lxxxviii

In my first year at secondary school (I was about 15) I sat in the canteen and tried to convince my friends of the fantastic benefits that being a-sexual would bring. I had a whole concept, a fantastical made up planet populated by repeating families of clones.

It would be easy – two clones would touch and choose to create a third, child clone. It was secure – there would never be an accidental clone. It would be a relief – there’d be no need for sex. It would be freedom – there’d be no need for girls.

My entire life has been coloured by my problem with girls. Women are a different matter. But my fear of girls, my longing, my need, my understanding (or misunderstanding), my distrust/mistrust, my disconnection, plagued me from childhood to adulthood.

A depressing amount of time during the three years following that bizarre conversation (throughout which, of course, my friends treated me like a crazy person) was influenced by the sort of iconic, can’t-eat-can’t-sleep schoolboy crush that sells unambitious teen novels.

The actual breath in my lungs was often owned and controlled by the modest, unthreatening young girl who was in my form class. There are memories of my inability to connect with her that sting even now, and which shaped the rest of my life.

I endlessly examined and re-examined the question she asked me at the end of one class, clawing for some truth, some hint, that I had missed or failed to interpret at the time. “Do you think it’s funny that M said he could see Uranus?”, K asked me, quietly. My flustered reply, “No…” didn’t result in anything but her returning to her desk. What did it mean?!

It’s embarrassing but undeniable that I tried to draw her once, while gazing over in her direction, but stopped because I felt that to create anything that wasn’t perfect and beautiful – like she was – would be an insult, would destroy my vision of her.

Looking back now, I can be pretty sure I know what this meant.

In a heartbeat I can relive with clarity one morning in our form room. I had missed assembly and went to wait for my class, where I found K had done the same. Silent, I sat at my desk. I think my desk was some distance behind hers. I kept my head down, every minute of silence a suffocation, a choking. I was terrified of her.

I was terrified of her. Because I knew that I was small, ugly, worthless in comparison to the boys who were her friends, and I knew that this meant that I did not exist in her world, that when I left the room I would be impossible to recall. That she did not think ever of me.

I was terrified of her because she had everything of mine. I was powerless. And she knew it, she must see it, she must know exactly the way I feel and it must disgust her, trouble her, upset her that someone like her could attract someone like me. Someone awful.

But I was terrified that she was also testing me, sending out codes about the way that she felt about me and I did not have the capacity to see them, let alone untangle them and even if I did understand them I would never, ever, believe that they were true.

After three years, K and I ended up in fewer classes together and though I always knew when she was in the same room as me, my breath (at least) was now my own. Until the next wrenching crush, and the next, and the next.

Throughout all of the terrible longing-distances I put myself through, it was my unsolvable self-doubt that swung me from a passionate and romantic hope that something was happening to the pain and despair of being so terribly wrong.

Not that I told any of my crushes about the depths or the realities of my feelings. I played the same game I felt I was suffering in reverse, attempting to send out codified hints and learn how to say everything without ever really saying anything, how to prevent making myself vulnerable to rejection while yearning for the relief of honest expression of feelings.

I feel a prize idiot now, writing this, knowing that I managed to convince myself that a) I had to play this game because everyone else was playing it, and b) That I was the only, the only, person who played the game in order to protect myself from rejection.

What a fucking idiot! What was I thinking? But I didn’t think, I didn’t see beyond everyone else’s cool, calm faces. I saw only the beauty and the sexuality that I yearned for and the calculating and confident eyes that saw straight through me, that skewered me.

I gave away all of my power without once ever realising that everyone else around me was doing the same thing. Except that because I’d solidified this idea that I was totally unlike anyone else, I maintained this voluntary evacuation of power while so many others learned how to protect themselves better, build themselves a way to take their power back.

To my great and undiminished shame, I hit rock bottom at the age of 23 in the queue for a bus outside of the University of Bath after a night out with friends. I hated women. They had everything. They used the power their beauty gave them to crush me, to hurt me.

I hated women. I really said that. In a ludicrous, pantomime muttering splurge I expressed all of the poison I was drowning in, all of the hideous suspicions and pathetic accusations I had surrounded myself with, strangled myself with, disempowered myself with.

Because only I had given all of my power away. It was mine to possess but I had thrown it out as soon as it had entered me, thrown it in the direction of a pretty girl who really didn’t want it, and who rejected it, and who I then hated for rejecting me.

The friend of a friend who invited us all to the night out never spoke to me again. I’m glad, because he was right not to. If it would have been psychically possible I would have never spoken to myself again either. I was a disgrace. I was a mess.

It’s been many years and much, much, much talking since then but there is still a hoary dinosaur lurking deep inside me that fears pretty, lithe, outwardly-confident girls (girls, remember, women are something else) because I can feel its feeble urge to dissolve the control I have won over my own power and give it away.

But every day I have the love and support of my wife. Every day I feel the wholeness and peace that our marriage formed in me after decades of staggering through a stunted emotional wasteland. Every day I aspire to live honestly and with the understanding that a man is responsible for everything he does.

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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