”, Dani said to tease Claire. - “So, now you’re trying to get me a boyfriend? A couple of my friends are like that, and one of my friends really wants me to go out with her brother but he’s too sexist for me and he just wants women to stay at home”. - “I don’t like those guys”, Dani said. “It sounds like the kind of guy who would be scared and jealous of being with a woman who’s more successful than him”. - “Exactly”, Claire nodded. - “Have you got any red flags?” Dani asked. -“What are those? Are you asking me what my bad traits are?” -“Oh, no. Red flags are things that you wouldn’t be able to tolerate in a guy”, Dani explained. “Looking for a boyfriend is not like going shopping, you can’t just choose what traits you want, but it’s good to know what traits you wouldn’t be able to live with. For example, for me, if someone has always been in a relationship since they were 16, going from boyfriend to boyfriend and never being single for more than a couple of weeks, that’s a massive red flag”.

-“Yes, that’s a good one. If someone has always been in a relationship they don’t know how to be alone”, Claire said. “For me, cheaters, no cheaters at all. That’s definitely a red flag. No guys on a rebound. No clingy or needy guys. No axe, I hate guys that overuse deodorant. And no lazy guys with no direction.” - “I love that one. Girls hate cruisers, they want someone with drive. Having drive is a very good quality”, Dani added.

They arrived at the hotel and they went to get changed. They both felt as if they had been on a perfect one-day date but then Dani started getting worried about Claire. He knew she liked him, and he hoped that she wasn’t going through one of those “why does it never work out whenever I like a guy?” moments. He got changed and went to the hotel foyer to meet Claire and Marissa. It took him longer than the girls to get changed as he couldn’t decide on what Claire would like him to wear. He also wore more aftershave than necessary, and he was worried that Claire wouldn’t like that. He then realised that he liked her too.

Dani met Marissa and Claire at reception. The three of them had changed their smart conference clothes for more casual clothing. Claire wore some sandals, jeans, and a blue top. She went from looking like an absolute beautiful girl at the conference to looking like a normal girl on casual clothing, and Dani didn’t mind that at all. Her beautiful smile and candid voice had not changed, and they were what Dani liked the most about her.

The three of them walked around the city centre looking for a traditional bar and they ended up going to the same street where Dani and Claire had enjoyed the most romantic lunch a non-couple could have enjoyed. This time, they had taken a different route and passed outside a wedding dress shop, which made Dani and Claire quite uncomfortable.

Having Marissa there for dinner made the whole situation a bit easier for Dani and Claire. Dinner went as a normal dinner between friends until Marissa started asking Dani questions about his wife. Claire’s face changed, she went quiet and concentrated on her dinner. Dani answered Marissa’s questions without elaborating too much on the answers and Marissa asked to see some photos of his wife. Dani went through his phone’s photos. He only found three photos of her on his phone and showed them to the girls. Claire held his phone with her left hand, uninterested and hurt.

- “Very pretty”, Claire said with a sad tone in her voice before handing back the phone. Dani looked at the photo and it then occurred to him that Claire actually looked like a brunette version of his wife. - “My phone has been quite slow lately and I had to transfer most of my photos onto my laptop, so I only have those photos of her left on my phone now, but I have a few photos of a recent trip to a zoo”, Dani explained. He started going through photos from the zoo and the situation stopped being so tense. The three of them started looked at cute photos of animals as they finished their dinner and asked for the bill.

Marissa was on the phone the whole way back to the hotel sorting out some family issues and Dani and Claire started talking about clothes, and then they moved on to clothes sizes. Claire was the first girl that had ever made Dani feel short. He didn’t consider himself a sexist or a very conservative guy, but he did feel a bit inferior being shorter than her.

- “How tall are you?” Dani asked. - “Uff, I only know it in feet, I think about 185cm”. - “Really, I guess that makes sense, I am 182 and I couldn’t work out whether you were the same height as me or a bit taller”, Dani replied.

Claire took off her sandals and stood in front of Dani. Dani took off his shoes as well and stood in front of Claire. Their big toes touched while they were standing straight in front of each other, looking into each other’s eyes. Both of them felt that tingly feeling of adrenaline rushing through their bodies, just as you do when you truly fall in love for the first time. That was the first time they were both clear about what they felt for each other.

-“Well”, Dani said. “I guess that’s another reason why we wouldn’t be a good match; no girl wants to go out with a guy shorter than her”. -“Nah, we’re virtually the same height. I’d only worry if the guy was much shorter than me”.

Dani and Claire continued talking about trivial stuff on their way to the hotel as they both felt awkward about their feelings for each other. Claire’s main thought was that she would love to hold hands with Dani in that warm summer’s night. She looked at his hands while they were walking but some light reflected on Dani’s ring and blinded Claire, forcing her to look away.

Marissa finished her conversation on the phone as they entered the foyer of the hotel. She looked upset and Claire offered to give Marissa a hug.

- “Can I watch?” Dani said jokingly. - “You’re really bad!” Claire said while shaking her head.

Marissa said she was OK and the three of them made plans to have breakfast together the following morning. Neither Dani nor Claire wanted to accept to themselves what it was, but they both went to bed with a big smile on their faces. Dani walked into the reception area at 8:30 the following morning and saw Claire waiting there.

- “Wow, you look very nice”, Dani said. - “Thanks, you too, you look very nice too”, she replied. Claire looked absolutely beautiful with her smart trousers, nice blouse, pretty cardigan, straight black hair and her perfect smile. Dani was wearing dark blue jeans, a blue shirt and a smart jacket. It was a few minutes past 8:30 and there was no sign of Marissa, so they both decided to leave. They walked along the street like the perfect couple, and they both wished they could be one. They sat for breakfast and they were both secretly happy that they were alone. Dani loved the subtle blue eyeliner that Claire was wearing. It went well with her perfectly blue eyes and he tried not to stare at her for too long. For some reason, he started thinking about the first time he noticed a girl wear eyeliner: it was one of his sisters, for her first date with a man she would marry three years later. The guy from the University of Seville passed by, saw them inside a café, and came in to join them. He was a nice guy but both Dani and Claire were a bit sad their alone moment had ended.

-“Oh”, Dani said before the guy from Seville joined them. “Before I forget. I have something here for you, so that you don’t forget about me”.

Dani and Claire found that phrase a bit too couple-like, but Dani went on.

-“It’s just a little gift pack from my uni. It has an inflatable pillow for the plane, a USB, a cloth to clean your tablet and a stand to put your business cards on your desk. A bit random, but I’ve been visiting a few universities on this trip and I had a spare one”.

-“Oh, thanks. That’s very sweet of you”, Claire said.

They guy from the University of Seville sat down, they had breakfast and they walked together to the conference venue. The other guy went to a different building but Claire told Dani she’d go to see his presentation. It was about linguistics, but they were friends and she had to support him.

Dani and Claire wrote a few notes to each other during other people’s presentations. They were just short observations about the presentations or about people in the audience, but they both felt once more like naughty teenagers communicating in class. It was Dani’s turn to start getting ready for his presentation. He started taking things out of his bag: his USB, his notes, his passport… Claire looked shocked and upset when she saw his passport. She knew Dani was catching a flight that day, but seeing his passport made her realise that it was real, that Dani was leaving. Dani noticed the look on Claire’s face and put it away.

-“Believe me, you don’t want to see my photo” he joked to try to make her feel better but it didn’t work.

Dani was giving his presentation and couldn’t stop looking at Claire. He loved having her there in the audience. Having her there made him feel confident, safe, and supported. Her eyes were wide open, her smile was illuminating the whole lecture theatre, and she looked so proud of him. They both gave each other knowing looks when someone in the audience made a weird remark about the presentation. At one point, he looked into her eyes from the distance and she blushed and looked down. He then realised that she really was in love in him. As a lecturer, he had learnt to identify that sign. A young university student falling for her lecturer, he’d seen that look before. This time, however, he felt the same for the person looking at him from her seat, and he felt sad and worried about it.

The presentation finished, people congratulated Dani for his presentation and he went to the foyer with Claire for morning coffee. Claire complimented Dani on his presentation. He felt happy it had gone well, and she felt as close to a proud girlfriend as her strict morals allowed her to. They saw Marissa on the phone on their way to the foyer. She was on the phone to her family but she said she’d meet them later for lunch to say bye to Dani. Dani and Claire mingled with other lecturers for a bit until Marissa came to get them for lunch.

The walk looking for a place to have lunch was sad for Dani and Claire. They were walking the same streets they had walked down a day ago, taking photos and getting to know each other. They crossed the corner where Dani had told Claire he had been cheated on once, and a bit further down they passed the road they were walking along when Claire had described her ideal man to Dani. The three of them found a café to have lunch. The food was good but neither Dani nor Claire could eat much. Like teenagers with a broken heart, they picked some bits from their plates and left the rest. Dani couldn’t explain why he wasn’t hungry but Claire knew why she wasn’t eating much. The conversation over lunch was pleasant, with some good jokes, but Dani and Claire looked a bit down.

The sky turned grey as they were walking back to the hotel, Claire started feeling nervous and Dani couldn’t look at her face. Dani got the suitcases he’d left at reception in the morning and said goodbye to Marissa and Claire before he went to get changed into something to travel in. He would have liked to say bye to Claire alone, but Marissa was there, and he just gave them the customary Spanish two kisses and went to get changed in the bathroom.

Dani started shaking when he walked into the bathroom. He was shaking so much he couldn’t even undo the buttons of his shirt. He was very sad and anxious and he realised that he had really fallen in love with Claire. Only at that point, did he think about how she could have really fallen in love with him, not just a crush, but deep love. He got changed and wondered whether Claire would be waiting for him at reception to say goodbye, but when Dani got to reception she wasn’t there. He did the online check-in for his flight and worked out that he still had a couple of hours before he had to be at the airport. He was worried about Claire and he really wanted to see her one last time to make sure she was OK, so he decided to go to her room to say goodbye.

He went up in the lift and stood outside room 233 for a couple of minutes. “What’s the point?” he said to himself. “I am married, I will never cheat on anyone and I can’t be with her. Nothing’s going to happen between us, so what’s the point of knocking on her door?”

He genuinely worried about her and he wanted to make sure she was OK, although deep down, he also wanted to see if he had just fallen in love with someone who felt nothing for him or if she felt the same way. He knew that that wouldn’t change anything, but perhaps he’d feel better knowing what she felt about him. Dani knocked on room 233, no-one answered but he heard someone run into the bathroom and then he heard the tap running. A minute later, he heard Claire walk to the door and wait there for a few seconds before opening the door very slowly. Claire was half hidden behind the door and Dani could only see the left side of her body and her face. She had been crying, and even though she had wiped off her tears, he could still see her beautiful blue eyes slightly reddened. His heart sank and he just wanted to hug her, surround her with his arms, and tell her that he felt the same way and that he was really sorry that things couldn’t work out. They were both nervous and the situation felt quite awkward, just like the first time you see someone you have broken up with.

-“I’ve already checked in online and I have an hour or so before I have to go. I was going to have a coffee downstairs and I was wondering if you’d like to have one last coffee with me”, Dani said.

Claire couldn’t say anything. Her bottom lip went down and started to curl but she made an effort to smile and nodded three times.

-“I’ll get ready and be right back”, she said with in a very low and broken voice.

Dani moved away from the door. Somehow, seeing the number 233 made him really sad. She came out a couple of minutes later and they walked into the lift. He was wearing some trainers and a t-shirt.

-“Oh, this is the real me, by the way. The shirt and jacket is just for work”, Dani said. -“I like it”, Claire said. “You look like a teenage skateboarder. It looks like you have professional skateboarding shoes and everything”.

Dani felt like a phony guy as he thought that Claire had fallen in love with the best version of him: a nicely-dressed lecturer, well read, funny and polite, a gentleman, not the childish party animal he was. He was happy to see that Claire approved of his teenage-like habits and felt like maybe she’d also like other aspects of him. Claire was feeling quite insecure and worried that he had only liked the most outgoing side of her: the outgoing girl at a conference, instead of her usual serious self, a very religious person who did not like drinking or going out. They hadn’t realised yet, but they both brought out the best in each other.

The bar by reception was closed, so Claire suggested going across the road to a café. They walked in and sat down to check the menu. It was the same place where Dani had been watching the football a few days ago and it looked like that had been years ago, as he had developed feelings over the past three days he never knew he had inside.

Dani and Claire went back to their normal selves, talkative and happy; nothing to do with the sad couple of a few minutes ago. They ordered some coffees and started talking about Claire’s Greek background. At that point, Dani thought that Claire was a Greek-American version of his Slovakian-English wife. He even loved it when Claire put on an English accent. Claire told Dani how Greek her dad was, how some people in her community had gone for arranged marriages and how that wasn’t for her, as she believed in real love. They both felt awkward when Claire said real love. She also shared with him the story of how her parents met. “It sounded like love at first sight”, Dani thought. A Greek guy walked into a restaurant years ago, liked the waitress, asked the manager at what time the restaurant closed and waited for her outside to ask her out on a date.

- “I didn’t want to ask you out while you were at work out of respect; I didn’t want to embarrass you”, her father had said to her mother years ago. A thoughtful guy with drive, and that phrase alone won Claire’s mum over.

Claire told Dani about her upbringing, just like in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: Greek food, a lot of Greek food, and Greek school on Saturdays, but no Windex. She also told him how his dad had ended up in the US. He was from Peloponnesus and Dani knew that part of Greece from a video game he used to play as a child. There was a Greek warrior from Peloponnesus who had to rescue a princess from some evil guys and from an evil Minotaur. Dani felt very jealous of that pixelated character because at the end of the game he married his Greek princess. Dani would have done everything to have Claire, his Greek princess, but he knew that that would never happen. Looking at her sweet hands, smooth skin, and rosy cheeks, Dani couldn’t stop thinking that she simply looked Greekly perfect.

Claire was facing Dani, with her legs crossed towards him, her puppy eyes looking at his Spanish face, but she had her arms crossed. At this point, crossing her arms was the only thing Claire could do to stop showing that she loved him.

- “I’m going have to go. It’s time for that Skype meeting I told you about earlier”, she said as she was starting to feel sad again.

Dani went to pay and replied ja to whatever the waitress said to him in German. It was a joke that he had with Marissa and with Claire to see how many times he could answer ja until people realised he spoke no German at all. The waitress then took a ticket to Claire. Dani thought he had paid for everything but he had just answered yes to the waitress’ question of paying separately? He felt like an idiot.

-“It’s your fault; you always do that”, Claire said. - “Yeah, sorry, I really wanted to pay for our last coffee together”, he replied.

That was the closest thing to an argument they had over their three days together. They crossed the road and walked into the hotel, where Dani asked the receptionist to call him a taxi to go to the airport.

-“Well, goodbye for the second time”, she said abruptly. He gave her the traditional Spanish two kisses on her cheek. -“See you at the next conference in three years”, she said in a tone that Dani couldn’t work out whether it was angry or sad.

Dani and Claire looked into each other’s eyes one last time and it was clear to them that they had gone far beyond the point of staying as friends, and they both thought that staying in touch would only drag their pain further. Dani couldn’t manage to open his mouth, he smiled, waved at her and blew a little kiss. Claire turned away and ran into the lift holding back her tears, she turned back when she got in and they looked at each other one last time as the lift doors closed painfully slowly.

Dani walked outside all shaken up. He was nervous, anxious, sad, and just wanted to sit down on the ground and cry. It started raining as soon as his taxi arrived and the light rain turned into a much heavier rain when they passed the streets where he had been walking with Claire the previous days. The restaurant where he had had lunch with her, the park they had walked around talking about their childhood memories, and the street where they had shared their life aspirations. The female taxi driver put the radio on and a song came up. She said something in German which Dani interpreted as it’s good, asked him something and he replied his usual ja. She put the volume up and he recognised the intro but not the song, until he heard the first verses

? “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods? Where's the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds? Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed? Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need I need a hero…”

Dani put his head against the window. His heart felt destroyed. He wished he could be Claire’s hero. He would do anything to be her hero, except leaving his innocent wife or cheating on her. She was a very intelligent woman, kind, caring, funny, and with an extremely successful career. She loved him unconditionally but, for the first time in three years, Dani wondered if marrying her had been the right choice. He just wished he had met Claire when he was single, he would have hugged her and never let her go until the end of his life. He spent the journey back to England thinking about whether marrying his wife had been the right choice. He was worried he was one of those people who had married for security, out of the feeling of “I’ll never get anyone better that loves me more”. His whole body was shaky, full of adrenaline when he thought about Claire. He googled her name as he was about to board the plane to see Claire’s photo in her academic profile. She didn’t look as nice as in real life, but he still cried when he saw her face. Dani was 18 when he first travelled by plane and it was only then that he realised that it was always sunny above the clouds. “Of course it is”, he thought at the time. Leaving grey days below when flying had always made him smile, until that day. Dani’s flight had taken off and the plane continued going up in the sky but, on this occasion, he failed to find a sunny sky above the clouds.

Back in room 233, Claire had been crying since she said goodbye to Dani. She’d taken her shoes off and curled up in bed like a little, defenceless foetus. She covered her face as her tears came out through her fingers onto her pillow. She had cancelled her Skype meeting and she decided not to go to any other presentations that day. At first, she resented Dani for being married, she then resented him for having led her feelings, and she then wish she’d met him when he was single. She continued crying during all that process, worrying that she was doomed to being single forever, as something always happened when she met a guy she liked and things never seemed to work out. She admitted to herself that Dani was well beyond that category; she didn’t just like him, she was deeply in love with him, as she had never been before. At that point, she decided not to get in touch with him and ignore any messages she would get from him, and she really prayed to be strong enough to stick to her plan. She then wished she had never met him and started feeling guilty for having fallen in love with a married man.

Dani continued thinking about her until the moment he got off the plane in England. “I wish I’d met her when I was single”, he said to himself several times during his flight. “What would have happened? Would we really have ended up together if I’d been single? But she lives in the US and I live in England”, he continued asking himself as he was waiting to get off the plane. It was raining when Dani got off the plane but he didn’t mind getting wet. He just stared into the clouds, feeling absolutely shocked that someone as nice as Claire could actually exist. He thought about adding her as a friend on Facebook and searched for her. In her profile photo, she was kneeling down and feeding a bright white swan in a park. “One of those rare animals that mate for life”, he thought. He was about to press the “add friend” button but he stopped. Claire was single now, but he knew he’d feel devastated if he saw a notification once day saying “Claire is now in a relationship”. He cared about her, and he really wanted her to be happy and she deserved someone who loved her, but the mere thought of seeing a photo of Claire with another man made him shake. This feeling was worse for Claire. She had not even dared searching for Dani on Facebook as she was really scared she’d find a profile photo of him with his wife; she didn’t feel jealous, she felt sad she couldn’t be with him, and being reminded of it hurt too much. Claire knew they couldn’t even be Facebook friends; seeing Dani with his wife would be hard, but she knew that she would not be able to cope with seeing a photo of Dani with a kid in a couple of years. Maybe it was because she was reaching 30, but the idea of Dani having a kid with someone else really hurt. She thought he was very intelligent, funny, kind, masculine but kind and sweet, confident, successful at work, and had a strong drive to fight for what he wanted from life. He wasn’t a childish boy like other guys she’d met before; he was a man, the kind of man who she’d love to have as the father of her future kids. Above all, she felt like he was the only man who had ever really understood her.

Dani didn’t want to talk to anyone; he just wanted to be alone to be able to close his eyes and think about Claire, to think about what would or could have happened if he’d been single. Imagining meeting her family for the first time, buying her a wedding ring and proposing to her, and kissing her after hearing her say “yes, I said yes, I will, yes”. Closing his eyes to think about her had become his favourite part of the day, and of the night.

Dani grabbed his luggage and came out through arrivals, where his wife was waiting for him. She was about 14 cm shorter than Claire and blonde instead of brunette, but they both had a very similar face. Claire really was a Greek-American version of his wife, he thought; they both had a very similar upbringing and very similar personalities. He then wondered whether that was why he had been so attracted to her. But, his wife wasn’t Claire. He kissed his wife and, for some reason, he thought she looked different. He was quiet in the car on their way home, a lot more than he normally was. He really missed Claire, and he knew he loved her. He loved her more than he had ever loved any other girl, even the one he had married, which he found scary, distressing, sad, and worrying.

Once at home, he went straight to the kitchen to get a drink. He opened the fridge and heard something fall. It was the plastic letters with a magnet he bought over a year ago to write “I love u” on the fridge. The letters I, v, e and u had fallen on the floor. On the fridge, all he could read now was lo, just as he felt. He looked down and he saw that the letter u had broken into three little pieces. He picked up the letters and put them back on the fridge door and he put the pieces of the letter u in a corner of the table. He put them behind the oil and the vinegar, where they couldn’t be seen, and he told himself he’d glue the letter another day. “Funny”, he thought, “I had to hide the pieces behind the oil and the vinegar, exactly what Romans used to use to bless the houses of newlyweds”.

Dani continued talking to himself. “At least Claire knows that she’s single and she can just wait until she meets the love of her life. It’s too late for me though, as I married someone I will never love as much as I love Claire”. Claire, however, felt the opposite and she said to herself “at least he’s married and he has someone who loves him, but I am single, and I will never find anyone I will love as much as I love him”.

Dani had never cheated on anyone, but he was feeling as if he had. He stayed working from home the next three days. His wife had been worried about him as he wasn’t eating or drinking much and he had been very quiet, but he said it was that he was tired of all that travelling and that he had a couple of deadlines coming up. He looked at Claire’s academic profile a few times a day just to see her face and he started going for longer showers when his wife was at home. He loved being alone so that he could close his eyes and think about Claire, about what could have happened with her, and locking himself in the toilet was the only way he could be alone in the house when his wife came back after work. He compared his wife to Claire and tried to remind himself why a relationship with his wife was better than one with Claire, but he still found himself in the shower saying “Claire, I love you”. “Maybe it was one of those cases of the grass is always greener on the other side”, he thought. With a bit of maturity, he could see that the grass is not always greener on the other side, in the same way that he’d realised that it’s not always sunny above the clouds.

The shower was the only place where he felt he could say what he felt without being heard by his wife. He sat at the bottom of the shower and cried as he imagined himself next to his wife at the age of 60, thinking that he had spent his life with someone he didn’t love that much. He felt terribly guilty. “Physical cheating”, he thought to himself, “reflects just one moment of weakness. What I am doing here is psychological cheating, which is worse. I am looking for opportunities to be alone to think about Claire, it is the best time of my day and when I am with my wife I look forward to being alone to continue thinking about Claire”.

Claire had also been thinking about Dani constantly, to the point that she started feeling too anxious about her situation. She wouldn’t be able to ever be with Dani, and that made her cry a few times a day at first, and then a few times a week. She also felt extreme guilt for desiring a married man. She knew it was immoral, and she had to make an effort to think about Dani’s wife, as thinking about her gave her the strength not to contact him. One day, she remembered a verse from the Bible, “God is faithful and will not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength. But, when the temptation comes, He will also provide the way of escape”. She wrote those words in her diary, and promised herself she would look at them whenever she missed Dani.

Dani wasn’t going to leave his wife just because he had met someone else, as he knew that that wasn’t a strong enough reason and he understood that people aren’t like computers, and that you can’t swap one for another once you think you have found a better model. Claire and his wife were so similar, that he even tried to think of the stupid metaphor that Claire was not a better model of his wife, but the same model in a different colour. The simple idea of comparing Claire with his wife using the words better or worse made him feel like a horrible man. Leaving someone because you had met someone better seemed immoral to him. “Some people aren’t better than others, they’re just different”, he said to himself. He then thought about different scenarios. “Even if I got divorced”, he thought, “that’d mean being on the rebound, and Claire wouldn’t stand for that. Why would she be with me? She is too nice to marry a divorced guy, it’s like marrying a failure”. He thought that she shouldn’t marry someone who had not been able to succeed at a first marriage. Also, her family wouldn’t approve of it if they were as religious as he thought they were. He knew he had no chance of being with Claire, but he had to play all the possible scenarios in his head to get over her and to understand that marrying his wife had been the right choice. Dani, in his early thirties, apologised inside his head to his 60-year-old self for not having left his wife when he thought his marriage would not bring him happiness and he also apologised to himself for not having had the courage to go after Claire. “At this point”, he thought, “I’d rather be by myself than with someone I don’t love. I’m in my thirties, I guess I’ll die in my eighties, so just another fifty years to go”, he found this last thought extremely daunting. Dani spent the following days thinking about what to do and about whether to just walk out of his marriage. He had everything he had wished for as a child: a good job, a good house, a good life, and a good wife, and he thought maybe he was one of those people who are not designed to be happy. He thought of a phrase he had read once: “Once you have achieved everything you want from life, you realise there’s nothing else for you to fight for and you start feeling as empty as the first day”. Perhaps, that character in that weird novel called A dead man’s ice cream was right, "Aim well high when you set your life targets because once you have reached them, you'll have nowhere else to go". Someone once said to Dani that people have more than one soulmate, but that they stop looking once they get married, which is why we never meet a second one. Sometimes, people have very successful marriages with partners who are not their soulmates, but that are highly compatible with them. Dani thought about this, there was no doubt in his mind that Claire was a true soulmate, but now he had to find out whether his wife was a soulmate as well or a highly compatible partner. Dani was drying himself before coming out of the shower wondering if he’d be like a character from an old fairy tale who met three soulmates and died of unhappiness. He had always thought that he had married the best person he could have possibly found out there. It never mattered how nice, intelligent, or pretty any girl he met was, he always thought to himself “not even remotely comparable to my wife”; this time, however, he felt the opposite. He continued comparing his wife to Claire, imagining that he was hugging Claire when he was cuddling his wife in bed. He spent his whole days looking forward to falling asleep in the evening and having a rest from all this. He felt destroyed about the prospect of having to live like this, being with someone while loving someone else. Somehow, this feeling reminded him of what some of his gay friends had told him they had experienced before coming out openly, a never-ending sense of anxiety that only disappeared once they had admitted their real feelings to themselves and to their loved ones.

A few days later, Dani came out of the shower and his wife was waiting for him outside. She had something in her hand.

-“I thought we agreed not to buy anything for each other for our third anniversary”, he said. -“Yes, I know, this is something else”, she replied.

He opened the present and there was a pair of baby socks, together with a positive pregnancy test. They hugged and Dani cried, not because he was happy, but because he knew that above all, he had to save his marriage for the little one, and that Claire was definitely gone. He hugged his wife imagining he was hugging Claire, as he’d done in the previous days, but he knew this had to be the last time he did that. He closed his eyes and, in his head, he kissed Claire goodbye.

Dani’s mind had been drifting back and forth to Claire, and he felt he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He wondered if he would ever be able to forget about her and he told his best man about it, and his words changed Dani’s approach to the issue.

-“Mate”, his best man said. “I’ll tell you what, I think that if you decide to save your marriage you won’t regret it when you’re 60. I was standing next to you when you married Jessie and I saw you cry when she was walking down the aisle and when you put that ring on her finger. That day you promised to love her, to protect her, and to care for her, and you’re not doing that now. You are not keeping that promise”.

Those words carried on sounding in Dani’s head for the next few days and, although he was still thinking about Claire, he started going back to his old self. He started making a constant effort to forget about her. One day, he heard a song which said something like “all of me, loves all of you, all your perfect imperfections”. That made Dani think that his love for Claire might not be real, as he could not think of any imperfection in her, and he realised that maybe what he loved was an idealised version of Claire. In a constant effort to forget about her, he started writing down a list of reasons why his relationship with Claire wouldn’t have worked out: she’s too religious, doesn’t like drinking at all, doesn’t go out much, she likes living a very quiet life, she’s too tall for me, she complains too much about work, I’m sure she’ll be hard work and quite entitled…

Claire had also written a similar list to start forgetting Dani one morning while she was in bed: he likes going out too much; he does some crazy extreme sports and I don’t want to take part in those activities; he’s too relaxed; I don’t know he’ll make an effort to keep me happy; he’s a bit too short for me; a possible cheater? For a rare occurrence of destiny, both, Dani and Claire, grabbed their lists and crossed them out at exactly the same time, as they could not justify describing each other in such a negative way. Dani looked down and added one line to his list “I AM MARRIED”; on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, Claire shed a few tears and wrote “HE IS MARRIED ?” . She curled up in bed and started to cry, while Dani looked at his “I AM MARRIED” to start convincing himself to sort his marriage out.

It was 12th August, a month had passed since Dani and Claire had fallen in love with each other and he could still see her sad face when she opened the door of room 233. They both still thought about each other but they had accepted that they would never be together. Each of them tried to work out what the other felt, but thinking about this only made the situation more frustrating. Thinking about her as a person, rather than just as a girl, Dani came to the conclusion that she was a truly exceptional person. He wasn’t a very religious person, but he did think that everyone who had that girl in his or her life, either as a relative or as a friend, should feel absolutely blessed, as if having her in someone’s life was a true gift from God. He had experienced a totally different kind of love with Claire. He felt a very strong sense of attachment to her, he felt responsible for her sadness, he felt the need to protect her and to make her happy, and he missed her in ways that he had never missed anyone before. He had tried to make himself forget her but he hadn’t been able to. He had tried to force himself to stop loving her but he couldn’t tell if he had succeeded. Dani didn’t know if he was fooling himself, but he thought that staying as simple friends was the only way out. He admitted to himself that he’d rather keep her in his life as a professional connection, or even as a distant Facebook friend, than not having her in his life at all. He didn’t know if she would reply but he decided to email her. Confused about his feelings, Dani scratched his head, thought of Claire’s smile and started typing: Hey,

To be continued…


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