Three years

The first time I remember meeting you, what stuck with me wasn’t your soft brown eyes. It wasn’t your bright grin, or your strong arms, or your wide shoulders. What struck me was the ridiculous hat you were wearing. It was, not to be too blunt, utterly awful. I left you there in that house party, and I went out clubbing, and I brought someone home, and I didn’t spare you another thought. Months went past, and I didn’t think of you.

And yet, we kept on running in to each other. I was indifferent; you’ve told me since that you were captivated. I found out you lived on the other side of Oxford from me, and in my flippant excitement, insisted that we exchange numbers. It would be a long summer. It would be nice to have some extra company. And that set us on a path of museum visits, late night texts, rock climbing, breaking in to Oxford colleges, dinner with friends, and finally, that house party, where my friend laughingly, drunkenly, suggested that I kiss you and I, finally, did. It would be weeks before I gave in and started dating you (“we’re just friends” became a favourite refrain.) It would take months before I finally started to fall in love with you. It’s taken me three years to finally understand that you’re not going anywhere.

People often say that their partner is their better half. It’s a playful comment, an affectionate nickname. In my case, it’s true. You complement me in a way that I never thought possible. Where I am angry, you are calm. Where I judge, you are tolerant. Where I scowl, you laugh. We go to parties, and I will rant about what a cow that girl was we met, while you sip a cider and calmly say you thought she was quite nice. You are soft and sweet where I can be harsh and cold. You wear your heart on your sleeve, openly and bravely, and persevere with me when I close up and push you away and refuse to talk about my emotions. I am a better person for being with you. I am a better person for knowing you.

I like to think I’ve made you a better person too. You were quieter when we met, less sure of yourself. Some of that isn’t down to me. It’s down to you growing as a person, down to your friends and your learning and your travelling. You were an awkward boy when we met, and now I see a confident man. We were at a party a few months ago. I was talking to a friend of a friend of a friend, someone who mercifully had a job like me and wasn’t another student at a party flooded with medics. I turned to get another drink, and you were there, dancing in the middle of the kitchen with a guy I vaguely recognised as being at your new university. You looked so happy, a smile splitting your face, and I felt a rush of pride and happiness that you were – are – mine.

The last three years are peppered with those happy little moments. They’re not big moments. I once read a post from one of my favourite bloggers, in which she says that love isn’t the big things, its counting pennies. I think we’ve done a lot of counting pennies together. A lot of nights sitting in the library. A lot of evenings cooking dinner with each other. You nagging me to tidy my room, and me throwing a wet towel at your face in response. Texting each other every day, keeping up with the minutiae of what you’re learning in medical school, while I bore you with that I’ve done in the office that day. We can spend hours together, not saying a word, engrossed in our own little worlds, until someone gets up to put the kettle on and drops a passing kiss on the other’s shoulder as they walk by.

You are, more than anything, my partner. You’ve put up with a lot from me. My broken wrist: you came to my room several times a day to help me dress, cook, wash up, and once, memorably, to shave my legs. My depression: you were my rock, there to stroke my hair and kiss the tears away and make me eat when I forgot. I hope that when you broke your collarbone I was half as supportive to you as you’ve been to me.

I am so proud to be your girlfriend. You are one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. You always manage to put a smile on my face. You even make me laugh when I’m crying sometimes, and then you laugh yourself and tell me I’m making my wibble face (whatever that means.) You are gorgeous, all long lines and lean muscles (and I’ll stop there because this is a public blog.) You are smart, and I sit in quiet awe as you revise for your exams with your flatmates, talking through drug names and physical examinations and viruses. You are kind. I love the life we have together, how you slot so effortlessly in to my life in Kingston. I love visiting you in Islington, the warm domesticity of cooking dinner for your flatmates. At first, I thought it was the house there that felt like home. It wasn’t. It was you.

So, my darling, there you have it. I am sorry that I never quite find the words to tell you how much I love you. I am sorry that I am blunt and sarcastic, that I hide how I feel and push you away when it gets hard. You inspire me to be different, to open my heart and say what you know, what I’ve told you, but don’t hear enough: I love you.

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Failure

CN: sex, pain, mention of medical conditions

I’m curled on my side, my body hunched and small in the foetal position. I can feel him behind me, hovering an inch away from my back, but he knows better than to touch me. Every inch of me feels wrong, my skin feels too tight, and there’s a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m such an idiot. I thought this time would be different.

It never is.

I wrote a month ago about the pain I’ve been getting in my abdomen. That’s hard enough to talk about – how do you drop “oh yes, I missed work on Monday because I was in A&E with agonising stomach cramps that so far remain unexplained” into polite conversation? I’ve had some scans now; they’ve found nothing, which means that I’m clear of something like ovarian cysts, and I’ve taken a strong course of antibiotics, so if it was anything like PID, that would have been cleared up. The stomach pains are becoming more infrequent, and my period passed this month without pain out of the ordinary. The pains in my stomach are going, but I know that I’m not better. Not by a long shot.

The first time it happened, we were in my room at Cambridge. It was second year; my door didn’t have a lock; and my roommate could have come in at any moment. Classic student sex, rushed in between studying and essays and being caught. I remember the pain building and building, not wanting to say anything, and then crying uncontrollably after he was done, while my partner held me close and apologised over and over again.

We thought it was a fluke, a one off, a dodgy position. We wrote it off, and for a while, everything went back to normal. And then it happened again. And again. And again. Infrequent enough that I barely paid it any attention, thinking that maybe we were just rushing and needed to slow down. It got slowly worse. There would be nights when having sex would leave me in agony for hours afterwards, sitting in a hot bath to relieve the pain and brushing away my partner’s apologies. It stopped being “something that happens every now and again.” It started to happen more often. Soon, it was nearly every time we had sex. Then, it was unusual when it didn’t hurt. Now, I can’t remember when it last didn’t hurt.

As a culture, we’re obsessed with sex. We listen to songs with racy lyrics, we watch music videos with scantily clad women, porn is more watched than ever, TV shows like Love Island put sex in our living room, every night of the week. We love to talk about it, who did what with whom. Games of truth or dare and never have I ever, giggling as you reveal that one night stand you had in college. When we’re having it, it’s great. Sex is exciting, fun, something to laugh over with your friends in the pub while you hold your partner’s hand under the table and give them that look that means later.

On a more personal level, I love sex. I’m usually the loudest in the pub, making my friends blush and shush me. I spent my first year at Cambridge bringing home as many men as I could. I’ve reviewed sex toys for online blogs, and written erotica, and defended watching pornography at the Cambridge Union, and written academic essays promoting female masturbation. I love talking about sex.

It’s just so much harder to talk about when it’s going wrong.

So I put off saying anything to anyone. I hid it from my closest friends. I hid it from my partner. I would tuck my face into his neck, grit my teeth, and then smile at him afterwards, huddling in to his chest and trying to ignore the ache between my legs. I avoided going to see a doctor for so long. When I went, a middle aged woman with a quiet smile examined me, ran tests, told me that there was nothing wrong with me. She was kind, but I felt like a failure.

In Kingston, I met with my new GP. I ran through my prescriptions, that I would need to be set up with my contraceptive and my anti-depressants (thankfully, I’m no longer taking the latter) and then, at the end, I mustered all of my courage, and said in a small voice “when I have sex, it hurts. Like, it really hurts. It’s been happening for over a year.” And that GP smiled at me, and told me that it didn’t matter. I left, humiliated.

Six months later, the stomach pains bought it all back in to focus. Sitting in A&E, the doctor asked me if I had any other symptoms of endometriosis. I hesitated, and then I told her. Now, I’m being investigated at Kingston hospital for any physical issues that might be causing this, and going to see a specialist at St Mary’s in Paddington to see if its an emotional issue.

It’s hell, that’s what it is. I know that I should brush it aside. It doesn’t make me less attractive or less of a woman. Sex involves more than penetrative sex. My partner loves me, and he would never leave me over this.

But I do feel less attractive. I feel less comfortable in my own skin. Sex is more than penetrative, but I would like that to at least be an option. And as much as he loves me, why wouldn’t he walk away? There are plenty of women out there without this problem. He’s a great guy; he’d find someone else.

Every time it happens, I die a little more inside. We talk about it, agree that we just won’t do that, we’ll do everything else. And we do, and its great, and then I go and fucking ruin it by suggesting that we try it. Just once more. I’m ready. It will be fine. And then searing pain rips through me, and I find myself curled up crying, again. I’m such an idiot.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written, because I feel like a failure.

I sent the first draft of this to my partner to read. “You’re not a failure, and I’m not going to leave you, and I love you.” He’s right, of course. We’re a team. We’ll deal with this like we deal with everything. Together. Next tests are in September, so we’ll know more then.

It might not be. It might.

I stand in front of the mirror, my hands pressed lightly to my stomach. My hands are cold; the skin of my stomach is warm to the touch. I run my fingers lightly over the curve and swell, over the light hairs and the freckles and the indent of my belly button. My hands trail lower, to the sharp bone of my hip and there, just there. I inhale sharply as I press down. That shouldn’t be there. That shouldn’t hurt. And for the first time, I’m afraid.

Multiple trips to a&e. Doctors running their hands down my sides. Nurses with sympathetic eyes. Long waits in sterile rooms, my boyfriend clutching at my hand. They don’t know what it is. They said I need a scan. They say it could be nothing. Or it could be everything. I watch their eyes widen as I tell them it runs in the family. It might not be that. But it might be.

If it is, my insides will attack themselves. Tissue will grow where it should not. Every month, that tissue will shed with the lining of my womb. I will lie in agony as my body tears itself apart. It scars, every month. Those scars build up. Left to its own devices, my body will become a prison of pain and scars and infertility.

Do you know what I’m talking about? It affects around 1.5 million women and girls in the UK. 10% of women worldwide are estimated to have it, but the figures are likely to be much higher.

My mum has it. My sister has it. It runs in families.

I look down at my stomach again, stroke the skin. I close my eyes, and I hope. My body is my rock. It’s mine, my solace, my fortitude. It is not the most beautiful, not flawless or perfect. It is perfectly imperfect. It is scarred and ridged and mine. And it has been my fortress, my hide away from the world. Even in my darkest moments, the nights I have looked in to the mirror and seen nothing but fat and ugly, it has always been strong. And now it turns out that that strength might be an illusion.

I’ve never wanted children. It’s true that I don’t especially like children, but that’s not the reason why. When I imagine my life, when I fantasise about who I might be and where I might go, it is wild and varied. My career spans across reckless possibilities. My mind fills with the food I would like to taste, the baking I want to achieve. I picture the man I want to be holding my hand. Sometimes, there’s no man at all. I picture mundane things like the kitchen units in my dream home, friends growing older and getting married, my little sister having her first child. I imagine the places I want to visit, where the climates are hot and animals I have only seen in zoos roam freely. Never. Never in any of those dreams, have I ever seen children, my children, held in my arms. Not once. I don’t picture it. I don’t dream of it.

Infertility doesn’t scare me. What scares me is the thought of a body that is beyond my control, that hurts indiscriminately and cannot be cured, only slowed.

I’ve got a scan in two weeks. I hold the hospital letter in my fist, let my other hand drop again to my belly. It might be. It might not be. We’ll have to wait and see.