At some point in my university career I found myself in an ill-considered relationship with a girl from ARU, whom for the purpose of this post I will call Melissa. We had met in a club, danced together, swapped numbers and become an item — the only time in my life I have seen this relationship trajectory actually happen, which should have been a warning sign from the very beginning. It was the year I had a breakdown and nearly failed out of uni altogether. For her part, Melissa was in the first year and going through a long-drawn-out identity crisis, in which our coupledom played a brief but necessary part. Neither of us was really at our best.
On Valentine's Day, Melissa invited me to her flat for a romantic evening together. The place was rented from her university, a unit with four absurdly tiny bedrooms and one shabby kitchen that she shared with three rugby-playing male students. To be scrupulously honest, I don't know that they played rugby, but they each had the physique and they moved through the corridors in a scrum. The building had been put up in the 1980s, before insulation was discovered, and it was very cold.
"I know you're a vegan, so I got this as a starter!" Melissa beamed, waving a packet of instant pasta in cheese sauce. Not wanting to discourage her, I just smiled and made small talk while she stirred the pan. We ate it in the kitchen, interrupted at one point by the rugby players, whom she fondly shooed away. I have no recollection whatsoever what we actually spoke about. As such, this date was quite similar to all our other ones.
Next it was time to cook the main course. For me, the vegan, there was a saucepan of red lentils. For Melissa, an entire pre-roast chicken. She turned up the oven to the right temperature and stowed it away, and we got back to our strained attempts at flirtation.
After a while, the back of my throat started to itch.
Melissa's eyes began to water.
"Is it getting a bit smoky in here?" she asked. When she opened the oven door, the smoking grease of ten years of student cooks billowed out into the room, instantly shortening both our projected lifespans. Choking, we opened all the windows and fled into the corridor, where we and the rugby boys stood in single file for twenty minutes until visibility had improved.
By that time, our dinner was also ready. Melissa ate and enjoyed the whole chicken; I ate my lentils, which were high in protein, fibre and molybdenum (so says the internet).
The temperature in the kitchen was nearing zero and Melissa's flatmates were hungrily waiting for us to leave, so we quickly washed up and retreated to her room. By my calculations, her mattress wasn't actually big enough for one person to occupy it, let alone two, but there wasn't anywhere else to go or much left to talk about — our options for the rest of the evening were down to some awkward necking and a long night trying not to roll off the side of the bed or steal all the duvet.
We got up early the next morning because Melissa had lectures. I was achey and sleep deprived, and I walked all the way back to college as if on clouds. After all, I'd had a date for Valentine's Day!