When I was nineteen, my biggest disappointment was that my boyfriend and I didn’t kiss in the rain, or slow-waltz on empty dancefloors. I didn’t have boxes full of tender love letters from him: he didn’t write one until our relationship was in its death throes. I found it one night, after he’d gone: hidden under my pillow, a strange bundle folded as tightly as a walnut. He had pressed the ink deep into the page.
He wrote, I know we can get through this.
I tried several times to break up with him. He said things like, ‘Don’t do this to me’, and, ‘I don’t want to be alone’. I think he thought I was cruel; I think his family did, too. Most nights I wondered if I was, as I lay awake listening to the sirens and the sound of glass smashing. It was not like at home where, past midnight, I could believe that I was the only person for miles, the streets silent and still, the windows shuttered. Here, the roads were like veins that pumped hot blood and did not stop for sleep.
The last time he visited, we had been to a Hallowe’en party in a basement beneath The World’s End. I’d wanted us to dress as matching skeletons: silver bones cheaply printed onto black fabric, worn over our skin and our muscles and our actual bones as though we’d turned ourselves inside out. I’d felt irritated when he said no, and irritated that I wasn’t skinny enough for the outfit anyway. I longed to be so skinny that people would call me a ‘waif’, but I also liked fried chicken.
When he danced, my new friends said, ‘You look embarrassed.’
I spent Christmas with my family, who I had barely seen for two years, because I’d always been with him. I sat on the end of my mum’s bed, finally gifted with long hours in which I could talk to her, and didn’t know what to say. On Christmas Eve, my school friends and I went to the same pub that we had gone to every Christmas Eve since we’d been able to get served. We hadn’t yet drifted apart like islands. I wore a short dress bought in the city, and red lipstick, where I’d mostly been seen in days-old jeans and Converse. Perhaps he saw me as I flounced between our table and the bar, as I batted away offers of drinks, but I didn’t notice him until the very end of the night, when we stood in the sodium glare of the kebab house. We shared some chips and arranged to meet the day after Boxing Day. He smiled, but maybe it was the beer.
We sat in his car on the side of the mountain, while rain hit the windows. I asked, false-brightly, if he had met anyone else, but I didn’t want to hear the answer unless it was No. He said, ‘I’ve been speaking to someone’.
Much later, my mum would say, It’s a compliment really: he had to find someone else because he couldn’t live without the love you gave him.
The night was end-of-the-year black, the black of burnt pages, of used matches, and not recognising the unfamiliar country roads he drove us down, I feared he would take me to a quiet spot and kill me: I’d read news stories; every day I had to ignore the statistics just to get through the day.
After twenty minutes, I recognised the edge of his village and he pulled onto the drive of his family home.
‘You wanted to go the long way round?’ I asked, but he didn’t reply. From the doorway he collected a bin bag containing everything I had left in his bedroom: a thin cardigan, magazines, a toothbrush; there was a sketchbook full of forgotten drawings, mostly of him, or us, how I imagined we looked as we lay together.
‘I don’t want it,’ I said. Still I sat with it on my lap as he drove me down more dark country lanes to my parents’ house. My parents still lived under the same roof back then, though they slept in separate bedrooms, and my mother hid her best jewellery in shoe boxes beneath her bed. It took me a long time to be able to understand why I’d broken up with him: that commitment frightened me because it meant being like them. By the time I realised, people had given up asking.
We hugged goodbye, but stiffly. I still wanted to be near him, despite everything. I wanted him to still want to be near me. I wanted to say, Give me a few years in the city, even just one will do, and then I’ll come home, I promise, and we’ll get married when we’re twenty-two and have four babies and a sheepdog like we always agreed. I still love you. I still dream of the lines on your face when you laugh and the pale of your lids when you close your eyes against the sun. I try to write about you: I try to force this tight, unnameable pain out of me, try to send it down my veins and into the barrel of my pen. I want to write of those early days when we were learning intimacy and how if I could I would have held you so tight that our bodies would fuse together. But all I can write about is couples who sit across pub tables from each other and find that they no longer have anything to talk about.
I didn’t say any of that. I was trying to be better. I was trying not to be cruel.
I took my bag of unwanted things up the path to my parents’ house. Don’t look back, I told myself, though he’d already gone.