Please, please don’t shove this in recycling and do hear me out. I apologise for disguising this letter in a NatWest envelope to make it look like one of your bank statements. I realise that appears duplicitous. But Seth (you remember, my tech guru) has confirmed that you haven’t loaded a single one of my emails since we split. So I worried you might not open a physical letter, either. Honestly, I don’t blame you for being angry with me, because I’m angry with myself. Even if we still never see each other again, I’d feel so much better if I’ve successfully proffered my contrition. I’m not a monster, though I sometimes feel like one.
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Of course, this is no excuse, but it helps explain my behaviour — erratic, harsh, volatile, yes, everything you said — that it was a really crazy time. In the news, on Twitter, everywhere, every day another terrible story of men abusing their positions of power and treating women abominably. No, no, no, no, don’t stop reading, I promise I won’t natter on about that stuff again; I know you got an earful at the time. And I thought for a long while you were remarkably patient and sympathetic. We both agreed those first few revelations were totally terrible and the we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore posture of the whistle-blowers made women seem strong and fierce. But I can see now how after a while the nonstop whingeing and indignation might have started to wear on you, and how some of the later “scandals” might have seemed dodgy or small beer. I’m only reminding both of us that we fell out in a larger context, one in which maybe I got too wrapped up. But I didn’t concoct that context all by myself.
While I didn’t have my own big story of outright abuse to share on Facebook, all the little slights — the hands on my bum on the tube, the rude remarks on the street, the pressure I’d often felt to go ahead and shag men I didn’t especially like because it was easier to say yes and get it over with than to hold my ground (an abdication I now attribute not just to male brutishness but to my own timidity and even a funny kind of laziness) — well, they all seemed to bundle into a story of a sort. That said, I wonder if, had I never been pestered, catcalled, or pursued by any men trying to get a leg over, I’d be bitter too, just in a different way.
And I guess I wanted to feel part of something. I liked the sensation of solidarity. Also, I’ve tried to be honest with myself during the unwanted solitude of the past few years: with all the social justice stuff swirling around, I was tired of being shunted onto the naughty step as “privileged”, when I was up to my eyeballs in credit-card debt and struggled with eating disorders — which you also had to put up with, since I ruined so many of the dinners you paid for by only eating the lettuce or something. So I think it was a relief to say, like, “Know what? I have problems, too. My life hasn’t been a picnic, either.”
Although I got something out of bearing a collective grudge, the problem with a grudge is it doesn’t work in the abstract. Inevitably, I bore it against the nearest palpable object I could get my hands on, and that object was you. I know I got too touchy. I suppose I was on the lookout. That time you asked me to pick up your dry cleaning because you were running late, and I exploded about how I “wasn’t your sherpa”? Maybe it was nothing to do with gender after all. Maybe you were just asking an ordinary favour. Yeah, I know: that’s what you said, back then. That it was a totally normal request of a girlfriend, or of anybody really. The dry cleaner was only five streets away.
Obviously, the sherpa thing wasn’t what did us in. I have a hard time thinking about that night, about which I was angry for a long time, as I’m sure you were. But the main reason I wanted to write this letter is that once the MeToo frenzy started to subside I sort of woke up, and calmed down, and thought differently about what happened. I’ve rerun the sequence of events, which got a bit jumbled during all that rehearsal, I’m afraid. But the bones of the story are pretty clear from a distance. You were really into it on the sofa, which maybe I should have taken as a compliment, and then tried to get into it, too.
The bottom line was I wasn’t in the mood. I should have just said so. Like, out loud. Instead, I got super bothered that you couldn’t tell I wasn’t in the mood. After two solid years (happy ones, or they were for me), why didn’t you know me better? I thought, maybe you didn’t even care if I was into it. You just wanted what you wanted and what I wanted didn’t seem to matter. So I guess I got weirdly resentful. Then this old habit kicked in where instead of saying, no, I’d really rather go back to watching The Night Manager, I went along with it, out of that laziness I mentioned, or cowardice, or maybe me thinking that what I wanted didn’t especially matter. And then I got the hump even more, because it had never been like that with you before, sort of lying back and thinking of England, and that made me feel hurt and disappointed and perversely left out. I’m not justifying my reaction, only explaining what went on in my mind.
Also, something about the whole sex thing had gone a bit funny by then. I’d been reading all this stuff, and texting with friends and following Rose McGowan on Twitter, and the entire protocol of sex had started to seem like an imposition, or an act of domination, or an invasion. Physically I guess invasion is the whole deal, and when it works it’s like you can’t tell where one person stops and the other begins; not having “boundaries” or “protecting your space” is the point. But that’s not where my head was. It was almost as if we’d all gone back to our great-grandmothers’ time, when sex was something you just put up with so your husband would pay the bills. And now we could pay our own bills, so why put up with it? Honestly, during that whole period I don’t remember a single female saying anything nice about sex at all.
Most of all, I wanted to apologise for using the R-word. I didn’t think about how a man must feel when a woman throws that accusation at him; it’s not just a charged word for women but for everybody. And it must be even more awful when it’s hurled by someone (if I may presume) you love. Still, the word was so much in the air then that it seemed to have lost some of its punch — you know, we supposedly had “rape culture” everywhere, which didn’t necessarily involve anyone doing anything materially horrid to anyone else. So it seemed like an ordinary thing to say. But it wasn’t ordinary. I don’t blame you for being shocked and even frightened. I may not have had a great time that night, but I was still out of order.
So I get it. After all, you were plenty clear at the time. If I was going to throw around that kind of language, you couldn’t afford, even legally afford, to be with me. And if going forward we had to conduct a contractual negotiation every time — setting our terms, deciding on a safe word, agreeing that every couple of minutes you would “check in” and make sure I wanted to carry on — you said you wouldn’t even be able to get it up. I’d made myself dangerous to you and made shagging too much trouble and too risky and no fun. In fact, maybe you’d sympathise with Aiden McMahon (you remember, the jobbing guitarist? Slight paunch? Big hair?), who announced to me a few weeks after you left that he’d concluded most women were — let me see if I can get this right — “petty, vengeful, hysterical, self-pitying, thin-skinned, weak and mean at the same time, completely confused about what they want and impossible to please”. He was swearing them off altogether in favour of “taking himself in hand”. At least getting the business over solo was efficient, economical, and uncomplicated, he said, and so long as he never did it in a park in front of three-year-olds a good wank would never land him in jail.
If you haven’t said good riddance to the lot of us as well, I assume you’ve moved on, and you probably have a wonderful new girlfriend or even wife who eats all her dinner. But I wanted you to know that I haven’t found a wonderful new boyfriend. Working from home has been a disaster for me; I hardly leave the flat. I miss you. I know it’s been four years and I should have got over you ages ago, but I haven’t. I have all these pictures on my phone — of us celebrating your admission to med school at The Ivy, or making that tofu dish that turned into such a scrambled-eggs disaster — and I alternate between feasting on them and not being able to bear a glance. It’s almost impossible to meet anyone anymore, and I think you were my chance. I messed it up. I’d beg you for another go even at the sacrifice of my dignity, but when I remember the hardness in your face when you walked out of here with your shaving gear and tennis rackets, I have a sinking feeling that some damage can’t be undone and some words can’t be unsaid. We were a good fit at a bad time.
Yours — still yours,