Originally published in The Creative Cafe.
We were sat in his kitchen eating ramen with frozen spinach and baked beans, the floor sticky from spilled drinks, when I first thought about leaving.
I rolled a cigarette — gold leaf, green rizla, extra slim swans, the combination I’d learned at college when we first met — to keep my hands from shaking and perched on the edge of the window sill, staring out at the sodium orange light in the car park below as the thought began to crystallize.
Leaving was an option. That hadn’t occurred to me before. But that was when it first started to feel real.
I was 18 years old. This was January 2017. I was on the path prescribed for me practically at birth: go to university, study English, teach, find someone, get married, grow old. My friends were all on the same path. They loved it. I hated it.
And for the first time, it all began to feel viscerally wrong. For the first time, I knew I had to step away from that, take a breather, and try to figure things out — even if that meant going against the grain of my identity.
The thought of leaving him felt like missing a step in the darkness. We were happy, in a dysfunctional, escapist way. Our relationship was a means of pulling away from the rest of the world, from our families, from our own fears.
I pretty much lived with him, spending 6 nights a week in his bed, keeping my piebald pet mouse, Maude, in his desk drawer, and hogging the window perch. In the evenings, I’d write and he’d sing dark love songs — I Need My Girl, Lua, Artifact #1, Chateau Lobby #4.
I was there in part because I loved him and in part because I hated my own home in a block of student housing. It looked like your typical, generic box for holding people, built as cheaply as possible and with a disregard for aesthetics so thorough it seemed intentional.
Blotchy, navy carpet. Peeling cream walls. Curtains with patterns so convoluted and illogical Charlotte Perkins Gilman would have been proud. Ruthless damp in the air that left black mould on your pillow. Wayward piles of trash scattered outside. Rats lumbering across your path at night.
That as much as passion sent me to him every night for months. Sometimes we’d force ourselves to spend a night apart and I’d barely sleep, staying up writing and chain smoking until 4am, or sitting with my housemates, pestering them for oven chips, and making pointless study notes.
I remember it all, the little details that I etched in my memory because I knew on a subconscious level, even before I knew I was going to leave, that one day I would be gone. That it would all take on devastating significance.
But I’d already left. They say that to commit adultery in your head is to have already sinned. In which case, to have left in your head is to already be gone.
And I was gone long before I walked into a boxy office on the second floor of a building that had two second floors (god knows why) and signed myself out.
Returning to my barely lived in room, I packed up my belongings and gleefully tossed my key on the front desk without saying goodbye to anyone. The people who shared that building had been my friends, but I didn’t have the strength to explain.
My future lay before me, an inscrutable haze floating just out of view, a riddle with no discernable solution.
I was scared, hopelessly so, to be stepping away from the path I’d seen laid out in my head since I was a little kid. To be taking the road less travelled: stepping away from who I thought I was and what I thought I wanted in a bid to discover something real, to draw out my real self beneath the layers of expectation and anticipation.
I was in Berlin when things ended between us for good, months later.
It would be nearly a year and a half before I finally thawed enough to even think about letting myself get close like that to another human being. During that time, I withdrew into myself to an extent I hadn’t known possible.
For the first few months, I drank. A lot (by my standards.) I am not a drinker — I didn’t drink before then, never drank at university, and I don’t drink at all now.
But there are times in our lives when we lack the resources to deal with a tenth of what’s thrown at us and we stumble towards the first thing that eliminates the need to deal.
I drank until I got used to not recognising myself in the mirror, until I intimately knew every sharp corner in the house and the marks they left on my skin, until I’d memorised the wood grain on the table in the corner of my favourite bar.
Then I stopped drinking. Yet I stayed closed off.
For a few days after I signed myself out of university, I hovered. I stayed in his flat as per usual, but it was different.
The gap between us had begun to grow and I hated knowing that leaving for real would mean allowing that gap to expand and expand and expand until it was unbridgeable, until it became something too real to ignore.
But then I left. Boarded a train out to the closest thing to the middle of nowhere, saw deer out the window on the 8-hour journey to somewhere in Devon where I stayed in a converted barn alone for a month.
It was one of the loneliest times in my life, four weeks of emptiness, my days unscheduled, my mind roaming free.
During the day, I’d take long walks around the surrounding fields, spending hours talking to speckled horses and Dartmoor ponies with shaggy manes and eyes that spoke of unbearable sadness.
Then, it sounds idyllic but it was a time of pure fear. I was unable to think straight, I just knew I needed to figure something out and this was meant to be a time to think. Instead, it became a time of panic and quiet despair.
The future felt no clearer. Some part of me hoped space would let me understand, but I couldn’t.
Because I was still clinging to the quiet calm of nights when I’d felt accepted and understood for the first time, still pining for the stability of that shared certainty, still living on fantasy and denial. In the evenings, we spent hours on the phone, though there was little to say.
A year and a half. Why? I can’t blame it on the pain of the break-up.
But perhaps I can blame it on a total lack of emotional bandwidth as I let work drown our everything else, and the deep self-hatred that pushed me to isolate myself from warmth and light and people.
No, I can’t even blame it on that. Instead, what really happened is that I left myself — the self I’d built up through 18 years of living — behind and needed time to rebuild a self that was capable of connecting.
That took time. It took time for me to accept that I wasn’t mourning the loss of a person, I was selfishly mourning the loss of a self, tying my identity to someone else.
Our bodies give so much away. Intimacy of any sort inevitably means allowing someone to read a map that leads them back to another time. It means letting them guess at what you don’t want to say. It means simply being, with no pretext or posturing.
That scared me. I didn’t know how to just be, how to present an authentic self.
That time left its traces; the chipped front tooth, the matching tattoo, a particular gesture I won’t describe. I didn’t want to share that. I knew that the map would only lead straight back to him.
And then I left for the fifth time in that year and a half, moved to the city.
A few weeks after moving, I saw Mary Gauthier perform live. Near the end of the set, she played Another Train and told the story behind it.
One night, she’d been sat at a train station, broken-hearted and lost, when she looked up at the sign overheard and saw it simply said: another train.
She thought: maybe there will be another train. Then she moved on, through the pain. That song filled me with inexplicable hope.
I cried in the concert hall and as I walked home because I knew it was finally time. Remembering how she’d looked up and sung the final line: they’ll be another train.
So I boarded another train. Except, this time I didn’t leave. I stayed, deciding to make a home in this new self, to stop leaving and start being.
When I from time to time thought, all through that year and a half, about that relationship, I wondered how much of the selves we’d shown each other had been genuine, how much a display to win affection? How much of the so-called love I’d felt had been what Emma Lindsay brilliantly describes as ‘fish love’, love of the self transmuted into love of another?
The answer is that, of course, relationships are predominantly built on fantasy. When people talk about their exes with pure hatred, when they condemn the person they once married or lived with for years or had children with or at least bared their soul to, I always wondered, how?
Sometimes we adore people because they let us escape what we fear, whether that’s a grotty little student flat, or our selves. But we have to face it some day.
What follows is now: a time when I’ve put enough distance between then and now for that to simply be a story that I can finally write about, that I can tame by turning it into words.
It was real once. Now it’s just a story, a memory, a thing that happened to a person who wasn’t who I am now.
But I’m glad I left. At long last, that’s finally true.