By Ceci Browning
At eighteen, it feels as though all of our choices are still ahead of us. Most of them, anyway. While Cambridge is not a big city, it is a lot bigger than the schools we are coming from, where the couple of hundred people who make up the sixth form feel like the only other people we will ever know and could ever love, and so we brim over with excitement at the fact that it is a place full of strangers. The problem, however, is that so many of these strangers who stroll past us every day, these new friends and potential lovers, are crippled by this new sensation of infinite options. And for those among us who resist the pull of choice, those who know exactly what we want, the simple act of asking is not enough to overcome the curse that has befallen the others. We are forced to live with the fact that in our modern society of Instagram squares and Facebook friend requests, everyone is running in opposite directions. Nobody wants to commit to anybody else, for fear that there is always someone better.
A couple of weeks ago, over a smashed avocado bagel and a stack of blueberry pancakes in a café garden, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine about exactly this. We don’t mean to, we sort of slip onto the subject accidentally, but once we arrive it feels as though we are meant to be there, and I glow a sort of orange colour with the satisfaction of being understood. She gets it, my friend. Both of us know what it feels like to have been let down by somebody simply because they are afraid of picking just one person.
Both my friend and I expected to turn up at university, break a few hearts, kiss a few frogs, and then meet the person that we would waste away our three years in the city with. After a couple of failed attempts, we imagined, with people that had odd taste in music, or were too busy earning their blue in some obscure sport, or lived at a college on the other side of town, we would fall accidentally into relationships with people who were none of these things, people who had been looking for us just as much as we had been looking for them. We were without doubt that it would unfold like this. Everyone meets their significant other as a student. Right? Everyone gets to slow dance at May Balls and share brunch on Saturdays and do inappropriate things in their gowns after formal dinners. It will happen eventually, we thought. Like our parents before us, and their parents before them, we will meet someone at university. Yes, eventually, the person who we’re going to see in our early twenties alongside will present themselves.
I thought it would be easy, she says.
Me too, I agree.
But a few days earlier, leant over the shoulder of a different friend in our shared gyp and watching as he swiped through Tinder, I had discovered something. Left. Right. Right. Right. Left. Right. Right. Girls wearing mini dresses at formal dinners. Girls playing sports with swishy ponytails. Girls in patterned flares and round sunglasses. Beautiful girls, all beautiful, but just not quite enough to notice the difference between them. Not in real life, but on this app, certainly, the girls are just cut and paste copies; he knows that if he gets bored of one, there are plenty more smiley rectangles in the stack just waiting for him. He will never run out of options.
The problem, I propose to her that morning, through a mouthful of squishy green avocado, is that there is too much choice.
My friend sighs, then wipes the maple syrup from her plate with one neat sweep of her fork, and pushes the last bite of pancake into her mouth.
Of course the guys we want don’t want us back, I announce to her across the table. Why sleep with one girl when they could sleep with ten? Why settle for us over and over again when they could easily have a new girl each week of term?
Both my friend and I had been seeing guys who were one foot in and one foot out. My friend went on a handful of dates with hers, to bars and to pubs, as is expected, but also for coffee, on alcohol-free daylight dates. That’s normally a good sign, she insists, brow furrowed. They got on well, she tells me, really well, talking and laughing about each of the things they had in common, and she had let herself begin to think that maybe it wasn’t just sex. What was missing after all? Was the jump from the point they were at to some kind of commitment really that far? But instead of sliding slowly into a relationship, her almost-boyfriend slid in the opposite direction. Instead of memories shared, she was left with a stony silence. She was left with walking past him but not quite saying hello. She was left with unopened Facebook messages and deleted texts.
Mine was different from hers. He told me upfront that he didn’t want a relationship. And that was okay. Really, it was. Wanting to be in a relationship and being able to manage a casual arrangement are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think that very often they occur at once, since we settle for casual until we find serious, just to pass the time. We may hope that casual turns into serious, but we keep looking, just in case. We hedge our bets. We gamble.
But there was something special about this guy, I relay to my friend. She touches my arm gently. She nods her head and looks straight at me, hazel eyes wide. I know this look. It is a look which says, I know, I get it, I’ve been there too. I realise I do not have to tell her the rest of the story for her to know what will happen, but I carry on regardless.
It felt different, I say again. I too thought it might be more than just sex. Him and I talked. Properly and earnestly talked. He was gentle and thoughtful and kind, and for the first time in a long while I felt comfortable opening up to somebody, letting them see the sad blue-grey parts of me that weigh me down when I don’t rush through life fast enough. More importantly, he had opened up to me too, casually but cautiously. I sensed there was a lot standing between him and how he really felt, but was honoured that I had been allowed to see at least the edges of it. For a little while, it was as if we were the only people in the entire world.
And then it all goes pear-shaped. He panics. My friend’s guy panics. Each realises that things have gone too far, that the relationships are too real, and their fight or flight responses kick in. Yet again, we both feel the strain of time, acutely aware that it is another chance gone, another person we have put our love and our energy into only to get nothing back. We wonder why they didn’t like us enough to put both feet in. We wonder why they didn’t want to at least try.
That morning, over breakfast, my friend and I, between us, succeed in putting two and two together. With so many options to choose from, no wonder they don’t want to jump into relationships. They are young men, dripping with vigour and confidence. At the flick of a wrist, the press of a button, they can have new, brighter, more mysterious versions of my friend and I. And why would they not do so, since whoever they end up in bed with, how do they know that there is not somebody slightly funnier, a little more sporty, just a fraction better looking waiting in line?
Of course, there are the lucky ones among us who have found significant others, and are painfully happy in their neat pairs. I have not forgotten these individuals, but for now I am choosing to put them to one side. At eighteen or nineteen, it is understandable that so many students want to ‘play the field’, trying different kinds of people on for size. I think this desire lives in all of us. It is the curse of modern dating, and it is very difficult to root out – this awful but glittering thought that somebody else is always waiting. Somebody whose voice you haven’t heard, whose mouth you haven’t tasted, and whose body you haven’t touched. Firsts are exciting, I know, but when will firsts get boring? When will those running away from the people who care about them realise that endless choice may be more harmful than helpful? Getting into a relationship is not going backwards. Picking one person, and letting yourself be their person too, is not giving up. We forget, letting somebody care about us, especially in this spiky, unforgiving academic environment, is actually the best thing we can do.
My friend and I pay for our breakfast and then walk slowly back through the centre of town. It is still early morning, so the streets are mostly empty. Pigeons roam the pavement. The sun shines. King’s chapel sits regally. We are still single, that has not changed, but we are okay. We are recovering, albeit slowly, from our most recent round of heartbreak. The awful curse of choice is not going anywhere, but we can accept it now, because we are sure that one day, one bright shining day, just like this one, somebody will pick us. One day, properly and wholeheartedly, in a week, or a month, or even a year, somebody will choose us over anyone else.
Photograph taken by the author.