How to Not Fuck it Up When You Meet a Guy You Like

guy-yawning-pic

When I was in my twenties, fresh out of university with an impressive list of degrees to my name and dumber than a box of hair, I was lucky enough to land a job at a glossy women’s magazine. Only the tea girl was lower in the pecking order than I was, but coming straight from the hallowed walls of my ivy league-ish university and having read every hard book ever written twice, I fancied myself to be rather smart, and also believed that I had something of great significance to contribute to our monthly features meetings where we (they) decided on the content of the next mag.

It took me about five minutes to realise that you can quote Germaine Greer till you’re eleventy shades of purple, but when it comes to men and courtship (yes, we are still in the fifties) well… we are still in the fifties. All that stuff about equality of the genders is deeply true and correct, but it doesn’t help a sister one smidgen of an iota when she is Dating Seriously and trying her damnedest to not fuck it up with The Guy.

Through the one decade older and entire lives wiser women I worked alongside I learnt some deeply important truths, truths that have, over the decades, proved themselves to be truly true. And their trueness is ridiculous because we should be above all this by now and able to be honest and upfront about what we want and how we feel. But, you know how little boys at playschool show up in their pyjamas and dribble and hit things while the girls wear matching outfits, have good hair and make complicated social arrangements? It kind of stays like that forever (sorry, boys, and also sorry for what’s about to come, I know you’ll tell me off properly in the comments section).

The truth is that, for the most part, we women meet a man and want to marry him and also breed by about next Thursday. Men, for the most part, are still wondering if it’s strictly necessary to change out of their pyjamas that day. Which is why, in the early days, we girls need to manage ourselves and our expectations of fledgling relationships if we don’t want said guy to run away crying in fear. And managing ourselves and the situation requires a bit of self-discipline, but is actually much easier to implement than one would expect. You just have to pretend you’re a character in a Jane Austen novel for a while and everything – including Mr Darcy – will go your way.

  1. WWJAD (What Would Jane Austen Do?)

What indeed (see, I knew all those hard books would pay off somehow in the end). What Jane definitely wouldn’t do is sleep over in the first few weeks. It’s soooo tempting because all that Mulderbosch and tomorrow’s Sunday and he made lamb shank for you and everything’s so cosy. This, by the way, does not mean not shagging. You can shag to your heart’s content (if you are a few weeks in, that is. Never, ever do that thing on the first or the second date. I promise. Take it from Jane). But staying the night is too familiar and what’s going to happen is that after coffee and a walk to the bakery the next morning the temptation to stay the day is going to be enormous and next thing you know three days will have passed and you’re still in his t-shirt, only he’s gotten a bit jittery and has developed a nervous tic and keeps gazing longingly out the window because The Spookery has set in and all he wants is to GET AWAY. Do not let things get to this point. Get in your car and go home directly after the shank and the shag. Even if he begs you to stay. If you absolutely must stay the night, leave very early next morning. Because you know better than him what he needs. Go! Voetsek! Hamba! And don’t phone him either. Stalk him on Facebook and go to bed.

The Spookery 

Here’s what that is. On the whole, young men are not as eager to settle down as their female counterparts, ie within the first week of meeting. For this reason they tend to be skittish, excitable and easily spooked. These are the things that spook them:

  • The idea that you might need them for anything, ever.
  • The idea that their personal freedom might be curtailed in any minute way at any time in the near or distant future.
  • The idea that somebody might make a suggestion regarding their laundry and/or personal hygiene/lifestyle/eating habits and that they will feel obliged to change some aspect of themselves.

But The Spookery is really easy to avoid. All you need to do is not be scary. Being scary is knitting toilet seat covers for his digs, being available to hang out with him all the time and sending whatsapps asking him where he is and why he hasn’t whatsapped you. This last thing is very, very spookery-inducing, so I’m going to devote a whole paragraph to that.

3. The WhatsApp Thing

This is a zone of pure treachery, as is the whole social media domain. How people remain in relationships and get married in this era of who-the-fucks-that-girl-in-the-pic and the damning two blue ticks is a mystery and a miracle to me. I can tell you for free that I would be single and living amongst cats had I been dating in the time of Facebook. Again, the rules are simple and have to be adhered to.

  • you never send the first text. Let him send it. He needs to send it. If you don’t let him send it by sending yours first he’ll get confused. They are like that.
  • you never send the last text. If he says, ‘cool! Look forward to seeing you!’ You don’t say, ‘yes! Will be so awesome! Look so forward to seeing you too! You’re so adorable! I love you and I want to marry you! xxxx.’ You don’t say that thing. You say this thing: (               ). Nought words. You think the other things, but you put your phone away, eat some raisins and go for a walk. He might check his phone and think, hmmm, she didn’t answer. Did I come on too strong? Am I too much? Does she even like me? LET HIM THINK THESE THINGS. If he’s a little unsure of you he’ll be much less likely to dribble and show up in his pyjamas, metaphorically speaking. Let him work for you. He wants to. He likes that. It’s his job.
  • You never, ever send a second whatsapp. I’ve said this before here. If he doesn’t answer you, scream into your pillow, phone a friend, go for a run, slap yourself with a Havaiana but whatever you do, do not send a follow-up whatsapp. He will answer you in due course or he won’t. If no reply comes, he doesn’t like you enough. Move along swiftly and don’t humiliate yourself anymore.

4. Be a Green Birkin

Present yourself in increments. Like in the olden days, when you like the boy go slow. Not just for him, for you. This is not about giving up your power, it’s about stating your strength and acknowledging your independence and knowing that not for one second do you need a man to give your life meaning. It’s about not giving all your plans and your friends and everything else up the minute he crosses your threshold. We were all fed that nonsense about being half people without a man in our lives. And don’t berate yourself if you want to walk down the aisle so badly you can taste the tulle. It’s not a weakness, it’s just the way we were raised. But with all your being resist the urge to drop your life and move into his. Be who you were before you met him: fabulous and busy and a little bit unavailable. It’s the same with shoes and bags and apartments. The second you can’t have something that thing becomes insanely desirable. Remember that you are a rare creature of astounding magnificence, and any man would be deeply lucky to have you around, so don’t sell yourself cheap. Be that Birkin bag everybody wanted but nobody could buy. Allow him into your life. Take it from this lady who knows what she’s talking about.

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On Affairs and How They Don’t Have to Mean the End of the World

My mom and dad at Igoda, 15kms outside of East London, 1975.
My mom and dad with me at Igoda, 15kms outside of East London, 1975.

During a wintry season in my parents’ nearly 50-year-old marriage, my dad took it upon himself to have an affair. As a man incapable of telling a lie, it was conducted very openly with a pony-tailed, bottle-blonde ‘friend’ of the family, and while I was protected from knowing the details of what was going on, my memory is of him coming home from work, showering and leaving again, and of his uneaten plate of dinner which my mother would leave, covered in foil, on the Formica kitchen counter. When I was both old and young enough to adopt an attitude of protective indignation, I was angry at what I perceived to be the spinelessness of my beautiful, green-eyed, flawless-skinned mother. Why did she allow this to happen? Why did she meekly, weakly stand by while he came and went as he pleased?

It took me being married myself to appreciate the courage and strength it must have taken her to watch her husband’s car reverse out the driveway and hold it together enough that her young daughter remained oblivious to her pain, even while the scent of his Old Spice lingered in the hallway. And also to understand enough about the frustration and quiet dismay which is the flip side of the image we’re presented about marriage not to presume to judge him. And what she did, which I understand now, was also extremely clever. She didn’t make a scene and throw his clothes out the front door or show up where they were, demanding justice. She simply waited it out. In typically pragmatic Capricorn-style, she understood – like most affairs – that this one would more than likely run its course, and that by creating a fuss she would only make his mistress more appealing.

So, she left his plate of supper ready for him when he got home and carried on as normal. She also told his entire (large) family, who have always adored her, exactly where he was and what he was up to when they phoned for him. They were horrified and furious, and froze him out one by one. It was due to her single-minded determination not to lose her husband, the love of her life, that he came back before long and their marriage resumed as if none of it had ever happened. But it could have gone a different way. She did what she needed to do to hold on in that moment, and ultimately she got what she wanted. And the reason all of this has been on my mind is because I had a dream a month or so ago, while on holiday in Sweden, that my husband was having an affair and I remember, even through the deep emotional pain, having a distinct dream-thought: if you want him you can have him, you just have to wait this out. And the immediate follow-up question: but, do I have what it takes to do that?

Do I possess the emotional wherewithal; the purpose of mind, the mettle to stand by and watch and wait? When I was younger I believed I was a one-strike-and-you’re-out kind of girl. Now, 15 years into my relationship, I see the world as a much greyer kind of place. I know what marriage is and what it can do. That, while it’s wonderful and fulfilling on all the levels they promise, it also has the propensity for a loneliness more vast than any amount of singledom can match. That sometimes it’s unkind and deeply disappointing. That there’ll be moments where you’ll reel at the horrified realisation of what you got yourself into and how impossibly difficult it will be to get yourself out. And this is the kind of marriage where friends say, ‘how do you guys manage to stay so happy?’ And we are, very. Not a day goes by where I’m not grateful that I chose him as my life partner because he’s so many kinds of amazing. But that is the nature of the beast.

And it’s why I think I’ve amended my position on affairs. I don’t know that I would leave. I’m not convinced, anymore, that these moments of desperate connection with another human being are not entirely understandable, given our deep desire to be heard and seen and how much gets in the way of married people doing that for each other. Would some relatively meaningless dalliance on his part be sufficient reason for me to break up our children’s home? To put us all through the mind-boggling suffering and turmoil that comes with divorce? Is my ego really that big?

I don’t know the answer and, mercifully, I’ve not been put in that position. While I don’t think I could be the wife who covers a plate of savoury mince with foil, tucks her young daughter in bed and then waits by the window for his headlights to swing into view (unfortunately for my husband I suspect I’m more the throwing-the-clothes, stalking, psycho kind), what I realise now is that my mom is made of some strong stuff and that, ultimately, we are not all that different. I’m grateful she made the choice she did, and I’m sure my dad is, too. 30 years later they are happier and more in love than they’ve ever been, and my sister and I enjoyed the privilege of growing up in an unbroken home. I hope, if this ship ever veers off course, that one of us will be brave enough to grab the wheel and hold on tight till we’ve steered ourselves back to safety.

Love, the Karoo and Route 62

Surely one of the prettiest places in the world, the Koo Valley outside Montagu.
Surely one of the prettiest places in the world, the Koo Valley outside Montagu.

My 80-year-old mother-in-law is visiting us from Denmark. In her softly-spoken, white-haired five-foot-nothingness this small, unassuming woman is the unmitigated matriarch and warm, beating heart of the large Rehn family. And spending long periods of time with her as we have been doing has reminded me of how much my daughters need to know these people who’ve been around for a long time and have lived in different worlds from the one we do now – worlds where things were scarce and times were tough and the fact that life was a series of hardships was nothing anyone bothered commenting on; it’s just the way it was.

On her first evening with us I went downstairs to hang up the clothes of hers that needed hanging, and as I carefully arranged the handful of outfits she’d packed to wear on her visit to Africa – each item having been washed a lot of times and smelling faintly of meadows but still good as new because, while frugality is second nature to her, everything she buys is of the best quality and made to last (nothing like my wardrobe which is full of things I wore once and lost interest in because it was too ‘fashion’/cheap/impractical) – I thought how different our disposable world must feel to her compared to her day where, if you wanted something, you worked and saved and waited and then, when you finally got it, understood its value and took care of it accordingly.

She tells a story about her own mother who fell in love with a set of candlesticks which she couldn’t afford so she made a deal with the owner of the shop that she would pay them off over 12 months. Knowing her family and their reputation, he urged her to take them right away, but she refused until she had paid off every last cent. People were different back then. And I was especially reminded of this fact when I found myself alone in Sweden with a toddler and a newborn and, despite our comfortable apartment and every convenience a new mother could want, flailing and struggling to cope in this challenging new role which was much, much harder than any job I’d ever performed and expecting, as I did, that life would always be fun. And my mind boggled at how this tiny woman managed to have five children in six years in a two-roomed flat with no help and no convenience anything, and cloth nappies which you washed by boiling them in a pot on the stove. I still don’t know how she did it.

Since my mom-in-law’s visit coincided with the start of the school holidays, we decided to go away for a few days, and – after much deliberation – opted for a cabin in the mountains on a farm outside of Montagu because we’ve been there before and know it’s nice. And it’s a bit special for us because it’s where we went on our first weekend away together when we barely knew one another but were starting to like what we saw. Driving up the steep, winding Burger Pass I remembered doing that drive 15 years back, tragically hungover from the previous night’s wild shenanigans in some hotel in Joburg with a mad music journalist and the members of a local band, trying to disguise the fact that I was dry-heaving all the way, having neither slept nor eaten since I got on the plane two days before.

How can you not stop here? We bought everything they had.
How can you not stop here? We bought everything they had.

And that weekend (once I got some sleep and had a proper meal) we went for walks and looked up at the stars, but we ourselves were the brightest stars of all – young, educated, ambitious, and the future was as endless as the vistas of that valley. And while this time around the valley was every bit as beautiful as it was when we first visited it, the spaces of ourselves have narrowed to become what we need to be for the people we love. We are no longer a young couple holding hands and gazing out onto a landscape of opportunity and wonderfulness, we are two very important pillars holding up the sanctified structure of our family. Its ability to protect our children from life’s earthquakes depends on our ability to protect one another, and there is more invested in that seemingly casual brushing of a hand against a shoulder in passing than meets the eye. Being the pillars is about having the mettle to hold the inevitable frustrations which are part of married life – and life, generally – and the maturity to be kind and forgiving in the face of disappointment. Because we are now the people whose job it is to keep it all together.

And it’s not not fun and wonderful, it’s big fun, and a different kind of wonderful. It’s not escaping a function to run around a mad city in the middle of the night with interesting strangers, it’s making a chicken potjie with dried peaches and muscadel and slicing the burnt bottom off the pot bread and bumping into each other on the way out of the door with one of you holding a salad and stopping and taking a moment to exchange a look while the kids run around underfoot and then lying in bed too early because you’re so full you can’t speak and watching the firelight flicker on the ceiling and smiling because you might be high on a mountain-top miles away from where you live, but you’ve never been so at home in all of your life.

The ancientness of the Great Karoo was a good place to remember these things and think these thoughts – its tiny, forgotten train stations with names like ‘Rietfontein’ and ‘Draai’; signs against the koppies assuring us that we were ‘Karoo Befok’; dusty tea shops decorated with plastic flowers where the butter is hand-churned and cooled into the shape of hearts. And I wonder, sometimes, what people belong to when they don’t make the kind of choices I did; or when they made the choice and then stuff happened that made them unmake it. If they miss that sense of place, or just find other ways of being. My world is so that, so full of children and family and busyness it’s hard to imagine a different way.

Even though she still cycles to the market, keeps her large garden perfectly manicured and single-handedly hosts three-course dinner parties for her entire extended family, I’m not sure Kirsten Rehn will make it back to South Africa. We’ve been lucky to have her with us.

Scones with hand-churned butter in the middle of totally nowhere. The sign read 'Angora Rabbit Farm' but we only found hens and a cow.
Scones with hand-churned butter somewhere outside Ladismith. The sign read ‘Angora Rabbit Farm’ but we only found hens and a cow.

When Women Like Us Get Beaten By the Men We Love

Since starting this blog I have learnt to expect the unexpected, and one of the most unexpected things of all has been the people from far and near places who look me up and come to me wanting to share their stories. They are actors in L.A. and psychiatric nurses in Boston and moms in Brisbane and teachers in France, and they present to me (as one reader put it) the multi-coloured ‘ribbons of their lives.’ So, when one of the moms from my daughter’s school approached me this morning and asked if we could have a coffee because she had a story to tell me I wasn’t that surprised.

We met in an odd little coffee shop down the road from where I live, and once the niceties were out of the way she launched into an astonishingly brave and candid account of the past year of her life where she got involved with (and almost had kids with and married) a man who abused her verbally, physically and emotionally. She left him barely a week ago, and her right eye still bears the bruises from where he hit her the last and final time. And she said, ‘the physical wounds heal fast. It’s the other ones – the ones you can’t see – that take longer to go away.’

And as she was talking I couldn’t stop thinking about another beautiful, strong, independent girlfriend of mine who told me exactly the same story some months back, except she was actually married to the guy in question, and he hit her for ten years before she managed to escape. Nobody knew – not her mother, her siblings or her closest friends. Until one morning she found herself in another fight with him, and this time hiding his gun in fear that he would use it on her, and the reality hit home for the first time that this was not about getting punched now and again – if she stayed with this man she might not live to tell the tale.

And these two women are nothing like the stereotype of who gets battered. They are smart and streetwise and together. Which makes me realise that every single one of us is vulnerable; no-one is immune to falling in love with a violent, sociopathic man and getting caught up in a situation we don’t know how to get out of. Because it happens slowly, and for a long time you’re blinded by those brain chemicals that cloud your judgement, and the erosion to your sense of self begins so subtly and innocuously that you’re well into the relationship before you even have a chance to realise what’s going on.

And it’ll be a little poke or a shove, mid-fight, or a criticism cloaked in something that sounds like concern, but with every small piece of violence leveled at you your self-esteem takes a knock and you wonder if you are a bad person and you do deserve what’s coming and your friends really don’t care about you – like this man keeps saying. And then one day, in between the humdrum of washing and cooking and doing the school run, you find yourself being flung against a bedside table so hard that you sustain a fairly serious head injury and you go to your doctor for the second time in a few months and he gives you a knowing look and says, how long are you going to tolerate this? Because he has seen it before and he knows better than you do you how much danger you are actually in.

And the man you love has successfully isolated you from your friends and family, and you don’t know who you can trust enough to tell, and if you should even tell anyone because you are so ashamed that you have allowed this to happen. It was an emotional conversation, and the time when I lost it was not when she told me about how he threw things at her or the cruel words he used or how he tried to separate her from her child, but when she described her visit to the local police station to get a protection order, and she was anxious and distressed and just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but the officer in charge was a gentle, kindly black woman who must, in her life, have seen and heard it all before, and wouldn’t let her get away with filling in a form and leaving.

Instead, she was made to sit down and tell her the whole story from beginning to end, (‘African-style’, was the expression she used) and asked her questions and never judged but took in the picture in its entirely and gave her endless time to speak, all the while listening with her heart as well as her big, brown eyes. And she said to my friend who felt trivial and embarrassed – a white woman from an affluent suburb telling her small, ‘insignificant’ story – ‘you don’t have to worry anymore. I will deliver this to him in person. He won’t be hurting you again.’

I dunno – there was just something so moving about this scenario. Like an atonement, or something. So, the protection order was delivered and he’s not allowed to come anywhere near her ever again, and she’s suing him for money he owes her and getting her life together. And even though it was a terrible story, it was kind of a good one, too. Unlike many, she managed to get out quick. It doesn’t always end so well. And there was a song. It was playing on the radio while they were driving one day and he was punching her on the leg and it was one of the many turning points that made her know she was going to save herself. Music has some incredible power. (In fact, she told me it was my Tori Amos story that made her come to me and want to tell me hers).

Later, once she had left him and had sat for hours at the police station doing the necessary paperwork, she was tired and hungry and stopped for a late night supper at a deserted pizzeria in Sea Point. She thinks the young Zim waiter must have overheard her talking and wanted to make her smile without being weird so he asked her what song she was ‘liking’. Immediately she thought of the one from the car that day, but she didn’t know the name or the artist so she sang it for him. He went away, found it and suddenly it was playing over the restaurant’s sound system. Spontaneously she got up and started to dance, and he joined her – two human beings in an empty restaurant somewhere on the southernmost tip of Africa. And she said, ‘I released a lot that night, but I received so much, too.’ Until she found herself, she hadn’t even known she was lost.

5 Things you Need to Know to Live Happily Ever After

It takes having been married for a long time and making some big mistakes along the way to learn what works in a marriage and what, just, doesn’t. If you’d like to be with this guy for the long haul (and I hope you do, because it’s not better on the other side), here are some truisms you’re better off knowing sooner rather than later.

1. Your partner is not going to make you happy

He’s just a guy with skidmarks who loves you very much but is also trying to negotiate his way through this thing called life. He doesn’t have all the answers, and even if he did, it’s not possible for one human being to make another human being happy. Of course you can enjoy a good relationship which adds value and joy to your life, but that’s only part of the deal. The rest is up to you. If you don’t like your job and you have problematic friendships and you’re frustrated in whatever capacity, he could be Adonis spewing slabs of Lindt while he vacuums the lounge – you’re still going to be miserable. So, here’s the thing – you need to officially and mindfully absolve him of the mammoth responsibility of being the sunshine in your life. He is just a star – not enough to light your whole world. Figure out what it is you need to do to make your life a sunnier place and stop making the problem his.

2. If you don’t have respect, you have nothing

Remember your first date together when you looked every part of amazing, were the most delightfully attentive listener and nothing was too much effort? Over time this hallowed, romantic space changes to unwashed hair and farting in front of each other. While keeping the same level of mystery up as when you first met is impossible, it’s really kinda important not to relax too much into the comfort of your togetherness. Just because he’s made a commitment to you doesn’t give you license to whine, nag and nitpick. Or be self-centred or on his case or mean or hit below the belt. Your partner is as deserving of your respect as he was when you first fell in love. He’s a human being and he’s doing his best. Be nice, look nice, and don’t tell him to pull your finger. It’s just not sexy, and sexy counts for a lot.

3. Stop seeing him and he’ll cease to exist

The reason why people have affairs is not about the sex. You hear all the time about men who visit prostitutes just to talk and be heard. Affairs happen when people feel lonely and unappreciated. He might be as familiar to you as your favourite pair of granny panties, but try to remind yourself of how cool he actually is, and how many other women would give their left boob to have a kind, affectionate, honest, good-looking guy like him to call their own. He’s the business, and you’re lucky. And of course this goes both ways. Women look to other men when they feel like they’ve become invisible. We find ways to fill the holes in our lives, sometimes to devastating effect. If you can, somehow, keep seeing each other like you did when you first met you’ll automatically introduce a special kind of magic into your relationship. He hasn’t changed since that first day. Look past the familiar and get the person he is in the world.

4. Being attracted to somebody else doesn’t mean you have to have an affair

Forever is a long time, and when you exchange rings you don’t die or go blind. You’re still a separate human being, and it’s inevitable that, along the way, you’re going to meet at least one person you’d really, rather like very much to shag. Don’t do it. Being attracted to another person doesn’t mean you have to act on these feelings. And don’t, for the love of god, encourage the attention, irresistible as the affirmation might be – you’re just going to make things difficult for yourself and worse, incur pain on a number of people. A wise friend (who learnt this the hard way) said to me the other night, ‘I’ve revised my opinion on infidelity. It isn’t shades of grey. It’s black and white, pure and simple. You make a choice not to go there, and you don’t.’ Because if you do, even if the relationship survives, you create terrible cracks that never, ever go away. If you want to do this thing right you have to honour the trust between you. Look, imagine if you must, but don’t touch. You will get burnt, and it won’t be worth it.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize

A lot of people get divorced for a lot of reasons, but that doesn’t make it an easy option. A psychologist friend of mine talks about how divorce brings out the most primal feelings and the rawest kind of pain human beings virtually ever experience. Whatever you might think from the comfort of your so-so marriage, you’re not going to get out of it unscathed. It will hurt you, hurt your friends and families, and worst of all, devastate your children. The prize is this: a partner who loves you above all; who will be there for you no matter what; who (probably) fathered your children and therefore has only their best interests at heart; who knows you and accepts you; who sees your flaws and loves you regardless. In this world of loneliness, broken dreams and heartache, this is not a bad deal. Love him back. Be good partners to one another. Fight well and constructively, and remember how much you loved each other once. Accept that he’s going to infuriate you and that you’ll infuriate him right back. Watch your tongue and the words you use when you argue. Make kindness the default mode. What you have is special and might not come around again, so guard it with your life.

Why You Must Never, Ever Send a Guy a Second Whatsapp

It’s a good thing smart phones and social media hadn’t been invented when I met my husband because I can tell you, for free, we would not be together now. While I am fun and delightful, I am also mammothly needy and intense, and he would have taken one look at the 19 whatsapps I’d sent before 7am and run for those proverbial hills. Which would have been a shame, because we’re actually great together. He is logical and sensible and easygoing, while I am more, well… not any of those things. And therefore we balance each other nicely. But I can say with absolute certainly that I would not have managed that space and the whole instant accessibility thing well.

Back in those days (which are now pretty much regarded as the dark ages but was actually only about thirteen years ago) not even everyone had cell phones. You still relied on a landline which sometimes, but not always, had an answering machine. Therefore, when the guy you were crushing on madly didn’t answer it meant he wasn’t home and you had to go away and think about something else (Or drive past his house but that’s just nuts and I never, ever did that. At all.) Me, in my twenties, with a smart phone? It would have a mess on wheels. I would have been relentless – messaging, tagging, instagramming, whatsapping and then freaking out when he didn’t answer me instantaneously, as in the following second.

Instead, I was forced to be patient and wait till he came back from his dive/finished watching the game/ended his working day till I could impose myself on him again, which led him to believe that I was more reasonable than I really was. So, it’s with great empathy and tremendous referred pain (from them to me) that I watch my single girlfriends navigating the dating website space and conducting these agonizing exercises in torture otherwise known as chatting to a new guy. And I cannot judge their eagerness and concomitant devastation when he doesn’t take the bait for one nanosecond, because that would have been me.

But on Sunday I went for a walk with a new girlfriend who shared a simple, but very clever little analogy re the whole dating website/new guy fiasco. And, being a dispassionate observer who is not (god forbid) looking for a man, I can see how absolutely correct and appropriate it is, and share it with you. She said, when you meet a new guy, either in person or online, you’ve got to imagine a tennis court with two people on either side and a ball going back and forth. Back and forth is the only way. You serve, he returns your ball. You send it back to him, he sends it back to you, and so it goes on. If he does not return the ball to your court, you do not serve again. There is one ball in this game. It is tennis, not snooker. If that ball doesn’t come back to you, you wait. And wait. Still not coming? He’s on another court. Move on. Don’t ask him where the court is or what he’s doing on it – he doesn’t want to play with you, and that’s all you need to know.

And yet all the time I see the women sending that ball over, then sending another and then another still, and then asking, why doesn’t he answer? Was it something I said? What’s his problem? And then taking their communication apart word for word in an attempt to decipher its hidden message. There’s no hidden message – he doesn’t want to play ball with you so you must go away. It’s much simpler than we believe. We sit there over-analysing, picking things apart, second-guessing: what is he doing? Why is he online and not answering me? Who else is he talking to? When none of this matters. It’s irrelevant. Despite all this technology which (for better or for worse) keeps us connected 24/7 some things have stayed the same: if the boy likes the girl he will go and get her. And that’s the long and the short of it.

Stop sending more balls – it just makes you look desperate. Even if you just want to say this one thing – don’t. Even if it’s the funniest, cleverest thing anyone has ever said in the world – don’t do it. He’ll feel hounded and think you’re psycho and not like you anymore. True story. And it’s easy as hell for me to say this because my dude is chained to the net, bless his tennis socks, but at the same time this vantage point allows me to see things a lot more clearly than I would if I were waiting to see if the little yellow ball was coming my way anytime soon. And if this guy isn’t game, eff him; there are many more where he came from. You served, he missed, game over.

The Thing About Unrequited Love

On the Brooklyn Bridge.
On the Brooklyn Bridge. Not the photograph I would have liked to use.

An entirely inconsequential regret I’ve been harbouring for years is of a photograph I didn’t take. It was something I looked up and saw as we walked underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City once, graffiti letters the size of a person and what they said was, ‘But I still love her.’ Those words have lived with me ever since – a simple statement somebody, at some point in time felt compelled to shout out to the world. Maybe (I’ve always assumed it was a guy) he’d gotten to a point where he didn’t know who to tell anymore; maybe his friends had had enough of hearing him say the same thing over and over. And maybe she knew, too, but had moved on and left him behind. And what do you do when that happens? What is there to do?

Few people make it through life without experiencing the searing pain of loving somebody who has moved on. For you, they consume your world like they always did; for them, you’ve become something of a nuisance. You can see it in their eyes, and it’s the worst thing you’ve ever felt. You encounter friends in the same situation, where the truth is patently obvious to everyone but them – the guy just doesn’t want to be there anymore. And they make up excuses for his behaviour, as one time in your life you made excuses and it was your friends’ turn to take your hand and say, what do you see in this guy? You need to let it go now. But you can’t because you can’t, and that’s just the way it is.

I’m not good at letting go of things. I hang on until the bitter end, getting bashed up in the process. While we know on every level how foolish it is what we’re doing; while we understand that the people who love us and urge us to leave it alone already are every bit of right, somehow we have to stay until we are ready to go, and when you’ve loved a lot for a long time, that can take a while. Which is why I can’t judge the ones who are holding on like their lives depend on it. In a way, their lives do depend on it. The heart wants what it wants, and it has its own time – for loving, for holding on and also for letting go.

I wish I could say time heals all wounds, but I don’t think it does, always. I’ve seen too much damage done; people who get broken and don’t ever recover fully. It’s like you get badly hurt one time in your life and you never allow yourself to suffer that way again; a part of your heart gets sealed up never to be re-opened. I hope that that’s not the case for the man under the Brooklyn Bridge. I hope that that anguished night of misery and desperation was a turning point, and that when he eventually took himself to bed and lay alone in a room somewhere in that cold, vast city, he found some semblance of peace. I wonder if the graffiti is still there. I guess I’ll never know.

There was a time I listened to this song often and identified so much with its words. Tonight I dedicate it to him, whomever, where he is in the world and to every one of us who’s been smashed up on those rocks.