The one that got away: Jeanette Winterson
'I used to have a lot of affairs until I realised it was like growing cress on a flannel – instant results, no roots'
Saturday 23 August 2014
ostalgia for lost love is cowardice disguised as poetry. It is easy to imagine that if life had moved a degree in a different direction, then the one that got away would be by our side, and we would both be living happily ever after. Memories of holiday romances or stray nights with strangers are part of the pleasure of the past. And I believe that anyone we have loved is someone we should be able to think about, talk about and recognise as a real piece of our emotional history. To me, one of the best aspects of gay culture is that we work hard to stay friends with our exes – perhaps a survival mechanism from the bad old days of the ghetto, but a civilised arrangement, nonetheless. (It will be interesting to see if the normalising effect of marriage changes this.) But recognising the past as our past, and being able to groan, giggle, blush, sigh and play with those memories, is not the same as a corrosive secret infatuation with the idea of that special someone we managed to mislay. Sighing over a fantasy drains energy from reality. What happens in our heads isn't private; it is unspoken, that's all. We all know what it's like to live in the stifling atmosphere of what is unsaid.
Love is hard work. We don't hear enough about that. Falling in love is the easy part – it's why affairs are so exciting and attractive – none of the toil, all of the fun. I used to have a lot of affairs until I realised it was like growing cress on a flannel – instant results, no roots. Adam Phillips has written eloquently, in Missing Out, on the strange discontent that prompts us to believe that the life we are not living would be better for us than the life that is ours. If only we had that job/house/girlfriend/husband/sex life, etc. In truth, the life that is ours is the one we make, and that includes our partners. If we really have been criminally careless with the love of our life, and driven him away, or let her go – well, then – we deserve to be unhappy, at least until that unhappiness prompts such a change in us that the miracle of a second chance (with someone else) is not thrown away.
I realised a few years ago that the script I was running through all my relationships was a narrative of loss. Either I chose, or let myself be chosen by, people who weren't free (those were the exciting ones), or I had bouts of duty where I tried to settle down in a way guaranteed to find me secret-sighing over someone else. Changing that story changed my relationship with myself – which is, after all, the relationship all other relationships must negotiate.
I have regrets about a couple of past partners, but no fleeting feelings of nostalgia for what might have been with "someone". "Someone" is a fantasy. The person I love is real.