The Editor discards her aversion to naked, brutal honesty and talks about something that might make her a little unpopular.
I’m not exactly what you’d call ugly. In my previous incarnation as a person paid to be clever and agreeable in the broadcasting industry, I had the chance to interview several high-profile personalities. One of them texted me after his interview, safely ensconced in the, err, safety of his car: “You are VERY pretty.” This wasn’t a testosterone-powered play for my attention; he’d been listening to my show post-interview and I’d joked on-air that I had a “face for radio.”
But this is not about my physical attractiveness. At my age, I’ve watched enough people to know physical attractiveness sometimes has little to do with attraction or with determining the longevity or level of commitment in a non-platonic non-familial relationship.
Let’s start with my family.
My mother is stunning. Like, beauty queen stunning. But she chose my father, who is probably – on a good day — a five on a scale of one to ten, “because he could dance.” That and the fact that they had long conversations into the night before they were married, and now, after almost 50 years of him stubbornly refusing to let her go despite his hundreds of indiscretions, they still have long conversations like best friends, just not as frequently. They both pretend they don’t love each other, but I see otherwise in those rare moments when they completely understand each other.
Twisted by time and gnarly it may be, that love, despite my and my brothers’ scepticism, is still love that has been reinvented a hundred tiny ways from romantic to passionate to acrimonious and disillusioned to indifference until finally settling into a resigned familiarity that has finally taken on some sheen of them finally being able to relax around each other. (A body may be twisted and gnarly, but it is still a body. And so it is, I feel, with love. An adversarial relationship is still a relationship.)
It’s like what the Skin Horse said in The Velveteen Rabbit: you love and are loved until your bones are brittle and your hair has fallen off. Otherwise it’s not love.
Then there are my brothers, the other two-thirds of me, the men who have a far greater influence on my outlook than I’ll ever admit because then they’d never let me forget how much. I jest. If I was an uncut, unpolished ball of energy in my childhood and teens, my brothers gently chipped away at the unnecessary protrusions which life later polished with later-life jagged experiences in my life’s journey.
My brothers have had the same chequered experiences as me in their search for a lifelong partner. At some point in both their lives, they opted for the smart, sassy, opinionated women who were strong-headed and independent. Looks were secondary. Yes, they went out with attractive women who weren’t – just as I wasn’t, either – supermodel material.
The point is this: watching these people with whom I shared a gene pool allowed an observation to flit down to me like dust motes settling on my skin; you didn’t have to pretend to be something else to be loved.
And in the 25 years since I first fell in love with a boy, I have observed some almost-truisms.
The first is that I have never had to use any elaborate, fabricated wiles to be genuinely pursued and persuaded into coupledom.
I never had to put on a bikini and take a selfie and post it on social media. (Let’s pretend for a minute there was such a thing as social media and selfies between 1991 and 2007, the latter marking the beginning of Zuck’s insidious empire in this neck of the woods.)
I never had to post selfies of me working out in a gym.
I rarely had to trowel three inches of makeup on my face and pose alluringly.
And apart from the one time that was 2002, I never had to pretend I was happy to sweat it out in the kitchen, wash a man’s socks and underwear or even be his mother’s or sister’s errand girl. And I certainly never had to drop my job, my family commitments and my promises to friends or bosses just so my boyfriend/fiancé and I could go to the Maldives, Phuket or Berlin during his business trip or to Japan for his family’s skiing holiday.
(Why, did you just want to have sex in a foreign place, darling?)
The first boyfriend I ever fell in love with came up to me in a club while I was drenched in sweat from dancing, standing under an air-conditioner, alone while my friends were scattered everywhere. I was hardly dressed to the nines: cheap blue jeans and a simple black tank top, hair up in an impromptu ponytail, makeup successfully melted away. We lasted six months shy of three years because he slept with a girl my brother was half-heartedly trying to seduce. He came clean a week after I hit the legal voting age.
The second boy I fell in love with, I met on a quiet Saturday night, half a dozen weeks later. My best friend called me unexpectedly and said she was picking me up with a friend; I had no time to change, so I went – again – in blue jeans and a simple t-shirt. The boy was cooking when we entered the mews flat. I ignored him for half an hour and then we circled each other until after the wine and doobies. We stayed up talking all night after everyone had left, until the sun came up. A week later he sent me a bouquet of flowers that took up a quarter of the annexe-flat (more a shoebox, but what a location) I was renting in Earl’s Court, and some hours later he was at my doorstep. A whirlwind of dinners and road trips, nights spent giggling in Brighton, matching silver rings from Covent Garden, followed in the subsequent weeks. It was as intoxicating and heady as the Dolce & Gabbana perfume (the first man to buy me perfume!) he bought me. Two months into our summertime romance he admitted he noticed me from the instant I walked into the basement kitchen, but was only nervous when he saw me playing with my hair in an absentminded way, because that was when he knew he couldn’t let me go home that night. When he took me to the May Ball in June, I drank too much and was sick on his tuxedo. He carried me to his car, drove me back to his friend’s flat, cleaned me, cooked for me and put me to bed. When I wrote my thesis in 24 hours he stayed up with me. For him I willingly sat through my first FA Cup final, (though he did cook delicious salmon cream pasta that made the afternoon more delicious) learned what offside was (all future boyfriends should really thank him for teaching me this properly) and later, months after we’d split up, signed myself up as an MUFC supporter. When I touched down in his home country and called him after our World Cup-induced temporary separation across the Atlantic, he told me we were over. I was mute with dumbfoundedness. But I kept his photos all the same. I never got around to telling him that I would have felt the same way about him even if he became the most low-key, obscure man on the planet. When the two of you can talk and laugh as much as we did, you understand how good such connections feel. Everything else is secondary.
The third man I fell in love with — almost a year later — was my friend for two months before we were even a couple. We had platonic conversations, but the moment for me was when he waited in the rain with me when I waited for a taxi. I had no car. It was a weekday. We waited 45 minutes. It took me a month after that to tell him I liked him as more than a friend, and it took another month before he wrapped me up in his full love. In the space of a year, we only fought once. He was the sort of person that no-one ever had a terrible thing to say about him. His big-heartedness melted the defensive armour I had unconsciously developed from previous heartbreaks. We ended because his mother — after she knew who I was — said she would never allow her son to continue being in love with a woman not of the same religion. Which was just as well as he died four years after we separated. I was unsure if I could have worn widowhood well, but the fates probably already knew I wouldn’t.
The fourth man I fell in love with – after a two year period of refusing to commit to anyone – proposed to me two months after we met. In the three years we were together, I never pressed pause on my life for him.
After him, there were three more marriage proposals and one more engagement. Domestic servitude in any form, shape or manner in any effort to convince them I was marriage material, was not my style.
Getting married was not my sole ambition in life.
All these men who thought they wanted to spend their lives with me, had seen me at my absolute most vulnerable, emotional nakedness. No pretence in layers of makeup, sometimes in my pyjamas, sometimes in my absolute worst mood.
So I cannot say that it was the sex or my carefully made-up face or my carefully-chosen clothes or my ever-smiling demeanour that captivated them, because that’s not true. In the 25 years since my first-ever boyfriend, I can say with some certainty that it was more often than not the times when I wasn’t carefully arranging myself to look my best or seem my best, that these boys (and men) seemed to adore the most. Realness and authenticity.
This is probably not news to those who live in the real world, who have reached that age where they know life is not a constant whirlwind of champagne on yachts with supermodels and endless parties. Though these same mature individuals know life involves diapers, baby poop, cars that need fixing and bills that need to be paid, they are not mired in the drudgery of life, either.
So when the time came that I would finally find myself involuntarily liking someone after a long, deliberate spell of warily watching from behind the high walls necessary for my emotional protection, I was in for a rude shock.
Apparently the rules have completely changed.
Nobody wants real any more.
I found myself liking someone who was orbited by not just perfectly-turned-out fellow females, but someone also bombarded by constant images of contrived, staged perfection.
I also found myself up against women – and girls – who were willing to either change their personality, or develop a new, pretend one or, puzzlingly, change into both depending on what the fella liked.
(Manipulation so stellar the fella mistakes it for love.)
I found myself up against predatory princess types who would have laughed in my face if I sniffed uncomfortably and said I rarely made the first move with any man (or boy) in the 25 years since I knew what being someone’s other half meant.
But most of all, I found myself up against women and girls who were smiling all the damn time, constantly telling the world how blessed they felt, and never, ever having a bad mood and barely having a purely selfless thought that didn’t circle back to themselves and their carefully-arranged public broadcast of their seemingly-endlessly-interesting lives.
Apparently, real had gone out of fashion. Real had been defenestrated when I was busy evolving into the kind of woman the 16-year-old version of me would have been open-mouthed at in awe and admiration, for having done what she said she would do, for having become the kind of woman her grandmother would have been proud of: independent, fierce to love and fierce in love, solid with loyalty and spritzed with the kind of graciousness that would ensure no-one could accuse my mother of having raised a female cur.
Apparently, while I was trying to find the me that was no longer defined by my work or my family or by my friends, most of my fellow females had decided that it was no longer necessary to make men work for our affections.
Instead, they were now the ones working overtime to acquire and retain a man’s affection. Doing anything and everything – be it leaving a lone, aged parent alone at home to cavort to sunny shores with a paramour or losing ten kilos in a month just so other bitchy females circling him wouldn’t be able to bitch about her sloppy figure – was now a duty, a deliberate manoeuvre, not an option. If you sat still long enough, you could almost hear the hissing of competitiveness through the fangs.
They were curating their lives to seem interesting, instead of being interesting, in order to invite these men supposedly in short supply, into their lives. Which they would promptly discard (their own lives, not the men) in order to build up his life, and his alone.
How many stories have I read that go like this, “I did everything for him but after 20 years he left me for a younger woman who never washes his socks”?
Or wives-only lunches where the seemingly perfect trophy wife finds herself sharing her husband with not just a multitude of casual encounters but also, eventually, a second wife?
And underneath all those lunchtime laments, the gurgle of tears seems to say, “I gave up so much for you, and this is my reward.”
So it wasn’t enough for women to get an education and help co-run the world.
You weren’t a successful woman if you were not paired up happily. Who cared if you cleaned up the IMF or made landmark history as the first Supreme Court judge? No. What mattered most on your résumé was whether you had a man, was able to keep him and to what lengths you were prepared to go to keep him and keep him happy.
And in the cut-throat pace of social media foisted upon us – almost involuntarily – apparently now appearance wasn’t everything: it was the only thing.
You weren’t a happy couple unless you showed it to the world constantly. You weren’t a complete woman until you had changed your relationship status on Facebook.
So what was I to do?
I liked this man. I didn’t know much about him, but I wanted to know more. I liked him enough to know I didn’t care if he became the most obscure person in the world. I liked the way his mind worked and I liked him enough to accept the damage he seemed to want to disavow had ever happened with layers of humour and all things superficial and fleeting. I wanted to find out if the two of us could have a long conversation or several conversations that didn’t feel forced or if we could share space side-by-side without one of us feeling the need to be elsewhere.
I liked him enough to not want to be the one to repair the damage, because he’s a grown man and it would be insulting to assume he didn’t know how to deal with it himself. Acceptance and understanding are far harder to attain and extend than the sum of a couple of casual dates together.
In other words, I wanted to enjoy him, not make him my latest project.
It had been a long time since I allowed myself to like a man this way. I’m no misandrist. If I were I might have decamped to the Sapphic variety, but I can’t. I love men, just selectively is all.
But he was orbited by so much that was the antithesis of me. The attention-seeking, the excessively pretty, the very young and the glamorous.
How was I supposed to compete? Me with my simple life and medium dreams. Me with my preference for flat shoes and meaningful, not flashy, friendships. Not that I hadn’t done the glam circuit. Of course I had. (Thankfully there was no social media during those days of debauchery and hedonism.)
But most of us grow out of it and move on to deeper and more textured phases of life.
And slowly, eventually, it came to me.
Why be loved for what you can do for him, rather than for who you are?
Isn’t it a little lopsided if one is working so hard to keep the other when it should be a partnership of equals?
And if he wanted to be with you, isn’t it so much more gratifying if you knew it wasn’t because you could be the housekeeper, the maid, the sex slave, the cleaner, the dishwasher, the laundromat (and the doormat, too), but because he would want to be with you even if you were incapable of doing these things someday?
I’m not entirely sure if I’m wasting all those years when my mother — who worked until she was 60 so that she would never have to worry if my father left her (which he did, for a while) became broke (which he has, several times) or kicked the bucket (which he hasn’t) — stressed to me the importance of an education. So that I could do what I wanted with my life, and not make a joke of all those years by opting to downgrade myself to a second-class citizen in a relationship.
So to the man whom I find myself unexpectedly liking:
I’m sorry if I wasn’t obvious enough to megaphone my interest over social media or in some other blatant form. I’m sorry I cannot compete by starving myself to achieve a bikini-worthy flat stomach which I could snap a picture of so that it would remind you of how desirable I am.
I’m just not built that way. I am built to love, not for the mere sake of changing my relationship status on social media.