The curse of choice

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.

My Relationship with Dating Apps

By Ceci Browning

Another national lockdown. A lockdown that looks like it will last for months. For single people all over the country, this seems like bad news. No dating, no meeting people, no chance of getting into that shiny new relationship they’ve been waiting for. As public spaces empty, the stacks of profiles on dating apps build up, and yet, especially for those living alone, love, or even just company, seems further away than ever. 

First time around, in March last year, I must admit, I was one of these people. I understood this enforced dating hiatus as the end of the world. I couldn’t cope with the thought that for weeks and weeks and weeks, endlessly, my single status was set in stone, simply because the government had said so. I felt as though I was running on a treadmill, desperate to move forward but going nowhere, watching as all these months of singledom passed me by, as my affections went to waste, with nobody to aim them at. 

So, as much as I hate to write the word, let alone say it aloud, I turned to Tinder.  Just looking at that sentence on the page makes me feel ridiculous. If you’re on Tinder, you’re just looking for casual sex. If you’re on Tinder, you’re not interesting enough to find someone in real life. If you’re on Tinder, you’re desperate. These are the assumptions that are made, and that it is impossible not to label yourself with as soon as you press the bright pink button which says ‘create an account’.  

I have deleted and redownloaded each of the dating apps on my phone more times than I can count. There have been successful dates of course, second dates, and even third dates, but there have also been numerous failures, some of which have been so horrifying I have sworn to never speak of them again. It’s not that I hate dating apps. Quite the contrary, I think I am more of an advocate than most, and very often find myself defending the swiping community in the face of criticism. I would also not claim, however, to like dating apps. They are not really an enjoyable experience. They are superficial, tiresome, and repetitive. They are a plaster, slapped on top of a bruise.

However, on this occasion, stuck in my lockdown rut, the cheap thrills of a dating app were exactly what I needed. I got talking to a guy who lived in Amsterdam, just by chance. We spoke for weeks, almost every night of the spring, and then, once the restrictions were finally lifted and the summer was rolled out ahead of me, I hopped on a last minute flight over to the Netherlands to meet my lockdown lover in person. I think perhaps I went because I was desperate for some kind of adventure, to get away from the town I’d been stuck in for so long, but I tell myself that he was the reason. That I went for him. Yes, the guy I met on a dating app. 

He would come and go for work, my Dutchman, while I’d waste away the warm hours of the day wandering through the city’s many museums, peering at paintings and historical artefacts, or finding waterside cafes to sit outside of, making a single glass of fruit juice and a pastry last for hours. When the sun began to go down, I’d dip in and out of shops, gathering up paper bags heaped full of groceries, and then we’d come back together in the early evening, to cook and drink red wine with a handful of his friends, before stumbling back to my hotel room, where we’d collapse exhausted onto the huge mattress, and then talk and kiss and run our fingers over the outlines of one another until we fell asleep. It felt refreshing to love in real life again. 

Like all holiday romances, it was short-lived. I knew that it was unsustainable, that when I came home it would all be over, and then I’d be back at square one, exactly where I was when the lockdown started. Single. But something had changed. Now being on my own didn’t seem quite so bad. Now I didn’t want to swipe through endless photos of men with new glossy haircuts, hands gripped round pints, gladiator sunglasses hanging from the necklines of v neck t-shirts, big grins, Nike trainers. Now it seemed like the alternative, the being on my own, without regular pings from handsome strangers – new match! new message! new match! – this was better. I’d still get lonely sometimes, I knew that. With a long empty summer stretched out ahead of me, I knew there would be nights when I’d lie alone and all I’d be able to focus on would be the sort of empty feeling at the bottom of my stomach, the ache of an empty bed. Even with my eyes closed, I’d be able to see the space next to me. I’d see the blue-grey gap where another person should be and it would hurt. Some nights, knowing that I am still on my own, that would hurt me. 

However, travelling solo for the first time had made me realise that actually I wasn’t lonely. I was just alone. And that was totally okay. Being alone is not a terrible fate. In fact, it gives you a chance to reflect on what it is you’re looking for, to think about what it is you’re really missing and work out how you might fill those gaps all by yourself: the big questions that dating apps distract us from. Although I’d had company while I’d been away, and while it had certainly been a Tinder success story, I’d known throughout that it was all temporary. Ultimately, I reminded myself, I was a single entity, roaming the streets of a foreign country on my own. Flying back, using my single ticket to get to my single seat, eating my single packet of nuts off my single tray table, I felt fulfilled. I was no longer convinced that being alone meant being lonely, as I had believed when the first lockdown was announced. I was alone, yes, but I had people who loved me on both sides of the sea I was crossing. I wasn’t lonely.

This time around, regardless of how long the lockdown lasts, I am determined to resist the pull of dating apps, which so easily convince us that it is totally awful and irrational to be on our own. Why are we single when there are so many options at our fingertips? How awful must we be to still not have anyone? Or at least to not be talking to anyone, sowing the seeds of a relationship. This lockdown, I am committed to remembering that being alone does not have to mean being lonely. They are not the same. In fact, being alone might just give us the chance to work out what it is we really want. Being alone for a little while longer, maybe, just maybe, is going to make all the difference.

Picture taken by the author

Snow

By Ceci Browning

I am wearing my mum’s wellies. They are navy blue with thick white stripes. They are also far too big. Between them and my feet there are three pairs of socks, and yet there is still an inch of empty space at one end. But my gloves and my coat and my scarf match perfectly. They are all navy too. I couldn’t wear my own wellies because the left one has a sizable hole. And it has snowed.

I’ve ventured outside. It’s still early, hours until lunch, but the streets are already full of footprints, dark shapes in the white landscape. Every few minutes I pass herds of small children or wet dogs without their leads or booted hatted grown-ups like me. Good morning, they smile. Hello, they chirp. Everyone seems to be friendlier in the snow. Perhaps it is because nobody can go anywhere. Nobody is in a rush to do this or that. Nobody has anyone to see or anything to get to.

I have always liked snow. 

The previous day I had been looking forward to seeing a friend of mine. Well, a ‘friend’. A friend that isn’t really just a friend, but also isn’t quite anything else yet, and probably won’t be. Someone I like, a lot, someone I particularly enjoy the company of, but someone who isn’t the kind of someone that means when your aunt or your friend or your godmother asks, have you met anyone, you say yes. I’d say no. I’d definitely say no. Because while he isn’t just anyone, he’s also not really that kind of someone. 

Anyway, we had plans, Mr Someone and I. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks and I was looking forward to catching up with him. I wanted to hear what he’d been up to. I wanted to ask how his Christmas was, and his new year, and everything in between. Because while I didn’t really care, I cared quite a lot. Sadly, however, Mr Someone had other things on. I wasn’t top of his to do list that day. An hour or so before when he was due to pick me up I got a text. He wasn’t going to make it. Another time, he says. Sorry, he adds. I remind myself I’m not really supposed to be disappointed.

The next morning, with my feet sliding around inside my wellies, I’m still thinking about him. I’m thinking about how everything seems to have slowed to a halt at the moment. Everything has given up, spluttered to a stop. And I’m thinking about how the things that haven’t stopped are awfully complicated. I sigh, and my breath forms a small cloud in front of my face. 

In the daytime I’m studying for my degree from home, with my dad in the next room hitting his keyboard in a way that makes it sound like he is chopping wood. My brothers are both upstairs, talking loudly to their teachers, tapping out long messages to their classmates. They are doing their very best to educate themselves from their bedrooms. My friends are miles and miles from where I am. At the end of the phone, yes, one call away, perhaps, but it’s not the same. And Mr Someone? Your guess is as good as mine. 

Young people are meant to be striding forward into the sparkling most exciting parts of their lives. Together. In pairs and in groups and as a generation. Twenty-somethings are all hovering at the precipice of something brilliant, the days that should someday be looked back on as the glory days, but have been stripped of the time and the energy and the space to leap over it. We all appear to be going backwards.

I turn the corner, an almost hairpin bend around a fir tree, and the hill rolls out ahead of me, white and glistening in the sunshine. My mouth drops open into a little o shape, like a penny.

Tiny coats of all colours race down the hill. Raspberry pinks and rubber duck yellows, pea greens and postbox reds. Parents in khaki green and dark blue with black rucksacks and sensible shoes chase after them, tripping over their feet, and each other. Bobble hats wobble and then plastic sledges tip over into the snow. Giggles and shrieks and yells drift up from the bottom of the slope, where a row of misshapen snowmen stand to attention. Teenagers scrape the thick branches of low trees with gloveless hands and hurl snowballs at unsuspecting siblings. There is laughing, there is hugging, there is joy.

For months and months, I have not seen so many people all in one place. But most of all, for months and months, I have not seen this many people having fun. Families are staying apart from one another, socially distancing as they should be, but it is still glorious. I have forgotten quite how important this coming together of strangers is. This is what Christmas was missing last year. This is it. This is what we, collectively, all of us, thought we had to leave behind forever, when in fact this is the thing that matters most. 

We are not going backwards. Of course we’re not. We are still pushing on into the future, however uncertain it may be. It’s simply that we are not moving in a straight line. Like the sledges of the children on the hill in all their bright colours, we are swaying and wavering and stopping and starting, but we are still moving forward. I will get my degree. I will see my friends again. Have a pint with them, watch a film with them, cook dinner with them. And who knows what will happen with Mr Someone? Maybe we’ll see each other. Maybe we won’t. Either way, I’m sure I’ll get to where I’m meant to be going. We all will.

Photo taken by the author.