I Tried and I Failed

It started with a gif.

The girl in the clip lies flat on the floor with her hands clasped behind her, a long white pole looped between her arms and her lower back. Slowly she pulls her knees forward and then gracefully comes to a standing position with a big smile and a visible six-pack. The heading on this gif was “EVEN HARDER THAN IT LOOKS.”

I watched it, rewatched it, and then with an arrogance borne of pure ignorance thought, “Well it doesn’t look that hard.”

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Exhibit A: The Challenging Gif

I watched the gif again. I read over the comments explaining that to do this correctly, the head, shoulders and pole must stay off the ground. I nodded to myself. Challenge accepted, I thought, nodding confidently, even though nobody had challenged me.

On a mission of my own making, I marched through the apartment with singular focus. I found the mop and pulled off the head with a satisfying THWUNK. I carried the pole to the area in front of the fireplace and lay down on my front.

So far, so good.

I placed the mop handle on my lower back. I locked my fingers together, clasping it in place. I like to think that in this moment my face was a mask of grim determination, but in reality I was probably just facing the wall with the blank resignation of a beached porpoise.

Alright, I thought. Right knee first.

I pulled my right knee up, and then attempted to move my left. This movement shifted my centre of gravity, and in slow-motion I tilted forward, coming to rest on my chin. I looked down my nose at the floorboards and huffed out a sigh of foiled ambition. I put my left knee back down. I moved it up a couple of millimeters and again, my chin came down on the ground. I growled with frustration, and wiggled myself back to the starting position.

The third time, I shifted my left knee and managed to tilt my pelvis up in the air. For a brief moment I felt like I might be getting somewhere; my shoulders weren’t touching the floor and neither was my chin or my pelvis or the mop handle. Unfortunately, I had reached as far as I was going to get.

I was stuck.

I tried to keep going, but I couldn’t move without starting a slow, creaking descent to the floor. I stared blankly at the floor for a moment, and then I started to giggle. There, on the floor, with one knee up around my waist and a mop handle lying across my back, I started to giggle to myself and then I just couldn’t stop. The giggles turned to laughter and I lost the little strength I had in my midsection. My body slumped and the side of my face came to rest against the floor. That made me laugh harder, and soon there were tears streaming from my eyes. I imagined someone walking in and stumbling across my misshapen form, and my laughter turned into hysterical howls.

I spotted movement at the door and shifted my head to meet he worried gaze of my cat, Oscar. He was puffed up defensively and crouching low to the ground, tiptoeing towards me with a face of grave concern. His eyes, wide as saucers, were the only thing countering his sudden and startling resemblance to a fat raccoon trying to steal some food.

The sight of Oscar creeping towards me stole the last bit of breath from my lungs. My laughter turned into choking, wheezy gasps. Oscar carefully and reluctantly picked his way over my knee and under the pole until he was right in front of my face. He stared intently at me, his nose against mine, and then, after a few seconds, apparently decided that there was no danger present other than my own stupidity. He depuffed himself with a shake and trotted over to the side of the room, where he sat at a safe distance to supervise my moronic behaviour. I watched him through a watery haze, laughing to myself on the floor with my mop handle and no upper body strength.

By the time my laughter died away, I was done. I unclasped my hands. I wiped my cheeks and threw the mop handle onto the couch. I picked up Oscar and gave him a hug for coming to check on me, and then went back to work.

It is, indeed, harder than it looks.

“Relationships are Hard Work”

“Relationships are hard work.”

How many times would you say you’ve heard that phrase in your life? People say it to each other all the time; over coffee, over cocktails, in the middle of long, exasperated venting sessions and at the end of despairing exclamations. I’ve said it, and I’ve heard it, and every time there’s a nod of understanding and agreement, because it’s just vague enough to sound accurate.

Recently though, I’ve come to realise that the phrase isn’t specific enough to be true.

It’s a bit like when people say, “Well, sure we fight, but all couples fight.”

I always nod. They both sound pretty straightforward, but the truth is that actually they’re blanket statements broad enough to cover a multitude of realities, and I think we sometimes don’t realise that until far too late.

I was once in a really unhealthy relationship.

I remember the feeling of being stuck in the Swamp of Sadness that was my life at that point, the feeling of our relationship being an endless slog. It would be okay, and then slowly it would be less okay, and then not okay at all, and then terrible, and then there would be an explosive argument with tears and shouting and accusations and apologies…

And then we would be back to the start of the cycle and things would be okay again for a short while. You know, before it all went south – again – like it did every time. Everything felt difficult. If I tried to fix things or communicate why I was so unhappy I was “picking a fight” or ruining everything with my “complaining.” If I kept quiet in an attempt to keep the peace, then I had to swallow down so much resentment I almost choked on it, and everything was tainted by the knowledge that it was fake. All of it. Our smiles were fake, because they were smiles papering over the fact that things weren’t okay. Our memories were fake, because the thread of misery was there running through them all like the long, lit fuse of a bomb leading to inevitable destruction. I loved him, but it hurt, and it was hard, and I felt like I was pouring myself into a pit with no bottom, losing myself in suffocating darkness.

Every time I burst into frustrated tears, mired in this misery, I would say these two phrases over and over to myself like a mantra:

“Relationships are hard work.”

“All couples fight.”

These two phrases reassured me, they consoled me, they made me feel less alone… but they were so undefined. They were elastic phrases that stretched and stretched until I felt they covered my experiences. I know for a fact that they cover many more. 

Since then, there’s been a lot of life happening. I’ve been careful to keep my eyes wide open, and I still hear those phrases but now, for me, they have definitions.

Relationships are hard work. They’re hard work because they involve being less selfish, and always taking someone else into consideration. They’re hard work because they involve thoughtfulness and respect and kindness towards somebody else and as human beings we don’t always feel that way inclined. Sometimes we’re tired or grumpy or we’ve had a bad day or we’re in pain and we want to snap at anyone who looks at us sideways, and on those days it’s work to rise above it. They’re hard work because you have to do things for someone else, and sometimes they’re things you don’t want to do. They’re hard work because maybe they have a habit that drives you up the wall and back down the other side but you love them, so you work to ignore it. They’re hard work because all of your time is no longer your own and you have to learn to compromise. They’re hard work because life is full of unforeseen bumps in the road and sometimes you will have to carry the slack, and sometimes they will have to do the same. They’re hard work, but they’re not slavery. It’s not supposed to be constant misery. It’s not supposed to be something you put your all into without getting anything back.

Relationships are hard work but if you have it right, they’re hard work that you enjoy and get paid well for. 

It’s hard work that’s worth the effort. Your payment comes in the form of receiving the same effort from your partner; you’re repaid in support and respect and love and kindness and thoughtfulness. You’re repaid in knowing that someone has your back, that you’ve got a teammate in this Life Race and that you guys meet in the middle.

Which brings us to the second phrase.

“All couples fight.”

This is such a strange phrase. Let’s change it to, ‘All couples disagree.’ I think that’s a fair statement. All couples disagree. I think it’s also fair to say that all couples can get pretty heated when they’re disagreeing about something important to them, so I guess you could call that a fight.

I think that the word ‘fight’ has something more aggressive to it though. The word ‘fight’ makes me think of shouting, name-calling, throwing things and losing control, and if that’s the definition then no, I don’t think all couples fight. All couples can have disagreements, discussions, even arguments… but fights? Fights that are verbal altercations that end with one or both people crying, or someone having to apologise for having said something purposely hurtful out of anger? If this is something that happens regularly in your relationship, that’s a problem. If that’s what you mean when you say, “We fight, but all couples fight,” then you need to reassess. Not all couples fight dirty. Not all couples fight like that. That kind of unhappiness should only happen extremely rarely, if ever. The basic respect that you have for each other as people shouldn’t slip just because you have strong feelings about opposing views. You can be frustrated and angry and upset and still mindful of what you’re saying. 

If you’re angry and you lash out and say something that’s hurtful – even if it’s untrue – you’re not only hurting them. Once you’ve said something, you can never unsay it. They can never unhear it. You can apologise, but that doesn’t erase it. I really think that’s something more people could keep in mind. Sharp words hurt both of you. They chip away at what’s between you until there’s nothing left.

When I think about Past Me, I feel both sympathetic and annoyed.

I feel sympathy because she was so confused, and so miserable, and trying so hard in such futile ways. I feel sympathy because she didn’t know any better, and she was so, so in love. I feel sympathy because I know she did her best, even if her best was a disastrous emotional mess.

I feel annoyed because it took her so long to read the writing on the wall. It took her so painfully long to dig up the last scrap of her confidence from wherever it had been buried. It took her so long to realise that their relationship wasn’t a winding path, but a closed loop that wouldn’t – couldn’t – go anywhere. It took her so long to stop believing the nonsense.

Nonsense like, “relationships are hard work.”

Nonsense like, “all couples fight.”

 

DISCLAIMER: This is what I’ve learned from personal experience and that is none of this is to say I have it all figured out, because I don’t. I wish I did. If I had it all figured out I would be living on a private island somewhere with a small herd of pet alpacas and maybe a beehive so I could have a continuous supply of honey. I would never have any unpleasantness in my life, everything would be easy, every day would be sunny, and I would never have to consider the pros and cons of having cereal for dinner for the third day in a row.

Red Head

 

I got ID’d yesterday.

I was buying 20 eggs and a bottle of spiced rum – a questionable grocery list at the best of times – when the young guy working the till stopped and looked at me expectantly. There were about five people waiting in line behind me, so as if looking for answers or permission I first glanced at them, and then back at him, and chewed the inside of my cheek nervously. Anytime I – for any reason – hold up the line at the checkout, I’m (I think not unreasonably) afraid that a riot will break out behind me and I will die, suddenly and ignominously, when somebody throws a bottle of Elderflower Cordial at my head.

After a pause that was probably only five seconds long but felt like the eternity of time compressed and squeezed into a matter of seconds, his mouth twisted at the corner and he said, “Sorry, but I’ll need to see your ID?”

As if it was obvious.

As if I pass for an 18 year old on any given Tuesday.

I can say with certainty that I don’t look 12 years younger than my age, so this came as a bit of a surprise. For a moment I wasn’t sure I even had any ID on me. I started to get preemptively annoyed about potentially being prevented from buying my bottle of rum.

The person behind me in the queue shifted his weight from one foot to the other and this tiny gesture (the first sign of the aforementioned riot; I’m sure of it) spurred me into action. I dug into my bag and pulled out my passport card, which I was only carrying by pure chance and have literally never used for any practical purpose.

I handed it over with a face that might have read ‘You have absolutely got to be kidding me‘ but might also have read ‘Please hurry up before someone lamps me with a turnip and I have to go to intensive care for the sake of two cartons of eggs and a bottle of rum.’

He took his time looking the card over. He tilted it to check the holographic shine, then scanned it for my date of birth. When he found it, his eyebrows shot up into his hairline and he looked at me and said, “OOooooooOOOOOOoooOOOOoooh!”

The man behind me shifted his weight again. I swear I could see his fingers twitching. He was probably having graphic, detailed fantasies of throttling the two of us.

My face started to burn and I turned an unnatural, almost-fluorescent hue that lit up the shop with a rosy glow. Unfortunately, not only do I flush red when I’m embarrassed, but I also find blushing to be absolutely mortifying, and so it becomes a cycle; I turn into a human traffic light stuck on red.

The guy still held my passport card, and was now grinning at me with one eyebrow raised. He slowly moved to hand it back to me, and although I itched to snatch it off him and sprint out the door, I forced myself to move at a normal pace. I took it back and busied myself burying it deep in my bag, hiding my face with my hair in an effort to get my skintone back to an earthly shade. He handed me my rum, still grinning, and I felt another wave of heat wash over me. I tapped my card on the machine and grabbed the receipt off him a moment sooner than might have been polite, and as I turned to walk away, he called after me:

“I hope you have a wonderful night!”

And then, when I didn’t reply straight away, he added (with a touch of innuendo):

“Have fun!*”

Without turning, I lifted the bottle of rum in acknowledgement of his comment and continued out the door.

It’s cold in the Dublin evenings now, but not to worry; my flushed face kept me warm for a few minutes longer.

 

*I suspect he either thought I was a tiny alcoholic with a penchant for spiced rum and omelettes OR he thought I was on my way to get properly hammered and egg someone’s house**. Neither is particularly flattering.

A Last First Kiss

 

We had been sitting next to each other – awkwardly at first, then more comfortably – for about an hour. I could feel his thigh pressed against mine. When he moved his arm, I felt his sleeve brush against my sleeve. He made bad jokes and gave me lopsided smiles while I babbled non-stop in an effort to disguise my nerves. He took a phone call and unfolded himself from the couch to pace the room, so I moved to the window to look out over the river. Even from across the room I felt like there were delicate filaments of feeling tying us together, vibrating with the low sound of his voice and the shy uncertainty woven through my every action. I absent-mindedly flicked through a stack of DVDs as he wrapped up the call, and then he crossed the room until he was standing right in front of me, toe to toe.

“So?” I said.

He smiled down at me. “So.”

My gaze slid sideways to avoid meeting his eyes.

“Are we going into town?”

“No.”

I looked up then to find him looking down at me with an intensity he hadn’t had earlier. I felt it; a strange, electric thickness that hung in the air between us.

And then he dipped his head.

And then his lips met mine.

And that was my last first kiss.

******************************************************************

I was thinking today about being single.

Not longing after it, or wondering how it would be to be single now (although the thought of Tinder makes me deeply uncomfortable), but rather thinking about how I felt when I was single. I loved being single. I enjoyed myself immensely. If ‘love is… selfless‘ then ‘being single is… never having to compromise‘, and there is an unrestricted joy in that. You can do everything for yourself, by yourself, whenever you want, however you want. Your time is your own. There are a lot of things to love about it.

Still, if I were asked what I loved most about being single, it wouldn’t be that I had more me-time, or that I never had to compromise on holiday destinations.

It would have to be the microsecond before a first kiss.

I don’t mean casual first kisses. I don’t mean spin-the-bottle kisses, or truth-or-dare kisses, or seven-minutes-in-heaven kisses. I don’t mean prearranged kisses at teen discos, or kisses that are granted through friends of friends. I mean the few first kisses with people who matter. I mean the monumental first kisses; the kisses that feel like they might change everything and turn your world right on its head.

There is a strange magic about that sliver of time. That fraction of a second before your lips meet is loaded with possibility and hope and anticipation and excitement and sometimes a tiny flicker of fear. There are infinite lifetimes contained within that split moment. It’s like pulling hard on a lever to suddenly and irreversibly switch tracks. It sets you down a course that might lead anywhere. It might take you to a beautiful place, or on a short but scenic route on the way to somewhere else, or it might lead you through a dark tunnel… or it might just send you smack into the side of a mountain before burying you in a landslide of despair.

You have no way of knowing.

If you’re anything like me, all of these barely-thoughts and almost-feelings fuse into a single burst of energy that electrifies the air. Trepidation, lust, expectation, unease, desire and apprehension slam into the thrill of the unfamiliar to create an exhilarating mixture and, in all of its innocence, I honestly think it’s the most wholesome form of intoxication.

Now, my last first kiss is behind me* and instead, in the future, I’ll be experiencing subcategories of that kiss: first kiss as a wife**; maybe first kiss as a mother***. Who knows?

Here’s what I do know:

I pulled the lever and switched tracks that day without hesitation, and I have never regretted it. That’s pretty unusual for an overthinker such as myself, who goes back and forward over the same patch of memory with the fine-toothed comb of anxiety, worrying and wondering about all the other ways things might have gone and might still go.

So while I miss first kisses of that magnitude, I don’t regret having kissed them goodbye.

(And I don’t regret that pun, either.)

 

*Barring some awful tragedy. Touch wood.

**Typing that felt like an out-of-body experience. The word ‘wife’ sounds bizarre when you’ve been a girlfriend for so long. I already struggle with ‘fiancee.’

***(shudder of fear)

Thoughts On… Mother’s Day

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The other day, my mother called me like she always does. She calls every day. She calls to tell me what she’s doing, or to tell me about her day, or to tell me the latest deal in the grocery store. She calls about anything and everything. She talks away in rapid-fire Spanish and really, minimum input is required on my part. The occasional, “Mmm hmm,” one or two yeses and some listening sounds are sometimes my only contribution.

The other day, she called and talked to me about certain bathroom renovation plans. I half-listened while making soup.

“… No se como va a salir pero por ahora va bien la cosa. A ver si viene el Martes y asi empezamos a ver como va a funcionar…”(“… I don’t know how it’ll turn out but for now it’s all going well. If he comes over on Tuesday then we’ll start to see how things will work…“)

Suddenly her voice dropped away and there was a muffled sound.

“Hello?” I asked, alarmed. “Mama?”

“Ah, no pasa nada, es solo que…” (“Ah no everything is fine, it’s just…“) Another pause followed, and then suddenly, at the end of the phone, in English, “Hello! Where deed you cam from?”

I frowned, wooden spoon held aloft. “Mama?”

“No, no te hablo a ti,” (“No, I’m not talking to you“) she said. No kidding, I thought. She continued, “Es el perro del vecino, que se ha escapado.”(“It’s the neighbour’s dog, he’s escaped.“)

I nodded thoughtfully and placed the wooden spoon back in the pot to give the soup a half-hearted stir.

Another muffled sound.

“Do you wan to go hom? Weel I take you hom?”

More muffled sounds.

“Es el perrito del vecino, es muy mono, es que a veces se escapa. Ahora le traigo a casa.”(“It’s the neighbour’s little dog, he’s very cute. Sometimes he gets out. I’ll bring him home now.“)

A pause, and then, away from the mouthpiece, “Cam on, I take you hom.”

My eyes rolled to the ceiling as I considered the fact that my mother 1. was talking to the dog as if he might answer, 2. obviously believes the dog speaks English, and 3. also believes that the dog can somehow tell the difference between English and Spanish. I started to laugh then, softly at first and then harder and harder until I was doubled over against the counter. My mother, unaware of what I was laughing at, started laughing too. We laughed together over the phone; me, her, my spoon and the neighbour’s dog.

“Que? De que te ries?” She kept asking.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.

I had a very different post lined up for today; an intensely personal post with mixed feelings and some fury that I wrote a while ago after a particularly bad day. I was feeling frustrated and upset and keyed-up and disappointed and angry and basically every kind of negative emotion that can be bundled into one moment. Sometimes Mother-Daughter relationships aren’t the stuff of most Mother’s Day cards. Every year I spend a long time looking through the card aisle before I can find one that is appropriate. I love my mother; she’s my mother. It’s just… complicated.

So on this, the day after Mother’s Day, I decided to share this moment instead, because that’s how she is. That’s how we are.

At least sometimes.

Happy Belated Mother’s Day to all of you out there who are mothers. Odd mothers, wonderful mothers, hardworking mothers. I hope you had a lovely day.

 

Stranger Danger

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One day, a few years ago, I hopped on a bus that would take me back to the apartment I was living in at the time. I had just come from the shop, and I was listening to music, shouldering a backpack and carrying a fairly heavy bag full of groceries in each hand. I sat myself down on the bus with a sigh of relief, and gazed out the window at the pretty town I then called home.

A man sat down beside me at the next stop. Out of my peripheral vision I noticed his black tracksuit bottoms with the trademark three white stripes. I saw the tattoo that ran along his forearm and wound around his wrist to his index finger. I looked straight ahead, lost in thought, and absent-mindedly watched as an elderly man sitting three rows away sniffled and dragged a dirty tissue from his sleeve. I was distantly aware of two middle-aged women chattering beside him. Every so often they would lean in towards each other, wide-eyed, as if a juicy secret had just been shared.

I idly tapped my fingers on my knee and lost myself in my own thoughts as the bus rattled along the cobblestones.

Twenty minutes later, as the bus reached my stop, I swung my backpack up over my arm. I scooped up my bags of groceries and stepped off the bus, my shoulders aching. I hummed along to the music coming through my earphones as I walked towards my street. I lived on the ground floor of an old house that sat, rather unassumingly, on a tiny cobbled alleyway. A single streetlight shone from the main road.

I was almost at the streetlight when the hair on the back of my neck prickled, and I paused. I looked over my left shoulder. The street behind me was deserted. I shrugged to myself and continued on. When I reached my alleyway, I felt it again; a gentle, nagging feeling that somebody was right behind me. I looked over my right shoulder into the twilight.

There was nobody there.

Feeling like an idiot, I finally reached the stoop of my front door. I put down my groceries, and swung the bag off my back to look for my keys. After a few minutes of fumbling – because apparently I can never keep my keys in one place – I finally found them in an inside pocket. Pulling them out with a triumphant flourish, I hung my bags off my left arm and slid my key into the lock. I turned the key, pushed the door open, turned to yank the key out of the door…

…And came face to face with an entirely unfamiliar man.

In what was literally a split second, these are the thoughts that my brain, now jostled awake by this unexpected stranger, compiled and indexed for me:

  1. Strange man in my face.
  2. Strange man in my face has his foot on my doorstep.
  3. Strange man in my face is about a foot taller than me.
  4. Strange man in my face could reach out and shove us both inside.
  5. My housemate is not home.
  6. Nobody is home.
  7. W.T.F.
  8. Strange man in my face is wearing black Adidas tracksuit bottoms.
  9. Strange man in my face has unusual forearm tattoo.
  10. STRANGE MAN IN MY FACE WAS ON THE BUS WITH ME!
  11. BUS MAN IN MY FACE!
  12. BUS MAN FOLLOWED ME FROM THE BUS TO MY FRONT DOOR!
  13. W.T.A.F!

At that point, just as our eyes met, Bus Man looked entirely unprepared. His face registered shock, and frankly, I found that incredibly rude. After all, I wasn’t the one who had stealthily followed someone to their front door.* If anybody had the right to look shocked, it was me.

If you were to have this moment on tape, and you chose to freeze-frame this particular second, we would probably look like mirror-images of each other. Me, one foot inside the house, staring blankly at this random human who was so close I could reach out and touch him with my tiny arms. Him, staring blankly at me with his foot on my front step and his tattooed hand on his thigh. Both of us momentarily frozen in motion.

And then the split second passed.

In one smooth motion fuelled by 90% absolute panic and 10% adrenaline, I pulled the key out of the lock and swivelled into the hallway, slamming the door shut with a ninja kick that ricocheted through the house.

Then I dropped my bags to the floor, retreated all the way down the hallway to the far wall, and slumped against it. I stared at the front door for about half an hour.**

Then I got up and dragged my plastic bags full of food to the kitchen.

 

*To be clear, the only way I could have not seen him, having looked over both shoulders, is if he was moving purposely out of my field of vision each time. That street was very narrow.

**He disappeared and never came back, but I hated that he knew where I lived and always wondered what was going through his head that day. Maybe his motives were friendly, but if so, let this be a lesson to anybody who thinks it’s sweet to follow a girl home: NO. NO. DON’T DO IT. WE DON’T LIKE IT. IT’S TERRIFYING. He could have struck up a conversation on the bus, or on the street, or even while I was mindlessly searching for my keys, and he did none of those things. Instead he appeared inches from my face when my front door was already open. I am just over five feet tall. Anyone looming over me unexpectedly is unwelcome. This is particularly true of strange men that I don’t know.

Also, please believe me when I say that any situation that might make a girl feel like a cornered animal – unless it’s some form of kinky roleplay by mutual consent with safewords – is never romantic. It’s unlikely to be a story you will one day tell your grandkids as you hold hands and gaze fondly at each other across the table. It’s much more likely to be a story that ends up on a blog.

Like this one.