Dissolving LTRs and knowing

Well jeez.. I thought, upon listening to my friend tell the latest sad tale in the pub.  I wonder if I’m more messed up from my general dearth of serious long term relationships, or if are they by having them and screwing them up so royally?  Realising this was a self-involved moment happening inside my head, I refocused on what he was saying.

It seems that there’s a time between the ages of, say, 25 and 35 when shit has to get real in long term relationships (LTRs).  Females invariably take the lead in wanting to reproduce and men get scared.  They either grasp the nettle and realise this woman probably / definitely is the one.  Or they don’t.  Confidence can falter at these crunch decision times; paralysing fear isn’t uncommon.  When one party doesn’t know or has cause to doubt, all the cards can come crashing down.

Over the past few months I’ve learned that two couples who I and most of the world considered to be solid couples of a good number of years, were actually no longer couples at all.  Yes they lived together, maybe even slept in the same bed from time to time and who knows what else, had been going out for around ten years previously; but in their heads at least, they were no longer a couple.

Case One is the captain sensible of our school friendship group, one of these guys who always seemed to glide pretty effortlessly through life, education, a career and love.  As far back as school he was pegged as the guy who could be depended on to get married and settle down first.  They got a mortgage together reasonably early, then nothing else happened.  She was awkward to be around.  Nice enough, but flighty and unpredictable.  “ISSUES” almost imperceptibly stamped above her sunken defensive eyes.  After a year or so living together under the pretence that all was rosy, they’re now fumbling off in separate directions.

Case Two was only revealed to me yesterday in the pub.  He is possibly the most hypersensitive and indecisive guy I know, whilst being handsome, clever, able and acidly funny – happy to dish out but rarely take.  They also got together young: he in his early 20s, her in her mid 20s.  With a couple of years on him, she seemed to care less for marriage but has been crying out for kids for some time.  He has been indecisive, nervous, scared.  In more ways than one it requires a set of balls he’s never demonstrated.  Her clock is now ticking with more urgency.  He has admitted to depression but is only just beginning to seek help.  Now it transpires that in their own heads they too haven’t been a proper couple for several months.  They are, my friend believes, on the cusp of probable separation with tangible consequences.

While the guy of the latter couple never won my sympathy and from my limited experience in recent years I’ve often considered him hugely selfish, these are all fundamentally decent people.  Of all parties, it’s him I fear for the most.  From a privileged background, he’s arguably always been used to a bubble of protection, mollycoddling, mothering and dependency.  Not having the courage of my convictions and giving up too easily is something I loathe myself for, but this guy makes me look like some kind of Richard Branson impresario.

It seems to me that rational, clear-cut decisions need to be taken in LTRs, however difficult they are to make – although I’m clearly no expert in such matters.  Otherwise the festering stench of malaise can become heartbreaking and send people mad.

“How do you ever know?” is a regular question, one memorably discussed with another friend (and represented somewhere in these pages) before he separated from his wife and emigrated to Australia with the female subject of an office affair.  He was more confident of knowing after being intoxicated by everything about a new colleague, than he was when he was obliged to marry his young wife.

*

We parted outside the pub in the early evening, my comparatively happy married friend and I.  His reasoning about knowing was typically pragmatic and well-reasoned:  I knew I never wanted to be apart from her for the rest of my life.  It sounded so simple.

He hadn’t been persuaded to buy a few more minutes by asking his wife to simply pick him up from the pub, steadfast about walking back across town to meet her at the multi-storey car park.  It reflected his easy-going nature and antipathy towards any kind of confrontation: something we’ve sporadically argued hard about over the years.  Maybe his way was best.

We mumbled halfheartedly about dinner sometime, took a brief manly clinch and pushed each other away before fuzzily pacing in opposite directions.

It was a sorry state, those disintegrating relationships, but probably not untypical of people our age.  As our friendship group begins to nibble into the 30s, I came back to my earlier question and wondered at our relative baggage.  Is it harder to be optimistic about domestic life after going through a traumatic failed LTR of nearly a decade, or harder having been alone for more or less that whole time?  Is less baggage more baggage, or is it less baggage?

I was drunk.

bringing healthy back

“Y know.  Got my health.”  People casually say this when the chips are down, acknowledging if not properly crediting the importance of health.  Only when health goes awry do we tend to fully appreciate it.

Although I feel my appreciation is generally above average.  I enjoy my health, fitness and mobility.  If I lost it I would rapidly grow less healthy, as much in the mind as in the body.  Enlivening chemical releases which come with physical exertion are difficult to replicate.

A couple of weeks ago, an innocuous crouching movement ten minutes into a freezing Tuesday night football training session led to me jarring my back.  It was painful enough to know instantly that the evening was over for me.  Away I awkwardly hobbled, hoping it would just take a few days to right itself.

We often seem trust our bodies to just do stuff and get on with it, in a way we trust little else.  Sorry I abused you with alcohol, body.  Just sort it out for me now please.

The next morning was acutely painful and distressing.  Pulling on socks was slow and embarrassingly undignified; my skeleton simply refused to move as usual.  Over the coming days I experienced several moments of what it must be like to be infirm and old.  I was irritated to be overtaken on the pavement by people I wouldn’t usually get overtaken by; I was embarrassed that standing up in public places was slow and looked ostentatious, as if I were proudly exhibiting the results of my injury; I hobbled awkwardly from any stationary position, taking a good minute to gather fluency in my walking gait; standing room-only tube carriages proved more of a challenge than usual but sitting down was rarely worth the pain of standing up.

Eighteen months ago, during my last episode of serious back pain, I visited a therapist local to my parents.  Encouraged by persisting symptoms and compounded by the contribution of a heavy cold which saw coughs and sneezes rifle pain through my creaking skeleton, I booked another.

The weekend with parents was reasonable.  My interest had been piqued in my Dad’s family history after rediscovering a couple of very old black and white photographs.  I daresay while I discussed this with Dad, Mum sat in her armchair affronted that her family history was for once out of the limelight.  But thanks to Google Streetview walks around the neighbourhoods of their respective youths, it led to Things To Talk About –often a struggle with parents.

There were even a couple of brief moments when I felt confident enough to chance speaking about myself to my parents.  In time-honoured tradition though, Mum nipped them in the bud, effortlessly deflecting attention back to herself.

*

On the morning of my appointment with the sports therapist my back was feeling a little better, as if the pain would desist entirely of its own accord given a couple more days.  I went for a long walk with the dog.  The forest’s late winter mulch glowed under a clear blue sky and brilliant sunshine; lungs were filled and photographs taken.  Fifteen minutes from home we encountered traffic on the pathway of a popular walking spot.  The dog rubbed noses with one other dog, walked on, did the same with another, walked on.  A man with a bad tempered dog on a lead had to be carefully steered around.

There are photographs of my mother, father, brother and myself being ‘looked after’ by dogs at very young ages.  We are dog lovers.  I want a dog of my own.  Yet there remains an awkward, discomforting grain of doubt about all of them, particularly upon seeing my two year-old niece closely petting and climbing over my parents’ hound.  That slender possibility that the dog could suddenly turn and snap and something horrific could happen to literally mark a young life forever, if not worse.  A prickling sensation of what if..?

Next along the popular path approached an elderly couple with a small black terrier.  Both dogs off their leads approached each other, dropped their sticks like soldiers downing weapons, sniffed noses and behinds.  Then my parents’ usually mild mannered Labrador turned.  They leapt up at one another, both growling and snarling, scuffling hard and firm.  Mine pushed the smaller terrier onto its back and went at it with its teeth, definitely not playing.  Compelled to act I leaned down to haul her off, pinned her to the ground, cuffed her across the nose and angrily yelled in my most masterly tone.  (It was still some distance off my Dad’s livid lunatic tone.  One which suggests he might be at risk of keeling over from stress).

Standing up almost straight, one hand still on the dog’s collar, apologising to the curiously unfussed elderly couple, I realised the damage I’d done to my back, the repairing which was now newly ruined.  Pain crackled up in waves from the base of my cemented spine.  My resentment of the fucking dog escalated in direct correlation and she remained on a lead in disgrace for the rest of the walk.

*

Paying a man to expertly knead the top of your buttocks isn’t something I do often, but have done once before.  As 18 months earlier, I lay on my front, looking out of the window at the pleasant rural panorama, allowing the bald, stocky man in a sporty polo neck to explore me with his hands.  Under his spell those oiled fingers danced along glutes and muscles.  He squeezed and kneaded spinal points which pranged, made me flinch and tighten, unlock and relax, explaining everything as he went.

Now approaching a stage it was before the ill-fated walk, I’m impatient to return to full fitness, to walk freely, to not fear standing up or dressing myself, to run and work and sweat and breathe heavily, to physically exert and to not feel pain.  It shouldn’t be rushed, I know.  But surely it can’t be long until I can casually utter those words again.

I want my healthy back.

your old bedroom

You slumped down on the bed in ‘your’ room, not bothering to close the door behind you, and you listened.  You heard the sound of childish glee from another upstairs room.  Your mother had uncovered an old scrapbook of your brother’s, charting his summer holidays when he was around the same age as his son is currently.  She rabbited away in another bedroom to your brother and his daughter.  She burbled and goo gooed at fluffy toys.  It sounded like family life.  In a room downstairs your father growled at your whining nephew, “what is it now?”  It was chilling, that sinister undertone of voice you remembered so well.  When he injected your name it felt like someone freezing your insides.  You were embarrassed to acknowledge that it still frightened you to hear it now.

An hour earlier you’d shared a similar flashback with your brother.  Standing outside the gates of a children’s play area, your father aggressively berated the dog in his most lunatic furious tone, a tone which could colour whole large periods of family holidays, walks and car journeys.  Two dogs down the line now, my brother glanced at me and half smiled.  Nothing needed saying.

You wondered if your brother’s polar opposite soppy treatment of his children: the “what is it, lovely boy?” / “come here now, darling boy” terms of address (which will always make you squirm) had resulted in part from your father’s general hardness.  Hearing your father resume that tone towards your brother’s son, isolated from his father and family, there was a degree of fear.  Would he crumble?  No.  The infant whined on, steadfastly wronged by something imperceptible.

You turned over onto your side and surveyed the windowsill of ‘your’ room.  Your childhood bedroom had been converted into an office not long after you left home.  This had been the spare room.  Your brother’s childhood room, now the primary guest room, was latterly lavished with an ensuite bathroom.  While this was now a playroom for the small people, your mother kept your football trophies on the windowsill as a token gesture that it was still your room, or at least where you slept.  A smattering of half a dozen cheap, plastic football trophies awarded through a handful of clubs from a handful of towns stared back at your bleary eyes.  The two Players’ Player awards were the proudest, voted for by your team-mates of 1997/98 and 2006/07 – all of them now strangers.

You wanted to lie down because you were facing your second night drinking in two nights and two nights running wasn’t as easy these days.  You would drive on from your parents’ to a town where you lived for eighteen months, re-engaging fleeting friendships you didn’t want to neglect entirely.  You’d see one character you hadn’t seen properly for a long while, possibly years.  The evening was meant to mark his last as a free man before the arrival of his first born.  You’d never considered him a close friend – and occasionally even considered him a total dick – but sometimes friendships have a habit of looping back at unpredictable intervals.

You’d visited him at a London University campus for a beery night over a decade ago and almost found yourself lost at the end of the night.  It was only luck that you’d stumbled out of a chip shop on the Holloway Road and into the path of his housemates.  A wildcard who you actively wanted nothing to do with for a period, he burned with unfulfilled desire to be a professional footballer.  Never good enough; never even very close.  He’d played for most clubs in the district, happy for a time before he was placed on the bench, then quickly disgruntled.  You knew the ignominy of that feeling.  Memories of another night when he had nonchalantly walked along a street, stamping wing mirrors off cars at random before lying at peace on the pavement, gabbling drunkenly.  A liability then, but apparently tamed now; a husband and soon-to-be father.  At the end of the night, winding your way home through backstreets on a crest of curry and beer, a mutual friend would tell how he still believed an element of the devil remained in him, he could see it; it just needed teasing out by the wrong person.  That night we were all right.

A toddler’s giggle peeled from a nearby bedroom, your brother simpered to his daughter about something, your father was silent but you could almost sense his glowering through the floorboards at your nephew; your mother rushed in typically overreacting panic to attend to a bleeping timer in the kitchen.  You wound your legs back towards the floor, a mat of toy cars and Lego, and looked out of the window.

Players’ Player.  An achievement.  Recognition.  Some people never even get that.