A year ago, you got on a train to Guildford and sat on the steps outside a pub, with a ginger girl you’d matched with two weeks earlier on Tinder. You didn’t know then that I was mad. Would you take it back now? Go north to London after work that night instead of south to me?
I broke the rules of dating-in-2017 and spoke to you first. We’d matched somewhere before; hardly anybody seems new on apps these days. We talked about High Fidelity and Springsteen and The Graduate, and two weeks later we were sat on the ground, finalising our top 10 songs of all time. That first time I heard your Sheffield accent, it was broader than it is now. I suppose that must be a trick of memory, or maybe I’ve just become more accustomed to it since your vowels have corrupted mine. You kissed me on the way to get dinner, we drank whisky until the pub closed, and that was it, the last first date.
I liked dating, generally. I can do first dates. I’m the tiniest bit too loud, too fast, too drunk, too manic, too eager to appear fun, compensating for everything inside, but I can survive them without too much anxiety. I was that way with you, unrestrained and unapologetic. I don’t remember when or how I first told you I was unwell. There were allusions in those early days, passing comments where I was breezy and made out it was no big deal. We never had A Talk because I didn’t want to give it weight. I love those first days of not being this girl, pretending I can keep living that life. I don’t know when you first realised what you had taken on.
Maybe it was 2nd June. I know the date of the first meltdown. Why is it this the anniversary I’ve committed to memory? I had to look up the day we matched, check a calendar for our first date, plot the days and weeks for the dates that followed and the first night I abandoned my car in a multistory in Surrey to stay with you in London. 2nd June, instant recall. I don’t know what triggered the panic attacks but sat in a Camden pub on a Friday night, I was too quiet. You hadn’t learnt yet how many meanings could be translated from quiet. You would become fluent in time. Now you know that quiet means peace, that quiet means contentment, but that quiet is the eye of a storm, that in quiet I’m waiting to implode and disappear into myself.
That night on the northern line, I crumbled away in front of you somewhere near Warren Street. It was the first time I ran from you, back up to the surface and you followed at a distance as I stalked around unfamiliar streets unsure what to do next, unable to breathe. I knew that night you would leave me. Of course you would. Not even two months in and you were witnessing the full extent of my irrational panic for the first time. A terrified girl you barely knew, running through the city in the dark. It took us three different tubes down one stretch of track to make it back to south London. The following morning I asked resignedly if that was it, if we were done. You laughed and said of course not, that these things happen. Oh god, these things would happen.
Six weeks later, I decided I loved you in a cinema in Wandsworth. You were about to walk across the Lake District and I’d dutifully accompanied you to buy supplies. A friend phoned to advise you on walking shoes and you said “I’m just with Alix. My girlfriend. You haven’t met her yet.” It was the first time I’d heard you say to someone else that I was your girlfriend, and while we watched Planet of the Apes (your pick, I presume), I watched you. I’d never seen somebody able to lounge and twist so much in a cinema seat, like a monkey yourself, and the whole way through, you didn’t let go of me. You never broke contact. How could I not love you? A girl so terrified of being left, with a boy who couldn’t seem to let go.
There have been so many days where I’ve cried and told you to go, desperately wanting you to stay. I always want you to stay; it’s just easier to think this will end on my terms. Only love can break your heart, as Neil Young sings. Sometimes I need the space to breathe, sometimes I need you to hold me tighter to you, and so you make your guess. We don’t have a failsafe answer and even you for my love, I don’t have enough words to explain what is happening to me and what you should do. Some days I fear it’s an impossible test that neither of us can pass and I despise myself for setting it.
We settled into a routine over summer, and life could have become easy, so I left my job. I came back to law and to working in London, things I’d swore I would never do again. I got worn down by the commute and moved here. I knew I was coming back. Not from the moment we met, but from far earlier than was practical. On the day that I moved, I closed the front door behind me and within 30 minutes the phone rang. Ripley was gone. I immediately got darker. That night was the opposite of my first-date-self with everything you don’t want me to be at its most heightened state. In the weeks after her funeral, I would lie awake until the early hours, sobbing until I was exhausted and telling you I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. How could there be any point in a world where cancer will rob a two-year-old of the years ahead. You offered to come to the funeral, or to therapy with me if I needed; was that a thing we could do you asked?
My mental health diagnosis shifted, both our careers got tougher, we struggled on. We kept working towards arbitrary dates, time after time when things would notionally be better. Every time we arrived, a new set of challenges meant the world fell away from under me. It’s always me that falters. In the toughest moments, I repeatedly told you to go. You’ve had long dark conversations with a girl who is not quite me, a shadow version of myself, and I’ve watched her try to tear us apart like an out of body experience. The next morning you’ve had the rational version of the same conversations with me. You’ve repeatedly told me you’re staying.
A whistlestop tour of how my broken brain has affected us reads as a calamity, but there have been far more days where you’ve been in a relationship with me than days where the relationship is with my illness. We’ve gone on road trips and sung Thunder Road. We’ve taken ridiculous photos with alpacas. I’ve twirled around on the Southbank under the lights and scrambled down onto the shore in the dark with you. You took me to Bristol in the snow and walked for miles in a city where everything had stopped. We’ve stayed up until the early hours with one earphone each, challenging each other to the next line of Dylan lyrics; Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts the impossible challenge. We’ve watched the sunset over the Lidl, which you assure me is the finest view in all of south London. You have made me laugh and laugh and laugh until I’m in pain. I have a hundred other moments I could recount where I have been amazed at the depth of my love for you. But there are dark parts of my mind that are an unwanted third party and a shadow, an ex, a mistress, a threat.
You will never understand; my practical, enduring, wonderful Yorkshireman. You worry about things later, always later. To your complete astoundment, I will worry about wild hypotheticals based on hypotheticals. I would claim you’re unemotional but really that’s hugely unfair to you, I’m just effusive and that gap in our styles is frustratingly marked. Every occasion, every card, is an opportunity for me. A declaration. A reminder. A reparation. A compensation, that in giving you so many words on how I feel, it can somehow make up for all the times I have no words and can’t explain at all.
I tried to tell you about kintsugi once, on an early date in the British Museum. How they fixed the cracks with gold lacquer so the repairs became part of the history and the strange beauty of broken things. I wanted you to love a broken thing and now you do. I don’t know where we go next. (Lisbon, soon, is the literal answer). We can’t weather my storm forever. I need to get better but can never “get better”. You have been a wonder, and I love you with all the madness in my soul. One of the Boss’s more romantic lyrics, not like that travesty in Thunder Road. Happy anniversary darling.
What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth, and by this measure I was having one of the best dates of my life.
High Fidelity (the screenplay, not the book although I have since given you the book and you said you enjoyed it)