I hermetically sealed my heart when I was 21. A terrible, catastrophic relationship with a narcissistic, vicious older man. One of my university lecturers. I was in love with him – totally, overwhelmingly, head over heels. Hah. Freudian error there. I wrote ‘head over hells’ at first attempt. Truer than I would like to admit.
It fell apart the day of my graduation. I sought him out in the marquee afterwards, head full of dreams, heart full of hope, that now I was officially A Real Grown Up, no longer under his tutelage, we could present ourselves to the world, no longer a grubby little secret to be concealed. In a few, short, ugly words he quickly disabused me of the notions I had. I was simply one of many, a plaything, to be toyed with, then discarded once I was in a position to be considered something close to an equal.
It hurt. Of course it did. I was bewildered, and retreated into myself. In the months that followed I vascillated madly between telling myself I was better off without him, before getting drunk and making tearful, pleading, humiliating phone calls to him. I couldn’t keep up that level of distress forever though, and gradually I came out of the darkness. Oddly, it helped to know I was part of a parade of undergraduates who had been seduced and then thrown aside. It wasn’t me he’d rejected. It was the time I’d reached in my life.
Nevertheless, I resolved never to become entwined in the strands of someone else ever again. I dated, obviously. Some of them were nice. If I’d not drawn down the blinds over my heart, I could have easily allowed myself to commit to at least one of them. To settle down to a cosy domesticity, two kids, a cat, weekly trips to Sainsbury’s, a fortnight away camping in Wales every summer. No alarms and no surprises. A normal life. But even within my stone cold interior, a little flicker of something else remained. Knowledge that life could be more than that. And maybe that’s why I kept myself aloof, perhaps keeping myself in storage for it.
And then of course it did happen. It had to. Until then, I could never understand how people could say ‘It just happened.’ Scornfully I would think ‘How? How can anything just happen? You made it happen, you took the decisions, you made your choices. Take some bloody responsibility.’ Harsh, perhaps, but I couldn’t understand how supposedly mature and intelligent people could claim to be swept away by emotion to the point that rationality went on sabbatical.
But it did just happen. Looking back, it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment where things changed. I can trace the development of it, of course. But there’s no clear crux where things collided. It was an organic development. A few chance meetings at professional events. Helping him out with a few quotes for stories he was working on (he was a journalist, I was working for a PR firm). Exchanging emails. Emails that drifted slowly and imperceptibly from professional to friendly. From friendly to flirtatious. From flirtatious to explicit. With photos.
Hindsight tells me I could have stopped at any point. Apparently. But at the time I didn’t feel I was capable of putting an end to it. More likely I just didn’t want to. I told myself I was going into it cleareyed, that I knew what I was doing. I told him and myself that I had no claim over him. That this was a purely physical thing, no feelings, no emotional involvement. I was happy to accept whatever he could spare me. I had no commitments, no one to hurt.
But he did. He had the cosy domesticity I’d rejected. The wife, the two children, the group of friends they exchanged dinner parties with, the two car insurance policy. They were happy, but it wasn't enough for him. He wasn't going to leave her. I knew it, and accepted it. Uncomplainingly I knew that evenings, weekends and school holidays were off limits, not to expect to hear from him, although sometimes the thrill of a text, sent from his car whilst he waited to pick his daughter up from ballet class, or from the kitchen of his house after everyone else had gone to bed.
But for the rest of the time, life was full of his stolen moments. His job meant he could claim to be chasing up a story, when in reality he was chasing up the stairs to my flat. We’d have the most passionate and intense sex, then lie wrapped around each other for hours, talking, the lines between a physical fling and a love affair gradually becoming less and less clear. We talked about our work, our lives. Online we shared music, poetry, art. I was less interested in him as a lover, and more as a man. He told me he felt the same. We were heading into dangerous territory.
Things had changed. Now he did text when he was in the bosom of his family. Throughout every day we exchanged messages. He sneaked away to email me on Christmas Eve, telling me how he thought of me, what he wanted from me. I replied breathlessly. I could see what was happening. I wasn’t in love with him, nor he with me. But I was teetering on the brink of caring about him. He mattered to me. I was missing him.
Christmas was always hard on my own. No point in dragging a tree three storeys up to my living room. No need for decorations when no one other than he and I would see them. As for special food, pah! Why exhaust myself cooking when I’d only ruin it and end up mindlessly eating a Pot Noodle instead? I was after all, the woman who had once burnt peas (don’t ask). Social media was full of happy families, doing happy Christmas things, and rosy cheeked children opening presents. About as far removed from my life as it was possible to imagine. Normally I’d unplug everything that connected me from the outside world, crack open a pile of books, and dive headfirst into a sea of gin. But this year felt different. If he’d taken the risk of contacting me on Christmas Eve, there would surely be more. Had to be more.
There was nothing more. I leapt up every time my phone pinged with a new email, text or tweet, frantically stabbing at the screen, heart racing for news from him. It was never him, and I’d subside, feeling foolish. Then I’d tell myself not to be unrealistic, and turn my phone off. Only to put it on again an hour later and to have the audacity to hope that there might be something, then deflate when there wasn’t. I tweeted a few times, hoping he’d see that I was around and respond. I checked his twitter feed, excitement coursing through me when I saw he’d retweeted something. But still nothing to me.
Despair. Bleak, grey despair. Something wasn’t right, and I didn’t know what. I couldn’t ask him directly. I couldn’t risk him getting behind the façade and seeing that quivering behind the Ice Queen exterior was someone who was tentatively reaching out to him. Instead I got drunk, felt maudlin and listened to music that made me cry. I kept the curtains closed, only going out to buy more gin, then coming home and howling along to John Grant’s GMF:
You think I hate myself, but it’s you I hate
Because you have the nerve to make me feel
In my own private hell, I entertained my demons, waiting and hoping to be exorcised. Break heart, I prithee, break. A heart that’s broken no longer works, can no longer inflict torment. But a heart that doesn’t love can’t be broken, la tristesse durera.
And now it’s a year later. I still don’t know what went wrong. I’ll never know what went wrong. Did his wife find out? Did he back off because he knew this was going to end badly? I’ll never know. But I have bruises that won’t heal. And self inflicted wounds always hurt the most.
Work of fiction, obviously. A cheery something for Christmas!