Monday, 25 August 2014

Are we friends yet?

For the second time in as many weeks, my body reacted like it'd been given bad news.

My phone lit up on the desk at work, his name on the screen again, and my stomach dropped an inch or two. For gods sake, what now?

The rejection had dissipated slightly in the two weeks since his original message, the one that mowed down every cliché in the field: not looking for a relationship, would be amazing to still be friends, carry on hanging out more, etc, etc, etc. The next day, my reply had been calm and honest (fuelled only slightly by gin), explaining why friends couldn't happen: because I was hurt.

So now, knowing that my day was about to be disrupted by whatever he had to say, I carried on with what I was doing. Left it there unchecked for a while until I was ready: my day will not stop for you.

Eventually I looked at the message, and stared at it, all four words and a kiss.

Are we friends yet? X

It was just a thread, nothing more. And when you hang on to threads, you get dangled - and that wasn't about to happen again.

That didn't stop replies lining up in my mind for the best part of a week, covering every emotion from sarcastic, honest, angry, witty, to mildly humourous, none of which would ever be sent.

Then one week later at the tail end of a house party, the bit when you sit on the kitchen counter and chat about the world, a friend and I talked about me being single.

"I suspect it's the sort of bloke I'm attracted to", I said, "here's a good example."

Then I showed him the text messages, trying to explain this person I really liked and his sudden departure from my life, "...and then I got this."

My friend held my phone and looked at the final message, his eyebrows furrowed. "Who even does that?" he said, seemingly angry on my behalf.

Then, before I could do anything, he'd tapped twice on the keyboard and pressed send.

When I grabbed it back and looked down, there it was; the answer I'd never have sent.

The lines of communication officially closed and all threads cut with a simple word:


Monday, 14 July 2014

This is all I know at the moment

If there was ever a way to press pause on a moment and bottle it, now would be the perfect time.

This is what's going through my head as I lie there fully clothed, the thumping hangover slowly worsening or abating, I can't tell which.

Hip hop plays low in the background. An arm slips around me, the other hand finds mine, and I bury my head in his neck.

"Bloody hell, I'm dying" I say, because the night before ended at 6am when daylight crept into the party, and only then was it time to go home.

It was when I woke up later that morning that the text was there, asking if I wanted to come round that night.

"I can't do tonight, but do you fancy just being a hungover mess with me this afternoon?" I replied, because he'd had a big one too, and misery loves nothing more than company when it's only a short, slightly ropey, too-hot-for-this-hangover bus journey down the road.

I told no one where I was going; there was no one to tell anyway, but it felt nice to just disappear to his flat in the middle of the afternoon, pull down the blinds and forget about the outside world for a while.

In fact, I tell no one about any of it, save a few close people who know me well enough not to ask too much, and not to share the details they hear.

Because this is how dating seems to go; it's uncertain, it's fun, and it's mostly closing your eyes and storing this moment because you're not sure how it will turn out later. 

And all I know is what experience tells me: that this - whatever it is - isn't ready to be labelled yet, won't be for a while, and doesn't need to be prodded in the way my friends would if they knew. 

What would I say if the questions came? That it's not as terrifying as it was at the start, certainly; that he's 30% familiar, and 70% an unknown mystery, but we're working on that with every date.

Well, sort of.

"You're going to a desert island and can only have one soft drink and one alcoholic drink forever", he says, 'what you having?"
"Ribena. And a gin and tonic" I reply, "you?"
"Strawberry milkshake and a White Russian." he returns.
"Interesting. A milky choice there."
Then I turn around and he curls behind me, and all I know is that even with a hangover, this is a good place to be at the moment. 

So with the important questions covered, for now, we nap. 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Changing states of mind

"If you like someone, you don't mind getting two texts in a row from them."
"Either do it now, or do it tomorrow."
"I think just do it now. No games. You want to see him, so just ask."
"God, I haven't seen you like this before."

My mind was in a state of flux.

It had been that way since the minute I'd woken up and brushed the button to light up my phone, ostensibly to see the time, but also to see whether there had been any deliveries overnight. And there hadn't.

Panic had set in.

"So he wanted to see you last night..."
"Yes. But it was late and too far so I suggested this afternoon and now nothing. Nothing. All day."

The feeling of all rational thought taking leave was an alien one. It was unsettling to seemingly have so much time, so much energy to devote to just one thing, one person, one bloody phone screen.

The highs and lows were disrupting the nice, level minded constant I'd put time and effort into building up. It was disconcerting. I was going nuts.

Right. What would you advise someone else in this situation?

This was the question I'd asked myself earlier on the bus, as I'd stared out of the window and envisaged a future that contained both the perfect and worst case scenarios in quick, altering succession.

I'd say you can't assume to know the motives or thoughts of someone you've known for just a week. I'd say it's hormones. I'd say what do you really know about this person? I'd say not everyone treats their phone like the messiah.

But really, I needed rational advice. I needed the real talk, the science, not the irritating "how exciting! No, but this is exciting!" exclamations of those who have been in relationships too long to remember the fear, the terror, the crippling insecurity of having feelings for someone you've known for only a week.

I needed Google.

How to stop yourself feeling completely crazy when...

When what? When you've known someone a week? When you've had a spectacularly good first date?'re on Facebook're on your period're falling in love

Google's last autocomplete threw me, and I stared at the results warily before clicking onto what I considered to be the most reputable. And then I read.
"You are under the influence of your hormones that are making you feel, all at once, euphoric, endangered, and exhausted. You are adding a dating relationship to your normal, busy routine. This can make you more anxious than normal. This process can be threatening and make you feel unsafe."
Science out of the way, I needed the reassurance from my perennially single, tell it like it is friends. I needed two gay mates and a housemate.

"Yeah, it's horrible." they agreed, "Bloody awful, liking someone. The worst."
"I know, it's so much easier when you don't care."
"Urgh, I feel for you."

Finally, I thought. People who understand.

After a while and a beer I realised that while you can't know someone else, you can know yourself. You can know how to allay your own fears - even the most startling irrational ones - or at least set them on the road to recovery.

Knowing that I'd taken the adult route, the direct route, would mean that even in the event of a Non Reply, I would feel better for trying.

I typed.

"[Full name]. Are you still free on Monday?"

It sent. It delivered. It sat there, under my last message, making my screen into a field of green.

You've known him a week. You'll get over it. Plus if he loses interest this quickly there's clearly something else going on and you do not need a problem child. Nope.

And the weird thing was, I started to feel better.

An hour passed, then two, and the strange feeling in my chest was returning to normal.

"I don't think I'll hear from him again. I think that's it", I said, as my housemate and I walked home from the park, ready for a night in.

We were mid way through unpacking a bag of shopping when my phone, discarded and in disgrace on the kitchen counter, lit up with a message.

"For you? Yes. X"

And then I fell into a state of relief.

Friday, 23 May 2014

What's the worst that can happen

If there's one saying I've heard over and over again through the years, it's this:

"You might as well try. What's the worst that can happen?"

This seems to be the go-to response when someone wants to put themselves out there, take a risk or try something new - and for some people, it probably serves as the kick up the arse they need to do just that.

Which is great for them.

But if you're the sort of person who worries about the "worst that can happen" a fair amount of the time, the idea of imagining the worst case scenario and using it as a reason to do something probably won't be all that helpful.

In fact for years, putting any focus on the "worst that could happen" - the uncertainty, not knowing the outcome, potentially looking silly, getting a negative reaction, failing - would conversely be the thing that stopped me trying in the first place.

It keeps you in stasis.

And if you normally calculate the risk and go with the option least likely to cause a fuss, you're unlikely to be the sort of person who takes a deep breath, ignores the thumping in your chest, and rejects something like a pay rise offer because, well, you reckon you're worth more.

Because let's be honest, if jobs are hard to come by, pay rises are even harder. If they don't budge, it might mean you have to find another job - and with rent to pay, that's a pretty big risk to take.

But last year, this is what I did.

It could have been this thing I read - about how women get promoted based on their past accomplishments; where men get promoted on their future potential; that women actively highlight the things they're not good at, hold themselves back, state their shortcomings before anything else - which made me stop, take a picture of the pages, and admit that yes - this is me in my career so far, grateful for anything, undervaluing myself - and see that fitting that sort of statistic is probably the worst that can happen.

Maybe it was that.

Maybe it was yet another impending house move signalling an overhaul, maybe it was just the reckless "sod it" feeling that passes over me sometimes like a tide (the same one that also makes me book things like plane tickets to take me half way around the world).

Whatever it was, it made me say "that's generous, thank you - but actually, I deserve this much" - and push a much higher figure over the table, along with the reasons why.

(I calculated that the worst that could happen would be them laughing, my embarrassment, handing in my notice, living off meagre savings, and struggling to find another job. So I sorted my CV out just in case.)

In the end, the pay rise I wanted came through, and with it - as I walked out of the room stifling a grin, feeling really quite emotional - a feeling of wonder: if I asked for that and got it, what else can I do?

Which is how, six months later, I ended up sitting at my kitchen table after a decidedly mediocre day at work, contemplating the worst things that could happen if submitted my CV for a job I'd chanced upon, which was at the very edge of my abilities, and already showed a large amount of applicants in the running.

The worst? I'd hear nothing, and stay where I was.

The other worst? I'd get an interview, and have to lie about a doctor's appointment.

(The guilt, the guilt. Always the guilt.)

But then one e-mail became a phone interview, which became more face to face, and now here I sit at my new desk, in a different, bigger office, with a new job and new colleagues; managing, instead of being managed.

Granted, "Well, you might as well try, because the best that can happen is that someone says 'yes', and in fact the more you try, the more people will say yes" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as the original version.

But for now, as far as sayings go, it seems to be working for me.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

I don't know where to put you

I'd been wanting to see them live since first hearing the album back in 2010. 

They'd been the accompaniment to my final months of travelling; me, my now Ex, and our ever present soundtrack of the same songs, in the same order, wherever we went.

Now the gig had finished, and our sentences were glazed with that post-live music wonderment - you know, when the encore's done, the lights go up and you walk out, down the stairs, onto the street and all you can say is oh, I loved that, that was so good.

"How did you hear about them?" my friend asked, and I told her how he'd been all over this stuff, we constantly listened to music, stayed up til 6am dancing to it - this was what we did.

"Have you talked to him lately?" she said, because we live in the same area and, for a time, I seemed to bump into him every time I left the house.

"Not for ages," I replied, "Not since he was walking outside my old flat last year and I saw him, then completely forgot my housemate's name."

"But it's weird." I continued, as we walked among the throng of people heading to the nearest station, "usually I'll wonder how he is, and then he'll cycle past me at the bus stop or something."

"Alright, so you know he's still got legs. That's cool." and we laughed and I said, "Ha, yeah. I've been thinking about him a lot lately, just hoping he's ok. But I suppose you always do, don't you."

We got to the station and split up, her to go underground and me over. It was five minutes later when I was faced with a closed line, forced to retrace my steps back over the road and take a different route - such is the reliability of the London transport system.

As I placed my Oyster card on the reader and stepped through the barrier, at that precise moment and time at the overly busy station, some hair caught my eye, then trainers, then my brain pieced together all the different characteristics of this person in front of me.

And even though he hadn't turned around yet, I called his name because it was definitely him.

"Hello," I said, and I can't remember if we hugged.
"Hello" he replied, "how are you?"
"This is weird, that you're here", and of course he'd been to the same gig.

Then we walked down the escalator, onto the same tube, where we placed ourselves by the doors on one side of the carriage and his friends on the other, sometimes glancing our way.

There we stood as the tube rattled from one side of London to the other, catching up, carefully skirting topics, asking after people and family and jobs and travels; vaguely referencing a time we can't talk about here, like this; occasional silences where we looked at each other, smiled a bit and didn't know what to say next.

We reached the barriers at the other side and he hung back, waiting for his friends so they could get food.

We hugged. A goodbye, a good to see you, a quick, distant utterance of I'll text you or something and a Yeah, do thrown over my shoulder in case I'd misheard, or hadn't, and then I walked up towards the concourse at Liverpool Street Station.


Days later, the chance meeting sticks in my mind.

He's back there in my head, of course, because he always is anyway. It's fate, or chance, or I could bump into him at any time or place and it would seem as though I'd always just thought of him that moment.

With this one, there's no box to put him in. I don't know where he's meant to go. Everything fits, and nothing does at all.

He's just there, and, as long as we live in the same city, on the same road, and listen to the same music, I suppose he always will be.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The guilt factor

I went to bed with a heavy feeling in my chest.

As my eyes closed and I lay in the dark with thoughts of the night's events swirling through my brain, I recognised the feeling well - the guilt was back.

There's a lot of reasons to feel guilty these days, take your pick: guilt for not being better at your career, guilt for not doing the things you set out to do that day, or that year, or before you were however old because, when all is said and worked and eaten, you just want to get into bed and watch TV.

Guilt that you're not giving enough help to those who might need it; guilt when someone else spearheads a campaign to get a homeless bloke off the streets and you know you could have, but didn't - and probably won't - do it too.

Guilt that you're still single and don't mind too much, mixed with guilt that grandchildren probably aren't on the cards with your sister, so they probably should be with you - or that's the end of that family name, isn't it?

And then there's the overriding guilt that you're not doing enough for, or spending enough time with those who, sooner than you might think, might not be around any more.

The latter is something that bothers me a lot, and has done for a while - but most noticeably since my auntie and uncle (both unexpectedly in their 40s), my granddad, grandma and my mum's best friend all passed away in frighteningly quick succession a few years ago - because you know how quickly it can happen.

More than that, it now regularly dawns on me that my parents are getting older, and how utterly lost I'd be if they weren't around.

Yet even knowing this, the guilt when I snap, or get frustrated, or do an irritated sigh seems to far outweigh the efforts I make to be appreciative and kind.

Despite trying to be patient, to call home, to visit and help in the small ways I can - the balance of real life, a bad night's sleep or a grumpy morning sometimes tips me the other way. And I'm aware of it every single time.

All that, and then this week's argument - a ridiculous, familiar one my mother and I have had for months now, this time with the addition of an unnecessary comment, designed to make me feel guilty.

"I was saying to someone earlier," she'd said with a strange, casual laugh, as I stood outside the gym finishing a call which had ended, once again, with me frustrated and listing the reasons why it would not be appropriate for my 64 year old mother to come on holiday with me, my sister and our friends, something everyone but her seemed to understand - "what it is I've done that makes you both hate me so much that you don't want to be anywhere near me."

For the first time in a long while, guilt was replaced by anger, tears and complete incomprehension. The line was crossed, and I flipped.

Enough of this.

Realising the reaction was not, perhaps, what she'd intended, my mother apologised. The argument was resolved, the words taken back, "I didn't mean it", she said.

The anger stuck around for an hour or three, then simmered down as I lay in bed, thinking about it all, and gradually realising that this time I was feeling guilty for feeling so angry.

Oh, give me a break, I thought, just once.

Before slowly, exhausted by my own mind, I drifted off to sleep.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Of housemates and desks

Like being in the wrong relationship, living in the wrong place is often signposted by several small things.

And because like a relationship, renting with others requires compromise, these small things often get quickly normalised and lumped into a box marked "things you have to put up with because the location is good, the flat is nice, and you have your own bathroom."

For example, there's the dip of disappointment when you hear a key turning in the door, something that is in firm contrast with the relief you feel whenever you hear you'll have the place to yourself for a night or longer.

Then there's the lingering hope that their slightly annoying friends won't come round, or that they'll go home soon, and the "sorry, but could you turn it down a little bit?" that you never wanted to hear yourself say (and come on mate, it's a Tuesday).

There's the irritation of your belongings being moved, tidied away, just squeezed in around your housemate's stuff, or, as once happened - coming home from a trip and finding their unwanted pictures hanging on your bedroom wall.

(Your friends say "that's a bit weird", and you reply "Yes, but the flat is nice and I have my own bathroom.")

And then you move to a new place, and much like dumping the bloke you always had doubts about, the change is immediate.

It happens on the first night when - clothes strewn everywhere - my unpacking is interrupted because I've been summoned to the pub to meet their friends.

This, I think, putting down the hangers and heading out of the door, is a brave new world - and one that I will gladly toast with copious amounts of cider. On a Tuesday. 

Then it's a few days later when I'm home after work, and the key turns in the door and I realise I'm looking forward to greeting whoever comes in.

And it's not just the house, where my things can go wherever they want - and the housemates, who welcomed me in like an old friend, but the room itself: this new space I didn't have before.

Crucially, it's this one little thing: in the extra gap between the wardrobe and my bed, I have a desk - for writing, for sitting at, for putting things on.

I can't remember the last time I had one, but this small, cheap, flatpacked piece of furniture has somehow become the thing I mention. For now, it goes:

"Yes, the new place is great. My housemates are lovely. And I have my own desk."


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