The Meet-Cute

Genre
2024 Young Or Golden Writer
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
One British and one American exchange student meet at university, fall in love, then struggle to maintain their relationship against the trials of long-distance and disconnection. Will it survive?
First 10 Pages

1.

LIZZY

We met at the airport.

All of our friends said what a good meet-cute it was, but it wasn’t, really. We’d both been up for hours. Me working; you, travelling. The airport was as cold as a morgue.

A homeless man, I suddenly noticed, was pissing in the lift in the corner.

“Should we tell someone about that?”

My friend Evie looked up from the makeshift desk we’d assembled in the concourse. Though friend was a generous term, because despite our matching uniforms, we’d only met on the bus ride over. That was the thing about ambassadors. There were hundreds of us, like rats. If I’d offered up the shift – which I’d nearly done – someone would have bitten my hand off in a heartbeat.

Evie dry-heaved.

“Oh, that’s disgusting.”

“Isn’t it? I do feel sorry for him, though. Do you think we should ask if he needs any help?”

Evie looked over her shoulder at our supervisor, Avani, who was busy reading The Oresteia. How appropriate, I thought. With the urine emanating from the corner, it smelt like Ancient Greece.

I made up my mind.

“I’ll go.”

“To where, though?” Evie pushed her fringe out of her eyes. “We’ve already discussed this. Trains are on strike, and nobody seems to work in this terminal apart from ghosts. I still don’t get why they’ve turned off the tannoy.”

“Because it’s a silent airport, Evie. They don’t want to disturb anyone.”

“Well, I’m being disturbed, currently. In more ways than one.” She sniffed the air, looking at the lift in disdain. “Are you sure that’s just piss?”

Evie was a second-year: a bolshy joint-honours studying Marketing & Psychology. Even without asking, you could tell. For me – having returned to England only days before – she was yet another reminder of the life I’d come back to, and, without a doubt, didn’t particularly want to live.

I pictured Romana in the square, kissing me on the cheek with teary eyes.

Ne m’oublie pas, chérie. Reviens bientôt.

I felt the rock in my stomach dislodge, before settling back into place. The tannoy of Manchester Airport binged, but no announcement was made.

“See?” Evie raised her hands. “Even they can smell it!”

I motioned for her to get back to work. There was a gaggle of people at the desk, and our next bus had just arrived. That’s what we were there for, after all. We were being paid to round up exchange students, arriving from all over the world, and deposit them on buses going to the university.

I didn’t think I’d meet the love of my life that day, but still.

After a while, Evie’s voice went nasal.

“Alright, you win. I can’t stand it any longer. It smells like my aunt’s dead cat in here! Can you take this lot to the bus, while I go and find a cleaner?”

I don’t remember the exact moment I saw you. I think I do – running back to the desk, helter-skelter, after dropping customers off at the bus – but it’s all a bit jumbled now. Running back to the desk with my hair flying and eyes sparkling sounds too good to be true, especially if it was the first time we saw each other. Because you meant nothing to me back then, did you? You were just another customer – just another traveller, with rumpled hair and an oversized suitcase.

“Hello,” you said. “Are we in the right place?”

I’d like to say that I knew then. Looking at you standing there with your jetlagged eyes and sleepy smile, hoodie all tousled from the journey. But I didn’t. It wasn’t you speaking anyway, but your friend. I later found out that you weren’t friends at all, and had just met on the transferring flight over, but that was how I saw you at the time. A pack of two, stuck together with your deep accents and wide smiles.

When your friend spoke again, I grimaced.

“Is this Hampson University?”

My first thought wasn’t a charitable one.

Oh, god. Americans.

I had nothing against Americans in particular. Just…in general. Even the sound of microwaved English made my skin curl, but I smiled and said:

“Yep, that’s us. Did you book the shuttle bus?”

I didn’t notice you, at first. Lucas – your not-friend, acquaintance, who if I recall you abandoned in the third week of term – was standing in front, and though you were over a head taller, I kept my eyes on him. First come, first served, after all.

I took your names and checked you in. Lucas Garcia and Elijah Young. Nice, strong, American names. I expected you to nod and smile and move aside, like the other students had, but although you stepped out of the way, you both remained facing me. Eyes bright, looking around with expectation.

Evie arrived back at the desk with a puff of speed.

“About bloody time,” I said crossly. “Where did you go – Mallorca?”

“Nobody…in…office,” she panted. “Had to get the bucket from Greggs.”

I tilted my head to see whether Avani had even moved, then thought the better of it. I could hear the pages of her book swishing as she sat and willed away the world. I wished I could do that, too, but no. I was a responsible worker – a true, loyal ambassador to the university – and my duty was at that desk. In all my four years there, I took my part-time job more seriously than I did my studies.

Evie’s eyes moved over you with curiosity.

“Americans?”

You nodded, puzzled, and she laughed.

“I can tell.”

“How?”

That was the first time I heard your voice. It was deeper than I’d expected, and rang rich with your rounded accent. Evie looked at me, raising an eyebrow, before we laughed.

“Sorry,” I said, trying to stop my smile. “It’s just…how much sleep have you had?”

“I dunno,” said Lucas. “Maybe…two, three hours?”

“That’s how we know. You’ve barely slept, but you’re still so…smiley.”

It was in that smile that I saw the first hints of you. There was an openness there, something I’d never really seen before, and it made me think of wide skies and freedom. Lucas had a nice smile too, but I found myself staring at you, perhaps more than I should.

I coughed, then looked away.

“So…whereabouts are you from?”

You stayed at the desk. Evie and I had work to do – a Hong Kong flight had just arrived, and more students started queuing – but after several hours of greeting people with no response, your enthusiasm and post-flight adrenaline were refreshing. We chatted as a group – talking about the weather, your flight, obscure food dishes – but my eyes kept returning to you. It was a bit ironic, really, because the only reason I was able to look at you properly was because I had no hope of it going anywhere. Guys like you didn’t look at girls like me. Guys full-stop didn’t look at girls like me, so I knew this wouldn’t be any different.

You said you were American – from Albany, upstate New York - but you looked more Italian than anything. Far too tall, of course, but dark hair and eyes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Vespa, or lounging about in loafers in Rome. It made me think about my summer travelling across Europe, and my stomach churned in longing. Italy in the daylight. Norway, at dusk. France, draped in shadow and silk at sunset. Nothing would come close to my time living there.

At least, that’s what I’d thought.

By the time it came for my break, I’d forgotten all about the urine. I moved towards the lift, clutching my sandwich, before someone grabbed my arm.

“Careful. Weren’t you just talking about someone peeing in there?”

You. The Italian-American in the grey hoodie, whose name had suddenly, woefully, disappeared from memory.

“Yes,” I said, blinking furiously. “Yes, we were. Thanks.”

If I weren’t so awkward, I would have asked for your name there and then. But that would have required a miracle, so instead I followed Evie up the escalators and then, when we reached the top, said to her:

“The tall guy. The American. What was his name again?”

“Lucas?”

“No, the other one. The one with the nice smile.”

Evie looked at me knowingly.

“Oh, him.”

I waited, but she shrugged, twisting a ring around her finger.

“Sorry, I don’t remember either. I think it began with C, though. Or was it E?”

We debated names during our break, throwing them between us as we walked back to the concourse. Christopher. Caleb. Charles. Elias. Ebenezer. Ellis. Nothing seemed to fit your calm demeanour and dark hair.

“Ebenezer?” Evie wheezed. “Are we living in the nineteenth century?”

When we got back to the desk, the final bus had arrived. Avani, by some miracle, had already got the group up and moving, and you were waiting in a queue snaking out of the door. My heart, not wanting to say goodbye, leapt in disappointment.

“Is that our bus, too?”

She nodded. Grabbing my coat and bag, I hurried to join the group – slowing, slipping between students, until I just happened to end up next to you.

“Hi, again.”

“Oh, hi!”

Mr. Bagshot, my Year 10 drama teacher, would have been proud. I looked you up and down with as much indifference as I could muster, then said:

“Sorry, what was your name?”

You laughed.

“I was about to ask you that, too. I’m Elijah.”

“Nice to meet you, Elijah. I’m Elizabeth.”

Your name held power. It was different, and for me, conjured up memories of one thing and one thing only. I tried to hold it in, knowing that of all the impressions I wanted to make, it wasn’t that, but I couldn’t quite help myself.

“Have you ever seen Lord of the Rings?”

The wrinkle of your brow told me that yes, you had, and yes, you’d already heard it before.

“Sorry,” I said, before you could respond. “It’s just…Elijah Wood? It made me think -”

“Yeah,” you said, smiling properly. “I know. He made a great hobbit.”

“You know he’s American, right? Though you can’t tell from the accent.”

There was a honk of a horn. Evie, standing on the bus steps, looking cross.

“Come on, Elizabeth! You’re holding us all up!”

I looked at you apologetically, then ducked my head and hurried forwards. As I climbed into the bus, Evie grabbed my arm and said: “Work first, remember? Isn’t that what you said earlier?”

Cheeks flushed, I watched the rest of the students board the bus. You sat with Lucas, as expected, but there was a girl with you too. As she turned around to look at you – blonde hair dangling across your seat – I felt a rush of frustration. That should have been me, sitting there. Talking about Elijah Wood and Lord of the Rings and my beloved Frodo. But instead I was at the back of the bus – working, working and working. And you?

Well, you were just travelling through.

I ticked your name off my list, wondering if I’d ever see you again. Probably not. It was another missed chance; another hopeless moment, where I’d once again tricked myself into thinking something could happen. But why would it? You were in a foreign country, and the last thing you were looking for was romance.

The bus drove away, leaving me with bittersweet thoughts.

2.

ELIJAH

They’d warned me, but still. From the moment I arrived, I could only think of one thing:

England was gray.

I wasn’t used to gray. Back home, it was white all the way – white from the snowfall in the winter, to the blossom hitting the trees in spring. There’d be some blue, too, on those summer days, where me and the twins would run through the sprinkler and then play tennis in the yard until we were hot enough to drop.

Even the airport was gray. Gray walls and gray pipes running across the ceiling, like we were in some factory plant. I’d followed the group from Arrivals, hoping that some of the other students knew where they were going, and by the time we reached the concourse, I’d already made up my mind. In the ten weeks I’d be spending in England, I’d better find some color.

I saw you a moment later, and my prayers were answered.

You were red. Red sweater, red shoes, and cheeks turning crimson from the cold. The temperature had dropped since we walked in, and I could feel a breeze on my back. I glared at the automatic doors, before turning back to the desk. There were three of you, now. Red sweaters lined up like gummy drops.

I don’t remember much of the conversation. I’d been awake for eighteen hours at that point, and I could barely remember my own name. There was a guy next to me, Lucas, from Detroit. He seemed to have a problem stopping himself from talking.

You told me your name was Elizabeth, but that wasn’t right. I remember thinking about it on the bus, watching the airplanes peel away into the sky and the highway blend into steel. Or maybe I’m just biased, because I know now, though I didn’t back then. Elizabeth was your outside name – the name you shared to protect yourself from the world. But inside, right at the heart, you were always, always Lizzy.

I had a fifth-grade teacher, named Ms. Elizabeth Whalley. She had big teeth and wide eyes like a rabbit. At recess, my friends and I made paper airplanes and tossed them into the sky, shouting Whalleeee at the top of our voices. It was the sound we liked, nothing else. The W and the Y pinging against each other like a rubber band. A few weeks later, we got called into the principal’s office and got a lecture about bullying, while Ms. Whalley stood in the corner with a Kleenex pressed to her nose. It was only when I explained about the name that the principal sighed and turned to her with one of those adult-only looks.

“Elizabeth, don’t worry yourself. They’re just playing around.”

She was an Elizabeth. Elizabeth was an adult’s name, a teacher’s name. She wore it like a second-hand dress, but you, from that very first day, wore it like a shield. Using it to introduce yourself, hiding behind the long zee and the syllables as if I hadn’t already been looking at your chestnut hair and eyes. Red, all over. Little Red Riding Hood, welcoming me to England.

I slept most of the bus ride. By the time we arrived at the campus, I got off with such a headache that I forgot to look for you and say goodbye. Another red-sweatered ambassador led me to my dorm, sheltered in a grey concrete cube with high-arched walls and the smell of burned toast.

“Don’t forget the welcome party,” he reminded me. “Just head downstairs and turn right. Eight o’clock.”

Even before I sat on the bed, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. And because it wasn’t mandatory – because I’d have ten weeks to figure things out and make friends – I found myself leaning back, eyes closing. There was no sheet or pillow. I’d ordered one, I was sure of it, but the thought of getting back up and finding it was way too much effort.

“I’ll deal with that in the morning,” I said aloud. “But for now…”

Right before I slept, I heard your name again. Eliz-a-beth. A girl from the airport with stars in her eyes, and a very, very nice voice. And I told myself -

If I remember anything tomorrow, I need to remember her name.

*

I saw you again the next day. You said later that it was Fate, which I didn’t agree with.

“Probability. I would have seen you at some point, I’m sure.”

I worked it out afterward. With you taking every work shift you could get, there was a 10 to 1 chance that you’d be allocated one the next day as well. But what I didn’t know at the time was that your second shift had been allocated especially to you. A presentation, delivered to all of us exchange students, which, after your year abroad, made you the perfect person to give it.

And the chances of that happening? I stopped working it out, after a while. All I knew was that it had happened and you were there, just as you’d been there when I was at the airport. Both of us trapped in the hazy lights of that concourse, feeling something but not knowing what.

“Hi, everyone,” you said, leaning against the lectern. “Welcome to the UK.”

When I first told my family about my semester abroad, they laughed.

“The UK?” Mom stopped chopping garlic. “I hope you’ve got room for an umbrella!”

“I wanted somewhere where they spoke English,” I said defensively. “And the campus seems nice.”

It was logical to me. I wanted to meet people, and in the ten weeks I’d be there, I didn’t have time to learn a language.

“But why there?” Grayson was already Googling. “It’s so modern. And ugly!”

“But the ducks!” Lucy snatched the phone, showing me a picture of three ducks on the grass. “They look so cute!”

“Boring.” Gray rolled his eyes. “Trust Elijah to pick the ugliest place on the planet.”

I glared at him, but he just stuck his finger up and laughed. He knew what I was thinking, though I didn’t say it.

I’m only going because of you.