Feedback. Being told what you're great at and what you can improve on is always a gift. Unless you are trapped at a table with an ex-boyfriend you haven't seen in close to a year. And he is majoring on your 'room for improvement' using as many working examples as possible.
So the scene is set in Marylebone at the Chiltern Firehouse, London's restaurant de rigueur these days. This pleases me, as I am looking forward to dining at this much lauded, hard to get into venue. But the reality hits me as I sit listening to a catalogue of my faults that no setting is going to make this meal go any quicker or salve my ever-bruising ego.
Why on earth would I subject myself to this I hear you asking. Well, after a messy break up where we agreed to no contact, I had received a message saying he wanted to clear the air and thought the dust may have settled enough for us to do so. Some two weeks before I was due to visit London on a planned trip. Thinking sufficient time had passed I was amenable to slipping this into my itinerary.
I agreed to meet up on the basis that I thought a) I was over it and b) he was going to apologise for being a complete douche bag. How wrong I was. Rewinding a little for insight.
When I fist met James I was attending a job interview for a role reporting to him. When he came to reception to fetch me, all I saw was a gorgeous man bathed in sunlight swimming in dust motes as if to highlight how angelic and heavenly he was. He said to me in that moment "lets go to a coffee shop" rather than the non-windowed meeting room that had undoubtedly been booked for our meeting. As a woman, I had taken that as a sure sign that he too had felt the magical connection I had, as time had slowed to a crawl and metaphorical fireworks had exploded over his head.
As we sipped our Starbucks coffee I refused to think he just wanted a break from the office. We bonded. The fact that I got offered a job only served to heighten my infatuation rather than dull it. You can't be attracted to your boss before you've even started can you?
I remember pre-planning my first day outfit. A striking green dress that he tells me later was a severe departure from the staid black suit I had interviewed in. I manufactured needing to see him on a regular basis and even timed my morning start time to coincide with his so we could potentially ride the elevator together. Sad. Maybe even slightly obsessive.
I asked him out for lunch after a few weeks and was delighted to realise that he had rescheduled meetings in order to make the day and time I had suggested. Maybe he wanted to ensure his star hire was happy. My take was he was feeling the same pull I was. Of course.
After three months of working for someone that I probably should have asked for a date rather than a job, I figured I had to do something. The daydreaming and scenario running was driving me to distraction. I decided to ask him out for dinner on the pretence we needed to review my performance and get to know each other better. He accepted willingly enough. I proposed The Clove Club in Shoreditch.
He was there before I arrived. We had a drink in the bar before moving to the table. We talked about transformation. Change. Business Improvement. I smiled throughout the yawn-worthy dialogue as I watched the clock behind him moving around to 8pm. I had been restricting my wine intake and ensuring my chatter was appropriate as we made our way through three courses. Before I had a chance to profess undying love and the idea that we date and I find a new job, we were ushered off the table back into the crowded bar area as the restaurant flipped our dining spot.
The maître de was apologetic as the limited space offered jostling-standing-room only. They suggested we decamp to "Happiness Forgets", a Hoxton cocktail bar within striking distance, so we did. Move bars that is, not forget joy. During a few cocktails we switched from talking shop and my attraction to the original demi-god that had appeared that first day only amplified.
We laughed our way until they kicked us out, before finding a bar down the street that would serve us gin and tonics. I may have been trying to get him drunk enough that he might admit his feelings for me, saved by the fact that I was on holiday for a week following and did not need to see him in the office any time soon. We both realised it was home time as quick time check confirmed we were in the wee small hours.
As a black cab drove us through trendy east London on the agreement that I would drop him off in Soho before heading home, he suddenly urged the taxi driver to stop in Smithfield. There was a club there still serving drinks with "just our kind of music". He dragged me out of the taxi, which I saw as a positive sign, when I thought I had been making all the moves.
We found a booth in the corner to put our bags down so we could fight for a place on the heaving dance floor free on encumbrances. I requested water knowing that as the little hand passed 2am I was not going to be proud of anything I did beyond this point. As if I could lay claim to the same for any hour before this.
We danced and laughed before taking a seat to breathe. I looked at him and realised this man, as my boss and the man that signed my time sheets, was never going to advance on me. I wanted to act on the chemistry I felt. I asked him if he felt it too. At the first sign of yes, I lunged. We spilled out on the pavement after the club shut, trying unsuccessfully to part ways to get home to our respective houses. Not that we are Montague and Capulet but houses none the less.
I woke up the next day knowing that he was not going to be pleased with this lapse in judgment on either of our parts. I, on the other hand, was more romantic and very definitely of the mind that I would quit my job for an amazing man. A good job was easier to find than a great guy.
He ignored my messages, and me, for the week I was off work. In a fit of rage, after hoping that time may actually allow us to communicate freely, I asked him to meet up with me on the weekend, before I returned to work. I couldn't go back to that environment with no clarity, and as yet, unmitigated attraction.
We convened in Richmond station. Me in my shortest moderately work appropriate dress with heels. I could see as he greeted me he knew why I had come. As if there was any doubt. We wandered down to the river and stopped for a drink at the Slug and Lettuce, a ridiculously named chain bar on the waterfront.
After some niceties, we got to the crux of the matter. He was emphatic that his job was worth more than a causal dalliance. I was indignant, telling him that it was disrespectful to doubt my feelings for him. I cared less about the role than I did about him. He was unequivocal. I smiled with defeat, realising it was a no win situation.
I told him I must get back to the train station. He argued that it was worth the time to walk along the towpath of the Thames. As we walked our hands joined naturally. As we meandered along the path, we passed an ice-cream truck. We stopped to get cones and continue along our way. We doubled back as the light started fading, to find ourselves on the bank of the river. We lay next to each other on the grassy bank, both savouring the earth at our backs and the summer fragrances abound.
I smiled and looked at him with all the seduction I could muster. I watched as an array of conflicting thoughts crossed his mind and his face. "For fuck sake I am 42, why should I be resisting this?" he wondered out loud. Instead of answering, I deliberately and noticeably just inched myself closer. Eyes hooded under lids that were welcoming a kiss at any time.
He took the bait. And as our lips touched the chemistry was palpable. Well, in my consciousness anyway. Here we were behaving like teenagers when the next day we had to be colleagues, or more accurately I was his subordinate.
Anyway, the whole thing did not end well as he did not wish to jeopardise his station at work or let me leave the company. By the time we didn't work together it was too late. We spent some months trying to recover that initial attraction with mixed results. Maybe it is the forbidden fruit that tastes so sweet. The relationship we did have was fraught with miscommunication and arguments. We both clearly fancied each other but it was hard to progress from colleagues to lovers without arguments referencing work situations. Not fun or sexy.
I was impatient for something serious to evolve given I had been invested since day one. He, on the other hand was taking some convincing and wasn't really willing to add me into his life as much more than spare time company. A commodity that was scarce in his life. What rankles most is that James turned out to be the amazing guy I thought he was just after I accepted a job on another continent. It seemed he was finally ready for a serious commitment. The irony. We tried long distance for a few months, which was about as torturous as it had been working together. I had really wanted him to beg me not to go when I knew - just like the fantasy of our office romance - was not going to happen.
In the comedy of errors that typified our relationship, I really didn't see that anything but divine timing was to blame. It had been horrible to end but I think an "amicable break-up" is an oxymoron. Or perhaps only achievable for robots, frontal lobotomy patients and narcissists. I certainly did not think the various issues between us were purely down to me as James was at pains to have me believe. The list of misdeeds was lengthy and the evaluation was so thoughtful it seemed rehearsed. I guess I have to concede the guy had always been thorough in his work performance appraisals, I just did not expect one for our heart affair.
Alas, another life lesson: when the past calls, let it go to voicemail. It doesn't have anything useful to say.