‘I’m searching my mind frantically for honest answers, but I can’t think of a single, solid reason.’
As I share the back seat of a taxi with my friend after a night out, it strikes me that we could kiss and it would most likely be nice. She is lovely and I’ve kissed women before, and it hasn’t made me question my sexuality because I’m certain that I fancy men more than women – although that could change.
But when it comes to other matters, I realise that I don’t know myself so well.
“What is it that you want from this?” the therapist asks me, about future hopes for my relationship with R.
I feel like I’m a contestant on Mastermind and I have to ask her to repeat the question: it isn’t complex or delivered in a manner that is trying to catch me out. Talking about what I want from a relationship is stuff I know, surely. She’s not quizzing me about the signing of the Magna Carta, or the history of silent film.
“I don’t really know.”
I’m searching my mind frantically for honest answers, but I can’t think of a single, solid reason. Not because the feelings for R aren’t there, but because I’m unable to talk about what it is that I want. If I were writing an essay, I’d skirt around the central issue and talk about why I first got together with him: to see if I could fall in love with someone who said he loved me first; to share the responsibility of bringing up my daughter and possibly have more children together; to explore how far a relationship could exist beyond a one-night stand.
Being asked to express desire, need and want isn’t as easy as it sounds. I thought I knew myself well and yet if I had to sit an exam on the subject now I think I’d stumble at the first question. My adult years have been defined by motherhood and marriage, and I don’t think I’ve rebelled at all until recently because being carried along with all that responsibility and duty had given me a false sense of safety, made me passive to change.
How I react to a person’s behaviour – or situation – has informed how my life has rolled on. As a mother I’ve been the carer. As a wife I’ve tried to control, to keep things tidy. For many years I based decisions not on how I felt, but on how others reacted. I never really wanted to have to analyse my feelings about anything; I wanted choice to lie in other people’s hands. Now I can see why it is hard to know what I want at all.
“And what would you like to ask your wife?” the therapist says to R.
This question is different, but R only pauses for a second before answering. He looks me in the eye, which is rare.
“I’d like you to stop interfering. For example, when I talk to the children or if I tell them off, you try to tell me how best to deal with them. You rarely just let me get on with being a father in the way that I want to be a father, and often you treat me like a child.”
I want to answer back with a “how dare you!” but realise that what he’s saying is totally fair. R usually likes to shy away from confrontation, make everyone feel like he’s in the wrong all the time. I am strangely exhilarated by his sense of injustice because for once he’s standing up for himself.
Next time we visit the therapist, I want to be able to offer at least one answer to her question. Surely I want all the things that everybody wants: love, security and companionship. But for myself? A bit more self-knowledge wouldn’t go amiss, however abstract that might sound.
Last week, I wanted to be dragged, to get drunk, to be taken anywhere but home. At the end of the night, of course, I had to go home. In my mind, the zenith of romance in life has always been about someone taking my hand and leading me away from the things I just don’t want to face.
All the adult duties that have scared me – from looking at my bank statements to dealing with authority – have simply been manifestations of my inability to look at myself.
It’s such a boring thing to have to do, to enter into such existential – sometimes selfish – territory. I’d much rather spend my days getting to know other people and admire their strengths and scrutinise their faults as a way of passing the time. It is fun for a while to define myself against people and places and things; to be taken along for the ride, whatever the consequences. But that’s not a sustainable way to live any more.