By my second or third year at university I had foundered on the rocks of a woman’s indifference. I adored her; she thought I wasn’t bad company when I wasn’t being annoying. She could take me or leave me.
I was perplexed. This didn’t match any of my casually imagined, solipsistic futures. Fiction’s fastidious structuring had left me ill prepared for life’s inconsequence.
I’d assumed such strength of feeling would be reflected, in some form – if not immediately, then at least after I’d made such an effort to be agreeable. Surely it was a scientific principle, like the law of conservation of energy, or something. Otherwise there would be no balance to anything, no equilibrium; it would all be a shapeless chaos.
But my declarations fell flat: a small, damp thud and an awkward silence. Nothing I said or did seemed to make any difference. Her indifference was visceral, illogical and unchanging. I couldn’t argue her out of it. It was exasperating.
Then, in a huff, I became very ungentlemanly. I was affronted. Since we’d first met, we’d always had terrible rows. We were both stubborn and sensitive youngest siblings. But I was so unfamiliar with rowing between friends, so surprised by it, that I couldn’t really process what was going on. I wasn’t aware how distressing I found it. I just thought there was an encouraging intimacy to it.
Rather than whispering private savageries, or bowing and walking away with my dignity intact, I began experimenting with Heathcliffian melodrama. But my acts of social violence, of sabotage, of public accusation, of deliberate theatre, just made me look like a horrible person. I wasn’t a Romantic hero calling out cruelty, and the nasty intensity and the wrongness of it scared me.
I needed to regard myself as a good person. My fear of being in the wrong now starved my complaints of venom or full-blooded passion. Instead I opted for a sort of pitiful, anaemic fretfulness. I whined; I was wounded; I quietly bad-mouthed her to our mutual friends. I caused a fuss.
Being good also meant acknowledging when I was wrong. I spent a lot of time apologising, always qualified with reproach. I’d say, “Look, I’m sorry that I…, but you…” I hoped that by being an utter arse but admitting it, I could retain the moral high ground!
However, even when insincere, words can retain enough residual meaning, or emotional charge, to influence your thinking, especially if they’re repeated often enough. You get used to the shape of them, of their relational dynamics. The more I apologised, while she did not, (and why should she?), the more I admitted that I was the villain (which I was), the more subordinate I became.