I’ve mentioned before that my first ever kiss was with Katie Patterson, after her big sister locked us in the shed together and wouldn’t let us out until we touched lips. Katie, however, was not my first love.
Well, perhaps love is too strong a word as I was a mere child, but it was at least more than a passing crush. No, my first more-than-crush was on Nancy Hill. Nancy went to the same school as me, was in the same year and lived in the next road over, and to my 13-15 year old eyes was the most beautiful girl in the world. Long, blonde hair, elfin delicate features and a smile that even pubescent me knew was way above average. She was perfect.
Over the years we spent a fair amount of time together. We were part of the same friendship group and our mums both got on well, so many was the hour that we talked and played in the way that early-teenage children do. I knew that she was the girl for me, and decided that sooner or later I’d tell her. She would, of course, reveal that she had been waiting for me to say something since the moment we met, and that she felt exactly the same about me in return.
On her 15th birthday, therefore, I decided to make my move. I didn’t get pocket money as a kid (we were pretty poor financially, even by the standards of the East End of London) but, through a combination of birthday money and walking to school in order to save my bus fare, I’d managed to save up a few quid. I trekked down to Elizabeth Duke or some-such high street brand and chose the most sparkly, fish-scale-style, iridescent three-piece jewellery set I could afford. I got it gift wrapped, and after donning my best white trousers, fake Ralph Lauren shirt and square-toed shoes (don’t judge me, it was the 90’s and I knew no better) I took it in its small gift bag to her birthday party.
I arrived. I got a hug from Nancy. I gave her the gift. She smiled, her most radiant, beautiful smile, made all the more dazzling by the light reflecting from her braces. The gift bag was put down amongst a pile of other gifts.
And that was that.
She didn’t open it on the night, so my whole confession of attraction didn’t happen as I had no plan B, only a plan A for her opening it and smiling. I got a “thanks for the gift” comment on Monday in school, and that was the end of my first experience of unrequited love.
Fast forward nearly 20 years and sadly I’m looking around to see unrequited love and attraction everywhere. Dating, meeting, talking with and socialising amongst single people allows me to see the looks of lust, the twitter crushes, the flirtatious movements and the hopeless desires writ large on the faces of men and women everywhere. At dating events, on nights out and online, the air is filled with only semi-mock anguish as someone gazes at another that they have already married in their minds a hundred times over and bemoans the fact that that other person is not only clueless, but probably doesn’t feel the same.
Some people accept this, acknowledge that we can’t help who we find attractive and enjoy at least the pangs of desire even if these can never be acted upon. Some get angry or upset, blaming the other person for not feeling the same even though attraction is not really within their control.
Most fall into the camp of thinking to themselves “why don’t they fancy me?! What’s wrong with me?! I’m going to be alone forever, so why can’t they just LOVE ME?!?!”
Unrequited love is one of the pillars of storytelling since time immemorial. It has driven people to madness and made them do incredible and awful things in equal measure. But, in most cases, unrequited love remains unrequited. Love takes two people to make work, from the initial attraction through the getting-to-know-you phase through to true coupledom. If one person simply isn’t that into the other then it will never last, at least not happily.
Even today, I know I have felt longings for people I will never be able to have a relationship with. Some live too far away, others are happily in relationships themselves and the majority simply don’t fancy me at all. I could get upset about that. I could blame them. I could feel morose and make myself believe that because they don’t love me, no-one will love me. I could hold onto that unrequitement into the future, letting it drop into conversations with them until ultimately they get tired of the comments and put real distance between us for their own sake, or even cut off contact altogether.
Or I could accept it. I could understand that, whilst sometimes love and attraction takes time to grow, realistically it will not happen with them. I could accept that this is not down to me being unattractive, this is down to our chemistries, our circumstances or our timings not matching. I could accept that the future will hold whatever the future holds, but for now the best thing is to accept that we are not going to be together and to simply enjoy time and interaction I have with them and stop hoping for anything more.
One of these approaches will allow me to smile, to spend time with people I care about either remotely or in person and to keep myself open to more likely loving avenues. The other approach will result in people not wanting to engage with me, my alienation from them and ongoing unhappiness that is not the fault of the other party.
I know which of these routes I’d prefer to take.
It’s no easier being on the other side of that equation, of course. Knowing someone wants something more with you but also knowing you don’t want more with them for whatever reason. Knowing that you’re going to get the regular comments, the looks, the “what if…” conversations where there is no answer that won’t either give them false hope or crush them entirely. All you can do is avoid the conversation, give as vague an answer as possible and hope that they find another person to desire sooner rather than later.
On either side, be kind to the other person. Understand that it is not a choice they’ve made but a result of their full lives of nature, nurture and circumstance that have decided who they are attracted to, even if they don’t understand it themselves. Don’t ask them why as no answer will give you what you seek, and those conversations will rarely go any way to changing their minds. Enjoy their company for what it is, instead of hoping for or even demanding more than they are able or willing to give. It will make you both happier, and lead to a future you are both happy to live together in some way.
In the end, Nancy and I sort of stayed in touch, though mostly via Facebook. To this day I’ve never even got close to kissing her, or even telling her how I felt all those years ago. We both got married to different people, both had kids, both got divorced and she got remarried. I do wonder what life would have been like if, that night at her birthday party, I’d been brave enough to make a move. Perhaps we would have had a relationship. Perhaps it would have lasted. Perhaps I wouldn’t now be looking for love.
Or perhaps we would have never spoken again.
All I have are the happy daydreams of what could have been rather than the crushing defeat of what probably would have been. I’m okay with that. and I’m pretty sure Nancy is too.