It always happens. Sometimes it comes early enough, to stop you doing something stupid, but usually the thought only occurs to you around three seconds after it’s too late, as the door clicks shut behind you and you are in an unfamiliar hallway, with an unfamiliar man, whose hands are getting very familiar with you. “Are you sure about this?” your head says now, far too late, as he earnestly leads you toward his bedroom – a magnolia cell furnished with pieces nobody would ever buy for their own house, the air of landlord’s “this will do” hanging heavy around them.
Yes, now is when you start to regret it, as you let him push you onto the bed and make advances up your T-shirt, still damp from the last drop of beer you spilled on yourself. I shouldn’t have come, you tell yourself as his breath – excited, heavy, hot – hits your ear. That last drink was a mistake, it made me think I wanted to be here, in West Hampstead, with this boring man who can’t kiss properly. The alcohol makes you reimagine the comfortable solitude of your flat and the satisfaction of shutting the rest of the world out as misery and loneliness. Tonight, your body says, I must feel the touch of another human.
But maybe it isn’t so bad after all, you tell yourself, as he relieves you of your jeans. After all, it is nice to be wanted, isn’t it? And he very clearly does want you – you can see exactly how much by now. Maybe it can go somewhere, maybe he’s the one who can fill your lonely nights and stave off the despair for however long it lasts. You can overlook the way he insisted on sitting next to you in the bar rather than opposite you, his slogan T-shirts, and the way he pronounced “schedule”. None of it matters, because at least you have someone who wants you. So you show willing, kiss back, touch his bollocks through the material of his underwear – AussieBum, groundbreaking – and make appreciative noises to make him think you’re into it. But all you can think is about how to get home from West Hampstead. You’ll have to sleep here now, won’t you? A taxi will be a fortune. What time do the trains start running? Is he going to keep you up all night with this drearily clumsy attempt at taking your underwear off? You then realise he is at least expecting one of you to ejaculate so you decide, in the long run, it’s better off if it’s him because then you don’t owe him anything, but he seems insistent on doling out some fellatio – you bristle as you hear him lick his lips before he starts – so you have lie back and think of England. And you do, you think of it all: how much you hate Harrogate, the last time you had fish and chips, how much you spend on your Oyster. A million random thoughts whirl round your head as you try to focus on anything at all other than the fact he uses his teeth too much. This isn’t going anywhere, so you switch things up and focus on him – you’re not putting it in your mouth, though. You have to draw the line somewhere.
And yes he really did want you, because it is mercifully brief, and as he grips your arm for that final time, you feel that you’ve won, even if you are trapped here overnight with a man you never want to see, or have touch you again. You won, because you will learn – West Hampstead will teach you a lesson you shan’t forget. Ask it earlier, the question. Ask it before that seventh beer, before you tumble into that cab or sit awkwardly next to one another on the Tube, brimming with promise yet all to aware of the disappointment to come. Remember, your brain tells you as you creep out of the house once you hear the first train rumble by, remember West Hampstead, always.
Weeks later – who are you kidding, days – you are on another date, with another man. He has kissed you; it was sloppy. He asks you back to his, the streetlights burn the backs of your eyes and you repeat the mantra to yourself until you end up crying it out loud. “West Hampstead!” you exclaim, as his fingers interlock with yours. But it is too late, you are in the cab, the wetness of his mouth reminding you of the slobbering of the man from West Hampstead, your balls tingle in dread at the recollection. Not again, your brain says, when will you learn? And the shops flash by, and the traffic gets to where it’s going, and you see where you’re headed. Back, back again to be schooled by inconvenience and unwelcome frotting. Back, back, back. Back to West Hampstead.