On Valentine's Day, a single man's thoughts turn inevitably to his romantic failures and regrets.
In my case, I'm not bothered about the relationships that ran their course; nor about the idols of my early Petrarchan phase, the girls I loved epically and catastrophically but never stood a chance with – everybody's got one or two of those tucked away at the back of their heart, right? Either way, I gave all of them my best shot, some several times over. There's nothing there to regret.
No, what sticks in my craw now are the girls I could have had, but didn't. Not the ones I gave up on because they had boyfriends, or lived too far away, or it would just have been too weird for some reason – everybody's got those stories as well. I'm talking about the ones who mooned after me silently for years and then revealed later that they used to fancy me; the ones whose eventual panicked declarations of affection so completely blindsided me that I just stood there like a lemon saying "What? Really?" instead of sweeping them manfully into my arms; and most of all the ones who bodily threw themselves at me all through my twenties but whose repeated blatant displays of physical and emotional vulnerability I wilfully chose to interpret as evidence of trust, not lust.
Raised under the twin thumbs of Catholic dogma and feminist critical theory, I'd been conditioned to believe that the Male Gaze was a social menace more dreadful than poverty, famine and nuclear weapons put together. Even after I rejected my religion, the second thumb still weighed heavy on my back for another decade or so. Mark Steel and Alan Davies have both done routines about the ethical dilemmas of dating as a left-winger in the 1980s – I'm a bit younger, but not so much that I didn't recognise the problem. Was it, ideologically speaking, okay to fancy the local SWP branch's resident Helena Bonham Carter lookalike on a physical level, or should I want her for her mastery of dialectic instead? Would chatting up the tidy blonde from the Tory Club make me complicit in the decimation of the steel industry? And if men were all patriarchal oppressors from whom the night needed to be reclaimed, shouldn't the girls I knew all be shagging each other instead of me (or, more realistically, the rugby team) anyway? It was a minefield!
Thus it was that – driven as much by overweening respect for a confident and empowered woman's ability to make independent choices as by visceral disdain for the leering, brutish braggadoccio that constituted "masculinity" where I grew up – I convinced myself that the only safe course was to be as friendly and approachable as I could, but (except in cases of the direst infatuation) let the girls chase me instead.
Yeah, I know: good luck with that. No wonder I ended up convinced I was rubbish with women, which as self-reinforcing mental circuits go is a pretty bad one to get into. The crazy thing, looking back, is that actually it wasn't true at all. On the basis of any kind of empirical observation, an outsider would have to have concluded that a lot of girls really liked me – it's just that for the most part I convinced myself I was imagining anything that might have resembled sexual interest. For a huge chunk of the 90s, even my most intimate relations were crippled by the belief that without an explicit, specific and (importantly) unprompted verbal come-on, any amount of touching, giggling, hugging, snuggling, sighing, handholding, generalised sex talk, undressing in front of me, sleeping in the same bed, spooning, intertwining of limbs, heavy breathing etc that came from a woman to me might all be perfectly innocent, and even the minutest sign of any response on my part would be tantamount to rape.
Luckily for my sanity, there were, of course, less subtle girls who were prepared to come straight out with the necessary verbalisation; and even without it, there's a point at which the evidence becomes incontrovertible. When a girl's got her hand down your pants and a smile on her face, there's no real need to whip out a consent form. But such instances were few and far between – and, very occasionally, just a bit too squalid to go through with.
Brrr! Moving swiftly on…
I'm glad to say I came to terms with my heterosexuality eventually. I'm even still friends with some of the women who helped me with that. My subsequent conquests, not so much; but that's pretty normal as these things go. To the panoply of disasters and disappointeds who went before, though, I can only apologise for being such a fucking moron. You all deserved better. If it helps, remember that I wasn't doing myself any good either.
Perverse as it may seem, though, I miss the agony of those years. I've always maintained that the so-called "thrill of the chase" is overrated, but there was a certain excitement that came from the ambiguity of trying to navigate with no maps through an abundant jungle of unmeasurable possibility. Even when I was talking myself out of seeing what was in front of my face, the thought was there to dismiss. Whereas now I have half a map, but I don't know enough single women to make it useful. Time has caught up with me, the bastard.
It's an old, old lament: If only I'd known then what I know now. Ah well…
UPDATE (Re: Comment from Padre)
You're one of the few people I still know who was there during the worst period of it, so thanks for the second opinion. It would have been more use at the time, though :)
In fairness, if my sums are right we'd have first met while I was in the throes of my second Great Petrarchan Tragedy, which did blind me to other options for a good while. But once I could no longer kid myself that was ever going anywhere? Nah, from then on I just badly needed someone to slap me round the head and tell me the score.
That daze? That would have been me thinking something like "Is there a subtext here or not, and how would I tell?" I genuinely had no idea how goddam sexy I was.
Which, for the record:
Oh you handsome devil.