This Is How My Childhood Ended Forever

Em Unravelling

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The ending began, as these things so often do, with a beginning. That beginning was the start of my relationship with my first husband.

We were both young — so very, very young — when we met. Children, really. Not old enough legally to drink in bars; I wasn’t old enough at that point even to drive. But this boy liked me, and he made it clear that he liked me, and so because he liked me, I was smitten.

I really believe that my interest was piqued, right at the start, by the simple fact that he liked me. He wasn’t looking past my shoulder to see if my better-looking friend had noticed him. He wasn’t asking me if it was true that my sister was the hot girl in the year below. He looked at my soft moony features, my straggly ponytail, my curious clothes and he said “You. You, I like.”

That was all it took. I was hooked. When three dates later he failed even to show up for our next meeting and I didn’t hear from him again at all for several months, I was heartbroken to the point of being unable to eat. Life felt pointless, stained dark at all its edges. I vowed with every superstitious fiber of my being that if I could just win him back, I’d do anything, for anyone, ever. All I wanted was him and I would pay any tier of price that might be required.

And then one night after I had given up hope of him entirely I was in a sticky-floored nightclub, dancing with my friends when I saw him. He was leaning against the wall and watching me as I danced in my little white halterneck dress which glowed an otherworldly purple in the strobe lights. Just watching. Watching, and waiting for me to walk over to him. Which of course, I did.

He took me home from that nightclub, and I was his again, and it felt to me like the sun coming out after rain.

That early test, though — that unexplained, cruel hiatus during which he had dropped me from his life entirely, feeling no need to apologize or even to explain — was exactly that. It was a test. It was a soft feeler, sent out to explore and to see just how much I would take. He wanted to assess just how disrespected I would allow myself to be.

Turns out, I’d allow a lot of disrespect. Gradually, imperceptibly, my beloved new boyfriend changed the way he treated me and spoke to me. He told me that my voice was insufferable and demanded I alter its tone, so for humiliating days, I spoke like a cartoon character, whispering in a high-pitched lisp. He told me that my friends were irritating so I quietly stopped talking about them or asking if he would come with me when I saw them. Then I stopped seeing them.

He wanted me with him all the time, or at least he wanted always to know where I was so when he went out with his friends he expected me to wait for him at his house. I would sit for hours, cloistered and hungry in his bedroom, afraid to draw attention to my presence by going downstairs for snacks. I learned to take sandwiches with me for the hunger, to bring a book to read. I didn’t question the way I was living. I thought it was the price of experiencing a passionate love.

My school life started to feel like a joke, an amusing trick I was playing on myself. I wrote essays and applied to universities and laughed with my friends about what we might do at the weekends, but all the time I knew that at the weekend, I would be with my boyfriend, and we would be doing whatever he said we would be doing. I felt very grown-up. I felt very trapped.

I don’t know why I thought that I would escape that trap by burrowing further into it, but that is what happened.

I can remember very clearly the day that I stood in my childhood bedroom and watched my boyfriend pack my huge, 1990s computer and printer into a series of boxes. I was supposed to be filling more boxes with all of my books because I was moving into his house to live with him and his family so that we would not need to be apart at all anymore, but suddenly I realized that I couldn’t move any of my muscles.

I had made this choice, I wanted to live with my boyfriend, and I really did believe that he was the love of my life. (I had no evidence for this, I can see that now, and yet it is what I fully believed).

But I was just seventeen years old, and at that exact moment, I felt rigid with desperation and fear. I wanted my mum to burst through the door and forbid me to leave, or for my dad to barricade the gate and tell me I was being ridiculous and that I was going nowhere, but nobody did that. Nobody was home, even. Anyway, it was fine, because soon I could move my limbs again and I told myself I was happy and excited as I packed all of my things into my boyfriend’s car.

I never lived with my parents again. Two months later, I was pregnant. And three years after that, I was packing again, moving myself and my toddler in a hushed and bruised hurry to the secretly rented apartment which would become the first place we ever felt truly safe.

We had a lovely life there, my daughter and me, in the end. That flat was the home that I now see in my mind’s eye as the place from which I finally learned to step away from the mess I had made of the end of my childhood, and the place where my adult life really began.

It began, as these things so often do, with an ending.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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