The Ones Who Got Away

After a strict upbringing, early heartbreak, and a celebrity crush, I’m indefinitely single.

The Ones Who Got Away

by

filed under True Stories

My friend the beautiful actress once explained to me how she filters out the men who want to date her.

“You choose the restaurant,” she said. “Make it within eight blocks of your house. If he’s not willing to come to you, then he’s not worth it.”

I smiled a little too much.

“What?” she asked.

“Well, the idea of being able to pick from among the many men who want to take me out…”

She had a solution for this problem. She gently suggested that maybe I should stop talking about and writing about and posting endless half-veiled messages to social media about the actor I had met some months before, a man she knew well and had worked with for years and on whose loveliness she was entirely in agreement—a man with whom I, however, stood no chance. Not that she has ever said this. I assume she thinks she doesn’t need to.

 

Before the actor, there was Tom. You probably have a Tom, too, though yours might be called Jeremy or Antoine or Sebastian. Or Catherine or Olivia or Michelle. He’s the one my mind travels back to, along well-worn grooves of memory and regret, when I’m thinking about why I’m still single and will probably never have children. I met him at Cambridge when he was 20 and I was 21. I was at Halfway Hall, a formal meal in the large Tudor dining room, wearing a new dress with large blue checks that on the expensive side and clung flatteringly to my then-smaller but still notable curves. It was February, too cold for bare legs, but this dress was a bare legs kind of dress. I had probably cut my ankles shaving; I always cut my ankles shaving in those days. But I looked good. I was having fun.

He took my friend Karen aside and asked her who I was. Picked me out of a crowd! While my friends squeezed into one of the booths to round off the meal with a little more wine, Karen brought me over to the corner where he sat with his friends. This was not a corner where I ever sat, inhabited as it invariably was by a small group of boys (they called themselves men) who sang in the world-famous Chapel Choir. Educated at places like Eton, the school of future kings, they looked down their noses at riff raff like me. To be fair, we looked down our noses at them, too: inverse snobbery is a powerful thing. They had mobile phones when it was still unbearably pretentious to have one. They wore suits to chapel every day. They understood Latin. They were self-assured and well-spoken.

And now here I was, invited into their midst. It was intoxicating.

Though Tom asked the right questions during our first conversation, I could tell that he wasn’t really listening, that he had other things on his mind. Things very much having to do with me, though, so, I didn’t mind. Being desired by someone so blatantly was new and exciting. And Tom wasn’t just anyone. He was a talented musician with kindness in his voice.

On paper, we were mismatched. We were from different worlds, though his was a world I would gladly enter: a lifetime of educated conversations, expensive wine and elegant dinners. A world where organists’ hands are insured for £50,000 each and children are sent to schools where their shoulders brush those of princes. My world didn’t offer the same kind of enchantment. But something passed between us that night, that unexplainable thing that is the stuff of books and movies. Chemistry. Electricity. Something.

He didn’t kiss me that night, or the next. I floated for a while, but then the inevitable crash: I wasn’t allowed to go out with him. He wasn’t a Christian, or at least not the same type of Christian that I was.

“I’m an organist,” he would argue. “I’ve spent my whole life at church!”

I would say things like: Spending your whole life in a garage doesn’t make you a car.

We danced around each other for the next year and a half, our hearts slowly ripping as we did so. We would see each other until he’d say, “I can’t do this if we’re not going to be together.” He came to visit me during my year abroad in Spain. That was where we kissed for the first time, more than a year after we met, among the rocks that jutted out to sea. So sweet and innocent—kissing and hand-holding the extent of it, sleeping in different rooms of the same apartment. So delicious.

 

I grew up going to church, and made my own profession of faith at an early age. My kind of Christianity is one that takes the Bible seriously; it emphasises a personal relationship with Jesus and the type of lifestyle that ideally flows from devotion to Him but whose strictness can raise eyebrows in mainstream culture. Youth group was an inevitable, reliable feature of my adolescence, a safe place to meet and develop raging crushes on the kind of boy I was allowed to like. A place, too, for the annual Sex Talk, or rather the No Sex Talk. How far can I go with my boyfriend? And tell me again why I can’t go out with that gorgeous boy in my class who doesn’t go to church?

The answer to the latter was multi-layered, and looking back now, I still can’t fault the logic of it. Being the kind of Christian I am affects everything about someone’s life; it’s the basis for every decision: how we use our money, what we teach our kids, where we choose to live. We don’t date casually. Dating is a serious thing meant to at least explore the possibility of marriage. And when it comes to marriage, as heinous as I am aware this sounds to many of my contemporaries, I wanted—and a small part of me still wants—to stand at the altar and promise to submit to my husband as the Church submits to Christ. To hear him promise that he will love me as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. Submitting to this kind of sacrificial love seems like a win-win to me. But how could I expect someone who was not from my religion to adhere to this view of marriage?

Besides, I wanted to marry a man who loved God. I wanted to marry young, have babies, stay at home with them and otherwise make sacrifices while my husband grew in his leadership. I wanted to move with him to another town, start a church together, spend my days mentoring the younger women over coffee while bouncing a small child on my knee. I wanted, in other words, all the things I was taught to want. But the boys who could ostensibly deliver those things rarely wanted me back.

There was Joel, the blond-haired artist for whom I took up drawing, though I then failed that class. There was his brother, Daniel, who started going out with, and later married, my mentor. At college, there was another Dan, on whose shoulder I wept during Titanic and who told me that he didn’t think our dating was God’s will. There was Chris, with his blue eyes and guitar and his sensitivity in leading worship. There was Eoin of the fiery faith and the sexy Northern Irish accent.

After Tom, there was Pete, for whom I started learning Russian so that we could one day go do missionary work in Eastern Europe. There was Sam, who was basically a Christian version of Tom: another witty, Cambridge-educated musician. And there was Peter: ditto. Nice, often monosyllabically named Christian boys who just weren’t interested in me.

I didn’t ever ask any of these boys out. We were encouraged to let them take the lead. But none of them could have been in any doubt that I would say yes; subtlety has never been my strong suit. And if we weren’t allowed to ask guys out, if we weren’t allowed to go out with non-Christians, we certainly weren’t allowed to snog guys randomly in clubs. We stayed away from chatting up strangers: what were the chances they shared our religious views? In England, where I grew up, slim to non-existent.

So I have never learned to slip my phone number to the handsome man at the bar or to hold someone’s gaze longer than necessary as I pass them on the street. Instead, I give off the message “unavailable.” Unavailable because I have been taught to be, and because I never again want to experience the kind of heartbreak I did with Tom.

 

By my early thirties, I’d had more than enough of crushing on nice boys I couldn’t have—or, at least, real ones. I found myself falling hard for a fictional character in a TV show, and then, as I researched the actor who played him, for a blend of his public persona, the role that made him famous, and the character I was writing into my novel. As defense mechanisms go, this was an effective one. For five years, the combination of my crush on him and the lack of available men around me shielded my heart.

And then I met him.

I met him three times in the space of 18 months, and the third of those times was the one that undid me: a two-hour lunch, just him and me, the prize in an online charity auction. He was everything I’d dreamed he was. We talked about books and Hollywood and writing, politics and our families and the challenges of dating, and each of those things contained kernels of hours more of conversation. I have never met anyone like him, I would tell anyone who would listen afterwards. Smart and thoughtful, kind and sensitive, funny and honest.

On paper, we are mismatched. We are from different worlds, though his is a world I would gladly enter: a lifetime of entertaining conversations, expensive wine and elegant dinners. Glamorous parties on the one hand and family life on the other, he and his children and I laughing around the television. Something, I think, passed between us at lunch: the chemistry, at least, of incipient friendship. But what am I supposed to do with that?

Of course I can never have him. Like the Christian boys who didn’t want me, and the not-Christian boys I wasn’t allowed to want. He is surrounded by smart, talented, beautiful, white-toothed, flat-stomached, single-chinned women. Women who are age appropriate, who don’t live a continent away, who don’t have visa issues. It would never occur to him to date me. This isn’t self-pity; it’s the kind of realism that my beautiful actress friend would no doubt applaud.

I stopped believing years ago that I could have what was held up in my church as desirable. That is not to say that I don’t still want it, or that I’m not open to being surprised by it. But I’ve built a life that I love, and I’m not willing to upend that—and to risk my fault-ridden heart—for anything less than the extraordinary. I am not opposed to friends introducing me to eligible men; I dip my toes in the harsh world of online dating once in a while. But I do so with a clenched heart, a clenched body.

The actor has captivated me as Tom once did. To fall for anyone else seems as if it would be a sell-out, and so I continue to project the vibe of unavailability. It’s safer that way.

 

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