When you’re young those Disney movies you watch are your ideals of love. There are sweeping gestures, songs, colours, none of which exist in your everyday life. Romantic love is some far off ideal, further away than the fairy tale castle the Princes go to rescue their Princesses. Our love for our parents is real enough, but hedged in with being made to eat all of the peas on the plate before you get down from the table, or going to sit on the naughty step because you’ve pulled your sister’s hair again while fighting over whose turn it is with the t.v. remote.
True Love is more than the tiny mundane world you build in your home. It is vivid technicolour where anything can happen as the story twists and turns, whirling through landscape after landscape as the birds trill as they bring scarves and fabric to dress you. True Love is first kisses giving meaning to the life you were spending waiting to start Really Living. True Love is built from bigger things than your hands can grasp. It is the Duplex to your Lego. Your hands don’t yet fit around it, but you recognise the shape of it in your palm.
When I first met him, we danced around each other, neither of us making the first move. We got to know each other as we walked along gravel paths by buildings twined with wisteria whose scent gushed over us as it drifted in the breeze. The rain lapped the outside of the glass panes of the library we shared as we studied together and stacked our piles of books and papers next to each other. My heart fluttered like a hummingbird in my chest every time my phone lit up with a text from him. I could recognise the smell of the aftershave he started wearing to the library and would follow it around until I found the desk he had chosen to work at, which always had another desk next to it already cleared for my books.
Our first date was dinner at a local pub and there was no talking crockery or animals scampering around to take our order. He had the curry and I had a salad I picked at because I was too sick with nerves to eat. The wine he ordered slicked down our throats and we remembered there was nothing to be scared of, we already knew each other. There was a storm outside so thick that we left huddled under the sturdy umbrella he had thought to bring with him because mine was too small to work well in the gale. He held onto my arm because his foot still hurt from earlier on in the day when he was playing rugby, and I was cold from the rain at my back so I huddled into his coat when he opened it for me. When we kissed at the gate there was no air left in the world. There were no other people, there was no sound from the storm and the wind. The raindrops on my glasses refracted, haloing every streetlamp when I opened my eyes again. The night brightened and he said
‘I don’t expect you to say yes, and I won’t think less of you for it, but would you like to stay?’
And I stayed for two years inside the world we built together. Seven hundred and thirty days of wearing his hoodies because it felt like he was still hugging me from where he lay in the bed I had left to go to lectures. I learnt that he loved coriander and we filled windowsills in the flats we lived in together with leafy green stems we snipped into almost every meal. None of them lasted long enough to grow leggy. He learnt I was addicted to Quavers, that I’d never been allowed to watch The Simpsons as a child, that I hate water getting in my eyes in the shower. He took to cupping his hands around my eyes so I could still see through the water that pounded the tiles around us as we washed together. For emergencies, we had jars of coriander at the front of the spice rack he had swung triumphantly into the trolley one Sunday afternoon in Sainsbury’s. He put it together in the kitchen, fumbling with the tiny screws while I laid the table and lit the large candle he had placed inside a glass dome that was half filled with sand.
‘It’s just like the one at home,’ he said, kissing my neck as he held me close and I leant my head to one side, saying ‘It’s our home. And it’s perfect.’. He nuzzled his head into my shoulder and I wrapped my arms around his to squeeze him to me tightly.
I memorised the way he folds his clothes and how he has to have papers piled to the left hand side of his laptop, and never his right, which type of pen he prefers, how his bed always gets made first thing in the morning as a last hang over from his time at boarding school. Our flat was not a messy one. He insisted that all of the things we used the night before had to be put away before we could start the day. The surfaces had to be clear, but the sink could stay full of dirty dishes for days if I didn’t wash them.
He never liked the feeling of old food on his fingers but he hated that I had to do it because he wouldn’t. We had our first fight over a sink of cooling soap suds. He wanted to eat out more, to pay for us both to be happy and not have to do any of the work. I wanted to rinse off the dishes as soon as we’d finished with them, and I didn’t even mind doing the dishes, I just hated leaving things undone. We laughed afterwards at how ridiculous it was to be fighting over something so unimportant and domestic.
I bought bunting with cupcakes on to decorate for a picnic I held to celebrate my June birthday, and it migrated into our bedroom. Pink hung across the walls and he didn’t care when his rugby mates came round and saw it in what had been just his white flat before I was in his life. He had white sheets and towels and blankets and for his birthday I bought him a white throw with a cut-out pattern on it as a compromise. I wanted the pattern and he wanted the white. When I explained to him it was a blanket of the both of us, he wrapped me up in it and kissed me ‘til we were breathless, and flung us onto our bed so hard I swear that’s when the frame cracked. We heard the sharp snap of the wood. We didn’t care. It held our weights for a few more weeks before it broke, slinging us both onto the floor as we were having sex before lectures.
He jumped up swearing, saying he’d been about to thrust so hard at the mattress he’d nearly broken his cock, and I was laughing too hard at the pair of us naked and tipped out of the bed onto the floor I could barely move. I was curled up and shuddering with how funny it all was. He stormed into the bathroom and slammed the door so hard the frame juddered and the lampshade in the living room was swinging, and I tried to stop laughing long enough to call him to come back and finish, it didn’t matter that the bed had finally given up, it didn’t mean that we had to. When he opened the door again my hairbrush was snapped and all of my bottles of shampoo and conditioner and makeup, all of my clutter I had arranged neatly to fit with his order, had been hurled around. The bathroom was coated in swirls of white liquid and powders. ‘It’s not fucking funny. I’m not a fucking joke.’ he said, grabbing his clothes from the bedroom floor. I saved it all bar one eyeliner pencil that had been broken into the toilet. My favourite makeup pallet had a cracked mirror, but the pieces were big enough to break off and bin without getting glass mixed in with the eye shadow.
The duct tape he used wasn’t enough to hold the bed together, it was a rushed patch job at best. When we broke the bed again he dove back under the bed with more duct tape and a stack of books he was never going to read so ‘they may as well be turned into another bed leg to hold it up.’. I began buying lingerie in the section marked ‘bridal’ because he said liked me best when I was sweet, not slutty, and I loved him more for not wanting me in the way that other men had. The next year, I made pancakes for his birthday breakfast and stuck candles into a brie because he hates cakes. I woke him wearing a white lace negligee as I carried the lit brie across to where he sprawled across the bed, his arm across his eyes in a stance so familiar to me I didn’t need to see it to know that’s how it would be. ‘This is the best birthday ever.’ he said, shaking his head and smiling, ‘It’s brie, not cake, don’t worry.’ I told him leaning across the bed to kiss him good morning, ‘I know.’ he said, ‘I found it hidden in the fridge but didn’t want to ruin your surprise.’
When I left him, the bunting was the last thing I took down from our walls. We had moved into a smaller place, so there was less room for my things to decorate. It made it easier to move out in a single evening he spent at his friend’s house watching the football. It had seemed pointless bringing all of my things along to our new place when there wasn’t enough room and he needed space for his weights for rugby training. It still took me hours to pack suitcase after suitcase and take them to be emptied quickly onto the floor of my friend’s bedroom. Things had changed after our move to a smaller, shared flat. I still cooked, but we ate in our room instead of the large kitchen we shared with the other students. There wasn’t a big enough windowsill for the coriander plants so we had to keep them outside on the small smoker’s balcony. He complained that our flatmate Tom got ash on them on purpose. I argued that he was making it up, it’d be fine when it was washed. After I left him I ran into Tom in the street and had to awkwardly explain that I didn’t live with him anymore. He said he missed seeing me at breakfast, but it all made sense now.
‘Henry’s a bit of a weird one ain’t he? Just something not quite right’ he said, shrugging as he shielded his match to light another cigarette.
‘Yeah, he’s a twat. I should have known better. But hey, life lesson, it turns out party girl and rugby boy don’t always work out so well. Uni maths doesn’t always add up.’ I replied.
‘Aye, everyone had the two of you pegged as the next couple to get hitched. Well, I’m sorry I won’t see you around anymore. And I’m sorry he was such a dick.’ he said, hugging me briefly before walking away. I stood dazed in the street as tourists moved around me. I didn’t say that there was truth to the rumours. I had already said yes to Henry, I had begged him to marry me in the middle of a fight, crying ‘I love you, I won’t hurt you again, you’ve got me, I won’t leave you, I want to marry you, I love you so much, I’m so sorry I won’t do it again. Please. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I don’t even want to talk to other men, you don’t have anything to be scared of, I’m yours. You’ve got me, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please stop.’
His fist bloomed against the wall next to my head as he collapsed against me, pressing me to the wall so tightly my ribs hurt when I breathed. I had him back with me as we both cried and kissed each other and promised that this would be forever, that we wouldn’t make the mistakes our parents did. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, cradling me against the battered wall. ‘I’m just so scared of losing you. I hate it. I can’t stand the thought of you being with anyone else so I get mad and I can’t help myself.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose and wiped the tears from his eyes as he sighed and shifted us both down the wall. He pulled me into his lap and my heart was still pounding so hard it felt like the floor was shaking. His arms were steady around my waist, pinning me against him.
‘It’s ok. I know you don’t mean it, but it’s ok. We’re engaged now, we’ll get married and have the rest of our lives together. You’re my One. Believe that. Believe me. You’ll always have me. You don’t need to be scared anymore.’ And in that moment all the fear of an uncertain future slid away. We held each other as specks of plaster floated in the air, and when we went to bed we tangled together like a pretzel and woke up with grins on our faces at the secret we shared. We called it being ‘pre-engaged’ and Henry started to look for a ring. He was getting impatient and planning how he would propose by the time I left him. I told him I wanted to wait until after I finished uni before getting engaged properly. He said it wouldn’t make a difference, and if I really was his then I should act like it and wear the ring he was going to buy me to prove it.
We fought about me wanting to stay to finish university often in those last months. We argued every time I left the flat without him. He believed I was wasting the time we had left living together, that I was choosing to spend time with other people over spending time with him. ‘If you really loved me, I’d be enough for you. Why do you have to see your friends? You’re ditching me to have lunch with them, so what am I going to do for lunch, hey? Did you even think about me or how I’d feel about your ‘plans’? No, because you’re a fucking selfish bitch. Go and have lunch with your fucking friends. You don’t even give a fuck about me. You’re always doing this. You never think of anyone but yourself.’ he said, and my hands shook as I put on my mascara and he wouldn’t kiss me before I left. ‘You look like a whore. Why are you even wearing makeup? You never wear makeup for me.’
‘That’s because you always tell me not to.’
‘You don’t need to wear makeup, Saz. You’re pretty without it.’
‘But I like wearing it. I like how it looks when I wear it.’
‘You look like a whore when you wear it, so why are you going out looking like a whore and why are you not letting me come?’
‘You don’t like my friends.’
‘Your friends are fucking ridiculous. They don’t really like you. I can tell. They’re all so fucking fake, I can’t believe you can’t see that, Sazzy, it’s bloody obvious to everyone else.’
730 days and a single lunch was what ended it. I cancelled lunch. I left Henry in the library to go and meet Lucy to tell her why I would be going home to have lunch with Henry again instead, her face hardened as she gritted their teeth.
‘Seriously, Sarah. He won’t even let you out for a lunch. I get why he’s a bit weird about you clubbing with us, but lunch? Honestly? Are you happy living like this? When was the last time you did anything without him that you wanted to do, not something to fit in around his schedule? We haven’t seen you in months.’
‘I don’t remember, Lu. I’m just so fucking tired. I can’t do it. I love him, I..I really really love him, but I can’t do it. I can’t do this anymore.’
Disney never tells you what to do when your Prince turns out to have been a Gaston all along. Rom-Coms never go into what happens when the first bloom of love has faded, and when the break up and division of things happens. They never say what it’s like to build a life together and what it feels like to be the one to break that apart. There were screaming rows down the high street, with tears blurring my vision until all I could see was my feet as I kept walking with my head down as he screamed into my face: ‘No one will ever love you the way I do. You’re a fucking worthless whore. You think anyone will have you now? They won’t. You’re mine. You promised. You fucking promised. You have nothing without me. Nothing. So don’t you fucking dare end this. You’re so fucking useless you’ll throw away the only thing you have that’s any good in your life. You’ll just throw me away just like that. You think you can get away with treating people like that, Sazzy? You’re fucking selfish. You fucking bitch. Don’t you fucking walk away from me. It’s not over. We are not over. You can’t tell someone you fucking love them, that you’ll fucking marry them, and then walk out on them. You. Can’t. Do. This. You’re such a fucking liar!’
I spent months familiarising myself with the pavements of our town. If my head was down he might not see me. He did have a point. I had lied to him. The night when he came back to our room empty of all of my things, he couldn’t believe I was being serious when I told him we were finished. I couldn’t breathe as he yelled at me.
He locked the door and told me I couldn’t leave, pushing me back into the room and beginning that familiar steady walk towards me as he began to unbuckle his belt. The panic attack started before he reached me, and I bargained while I could still speak. I told him I would think it over, that I needed a night to myself to think about it and that I would call him the next day to talk about it more because we were both worked up and tired. He eventually let me leave and I limped to my friend’s house.
He rang me from outside the house first thing the next morning, and I let him into the house and told him again that it was over. I lied when I told him that I didn’t love him anymore and that was why we were through. It was the one thing I knew he couldn’t forgive, although he knew me well enough to argue with me for months that it wasn’t true. He was used to hearing my small silences and when he asked me to pinpoint when I stopped loving him I had paused before replying. I still loved him, but I loved freedom more and that was something he would always be too fearful to give me. I had finally collected enough bruises to believe that.
Years later and my friends and I are discussing love while we wait for the train into town. ‘No one has ever loved me. Not really. Not like properly loved me and been romantic and whatever.’ my friend says, sighing at the delayed sign that flashes up on the departures board. ‘At least Henry loved you. He was a psychopath and fucked up, but there’s no doubt that he loved you.’
‘I don’t ever want love if it’s going to be like that.’ I reply, ‘I don’t want anyone to love me that much they lose their mind like Henry did. Hurting someone so much like that, I can’t ever cope with that again.’
‘But you know that he really did love you. That’s something. And you can’t blame yourself for how he acted. He always was a nutjob.’
He really did love me. Or at least, he believed that he did. But that love was twisted into something that was painful and hurt us both. Love isn’t as simple as a Disney love song, or a fairy tale where everyone gets to live happily ever after in lives that are charmed and always filled with dreams coming true. Love isn’t about ownership, or control, or fear, or denying that a world outside of the two of you exists. Love is not surrendering all of yourself to try to please someone else. It is the daily grind, it’s the small things that count the most and it’s the small things I choose to remember. It’s the love notes in lunch boxes on first days at new jobs, it’s ordering a takeout delivery from 3,000 miles away because you know they’ve had a bad day and you can’t be there in person, it’s rubbing their back as they vomit into the toilet knowing that you’ll have the bug next but you can’t bear to let them suffer alone, and it’s staying up for 36 hours to help them study for their final exams. It’s compromise and hard work and looking for the light you know you love in those green eyes when everything they’ve done that day has pissed you off so badly a part of you wants to make them feel shitty too. But there is a selfishness to love too. You have to keep a part of yourself separate. Love is a Venn diagram, two whole circles bisecting, each gaining something from the fullness of the other.
I still find myself with coriander in my cupboard, huddled up at the back of the other spices. Somehow it always finds its way into my home, ghosting its way into my trolley in the supermarket before I have time to realise it is there. I barely use it. I used to hold out for a day in the future where a faceless man I have yet to meet and fall in love with would turn to me from a pot he is stirring in our sitcom-like kitchen and say ‘Hun, do we have any coriander?’ and I’d say ‘Nope. Don’t think so. I’ll go and pick some up in a sec.’ I would be free from grazing my knuckles against the glass of a jar of coriander and having the jolt that comes with it as I remember why I pushed it to the back. Years later I now understand that it will always be like this, that I will never make the dream of a coriander free kitchen a reality. In a small way I am glad to be free from the guilt of another broken promise. I did promise him a part of me forever, and his role in my past does make him a part of me. I can never hit rewind and replay my life differently into an edited version that no longer has him in it. I still think of him, I still think that fresh coriander tastes like blood, and I still miss that girl who smiles back alongside him in photographs that haunt my computer screen late at night. I flick through them in a secret slideshow when everyone else is sleeping. She looks so young, so open, so in love, and so trusting in his arms.
Corinne is a writer moving from writing predominately poetry to focusing on short stories and novels. She has had poetry published by ‘The Rialto’ and ‘The Dial’. She grew up between Cambridge, York, and Lincolnshire, and has recently settled in London. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths.