I never thought a date at the age of 21 would change the course of my entire life. And to think, I was 15 minutes away from cancelling. I was on a train en route to another city to meet a man for the first time who was already giving me butterflies. He seemed too good to be true – honest, funny, charming, intelligent – on paper he was perfect (if such a thing existed). By his own admission he wasn’t the best looking guy going but I’ve never been hung up on looks. I find a person can become more or less attractive based on their behaviour rather than whether they have a beard/specific haircut/body type. I was so nervous I felt sick. I hadn’t been on a date with someone new for three years. At the penultimate stop I hovered at the door, wondering if I should just turn back and go home.
I wasn’t looking for love, having just come out of a messy and abusive relationship. My best case scenario was a nice meal and a few drinks with a guy who seemed genuinely interested in me. We had exchanged emails for weeks and spoken for hours on the phone beforehand, in the days when phones could do little else but make calls and type texts. We had handled pretty heavy topics before seeing each other for the first time – his parents acrimonious split, health woes, heartbreak and disappointments in previous relationships. Surely a meal in a lovely Italian restaurant would be a breeze in comparison…
When I got off the train and we saw each other for the first time there was no awkwardness, it was as if we’d known each other for years. That first kiss on the cheek made my stomach flip. We walked the short distance to the restaurant holding hands and I knew this was something a bit special. We barely touched our food or drink, we were so deep in conversation they could have turned the lights off in the restaurant and we wouldn’t have noticed. We went onto a bar and the next thing I knew I had missed the last train home. He offered me his spare room and I gladly accepted, knowing it was unlikely either of us would be sleeping much that night. We spent that night talking (and not talking, I never made it to the spare bed). In the morning I called in sick to work. Our first date went on for 24 hours, encompassing three meals out, a trip to the cinema (we were both huge film fans) and planning when we would be seeing each other again.
Following that date we spent every weekend together. I caught a train to his house every Friday after work and cried when I had to go home on a Sunday night. Within a month I had a set of keys so I could come and go as I pleased. A couple of weeks later I started interviewing for new jobs in his home town. We had officially moved in together by Christmas. In the new year I started looking at college courses, encouraged by the man I would shortly marry. He told me I was wasting my talents in menial jobs and should be a writer, which was easy for him to say, having been a journalist for half his life. Although writing was never something I envisaged as a career his encouragement to explore my potential changed the perception I had of myself. After years of being put down by an emotionally manipulative boyfriend it was cheering to live with someone who believed in me.
With his help I also started medication and counselling to deal with the demons that were haunting me from my last relationship. I didn’t realise it at the time but I was on the verge of a pretty massive mental breakdown. At first he was the only one I confided in about the full horror of what had happened and with his help I started a dialog with my family about what I had been through. It was something I never would have had the courage to do myself. I honestly don’t think I would have survived that time alone.
Of course fairy tales aren’t real and over time the pressure of health issues on both sides (mine mental, his physical) took a massive toll. I missed my family and friends on the other side of the country. I grew to resent him for taking me away from them, conveniently forgetting it was my decision to uproot myself and live with him. I was paranoid and jealous, often accusing him of cheating even when I didn’t have proof. I questioned his motives for everything, constantly asking why he loved someone as screwed up as me. We fought about everything – from the big stuff (having children) to what we should have for dinner. Within three years we had separated, a year later we were divorced.
I spent a lot of time post-breakup feeling bitter and it was only with the benefit of time and distance that I came to appreciate how much that time together altered the path I was on. If I had gotten off that train a stop early I guarantee I would still be in a job well below my capabilities, thinking it was all I was good for. My mental health issues would have destroyed me without medical intervention. I wouldn’t have gotten to live in a city that I still love and built friendships I still have to this day. And whilst our story didn’t have a happy ending it wasn’t all bad. We travelled to eight different countries, went to amazing gigs together, bonded over a shared love of a hopeless national football team. We lived, we laughed and we loved. I would never want to discount or forget that time no matter how it ended.
By strange coincidence I found myself outside that first date venue today, 13 years on. Sadly my ex husband passed away in January so I am the only remaining member of our party of two. The wave of nostalgia was so strong I still have goosebumps. Love is bloody fantastic when you find it and hopefully the next time I feel it I will be able to appreciate it fully.