Being a freelance writer also means that you inadvertently become a cliché...
I shrieked from behind the dimly lit bar, turning the heads of a handful of locals, moping over their mid afternoon drinks. Blushing I furiously emailed my response between pulling a couple of pints.
Of course I was happy to meet up with my ex-boyfriend-first-love, whom had not only broken my heart, but pretty much broken my life, for a long time while I was studying at University.
I wanted/want to be a writer, so I reasoned this was a pretty tiny catch in order to achieve a seemingly mammoth goal.
Trembling I dialled his number: The conversation had very little time to be awkward as I rocketed straight past the 'How do you dos' and launched into 'you're the only person in the world who I can ask to do this for me' and 'I will be eternally grateful' and 'I'll make you sound good...'
I'll even split my fee with you if you want!
You don't need to do that...
He replied sounding amused. Then:
I'll do it. But I would only ever do this for you, because it's you.
Feeling like the cat who'd got the cream everything was set out. There was a date for a lunch with me and the ex, a photo-shoot straight after, I'd emailed my height, dress and shoe size and agreed to write my side of story. A story about one of the most defining relationships I'd ever experienced. And I'd be doing this all for one of the best known, most widely circulated magazines in Britain. I had to grip onto the side of the bar to keep me from floating off into the clouds...
Here's the whole story:
I met him during that awkward stage at Uni when you’re adamant you’re an adult, but not quite sure what that means.
It was in a karaoke bar, although, neither of us were singing. The kind of joint that attracted students on the basis of £1 shots and triples the same price as singles.
He was introduced to me as ‘Charming James’, 22, blonde, with great arms and well… he was charming… However, he looked nothing like the Mr Right image I’d moved away from home with. I think he was even wearing track pants that night, the very same trackies, which I would grow to hate. His reason for always wearing them being, he liked to be ‘prepared’. Presumably for sports, but now that I know James; tragically, I think he meant in case he needed to high kick his way out of danger. He was into Parkour, Kung Fu and Batman; by all accounts a complete nerd, but I didn’t see any of that. There was just something about him. I knew I wanted to know him.
When you’ve made your first friends at University the world feels both smaller and bigger at the same time. The little things feel more important and arguments or promises feel gigantic.
James and I were in the same gang. A clicky little group to whom dynamic was everything. So, as we realised we liked each other, everything began to feel impossible. I wouldn’t find out for a while but there was another guy in our group who liked me. James and I were breaking some sacred boy code, another small thing, of gigantic importance. So we were secret, for over a year.
That first night we spent together I said something, which I have forever wished, I’d never told him.
Don’t worry, I promise I’m not going to fall in love with you.
As soon as the words had left my lips I knew they were a lie.
At first the sneaking around was kind of thrilling. We took all kinds of measures to ensure no one knew we were a… thing. We never sat next to each other on nights out, whenever he texted me the name Gemma would pop up on my screen and we used to meet at the dead of night, just to spend a few hours alone. But we were lying to everyone.
He’d come over to mine around 3am. I’d have made sure to get an early night as when he’d arrive I knew the last thing we’d do was sleep. Then he’d leave around 8am, go home and shower before lectures. I would wrap myself around him and, beg him not to go, like a child. We’d laugh and talk about everything. He became my best friend. Whenever I was alone walking to or from University, I’d call him and we’d prattle on about nothing, putting the world to rights. I’d spend hours when I couldn’t see him lounging on my bed, working us up into arguments over the phone, to then howl with laughter at whatever hilarious thing he’d said. No matter how he made me feel, he could always make me laugh afterwards.
But I grew frustrated. When he came over I would lie next to him at night physically straining to contain the words I felt I wasn’t allowed to say. How could I tell him I loved him when I had promised I would never feel that way?
Too young to understand compromises and the work real relationships needed, but old enough to feel the disappointment and frustration, which comes from loving someone you’re certain doesn’t love you back.
Then we did something stupid.
At the time it was like a game to see which of us could care least. I know that makes no sense, but to me, if I could make James believe I didn’t love him, then I wouldn’t lose him. I wouldn’t break my promise. So we decided we’d see other people.
James had this habit of talking about other girls, talking about his ex, and while it never occurred to me that boys were capable of playing games too, I took things to another level. I actually dated five or six other guys during this time.
The worst part was I would tell James all about these other guys and, actually ask for his male perspective and advice. With each tip and piece of encouragement the idea that he definitely couldn’t love me the way I loved him was cemented. Yet James never dated another girl.
We were ‘together’ for over two years, although that sounds far too long because, really it was never a real relationship. While we were sneaking around and pretending we didn’t care we never once went on a date, celebrated the others birthday, or had an anniversary. But we used to say it was better that way, and I used to shut my eyes tight and agree, whilst wishing everything could be different.
In over two years I never spoke up. I didn’t know how.
When we finally broke up it was my decision. Something just snapped and I couldn’t mend it. It was this stupid argument and in the end I just collected my things and walked out of his flat. He had no idea that I never intended to see him again. But to me that didn’t feel important, because, I didn’t know that he loved me. I drove round the corner from his flat and cried for an hour.
James was the only person I ever successfully cut out of my life. I cut all ties and even lost touch with most of our mutual friends. I had to keep telling myself that he never wanted me and I deserved better, otherwise, I would have wanted to call him every day. For all that time while I was at University, even though we weren’t a typical couple, James became so ingrained in my life. So naturally after we broke up he was in my every thought. I couldn’t even go to the supermarket without remembering how he called cereal ‘cereals’ (because there was more than one in a bowl). I couldn’t get my hair cut without wondering his opinion and every time I read a new book I wanted to talk to him about it.
Eventually I moved on. I met someone else who broke my heart in a more conventional way. That was when I finally allowed myself to check in with James. It was almost three years since we’d broken up when we began talking, just every now and then on the phone or the odd text. We became friends on Facebook again too. Somehow I felt ok. He had a girlfriend then and we both had separate lives, there was nothing there, except my old friend whom I’d met in a karaoke bar.
It was only during these conversations that we admitted how we had felt. James told me one afternoon not so long ago, that if I had only been honest and told him that I had wanted a boyfriend, I would have had one. He told me that of course he had loved me. That was almost as hard to hear as it was holding back the ‘L word’ all that time ago.
Meeting up with him again, well I was nervous as hell. I bought an entirely new outfit and couldn’t bring myself to eat breakfast that morning.
Walking into the restaurant to see him was so strange. He was exactly the same, except for once he wasn’t wearing those horrendous track pants! We talked about old friends; our conversations were all the same, our jokes still ‘in’. It was as easy talking to him as it had been falling for him when I was 19.
But as I kept reminding myself, everything was now different. I wasn’t 19 and the same James sitting across the table wasn’t my James.
Now I can be completely honest: I hope James and I will always be friends. Bitter sweet is the only way I can describe meeting up again. Knowing that James did love me for all that time, of course makes me sad, makes me wonder what could have been. But we have different lives now, very separate lives and actually, we’re both happy.
After the shoot James and I ended up getting fish and chips together and falling asleep on my sofa. We were exhausted from a day of high emotions and posing for the camera. By the time he left and, we hugged our goodbyes, we’d already promised to try and meet up a little sooner next time.
Now I can finally tell people we’re just friends and know that it’s the truth.