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Young love is a business. Adult women are sold it in films like Twilight, The Notebook, and Romeo + Juliet and buy into the fairytale for two hours while putting themselves in the shoes of Kristen Stewart, Rachel McAdams, or Claire Danes, or whoever is falling deeply for the boy promising her everything. The disconnect between what's happening on screen and what happens to them in real life never appalls them. Men may watch different movies, but their perspective on love and relationships is no better. Though they often feign cynicism and pretend young love barely even exists, that's merely a stance that allows them to deny they've been hurt by their early relationships.
It's in this period of young love that many of our wounds and insecurities are created—the same wounds and insecurities that keep us from finding a present-day love to make us happy. Perhaps if we found it easier to look back, we'd find it easier to heal those wounds and move on with our lives. We don't because we're afraid to—but why? Is it the memory of what some boy or girl did to us? Or is it the memory of having once been so earnest—of having promised the world not just to these boys or girls but to ourselves, before work, money, and real commitments came along to crush us?
Is it young love we're afraid of, or having once been young? I decided to retrace my first clumsy romantic steps in an attempt to find out.
K – 1997-99
1997. Ireland is utter shit. Our social services are collapsing, unemployment is sitting at 10.3 percent, and the abuses of the Catholic Church dominate the media. In the general election, Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern is made prime minister after promising tax cuts and the abolishment of the residential property tax. Suddenly, it's much cheaper to own land and houses.
I am a fat ten-year-old who, despite getting the best grades in class, can't claim the dominant social position he desires. Our class is hormonal. Every boy seeks a mate but only wants the same few girls everyone else wants, and K is one of these girls. By luck I get to sit beside her. I am conversationally retarded—a sweaty, stuttering mess—but when the planets align the right way, I can crack a joke and make her laugh.
What her laughter gives me is a taste of the social position I yearn for. I look around me, see all the other boys staring, and like it. What she gives me is a sense of hope—hope that my future will be different from my present, and that I'll no longer be bullied for being fat. And because of this, I tell myself I love her. It's both an act of appreciation and a pledge that I won't allow what she is giving me to end.
I pursue her in a roundabout way for two years. Then, on the last day of primary school, the whole class goes to the cinema to celebrate. I’ve given everything my shyness has allowed to her and feel it's time to be rewarded with a kiss. Needless to say, I don't get one. She kisses one of my thinner classmates instead and I sit there in the dark of the theater utterly devastated.
It is, up to that point, the worst moment of my life. But I'm just getting started.
M – 2001
Even at an early age, we crave love not just for its transformative powers but also as a replacement for the physical attachment we had with our mothers. This is called "contact comfort." At birth we seek bodily intimacy with our mothers to trigger the release of the pleasurable hormone oxytocin, and as we grow older we seek to replicate this trigger with someone else. And only love will do—studies have found that casual sex doesn't trigger the hormone's release, whereas “romantic” sex, with lots of holding and touching, does.
When I'm 14, M begins hanging out in my circle of friends—actually, she goes out with three or four of my friends before getting to me. Why she even gets to me, I don't know—I haven't gotten any skinnier, I'm still conversationally inept. But we text each other constantly. Communicating that way allows me to express myself without my shyness getting in the way—when we meet in person, however, I'm still the same stuttering fool. This causes me no end of frustration. I can visualize myself being more confident but something, I can't understand it, is holding me back.
Every week my mother gives me £10 (about $16), which I immediately spend on phone credits. Texts are so pricey in 2001 that I burn through those credits in hours. M is pretty and knows the power she has over me; she uses it to elicit compliments and thus feel validated. She never compliments me and doesn't push for us to meet up—I have to assume that, at heart, she's embarrassed by my fatness.
I tell her I love her but it feels more like blackmail—something I'm saying to dissuade her from cheating on me. But cheat on me she does, and then blames me for being so awkward and “not a normal boyfriend.” I'm relieved it's over but after a while—to spare myself—I construct a different narrative in my head: She is heartless, I was a great boyfriend, and she fucked me over simply because I'm nice.
I begin wondering if all girls are cruel, because it's starting to seem like it. All I want from them is for the love I'm giving to be returned.
S – 2002-2006
S has sex with a lot of men. Being faced with someone so sexual frightens me but at the same time I can't help but feel attracted to her. She is everything I fear and yet, because she's fucking everyone else, my need for validation requires that she fuck me, too.
We begin a friendship and even after five or six rejections, her openness with me never eliminates the possibility in my head it will finally happen. But the years pass and I get nothing but heartbreak. I grow older and long for her more and more but still, nothing. She's one of the only girls I know, and she takes on an outsized position in my head because it seems like I'm the only guy she's rejecting. It drives me crazy. Is she telling the truth when she says she doesn't want to ruin a great friendship or am I really that defective?
During this period, Ireland is on the rise. The property market is booming under Ahern's leadership, developers are borrowing billions to build housing developments in every town, city, and village, and though social services remain shitty, no one is worried as the value of their houses is up 266 percent. Even ordinary schmucks, freed by cheap credit and a low tax rate, begin taking out second and third mortgages to flip houses and make a quick buck—buy one, wait a day, and it'll inevitably be worth more. The future is paved with gold.
Never one to swim with the tide, I drop out of school early due to what is turns out to be an undiagnosed nervous breakdown. I spend my days texting S, professing not just my love for her but my depression too, as if it’s some act of martyrdom done for her benefit. I pin everything on her. Though I'm a secondary-school dropout with an interest in nothing, I believe I'll be OK because her love—when I get it—will guide me through.
S, for her part, always listens but at 19 she is too young to understand my feelings, as am I, and the weight of my insecurities get too much for her to bear. We grow apart: I drift toward possible suicide and she drifts toward a cycle of promiscuity and misery that has nothing to do with me.
F – 2007
I lose weight. I run through the town at night with my iPod on, lost in beats, the cold wind on my face, thick sweat dripping down my lower back. I meet F through a friend. She is S’s antidote: a respectable university-going member of society.
As she goes to school on the other side of the country, I see her only on weekends, getting to know her slowly and over the course of many months, ingratiating myself as best I can given my social awkwardness. Then I go see her, a trip I undertake in my mother's Honda with all the deluded romanticism of my then-hero Jack Kerouac. I feel like I'm driving to my destiny on that hot May day.
We begin boozing as soon as I arrive, exploring each other’s personalities, and it’s to my great shame that I lie about a lot of things. I feel I have to—I’m a no-hoper with what is then only a small, far-fetched ambition to write, and she is going places I'll never get to. We are hammered by nighttime. We leave her apartment and stagger down the hill to the city below and in a nightclub sit yawning, desperately wishing to be back at hers. That night we sleep together, and in the harsh, hungover sun of the morning I wake up and walk around her apartment, a victory lap, soaking in whatever it is I’m feeling. When she wakes we make plans to see each other soon, and then I’m back in the Honda, roaring toward home with a smile on my face.
F proves a good distraction from my mother’s recent diagnosis: She is terminally ill with cancer, yet when the dotors repair her broken hip and zap the tumors on her spine with radiation, she appears almost as good as new. She's delighted when I tell her about F—I have never mentioned a girl to her before and she figures, I suppose, there's hope for me yet. She makes jokes about how I'll be “off" soon.
But nothing happens. F stops answering my texts and, though she continues to come to my town, it isn't to see me. I hear from my friend about an ex-boyfriend. I pretend to take it in stride and mention nothing to my mother, who continues to make jokes, which kill me. I know she is dying but that any hope I have of making her proud is dead already.
I read more voraciously than ever, revelling in Kerouac’s dark period—the pathetic self-affirmation of Big Sur and Satori in Paris—before going deep into Zola, Celine, and Dostoyevsky. I am blackened, bored, and on the verge of suicide. Meanwhile, Ireland has reached its peak. In every sector jobs are plentiful, a record number of people are going to college—for a time Ireland has the sixth-largest graduate percentage in the world (44 percent)—yet, for me, it might as well be 1982. I have no job and no appetite for higher learning, and spend my days in a haze of alcohol, writing down things on paper before ripping them up and throwing them away.
Every night, no matter what, I run. I leave the house and speed through the town for miles, taking the road past F’s house in the hope she’ll be there, see me, and change her mind. I even run while drunk, my heart pounding out of my chest, sometimes crying and letting the tears mix with my sweat. Am I in love with F? No more or less than I was with the others. I am in love with the future they promised.
Then, in the autumn of 2007, I hit bottom. My mother dies.
B – 2008-Present
Even I, wallowing procrastinator that I am, must admit it's time for a change. I refuse to continue as I am—I must either kill myself once and for all or move the fuck on. I begin approaching women in bars, and though I make a fool of myself and get nowhere, it feels good to be leaving my comfort zone and trying something constructive.
Ireland, meanwhile, returns back to the toilet from whence it came. After 11 manic years the property bubble finally bursts. Mass unemployment reigns again, 11.8 percent, and those housing developments built in every town, city, and village must be torn down or else lie empty with grass growing up to their windows. Town centers are full of boarded-up shopfronts and For Let signs and hundreds of thousands of people flee to Australia and Canada.
Bertie Ahern resigns as prime minister and is replaced, temporarily at least, by one of his cronies. In 2010 he admits that if he “had one regret,” it was the abolishment of the residential property tax in 1997. But people have no time for regrets—their debt is suddenly real, the IMF is at the door, and the mood is one of sadness and panic. The only thing that remains unchanged are the dire public services.
And yet I sleep through the fall of my country the same way I slept through its rise. I want nothing—and have never wanted anything—except that which money can’t buy. I meet B on December 23, 2008. She is like F only more so, somebody going places, but I’m so damaged by the rejection of F and the others that, in a ridiculous reversal, I resist her where she doesn’t need to be resisted, play games where no games need to be played. I think I know what will happen: She’ll abandon me and leave me to suffer like every other woman in my life, my mother included.
The proof of her divinity is that she stays. She sees something in me and sticks around to coax it out. She urges me to talk about my past—my mother, the heartbreaks, the depression—and after months of resistance, I finally give in. I reveal more of myself than I ever thought possible, and she to me, and the love I’ve sought all my life is suddenly right there in front of me.
I enter life, meeting new friends and her family, at one point even following her to a new country to work a job I hate. I know all I have to offer are my thoughts—if I even have those—and so every free hour I write, piling up pages and pages of utter shit but which I know, because B tells me so, will one day lead somewhere. And there is struggle, still—life sometimes weighs us down so that not even the hand of the other can lift us up—but our relationship can always be relied on and the other is always there to push us forward, past the transparent, petty bullshit that’s so intrinsic to life.
To say I’m surer what real love is today might be kind of presumptuous. But the purposes it serves now compared to those it served earlier in my life are certainly much different. Back then, when I was going through great pain in my life—fat, bullied, depressed, my mother dying—I gravitated toward and became obsessed with girls I knew would spurn me. What else were they going to do when I was so fucked up and awkward? Thus I used them and their rejection as magnets for my pain; I was spurned and so would go into mourning over girls I barely even knew because the grief there—no matter how bad—was almost manageable compared to what would’ve awaited me had I really thought about, and confronted, the dire state of my life.
I was punishing myself with these girls, both out of laziness—it suited me not to move forward—and because I wasn’t the boy, and then man, I wanted to be. I knew I could lose weight and be more confident—and, most importantly, be free of my stupid obsessions—but I could never make the effort and take the final step to put these beliefs into action. I hated those girls because they rejected me but, really, I hated myself more because I rejected life.
Did my mother dying affect my idea of love? Probably. Because when she died it seemed like she’d already been dead for a while. I was so wrapped up in my own puny suffering that I didn’t give due attention to hers. Her dying made me realize, though not at first, that the people in my life who did give me love, even family and friends, weren’t to be overlooked simply because their love didn’t serve my ego. It’s cliched, but I learned that, one day, they and their love would be gone.
To romanticize or be cynical about young love is a form of self-protection. We guard ourselves from the horrible (and sometimes ecstatic) truth of what went on because we believe, deep down, that we don’t deserve to learn from this period and liberate ourselves from our wounds and insecurities. We punish ourselves because we think we’ve failed our potential and gone back on the promises we made to ourselves when younger. How did I possibly think I could find love back then when I didn’t even know what it was? How can we expect anything but dissatisfaction from our present-day love when we deny our past suffering and what we’ve learned from it?
I could’ve gone on as I was, resisted B forever and fucked things up with her, and fucked things up with other women and on and on until I was so tired that I either resigned myself to being alone or settled for someone I wasn’t completely satisfied with. I wonder if that sounds familiar to you?
If it does, try to remember. Force yourself to recall how pathetic and painful it was to be in love back then—and maybe even write it down—and see if your life doesn’t improve. Because what’s worse? The pain of looking backward while moving forward, or the pain of standing still?
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