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