We could have been together until our skin crumpled into tissue paper but then one rainy evening on the way to the tube station, he pulled me to the side of Euston Road and told me, “I need to be on my own.”
“I thought we were in love?” I asked, looking for something more in his dry eyes. “You know this means you’ll never see me again?”
His mouth crumpled to the side but all I got was silence.
Five years as his girlfriend only to be spat out on the pavement like chewing gum that lost its taste. “Have a nice life,” I said, attempting Kardashian-tier pathos as I walked away feeling like I’d lost a limb.
From the moment I met Joe, I knew I wanted to belong to him. On the first day of university, our bodies rammed against one another in the lift up to the Philosophy department. He was sickeningly handsome. Blue eyes, floppy hair, cheekbones, a huge mouth, bigger teeth. My cheeks burned. Stop laughing at everything he says, I told myself, but I carried on until my throat croaked and my chest felt tight and asthmatic.
After Custard Creams and a slideshow about how, if we were lucky, Philosophy might help us get a job in advertising, I followed Joe out of the lecture theatre. Him and a girl called Esme went to smoke outside and talk about friends of friends in west London. “Such a small world!” Maybe your world is just small? I thought, but I didn’t say so. Back then, I still thought everything that came out of me was stupid. Joe and Esme exchanged numbers, he asked for mine too.
It was the Tuesday after Freshers week and I was thrilled to take a break from Sambuca shots and Adele ‘Set Fire to the Rain’ remixes. I put on my Amazon-ordered zebra print Slanket and snuggled up with my flatmates in front of an episode of Gossip Girl. That’s when my phone buzzed. “Hey it’s me from Philosophy. You out?”
It was 12.30AM which meant that I probably wouldn’t make it into town until 2.30AM and the clubs in Newcastle shut at 3AM. Rather than thinking, How frustrating, it’s just not worth it, I jumped up. “Guys, whose room did I leave my make-up bag in?”
Fake eyelashes, American Apparel leotard, L’Oreal Elnett hairspray, my flatmates’ laughter, a Budget Cars to Purdue in Newcastle’s city centre with a vodka and cranberry mix for the way, and a pre-rehearsed excuse about losing my friends and I found Joe. Even with the bartenders loading the dishwasher for the final time, paying £5 entry didn’t seem like a loss.
For 30 minutes, we both pretended to hear what the other was shouting into our ears. When the bouncers began herding people out, Joe pulled me along by the hand to Best Kebab, where we sat eating cheesy chips under the strip lighting. He rubbed his leg against me and it felt like someone was whisking my guts until they thickened. Joe came back to mine and slept in my single bed, but we top-and-tailed because he had a girlfriend. I pressed my body against the wall so there was a gap between us, I didn’t want him to regret this in the morning.
In the beginning, we were friends – the sort that did inappropriate things like hold hands in the shadowy part of the taxi so no-one else could see. I remember willing my damp palms to stop clamming up. Eventually, Joe weakened. He broke up with his girlfriend and after one Christmas break, we kissed.
When someone you love leaves you, memories flush back into your mind with immense clarity: Joe staying late in the library with me, explaining Kant until I could rephrase the Routledge Guide enough to get a 2:1. The way his shaved head felt like the soft side of Velcro. How he slept with his body flat, face down against the mattress in a position that no-one else could possibly find comfortable. The way he would grab my belly during sex as though it was perfect and not something to lose. Laughing at my parents enduring a midlife crisis via painting and repainting the living room in colours with names like Duck’s Fart or Syphilis Wisp. Eating fried chicken in bed and telling each other it was OK because we’d change the sheets after, which would have been fine except we never changed the sheets after.
I saw him the other day, it’s been a month. He was wearing a jumper I had never seen before. He’s bought a pasta maker, got a new job, has started going to the gym. He went on a date with a girl who’s on the new Bumble poster. After we hugged one of my hairs stuck to his jumper, I was going to pick it off but then I thought, I want him to keep it.
At the moment, days are spent scrolling through Twitter until 2PM when I realise I haven’t eaten anything yet, Shreddies and then more Twitter. Sitting at the bottom of the shower until the water runs cold. Typing out long texts and then deleting them. This pain is not unique. Start typing “can you die from” into Google, and “heartbreak” is second only to “a hangover.” Everyone tells you getting over break-ups is like grieving but at least if Joe was dead, he couldn’t have his tongue inside someone else.
I often wonder, if I hadn’t replied to that text, if I’d stayed in bed watching Gossip Girl until it gets to the bit where Serena elopes with her drug dealer, could I have avoided being hurt? Things in life happen and they drag you down paths that otherwise would have turned out so different. This transitoriness of circumstance is the lesson of Sliding Doors. If Gwyneth Paltrow’s Helen hadn’t dropped her earring in the lift she would never have missed her train, which means she would never have got talking to George, or caught her boyfriend cheating on her with his ex, or become pregnant with George’s baby, or strayed love-drunk from George’s kisses into the path of an oncoming lorry. He holds her as she dies in his arms.
If I had the option to go back and choose, would I still open Joe’s text message? Or would I make it so that the fabric of my Slanket muffled my vibrating phone? Would I go through all that pain again or would I protect myself? Have a few short-term loves with men who I wouldn’t run through an airport for, whose absence wouldn’t sting quite so hard.
I know my answer, of course. I'd open the text every time. Now I’m the sort of person who would ignore a “you out?”, choosing instead to sink back into the duvet as the next Netflix episode automatically loads up, but a lot of that is because of Joe. He made me realise everything that came out of my mouth wasn’t stupid and had a decent enough sense of humour to laugh when I called his world small.