'My Life Closed Twice Before its Close'. 31.12.1998.
It took me over 20 years to understand what happened to me on that night and the following years; here's why.
I never understood that Emily Dickinson poem, ‘My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close’. I think I first read it in a daily anthology my mum gave me for Christmas during my A Levels. How can a life close but not end? What the fuck? I’d sit (probably on the loo with its funny bobbly window panes) and frown at the words and wish I understood.
I’m sure you see where this is going, so let’s set the scene. I’m 17, it’s 1998 and New Year’s Eve. I hate New Year’s Eve, partially for the bizarrely unrealistic expectations, partially because existential dread, a good dose of Heaven and Hell fear, and partially because, this year, I don’t really have any friends.
So when an old friend, who has been steadily disappearing from my life, negs me to buy a ticket to a New Year’s party at the local leisure centre/party venue/underage drinking dump, I agree. At least I’m not at home watching ‘Withnail & I’ alone in bed with my dogs, again, my parents taking an early night after going to New Year’s Eve Mass.
My friend had changed. He had new friends, army cadets, 5 or 6 of them, arms stretching high over the heads of the teenagers & sticky dancefloor, taking up space and moving their bodies unlike the shy, self conscious movements of the post-britpop kids.
I was drinking, dancing with the thrill of dancing to 1999, on the Actual Eve of 1999. I let go with the release of not having to make small talk and fucking it up and people frowning at me. Drinking and dancing was where, though I couldn’t (can’t) dance, I don’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing. Thinking is bad in dancing and drinking makes the thinking go away so I danced with these confident people, the friends of my friend, and surely I was happy, three Bacardi Breezers in. I dance, I flirt. So far, so normal suburban night out.
They were mostly the same age, these friends. But one was older, a worldly 22 to my sheltered Catholic school 17. Tall, confident as he moved around us, buying drinks and sharing his Benson’s with mock horror, a wide smile bounding across his pock-marked face as friends returned to our little dance circle, backs and elbow sweatily pushing and shoving. I knew he liked me; during a free period, my friend had asked me what I thought of him. Not much, I hadn’t really but I was flattered because the boys in my year never thought of me in that way. I was not blessed with cheekbones, 90s thinness or Wonderbra levels of cleavage so I was more Boy than Girl in many ways.
He bought me drinks and lit me a cigarette. His green eyes lit up as I danced, his smile and deep laugh goofy. He felt calm, in control, generous. We danced and flirted some more and then rolled down the stairs into the full beams of the doorway of the Angel Centre & into the darkness of the Sainsbury’s car park.
And then, driven back by the tall one, our designated driver, we are all back in my friend’s bedroom, safe.
Did we make toast, did I brush my teeth? All that is gone to memory. But I do know that, as in parties at my friend’s house over years, we all bedded down in a room together, all 7 of us in sleeping bags. Our old gang of friends always did this, more boys than girls, and it was kind and careful.
And then this man unzipped the sleeping bag. I was surprised - no-one had every really tried before & I didn’t know how to say “No thank you, I don’t have sex”. So on he went and I didn’t know what to say or do.
He fucked me on my friend’s bedroom floor, the others dotted around the room and I, impassively, wondered how you ask someone if they have - should you really not use - a condom? I was too drunk to think, too naive to ask him to use a condom and too terrified of going to hell to imagine that sex could be something that a person could be allowed to enjoy.
I didn’t know how to say those words and I didn’t think he’d really listen anyway, so up and in he went and I lay there with most of my clothes on, the nylon of my sleeping bag slippery against my legs. I looked at the little mantlepiece and sort of saw my friend, huddled in his bed by the window, where we’d sit and talk about Ren & Stimpy, or Red Hot Chilli Peppers & he’d show me how he could play a new bass guitar solo, or if he should try 6th Form again or if college was a better fit.
It was really nothing, sex, just someone deciding to push into you, push your knickers out of the way and push inside. I saw the lumps of the others and don’t much remember being aware of the sex that was happening to me. I thought they were asleep so it probably didn’t matter, anyway.
And the next day? And the next 6 months at school? Why yes, of course, it was fucking hilarious. We all knew how hilarious it was that I of all people had had sex.
I did worry, for the next few weeks, about being pregnant. I didn’t know what to do about it or have anyone to tell, so I just worried about it in my head and in my diary until my period came.
It took me another 4 years to leave him - I had to have a relationship, you see, because we’d had sex. And in those 4 years, he closed me in, he shut me up.
I tell people that I’ve had confidence for about 8 weeks. It’s true.
On the face of it, I’m mouthy, big gold hoop energy and MAC Ruby Woo. The one who gatecrashed a private event to push on my career, who escaped to Rome to meet one of my cooking heroes a week before my husband left, who clambered onto the stage at the ICA to beg a roadie to pass on a demo, who jumps into cold seas wearing only my M&S knickers and swears like a trawlerman. But the actions of this man destroyed many parts of me.
Why am I writing this out? Who cares? Well naturally I do - it’s a part of my life that has controlled me through shame, confusion, gas lighting and lack of understanding. Intimate partner violence crushed my inner compass because I had to switch off my instincts to survive.
I still wonder if I ‘get’ to use the words because he only almost smacked me in the face once, or twice. He only pressured me to have sex for the first few months, shamed me into stripping my pubic hair. He only told me who I could and couldn’t live with, where I could work in my summers and how I should spend my time. He only told me to study harder but to do it in the loft of his mom’s house whilst they plastered his bedroom so my head was thick with dust and aching as I tried to prepare for my finals (which I then royally fucked). He only told me who my friends could be, what I should wear and to always be available to him when he called.
So my life closed first on 31st December 1998. When the horrible combination of loneliness, vulnerability, social anxiety, patriarchy, isolation and shame conspired against me. My dad warned me not to ruin my life over one night. He meant unplanned pregnancy; what none of us had the words for, were the devastating effects of menace, coercion and threats of violence. But, fuck you, tall man. This New Year’s Eve, I’m going to be alone, with my dog. I’m going to go for a run, do some work and some chores. Have a hot bath and be asleep by 10. But 2021 is the year that your violence and coercion stop making me freeze and panic and want to erase myself.
Two years ago a person I esteem told me I needed to find my voice. To stop checking and go for it. To you, I say thank you for hearing me. I was frustrated with you at the time, but you were right. You won’t read this, but you were right.
So I’m telling the world (ie 10 readers) what you did in the hope that it helps others to know: it’s not your fault. That it takes time to rebuild what someone wilfully destroyed. But it is possible.
Happy New Year.