CARO­LINE FLACK

A let­ter to the men she’s loved, lost and found

Cosmopolitan (UK) - - Contents - Pho­tographs MATTHEW EADES

Dear First Crush

Boys weren’t on my radar be­fore I saw you. But when I spot­ted you, slop­ing along the school cor­ri­dor with your blond hair parted down the mid­dle in a pair of ‘cur­tains,’ look­ing like Zack from Saved By The

Bell, ev­ery­thing changed. “WHO is that?” I whis­pered to my friend. A few days later, I found out. “Caro­line… there’s a boy on the phone for you,” my mum said, her eye­brows raised and a smile on her face.“He’s ask­ing to speak to the ‘girl with the red head­band’.” That was me. I wore a scar­let Alice band to school ev­ery day. My heart raced: you had no­ticed.

I should have known from that first con­ver­sa­tion that we came from dif­fer­ent worlds. You were from the town. I was from the vil­lage. You asked me what my favourite brand of train­ers was and I was em­bar­rassed be­cause I didn’t even know you could buy dif­fer­ent brands of train­ers. And yet… slow-danc­ing with you at the school party to Madonna’s Crazy For

You was the high­light of my time at school. I was so ner­vous that when you walked away, I swear you could see my sweaty hand­prints em­bed­ded in the back of your T-shirt. We used to hold hands, and at lunchtime we would walk up to the top fields to­gether and talk, and be­cause of that I as­sumed you were my boyfriend. I was naive about love, you see. I thought it was un­com­pli­cated. I thought af­fec­tions were matched, and that when a boy said he liked you, that was it. But you taught me oth­er­wise. You might not re­mem­ber how it ended but, 25 years later, I still do.

We were walk­ing down the cor­ri­dor one day when you turned to me and said, “If you took a pic­ture, it would last longer.” God, that hurt. I never saw it com­ing. I couldn’t un­der­stand what had changed – only that ev­ery­thing had. Af­ter that, we barely spoke again. Yours was the first name I ever wrote on a desk and you were the first per­son to make me ap­pre­ci­ate the power of love songs. (Glo­ria Este­fan, it turned out, was the bard of teenage angst. I played her song Can’t Stay Away From You on re­peat for about two months.)

When I closed my eyes in bed at night, I’d think, ‘One day he’ll come back.’ And then, three years later, you did. But not be­cause you wanted to. I was dat­ing your friend and I guess you had a point to prove. You came to me hold­ing a teddy bear as a gift and, just like that, I took you back. But it wasn’t the same. The in­ten­sity had gone. The pu­rity of emo­tion that I had first felt was pol­luted now. I knew you were by my side out of jeal­ousy rather than be­cause you wanted to be there. We lasted a month.

As a 13-year-old, I be­lieved love was sim­ple. Girl likes boy. Boy… well, doesn’t al­ways feel ex­actly the same way about girl. You taught me that, and it was a les­son I would learn again and again.

Dear Older Guy

I was 17, you were 34, and the minute my mum caught wind of your age, she warned me to steer clear. But it was the early noughties; Cam­bridge. Life was about work and play. I was there for dance school, you ran your own com­pany. You swag­gered over one night in the lo­cal club, in­tro­duced your­self and bam! I was hooked. Not every­one ap­proved of you, and so dat­ing was prob­lem­atic. Do you re­mem­ber how I used to climb out of my bed­room win­dow at night just to meet you and then climb back through again to get home?

It’s the first time I had ex­pe­ri­enced a real grown-up re­la­tion­ship. You would open car doors for me. You could hold a con­ver­sa­tion with just about any­one. Some­times I wished I was older so that our re­la­tion­ship made more sense to you. You see, I wanted more than you could give me. You told me one night, as hon­est as the day is long, “Caro­line, this is fun but I can’t of­fer you what you want at the minute.” I nod­ded and smiled like I was OK with that. But I wasn’t. Not re­ally. Your friend, the one with the big shoul­ders, used to say to me,“If I was your boyfriend, I’d treat you bet­ter than he does.” I some­times sus­pected he was right.

In the end you got back with your ex. I was hurt, of course, but then you two had so much his­tory to­gether that I could never com­pete. But I didn’t hate you for it, not for one minute, be­cause you were al­ways hon­est. For you, love was un­com­pli­cated – age had taught you that. But for me there was still a lot to learn.

Dear Right Man, Wrong Time

I didn’t come look­ing for you. But you def­i­nitely came look­ing for me. You were ‘the friend with the big shoul­ders,’ the one who said you’d treat me well. I was vul­ner­a­ble af­ter the break-up and there you were, al­ways around. Al­ways lovely. I was re­sis­tant to get­ting into a re­la­tion­ship at first, but you pur­sued me. And I’ll be hon­est, it was nice to be pur­sued.

You were the first man I took to meet my fam­ily. They adored you straight away and, be­fore I knew it,

“I took you back… but it wasn’t the same”

I adored you, too. You looked af­ter me just as you said you would. You were kind. You taught me how to drive. You loved me so com­pletely that years passed be­fore I looked up to see that the world had moved on with­out me. Friends from dance school were mov­ing out and up. They were get­ting jobs in the West End and on Top Of The Pops while I was fold­ing Baby-gros in a shop. Lon­don was calling me. If I wanted to make it as a dancer, it was where I needed to be.

I asked you to move with me but, deep down, I knew you’d never leave. You had a big ca­reer of your own.“Go to Lon­don,” you said. “We’ll make it work be­cause I’ll never change the way I feel about you.” You drove me all the way there with my bags piled high in the boot of your car. But the minute you drove away I knew some­thing had changed. I won­der if you felt it too. Be­ing a 20-year-old woman, liv­ing in a house full of girls, with the cap­i­tal at her feet, I re­alised what I re­ally wanted was to be free. And that meant no longer be­ing with you. Ours wasn’t a sim­ple break-up – it couldn’t have been. There was still so much love left in it for it to have been any­thing other than long and drawn-out.

Even­tu­ally I ended it, and it was one of the hard­est things I’ve ever had to do. Heart­break with­out re­jec­tion… I of­ten think it’s more dev­as­tat­ing. I cut all ties with the life we’d built to­gether. It was too painful not to. I didn’t want to look back into your life ever again be­cause if you look, you find, and if I found, I wasn’t sure I could deal with it.

But I did see you again. Many years later, I was pre­sent­ing on stage at a mu­sic fes­ti­val and you walked past… a ghost in the crowd. My heart banged so hard against my chest it felt like the whole world could hear. But I didn’t go look­ing for you af­ter­wards. Some ghosts are best left undis­turbed.

I of­ten think about our re­la­tion­ship and how badly it ended. But then, not so long ago, I heard you got mar­ried. Time wears down the jags of heart­break, and with it all the as­so­ci­ated pain, and to hear that you were happy made me feel only… joy. So much so that I wrote to you. I didn’t say a lot – there wasn’t a huge amount to say, only “Thank you. I’m so glad you’re happy.”

Dear Ran­dom Men Of My Twen­ties

Oh, you were an odd bunch – all so dif­fer­ent, so fun and so com­plex in your own ways. There was the pop star who only had one sin­gle. You were lovely... for a minute. I will never for­get the ‘walk of shame’ from your flat to the un­der­ground sta­tion in noth­ing but a cat­suit and heels, and then get­ting my heel stuck in the crevasse of the es­ca­la­tors in front of the morn­ing com­muters for what felt like an eter­nity!

Then there was the lawyer, whose name I changed in my phone to ‘Don’t an­swer’. I’m sorry, but you wouldn’t stop calling and what else was I sup­posed to do? And how could I for­get Mr I’ll Agree With Ev­ery­thing You Say? You know the real rea­son I would change my mind about ev­ery­thing all the time? To see if you would change yours, too. You did. Ev­ery time. If you had dis­agreed with me for once, it might have lasted longer.

But do I re­gret meet­ing any of you? Not a jot. You were part of what makes Lon­don so great – this big mix of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the world all bump­ing up against one an­other. Each one of you tested my bound­aries, my pa­tience and what I was search­ing for in a part­ner.

Dear Mr Com­pli­cated

I was never what you wanted, let’s be hon­est. You had just come out of a big re­la­tion­ship, and the truth is I wasn’t sure you’d ever got over it. But I was 24 and im­pressed. You were much older. So­phis­ti­cated. Wiser… or so I thought. But the warn­ing signs were there from the be­gin­ning. Like the way you would only ever come over to the house I shared with six other girls, even though you lived in your own beau­ti­ful house all alone. Or the way you would tell me about the colour of your ex’s eyes, your whole face light­ing up ev­ery time you talked about her. I could never quite shake her pres­ence out of our re­la­tion­ship and I knew, deep down, that I could never mea­sure up. The prob­lem was I was be­sot­ted with you. None of my friends could un­der­stand it, of course, but I did. I sup­pose it was be­cause I knew I could never re­ally have you.

But then you started to get weird. Like the time you fi­nally in­vited me round and we had to sit in the gar­den while you stroked a piece of string that was at­tached to your dead cat who was buried in the gar­den. (I thought it was a sign you were sen­si­tive, my sis­ter thought you were odd.) Your be­hav­iour be­came strangely con­trol­ling, too – though I was too naive to no­tice it at the time. You would de­mand I wore my hair a cer­tain way, ber­ate the way I looked and make me feel bad about how lit­tle money I was earn­ing. You made me feel pretty worth­less a lot of the time, par­tic­u­larly to­wards the end. The irony of course is that you dumped me! But the good news is I got over you very, very quickly…

“Time wears down the jags and pain of heart­break”

“Isn’t it al­ways the women in your life who res­cue you?”

Dear Big Heart­break

Oh, boy. You were the big one. You were the one who knocked me side­ways. You were the one who left me un­able to get out of bed in the morn­ing. You were the one where the heart­break was so crip­pling, I felt as though my en­tire body had been cov­ered in cling­film and I couldn’t even move. You were the one who changed the colour of ev­ery­thing for the long­est time.

I should have known early on. Af­ter our first date, it took you three weeks to re­ply to my text. In fact, if I hadn’t planned a sec­ond date, I’m not sure you would have ever got your act to­gether. But I’m glad I did it. Be­cause af­ter­wards, that was it – we stayed to­gether for three years. Those years were golden – you were so warm and kind and a bit of wally. Just like me. I thought we might be for­ever, and then one day it all changed. You got a job abroad. I’d been here be­fore – so I took a risk and ended it, think­ing you would change your mind and stay if ‘we’ were on the line. It was a threat – a way to test your love. And it was stupid. You agreed it was over and, just like that, you flew out of my life.

But I never stopped think­ing about you. I con­vinced my­self that if I waited long enough, you would come back. I was like Ryan Gosling in The Note­book. I tried ev­ery­thing to get over you. I re­mem­ber googling ‘How to get over heart­break’ and then, when that didn’t work, ‘Can you die from heart­break?’ So­cial me­dia meant I knew all about your life and the many women who en­tered it – mainly pla­tonic as it turned out, but it didn’t stop me hurt­ing. It was like death by a thou­sand cuts.

But the funny thing is you didn’t let me go com­pletely, did you? I would hear through the grapevine that you still loved me and then, when you came back, we would bump into one an­other at par­ties and you would lean over and whis­per mad­den­ing things, like the fact you’d never met any­one else. I was so con­fused. I used to lis­ten to that song Grav­ity by Sara Bareilles on re­peat. I re­mem­ber there was this line in it: ‘You hold me with­out touch, you keep me with­out chains...’ and I used to think that was like us. That was the power you had over me back then.

In the end, it was my friends who picked me up – be­cause isn’t it al­ways the women in your life who res­cue you from the men in your life? They whisked me away to Amer­ica on a girls’ trip, and out there some­thing mag­i­cal hap­pened. I got over you. I grew. I changed. The pos­si­bil­ity that I might move on and meet some­one new felt real. Un­til the mo­ment I touched back down in Lon­don and there you were, telling me you wanted to give it an­other go. Why did I take you back? It’s a good ques­tion. I look back now and want to slap my­self for wast­ing two of the best years of my life cry­ing over you. But pride is a pow­er­ful thing. The re­la­tion­ship was no longer about you, but more about prov­ing a point to my­self. This time around our re­la­tion­ship was about con­quest, not love. And, be­cause of that, it didn’t work. We faded out quickly. It was so odd be­cause fi­nally you were back where I had al­ways wanted you and yet I just didn’t feel the same any more. I was 31. I was ex­cited about what my third decade had in store for me. I wasn’t scared about be­ing alone as I had been in my twen­ties. If I didn’t meet any­one then I was OK with that. But it took get­ting over you for me to see the strength I had.

Dear Men Of My Thir­ties

I dated friends and I dated younger men and I dated men who were hope­lessly in­ap­pro­pri­ate and it was all… fun. (Cougar­life. com even of­fered me a heap of money to be the face of its web­site! And yes, I said no.) Dat­ing as a thir­tysome­thing woman felt more pow­er­ful than dat­ing in my twen­ties – and all you guys made me see that. By your thir­ties, you’ve sur­vived heart­break, you’ve sur­vived long, messy re­la­tion­ships, you’ve sur­vived un­re­quited love and mad­den­ing love that leaves you tired and con­fused and will­ing to give it all up. Those are im­por­tant things to have gone through and sur­vived. End­ings are dif­fer­ent in your thir­ties, too. I re­mem­ber calling time on one re­la­tion­ship and then see­ing the woman he had cho­sen to set­tle down with in­stead of me. And here was the best bit: I didn’t feel sad or empty. I felt only hap­pi­ness for them both. I looked at her and un­der­stood com­pletely why they worked where we never could. That’s how break-ups in your thir­ties dif­fer from break-ups in your twen­ties. The pain mel­lows very quickly.

Dear Best Mate

Every­one thought we should be to­gether. I mean lit­er­ally every­one. Do you re­mem­ber how we met and within min­utes were laugh­ing like old mates? Be­ing with you was as easy as breath­ing. We both had the same fun out­look on life and we were al­ways, al­ways on the same page about pretty much ev­ery­thing. I don’t think we ever had a se­ri­ous

con­ver­sa­tion about any­thing at all, ex­cept per­haps when we were talk­ing about our love lives. Even our par­ents thought we were a great match. Did I wish we were to­gether back then? No. But if we had had those feel­ings for one an­other, we would have been per­fect to­gether. The prob­lem with love is that you can’t force feel­ings.

Dear Hus­band-To-Be

I’d been sin­gle for three years be­fore I met you. And, to be hon­est, I wasn’t sure I had room in my life for any­one new. I wasn’t scared of be­ing sin­gle on my 40th birth­day in the same way I was on my 30th birth­day. I was good at be­ing by my­self.

I saw you on TV be­fore we’d even met. ‘WHO is that guy?’ I texted my friend.

‘Oh, some man who was on The Ap­pren­tice, I think,’ she replied.

I fol­lowed you on In­sta­gram and you fol­lowed me back with the sim­ple, emo­tion­less line: ‘Thanks for the sup­port.’ (I now know, of course, it took you hours to come up with that!) It made me laugh so I gave you my num­ber. A few days later, we met.

Peo­ple talk about meet­ing some­one and feel­ing as though you’ve known them your whole life. That’s what it felt like when I met you. I’ll never for­get see­ing you walk into the restau­rant – tall, with a smile 10 miles wide, not just for me but for every­one in there. Talk­ing to you was ef­fort­less. There were no first-date nerves – just two peo­ple laugh­ing and get­ting to know each other un­til the early hours. It was how all first dates should be.

Two days later, you turned up at my door with a teddy bear from Har­rods, just like my first crush all those years ago. And, well, you’ve never left.

We laugh un­til we cry. I’ve never had that be­fore – with any­one. Ev­ery other re­la­tion­ship I’ve had has only been about love, but with you it’s about friend­ship, too. It’s what I’ve been look­ing for. My life was com­plete be­fore you came into it – a man doesn’t com­plete your life. But I wanted to make room in it for you. I look at you and I think, ‘Yes, An­drew, you’re the one I’ve been wait­ing for.’

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