what women want: London edition

I’m writing this in the crypt (technically The Cafe in the Crypt) of St Martin in the Fields, in Trafalgar Square.

They have free wireless internet now, and a fancy glass elevator, two features they lacked when I was here in 1994 – half my life ago or a little more, but barely an eye blink to this C16th cellar.

The reason I’m blogging from this particular cafe, rather than any other of the myriad cafes with free wireless in central London, is that on a gorgeous April day I came here with Winston (the school trip chaperon) and Martin, who… well I’ll explain in a minute.

What women want, you see: they want – or we want – or I want – special attention.

BACKSTORY: I was 15 when I first came to London – a nerdy, hyper intellectual, socially clueless maniac, devoted already to Monty Python, Douglas Adams, and Fry and Laurie. My favorite English teacher led the trip during spring break, and I had saved up all year to pay for it.

On the first day, all of us students sat in the meeting room, giddy with jet lag, and Martin came in. Our guide for the duration of the trip. I remember with crystalline clarity the moment when he handed me my itinerary. He was tall – 5’11”, 6′ – with shoulder length curly black hair in a ponytail at the nape of his neck, and he wore glasses and he radiated Smart and Curious. His black wingtips had silver buckles instead of laces. I later learned that he was 24 and he had a Masters degree from LSE.

In an instant, I stepped joyfully off a cliff and fell into the kind of obsessive, sustained crush that can only be First Love.

It all could have faded very quickly, the short-lived passion of an intense and persistent teenager.

But. Special attention, you see.

A few examples, not inclusive:

At Stratford, we saw a Shakespeare play (of course); there was typical teenager melodrama about the tickets – who wanted to sit next to whom etc – but I just took my ticket and left everyone to sort it out. I sat in my seat and waited for everyone to sort themselves out. I didn’t care who sat next to me.

Who do you think ended up with the seat next to mine?

Oh yes he did. And I felt soooo special. So favored.

The last night, I sat in the stairwell of the dormitory where we were staying, with Martin and Kendra the Cheerleader. Pretty, privileged, popular Kendra, next to nerdy, poor, social bottom feeder me. I was telling some story – I totally forget what it was – and Kendra interrupted me. Told some story of her own. Martin let her finish and said, “Oh,” then turned to me and said, “You were saying?”

Never, never, never before in my life had someone wanted to pay attention to me rather than to the pretty girls, the popular girls, the girls who bought their clothes new at the mall, not second-hand at the Goodwill, the girls who went to the ice rink, not the library. Never before had I felt that kind of preferential attention. That moment lives with breathtaking vividness in my memory, brings tears to my eyes even now, even here in the basement of a church, because of the immeasurable gift of attention from a person I admired.

To any one reading this story for tips: note that it his attention was not unctuous or invasive. He was not moving in on me, paying attention to me in order to get something from me. He just seemed to think I was worth listening to. He took me seriously. I can think of nothing sexier.

The next morning, the last morning, when I was standing in heart-broken misery at having to leave, waiting for the bus to take us to the airport, he came over to me and gave me a Pogues tape. We had talked about the Pogues and here he was giving me this thing, this goodbye present. A gift. For me. He remembered what we had talked about, and wanted ME to have something. I listed to that tape over and over and over again for a year.

I have no idea why all of that happened. But the special attention just HOOKED me.

Two years passed, during which time we wrote letters – actual letters (I still have them somewhere, I think) – and gradually the crush morphed into a kind of neutered idolatry, without lust or possessiveness, just a kind of adulatory hero-worship, divorced from romance.

And in 1996, I visited again. Another school trip.

My parents did not want me to meet up with Martin again, and neither did my teacher. She didn’t like him – I still don’t know exactly why, but in retrospect I admit that if I were in charge of a weirdo 17 year old girl who wanted to meet up with a 26 year old man, I would have a very great many reservations.

And that brings me to St Martin in the Fields. We sat in this cafe, Martin and me and Winston the sturdily polite chaperon, and Martin showed us photos from his recent trip to Egypt. We visited the British Museum too, and the National Gallery. It was all profoundly chaste, intellectual, and restrained. Yet I remember it with that same glittering clarity because of the delicious novelty of being attended to, being taken seriously. Being the focus of special attention.

We wrote letters for years, with decreasing frequency, and eventually transitioned into email. He’s married and has a couple kids now. Seems happy. I’ll bet he’s a great dad.

When I teach about relationships, I say that from being attended to, being given attention, we learn that we are worth being attended to. It’s one of the gifts we give each other in relationships. When children get it from their parents, they learn self-esteem – it’s something Kendra and her peers got plenty of, and I with my problematic older brothers, maybe got less of.

Special attention. Listening with interest. Taking her seriously.