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Authors: Radhika Sanghani

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9

“Would anyone like tea?” I asked.

There was silence. I stood up and leaned across my desk so I was facing my colleagues. “Guys, tea?” I repeated.

The three writers all ignored me. Hattie, the youngest, shook her head, but Jenna and Camilla didn't even bother to look up. I sighed to myself and walked through to the mini kitchenette alone. The more I tried to be friendly to the other office workers at the
London Mag
, the more they ignored me. Maybe if my next online date belonged to their Chelsea circle, I might get the occasional greeting.

I pulled out my phone as the kettle boiled. There had been no word from JT ever since I had abandoned him in the Holly and Ivy. Which was fair enough really. But there had also been a categorical silence from anyone semi-normal on OKCupid. Perhaps JT had sent round a warning email putting everyone off me—even though he was the one who'd bled on my face. I couldn't even find a sluttier selfie to attract the swarms to my profile.

I went to the search section of the site and selected my filters. I wanted someone over six foot, with a degree so we had stuff in common, and . . . ooh it would be nice if they spoke a foreign language. And worked in . . . finance/banking/real estate. Then they could afford to pay for my dinner.

I pressed search. Five results came up. They were all above the age of forty. Two were female. I sighed and deleted all my filters. Then I selected “aged 23–30” and “male.” Foreign languages and degrees would have to wait.

A couple of the men looked attractive. If only these guys would ask me out instead of all the creeps, but they never did. Unless . . . I asked them out first? It had worked for JT, and Emma was right—it didn't really feel like rejection when they were just pixels. Besides, they could be lying and secretly be seventy-year-old perverts.

Without giving myself a chance to change my mind, I tapped out a message to Ben84.

“Hey, how are you? Been on here long?”

It wasn't Pulitzer Prize–winning, but it wasn't like any of the men sent me well-crafted witty messages. I may as well just send the same message to multiple men. I'd sent it to eight different people when I felt someone hovering over my shoulder.

“Maxine,” I cried out. “Sorry, I . . . uh didn't notice you there. Would you like a tea?”

“Hmm, the kettle boiled about five minutes ago. What are you so engrossed in?” she asked, narrowing her carefully made-up eyes at me.

“Oh, it's um, nothing,” I mumbled. “Just personal messages, sorry, I shouldn't look at them at work.”

“It looked like a dating app to me,” she said. I stared at her in shock. Was she spying on me now? As if it wasn't enough that I worked unpaid fifty hours a week and acted as her personal assistant most of the time. “Well, don't look so shocked, Ellie. You're not the
only one using them—they're huge at the moment. I want to do a feature on them. Maybe you can collate your experiences as research for Camilla to write up.”

“Or I could write it myself,” I suggested boldly. This was my chance. I could write about JT, and go on more dates, and interview people using it. It would be my first proper feature. It was perfect for me, I could—

“No,” she said. “I'll get Camilla to message you about it later.” She poured the water I had just boiled into her mug and walked off.

•   •   •

“I'm so glad you're here,” I cried, as I sunk my head into Lara's fur scarf. “Work is so rubbish, we have mice at home and my date nose-bled on me.”

She pulled my head up by my ponytail. “Right okay, can you get out of my scarf, please,” she said.

“Sorry,” I mumbled and shifted away to sit on the chair next to her. “I'm just so tired.”

“Yeah, how are you, Lara? How is it being in your final year of uni? What's going on with Jez? Have you been on any more online dates?” she asked herself loudly.

“Fine, I'm sorry,” I sighed. “We'll start with you. What's up?”

“Ellie, I am on track to get a first in Law from one of the best universities in the country. I am attractive, smart and cool.”

“Um, where exactly is this going?”

“And yet, and yet, I am still semi-obsessed with a pathetic man called JEZ—which isn't even a real name by the way—who prefers weed and KFC to me. What the actual fuck is wrong with me?” She groaned and threw her head into her perfectly manicured hands.

I stroked her head sympathetically. She had a point. Jez was a waste of space who was so below Lara's league that it was embarrassing.

“Excuse me, please, can we get a bottle of the house red and a baked Camembert?” I called out to the waiter. “Actually—let's make that two.”

“Two bottles or two cheeses?”

“Cheese, obviously.” I turned back to Lara. “Anyway, maybe you're obsessed with him because . . . the sex is amazing?”

“Yeah, it is good that I come every time, but that's only when he is sober enough to get it up.”

“Why don't you just end it, Lar?” I asked. “We've been through all these pros and cons a million times and each time we just get to the same conclusion—you're so, so,
so
much better than him.”

“I know,” she sighed. “But we aren't exclusive, so I can date other people and I'm not technically tied down to him, which makes me think that it's not a big deal and I may as well have fun with him while I'm waiting for someone better to come along.”

“It does sound perfect,” I admitted. “But I'm guessing you're so involved with him that you don't actually feel that single?”

“Exactly,” she cried. “I'm so hung up on him that I don't even want to see other guys and, whenever I try and stop seeing him, I miss him too much to last more than a week.”

I stroked her arm sympathetically. “I'm sorry, it's such a shit catch-22. Hey, is this cashmere?”

“My mum's. Yeah, it's shit. I guess I just have to resign myself to a life of depressing misery and . . .”

“Occasional fantastic sex?”

“Exactly.” She sighed loudly. “Anyway, your turn. Mice and Maxine?”

“Don't even,” I groaned. “She is awful and is apparently now spying on my dating life—but refuses to let me write about it.”

“She never lets you write anything,” said Lara. “Why is this such a surprise?”

“It's not, but it doesn't make it any less shit.”

“Have you stood up to her?”

“Yes! It's so frustrating. I don't know what to do any more. It's my own catch-22,” I said woefully.

“How's it going with Ollie?”

“What about him?” I asked innocently.

“Ellie, every time I mention his name you basically swoon. Everyone—including Ollie—knows you love him.”

“Oh fuck,” I said, feeling the blood rush from my face. “Really?”

“Yes, you idiot. Even Yomi probably knows.”

“Ugh, whatever,” I said, deflated by the mention of the girlfriend. “It's not like it's even an option. It's just a stupid crush; it doesn't mean anything. I just like looking at his face.”

“I reckon you like a bit more than his face.”

“I may have bumped into him in the hallway a few times in his towel, post-shower.”

“Was his body as good as you'd imagined?”

“Let's just say I've now changed my shower schedule to increase my chances of bumping into him topless. Anyway, Miss Three-Dates-In-A-Month, I need your help with my dating life.”

“Oh yeah, Emma told me all about you camping out in the loo, post-blood.” She grinned.

“Great, glad to hear my love life is providing so much entertainment for you all. But, seriously, Lara, I need a second date. I feel like everyone's lives are amazing and mine isn't just crap—it's, like, PG-rated.”

“I guess,” she said. “But you do have a tendency to get a bit, um, not obsessed per se, but . . . stuck on certain things. I'm sure it will happen naturally if you let it.”

I stared at her blankly. “Lara. Do we sit back and wait for jobs to offer themselves to us? Do we wait to win the lottery? No. We apply for jobs, we earn salaries and we take action. I'm not going to
wait
for some guy to ask me out on a date and have sex with me—
I'm going to find as many men as I can and make it happen for myself. In fact,” I said smugly, “I've already messaged eight men on OKC today. So, I'm sure I'll have another date coming up soon.”

“Show me, show me,” she cried, grabbing my phone from my hands. “Oh wow, you've got a reply from one of them. Ben84. He looks attractive.”

“You don't need to sound so surprised.”

“And he works in graphic design, has a degree in philosophy, and he's five foot eleven. Not bad.”

“Are these the first things you look at? You don't read their sections?”

“Course not,” she said. “I don't care what their favorite books and TV shows are. I just want to know their job, height, background and looks, obviously. Online dating is just like online shopping; you just scroll through looking at pictures and specs. Then you pick one and you either like it or return it. Easy. Oh good, the cheese is here.”

By the end of my evening with Lara, I had a date lined up with Ben84. We were going to go for drinks in Islington.

I leaned my head against the glass window of the night bus and closed my eyes. It had been amazing catching up with Lara, discussing every miserable detail of our lives and flicking through men on the app. The only thing was I hadn't really been able to tell her that I was, well, nervous. Like, I was obviously really excited to go on this second date, and Ben84 did look promising. There was a strong chance I'd end up back at his.

It was all what I wanted, but it was also kind of terrifying. As fun as it was planning one-night stands, it kind of reminded me of the time I tried to lose my virginity to a stranger in a club and secretly knew it was a horrible idea. The idea of being totally naked in front of some random guy was terrifying. He'd see my lumpy body, my awkward tan lines, my pubes . . . What if he judged me? Worse, what if he rejected me?

Lara and Emma didn't really ever have to worry about that—they were both gorgeous in that typical, generic way. They waxed their pubes and they were size fours. If you got them naked in bed, you'd be getting exactly what you expected. With me, it was different. I could scrub up okay, but nothing could hide my cellulite and dark body hair when I was spreadeagled on a bed. I was scared of getting to a guy's bed and having him look at me with disappointment.

I tried to imagine what the girls would say. They'd just tell me I was ridiculous and looked fine naked, which is why I never told them this. I didn't need to hear that standard rubbish girls always spouted at each other to make them feel better. Besides, it was too embarrassing even for me to admit that I was also secretly frightened I had a gross vagina that smelled weird.

It was fine—I could cheer myself up. Boys didn't care about all that crap, right? They were just excited to have a naked girl opening her legs up for them. It was what I wanted too, for a number of reasons. Like . . .

1)
I've only been waiting my whole life for a chance to date and have multiple men and fun sex and actually
live
my life.

2)
Everyone does it. Can finally see what all the fuss is about.

3)
Haven't had an orgasm during sex yet. This is ideal way to have lots of sex and try out different things without being embarrassed.

4)
Boys do it without a stigma, so I should too. Feminists would approve.

5)
If it all goes to shit, I can run out of his house in the morning and will never have to see him again.

I breathed out in relief. I was right—the pros of having one-night stands were endless. Con-wise there were hardly any issues.

1)
May fall in love with them. But—very unlikely. Especially if stranger off the Internet. Will hardly know them.

2)
If they don't call me again I might get sad. Fact of life—bad things happen. You'll get over it, Ellie. It's not like you haven't been rejected before.

3)
Might feel dirty and slutty. Fine, but remember—other people think being slutty is bad but you can choose the meaning you want it to have. Slutty is not necessarily a bad thing.

Five pros against three cons. I felt better. Fuck my body anxiety—I could just turn the lights off. It looked like Ben84 was going to get lucky.

10

The last few days had passed in a blur. Maxine was still a bitch, Emma was with Sergio, Will was off shagging anyone and everyone, and Ollie was up in Bristol visiting Yomi. But it was finally Friday afternoon and I was going to meet Ben84. The only problem was that I wasn't sure where.

I pulled out my phone, hoping it would shed some light on where I should be in the next couple of hours. Thank God—there was a text from Ben. We had finally progressed from OKC messages to real-life texting, AKA the second base equivalent of online dating.

•   •   •

Hey, so I know you have a bar in Angel in mind. But do you want to just meet me in the Waterstones bookshop on the high street first? I'll be in between Wittgenstein and Jung. 6pm.

What. The. Fuck.

He not only wanted to meet inside a bookshop, instead of outside the tube station or at the bar like a normal person, but he was going to be in . . . the artist aisles? Who even were these people?! I Googled them.

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.

Ah, right. So Wittgenstein was a philosopher, not an artist. I was pretty sure Jung was another kind of communist like Marx but I Googled just to double check.

Carl Gustav Jung, often referred to as C. G. Jung, was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology.

Oops. Well, at least now I knew he was definitely going to be in the philosophy aisles. It kind of made sense because he studied it at university, but on no other level did I understand it. At all. It had to be a joke—no one could be that pretentious. I forwarded it on to Emma for a second opinion. She called back.

“Emma,” I whispered, “what the hell does it mean? Does he actually want me to go to the philosophy aisles of the bookshop to meet him?”

“Oh God, are you hiding in the loos at work again, Ellie? You can talk to people from your desk you know?”

“Um, maybe at your chilled, cool PR firm, but not here. Anyway, Ben's message. What the actual fuck?”

“He's got to be kidding. No guy would ever write that seriously.”

“But his pictures were quite hipster. He wears thick glasses and skinny jeans.”

Emma scoffed. “Babe, Justin Bieber fans wear hipster glasses. It means nothing anymore.”

“Maybe, but either way, what do I reply to him?”

There was a long pause and then a loud shriek. “Ohmigod, I've got it. I'm a genius. You need to text him back with something equally as witty.”

“Right. That's all very well in theory except for the teeny tiny obstacle that—”

“That you're not witty?” she interrupted. “Do not worry, my young friend. I've got it.” The line went dead.

I sighed and got up off the closed loo seat and walked out of the cubicle. Maxine was standing there with her arms crossed.

“So, this is where you hang out on your lunch break, is it?” she asked, raising her recently threaded brows.

“Um, I just needed to make a quick personal call,” I mumbled.

“Yes, I gathered,” she said. “So your next date is potentially a hipster who wants to meet in the philosophy section of a bookstore?”

I stared at her in silence. She arched her eyebrows higher and I coughed on air. “Um, yes,” I eventually managed.

“That, Ellie, is very
London Mag
,” she said, with a small smile. “You're going to write about it for me. A column. The single life. I want miniscule details, I want embarrassing facts and I want honesty. Brutal, painful ‘ohmigod her life is horrendous' honesty. Got it? And can you shut your mouth, please, you look like a goldfish.”

Obediently, I closed my mouth. Then I opened it again. “Hang on, I . . . haven't got it. You want me to write a column? On being single in London and dating?”

She nodded. “Exactly. Now do I have to repeat myself anymore or are we all good here?”

“Um . . . how many words?” I asked.

She grinned. “Finally, a real question. Four hundred words for each Friday. So I want it by Tuesday so you have time to edit it. Make it funny. We can call it ‘NSFW,' like ‘Not Safe For Work.' It'll be fun. You can start with this philosophy date, or the one that nose-bled on you last week.”

I choked again. “How . . . how do you know that?”

“Please, Ellie, I know every tiny little thing that goes on in this office. And next time you want to complain about me, please don't use the office email system. Your personal one will suffice for those purposes I think, don't you?”

I nodded mutely and she turned around on her Russell & Bromley brogues.

Had Maxine just given me a column? To write about myself? I stared at myself in the mirror and grinned maniacally. I was basically a twenty-two-year-old version of Carrie Bradshaw without the shoes or annoying habits. Everything was finally going my way—except had Maxine mentioned money? Oh fuck it; writing experience was probably more important than a salary anyway.

This was amazing. I could have a cool anonymous column, write all about my dates in total detail, and then I'd be a mysterious insta-celeb with a portfolio of past work. She'd have to pay me eventually and I could stop feeling guilty about spending my mum's money. I looked at myself in the mirror, smiling at the frizzy-haired reflection. Who knew I'd turn out to be so successful?

I pulled out my phone to send a message to the girls. I was going to send one to my mum too, but then decided I'd better save that for when the salary was confirmed.

The phone beeped immediately with a reply from Emma. I opened it with a grin, waiting for the inevitable emojis and exclamation marks.

•   •   •

6pm sounds good. You'll find me in between
Twilight
and
The Hunger Games
.

I laughed out loud. That was definitely more useful than a congratulatory message. Maybe I should just forward it on to Ben. Hopefully he would see that it was an obvious joke and, if not, it would just be great fodder for my new anon column.

He replied within seconds.

•   •   •

Ha ha. We'll see who comes to find who first . . .

Right. Well, that didn't shed any light on where we were actually meeting. And what if
Twilight
was actually really far away from
The Hunger Games
? Which one would I stand near?? Why the hell was dating so
complicated
?

Oh fuck it. We lived in a modern age and, if he couldn't find me next to some popular teen fiction, he could damn well call me. Besides, I was going to be an actual, published writer.

•   •   •

I was standing in Waterstones and had no idea where Ben was. This was the most humiliating rendezvous I had ever experienced. I was so stressed that even the thought of my new column couldn't cheer me up. My day-to-night outfit—a midi-length black dress with ankle boots and leather jacket—no longer felt sexy. I'd gone between the philosophy and teen fiction aisles so many times now that I had rivers of sweat dripping down my cleavage.

I pulled my phone out hoping he had messaged to say exactly where he was but . . . nothing. I walked over to the Philosophy section again and stood there with my arms crossed. If he wanted to go on this date, he could come and find me right here.

Five minutes later, I was back in the teen fiction section searching for him. It was six fifteen p.m. and I was no closer to finding my date. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I whirled around and finally came face-to-face with Ben84.

“Ellie?” he asked. He had floppy brown hair, was exactly my height—which meant the five foot eleven thing was a definite lie—wore cute black-rimmed glasses and was dressed in gray jeans with a checked shirt. He looked relatively attractive but, more importantly, was not seventy years old.

“Hey,” I said nervously. “You found me.”

“Yeah. Sorry about the whole bookshop thing. I just saw on your profile that you like reading so I thought it could be cute. I didn't really think about the logistics though so that backfired a bit.”

I smiled back at him with a new rush of affection and hoped he was thinking that I looked exactly like my pictures too.

“You know,” he said, “you don't look like your profile picture.”

The smile dropped off my face. “Sorry?”

“No, don't worry; you look better than your pictures. More . . . my style, I guess.”

“Right,” I said slowly. “Cheers?”

“No worries. So shall we go to this bar then?”

“Yes, definitely,” I said, resisting the urge to wipe the sweat away from my cleavage. “Let's go.”

•   •   •

“Well, hello there.” Pete-the-barman grinned. “You're back. And there's another one.”

“Another what?” asked Ben.

I let out a bark of laughter. “Oh, nothing. I was here last week with some friends and met Pete.”

“Cool. I'm Ben. Nice to meet you.”

Pete reached out across the bar to shake Ben's hand and gave me a not-so-subtle wink. I rolled my eyes and dragged Ben across to the other side of the bar.

“Let's just order here,” I said. “What are you getting?”

“Just a pint, I reckon. You?”

“A glass of white wine, I think.”

“Okay,” he said, and leaned across to order our drinks. I looked around the bar idly and found myself staring at Pete. I couldn't figure out if I was attracted to him or not. He was definitely flirty, but was he actually good-looking? His dreads looked kinda dirty. “Here you go,” said Ben.

“Oh God, thanks. Sorry, I was totally in my own world there. Shit, have you paid?” I asked.

“Yep, don't worry about it,” he said, as I started reaching for my purse.

“Sorry, I didn't even notice. I'll definitely get the next ones,” I promised.

“Cool,” he said. “Cheers.” We clinked glasses and then he looked at me expectantly. “So, tell me about yourself.”

“Wow, okay. Um, that's a pretty big question. I don't even know where to begin.”

“How about you just start with what you do for a living, and what you like doing in your spare time, and all that standard crap,” he suggested.

“Excuse me, Ben, are you saying you didn't read any of that ‘standard crap' when it was all nicely laid out on my profile?” I asked in mock-horror.

He grinned. “Okay you've got me. I just saw your picture and figured that was all that mattered. Have you been on any dates from it before then?”

Should I tell him that on my first attempt someone bled on me two meters from where we were standing, or should I pretend I'm a total novice? Honesty. Always total honesty.

“Just one, but it was pretty uneventful,” I said. “No spark. What about you?”

“Yeah, I've been on quite a few. Well, not that many, but it's just a really cool way to meet people, you know? And it's chilled. There's not that many expectations and you can kind of just see how things go.”

“Yeah, I get that.” I nodded. “So, you work as a graphic designer right? And how old are you?”

“Oh, so now it's your turn for the twenty questions, eh? But, yes, I'm a graphic designer. Have been for a few years. I'm twenty-nine now. Studied philosophy at uni and, as you can probably tell, I'm still quite keen on it.”

“Wittgenstein?”

“And Jung, obviously,” he said with a grin, pronouncing it with a
y
. I silently congratulated myself for not having attempted to say it. “How about another drink?”

“Sure. Can you make mine a large?”

A few hours and too many glasses of wine later, I was kissing Ben as though my life depended on it. I saw Pete watching us out of the corner of my eye, but, after snogging Ben for about fifteen minutes, I realized Pete had disappeared.

“Ellie, do you . . . do you want to come back to mine?” asked Ben shyly.

Oh my God. It was happening. I was about to have my first ever ONS. Was I wearing matching underwear?

“Sure,” I said. “Cab? Night bus? What works for you?”

He looked a bit taken aback then grinned. “A cab will get us there quicker. Let's go outside and I'll call us one.”

“Perfect. I'm just going to run to the loo first, and then I'll come upstairs and meet you there. Plan?”

“Yeah, great,” he said. “So long as you don't do a runner!”

I smiled weakly. “Would I ever do something like that?”

He got up and left the bar. I rushed to the loo and inspected my reflection. I had done smoky-eye makeup earlier, which meant that the more it smudged, the more it just looked like it was the effect I was going for. My hair was getting a bit poufy so I pulled it into a tight bun, and put on another layer of lipstick. My lips were chafed from rubbing against Ben's stubble, but I didn't care. Because I was about to have
sex
. With a semi-stranger. In his flat in . . . I made a mental note to ask him where he lived so I could text Emma and Lara. Safety first.

As I exited the loo, I bumped into Pete. “Oh hey,” I said.

“I see this date is going noticeably better than the last,” said Pete. “Although, again you're in the loo and he's not here. Do you make a habit of abandoning your dates?”

“Never! What an audacious sushestion,” I cried. Maybe I was drunker than I'd realized.

“Well, I'm glad your date's gone,” he said. “Because I wanted a moment alone with you.”

Oh God. Was he . . . coming on to me? Could I kiss two men in one night—especially with my date upstairs waiting to take me home and fuck my brains out? I felt a grin spread uncontrollably across my face. Of course I could.

“You did?” I asked him, trying to make my eyes wide and sexy.

“Yeah,” he said nervously. I opened my lips apart slightly and angled my head to the side, so he would know I was willing to let him kiss me. He looked straight into my eyes and leaned towards
me. This was it—I was going to snog the barman while my date ordered a cab. This was such great material for Never Have I Ever. Shame it hadn't happened in time for university.

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