On the fear of not always being snatched

Those idiots with their sea swimming and for-Instagram winter lido visits don’t know shit. The real cold, sharp shock comes in seeing an ex you’d half-forgotten existed, half-longed to see when you were looking your absolute snatchedest.

If sea swimming is all about jolting you into the present, seeing your ex — looking fresh and simultaneously haggard, the most draining of all apparitions — can only jettison you into the most rose-tinted past. Seeing someone from “the before time” (when I was still “A Man ™”), a good 80% of the time they don’t recognise me anymore. But when it’s someone who spent a few good evenings spelunking your nooks and crannies, seeing you cry and laugh and fall over drunk and stay up for three whole days that one time taking whatever passed for **** at the time, there’s a cruel and immediate recognition every time.

A decade later, I find that upon seeing him I still want to fall into the earth and only unburrow when I’ve made my subterranean way home. I also find that he’s still desperately attractive, but only in memory. The real, living person isn’t someone you’d be drawn to write sonnets about, not anymore. Even if that was a thing people still did.

‘He’s aged badly’, I tell myself when I see only the back of his head. I don’t even see him at first, but his boyfriend, who I recognise from stalking the ex’s Instagram just one time and one time only, I swear. My heart races: if he’s here, the ex can’t be far.

The last time I saw them, my partner and I were living at the other end of the city. Holding hands, in the other Before Time (pre-pandemic), we were giggling away and going into the subway station on the way to some pub or other. Entering at the exact same time from the other direction, the ex and his beau turned on their heels and left. It was all quite shocking and ridiculous, two things I’m usually ravenous for more of. But it just felt sad that he still felt so rawly, so horrified at the thought of even saying hi or, shock horror, of sharing a subway into town, that he felt he had no choice but to flee. It’s the kind of power you might hypothetically lust after in your more Machiavellian moments. But when it plays out in reality, it’s just like a big pot of boiling water being poured through a sieve – substancelessness to depletion, nothing catching.

Back to the present moment, and on the pavement he’s overtaken me and my new family with his new man and a handsome dog. I want to say hi, to break the impasse so these moments don’t have to be so horrific. I wonder if they’re as exhausting for him as they are for me. Does he still feel, rightly, that I wronged him a thousand times over; does he know, as I suspect he does, that I could only give him a fraction of the love he deserved because I was still holding out hope with another; does he want to smash my head open and watch me exsanguinate on Victoria Road with his dog taking little nibbles of the viscera?

I think all this and just pretend it’s not happening. I respect his desire to act as though he doesn’t know me. I don’t say hi. I wait with my dog while my partner and my ex’s boyfriend go into the Sainsbury’s, unaware of who the other is. I see my ex walk away with his dog, still an expert in the flit. The Sainsbury’s becomes a no man’s land, and we’re poised at opposite ends of it on the street. How funny would it be, I think, to walk up to him and do a finger gun with a cheeky smile? Would he instinctively know my thinking? Would he know for sure I’m insane then, or does he already know? Would he think it funny and the tension would come crashing down like a big pane of the glass ceiling?

Instead I think, we were just children when we were together, but we grew together too and I still think that’s worthy of recognition. I demand at least a sense of camaraderie that we survived each other! There’ll always be a part of me that wants to be a child again, protected from the cold. But the emo romance of the bracing iciness is a thrill in and of itself, and that’s all he has to offer me now. My only regret is that I looked like trash when he saw me, and my face mask couldn’t hide my horror at being clocked by him.

Next time I must be cruelly blasé and mascara’ed. Each eyelash carefully separated, eyebrows slicked with Boy Brow, all the beautifying work will be in attrition for the years he’s wasted thinking I’m worthy of fleeing from. And it will all come full circle.