In my second year at university, I got a job in the computer lab at the main halls of residence. I got it because the manager used to live in my old house, and I had a ton of mail addressed to him, which I threatened to withhold if he didn’t give me work. (Remember, I was still a teenager and therefore I never paused to tone down my interactions with the rest of the world.) He thought I seemed weird, but he let me have a one-off shift, and then, through managing to be in the right place at the right time, I wound up with more permanent shifts than anyone else. I never got around to giving him his mail, either, and eventually dumped it at some point, like probably two years later when I was moving home.
#36 was a tall American who was living in halls. I’d seen him around and I knew his name because #42 vaguely knew him through a friend. He was very conventionally attractive, I mean like gorgeous. It turned out he’d done modelling, which was no surprise. In the first few weeks of term I cultivated a crush on him without any real hope of him even noticing me.
He noticed me. I was working in the lab with freshly dyed green hair, listening to Hot Wired Monstertrux when he showed up one Saturday. Flustered, I handed him a swipe card for an Apple Mac – because I already knew he used them instead of the default PCs – and then realised he hadn’t actually asked for one yet, which clearly confused him. When he was leaving, I could feel him staring at me. A moment later, he returned. “I know I shouldn’t be hitting on the girl who works here,” he said, “but –” and he held out his hand and introduced himself.
Please note that back then, I was unfamiliar with the phrase ‘to hit on someone’. I thought maybe it meant bugging me, you know, distracting me from my work or whatever. He asked if he could give me his number. I gave him my card – yes, I’d had cards printed, I was delighted about them – and told him to contact me first (because I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on).
He e-mailed me a day or two later and said he hadn’t seen anyone else “industrial-looking” in Edinburgh. I guess it was lucky I hadn’t been listening to Ani DiFranco that day. #36 himself looked pretty wholesome, but I think he came from goth roots. We met up; I gradually figured out that we were doing what Americans call dating.
The concept of dating still pretty much mystifies me. As has already been well-documented, my strategy is generally to get off with someone and then maybe, maybe, see them again. A more formalised chain of events makes me feel kind of anxious. All the same, I half fell for the idea, yet again, that the excitement of him having noticed me too meant this was going to be big. Like it was going to be perfect or something. I still needed to address the fact that I was romanticising and idealising people, and come up with a more realistic approach.
That said, I managed to not be a total train wreck this time round. After a couple of dates, he told me about his girlfriends, three of them. I had never before considered non-monogamy and I was not, at the time, in the right headspace for it. Okay, none of his girlfriends were even in Europe, but when you feel uncomfortable with something, you have to listen to that, rather than doing yourself some damage in an attempt to adapt. You need to figure out when it might be worth stepping out of your comfort zone, and when it’s not. This was not the time.
Furthermore, #36 told me, he wasn’t ready to take on another girlfriend. This was okay on one level, as I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one of many (although, disaster struck one night: two of his girlfriends phoned and broke up with him for different reasons. He was kind of shell-shocked about that, and I hadn’t a clue how to express sympathy appropriately, given that it seemed to me to be a struggle to find even one partner in the first place).
On the other hand, if I was ‘seeing someone’, which was what I appeared to be doing, I usually expected to be able to use a word for it. You know, to call him my boyfriend, that kind of thing. Somehow, back then it felt weird and insecure to not have that privilege, even though nowadays I could furnish you with an extensive list of important people in my life for whom there are no simple labels. I didn’t push it, but #36 knew I wasn’t too thrilled about the set-up.
After I spent the night with #37 for the first time, everything changed. #36 was fine with the fact that I’d gotten some action elsewhere. But he also showed up at my place without quite the level of confidence I was used to seeing in him. He’d been thinking, he said, that maybe if I wanted this to be a proper relationship, you know, give it a name or whatever and legitimise it, we could do that. I thought. I said no, actually, let’s just keep it the way it is and see what happens.
I went to see Alien: Resurrection with him and some of his friends and then we all went back to his place and watched Fierce Creatures and at some point during the night of sub-standard films, I knew. Not long after everyone else had gone, I left too. We didn’t say it out loud that this meant it was over. It was like code. We knew. I walked home marvelling at the decision I had made. It was cold and the streets were empty. I had wanted to be with him but it hadn’t been right for me and now I had extricated myself from it instead of sticking around waiting to get hurt. It was the first time I had made a decision like this. The next night I would get drunk at Café Graffiti and rant about it to my friend Kameel, and he’d point out that I was trying to smoke a cigarette the wrong way round, but right now I felt mature and smart and grown-up and empowered. I’d made the right choice.