When I graduated from university at 22, I had an idea of a novel I wanted to write. I had the characters and the shape in my head already, and there was a voice, a certain style, that I wanted to try and get down on the page. That felt important to me, for reasons I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain to anyone else and never tried to. I had just finished a math and physics degree at the University of Manchester, so I knew that telling people I wanted to write a novel would make me sound deluded.
Other than that, I didn’t have much. I had no idea how anything worked. I didn’t know about publishing or literary agents. I had found out about M.F.A.s in creative writing on one of the vague, fruitless Google searches I conducted while I should have been studying for calculus exams. Then I quickly found out how expensive they were. I figured that was probably for the best, because being taught to write in a certain way sounded like my idea of hell. But how else to move forward? I had the sense that getting into writing in some fashion would be helpful. I had written for my university’s student paper to this end, and I had gone to a career fair where I made sure I was extremely friendly toward a well-known sports writer I met there. We went for coffee and he arranged a two-week internship for me in London. Unpaid, of course.
This is where my university boyfriend came in handy. After graduation, I had moved back to my hometown of Belfast to save up some money working in a call center. Meanwhile, he moved to London, near where he was from, to live in his grandma’s empty flat, where he could stay for a few hundred pounds a month until he got on his feet. This flat became my incentive to keep things going between us.
Our relationship had started reasonably well. We met near the end of our second year. He was a nice, straightforward, accommodating man. He was funny too, with a strange, offbeat sense of humor. We both liked staying up too late at house parties, which was how we met and how we spent most of our weekends. But it had become obvious in the years we dated that other than this, we had almost nothing in common. He liked watching sports and spending hours cooking elaborate meals, and he wanted to be a software developer. Beyond our different interests, I remember thinking there was something essentially distinct in our natures, too. To my mind, he wasn’t streetwise or canny, he couldn’t read people well, he was too trusting. Really, he was softer and nicer than I was. To the right person, those would have been wonderful qualities, but to me he lacked something.
Even from the start, we were always having pointless, petty arguments. A lot of his friends at university were posh boys who tended to be rude and dismissive of me because I wasn’t from their world. My boyfriend agreed with me about this, but he never intervened. This led to arguments where I would call him spineless and pathetic. He thought talking about problems in general was a dreadful, pessimistic habit, partly because he didn’t really have any. For my part, I had a bad habit of getting drunk and flirting with other people, sometimes people I wasn’t even that attracted to. And once, on holiday, I slept with a tattoo artist who was almost 40.
I don’t think it’s surprising that we both acted badly; we were about 20. I don’t think either of us knew what a relationship was supposed to be like. But he was more dedicated to the one we had than I was. When we argued, he was always desperate to put things right and always the first to apologize, making arguments for more chances and more time. I don’t know if he was attached to me, specifically, or just the idea of being in a relationship. But it gave me some power.
I had thought about ending things before we graduated but put it off. Then when I realized he would be moving to the London flat, it seemed practical to keep things going. That was how I thought of him: a useful logistical arrangement. Still, I put off moving in as late as I could, arriving just before the internship started. He was excited we would be living in London together. I was frustrated at him, at having to rely on him, even though I knew I didn’t have to. He was so excited for me to move in, which annoyed me even more than the arrangement itself.
The time we spent living together was mostly awful. I was stressed all the time, under pressure to make something out of that internship. Then, after that, trying to do too many things at once; applying for jobs I’d be likely to get, applying for writing ones I’d never get, doing strange under-the-table jobs I found on the internet. I was constantly worried about money, even with the cheap rent. Even taking public transport felt like a great extravagance. Sometimes, I would tap my debit card on my way into the underground and discover my phone bill’s auto-pay had left my account that morning, meaning I had insufficient funds to cover the few pounds for the journey. Meanwhile, he was working in a well-paid tech job with a supportive office culture.
Things in the flat kept breaking. There was no shower for most of our time there, so we had to use the local gym. The heating went too, so on winter mornings we would take turns to stand getting dressed in front of a blow heater. Then it was a burst pipe related to the toilet. None of this was his fault, but it only fueled my resentment. One upside of our different circumstances was that we didn’t spend a lot of time together. I couldn’t afford to go to the new bars or restaurants he was trying out with his friends. While he had weekends off, I tended to be working. But when we did see each other, we argued spitefully about almost everything. Once even about how much ham he ate. I had gotten a job rejection, and so was in a terrible mood, when I discovered he had stocked the fridge with packets and packets of it. A huge amount of money’s worth, as I saw it then. I quickly escalated this into a ferocious argument about extravagance and waste. He apologized quickly, as he always had.
At the time, I had a narrative to excuse my behavior. It wasn’t fair that life was so easy for him, I told myself. Didn’t he have it so good? He didn’t have to scheme his way into a place to stay, and most of his friend group seemed to have arrangements like his too. Empty flats would magically appear, or parents or uncles they could stay with. There was a difference between us that I felt he would never understand. This was just what life was like, I reasoned. Some of us had no choice but to use other people to get the things we needed or wanted. It was a comfortable story I had constructed. There I was, the plucky underdog, my circumstances akin almost to a structural ill.
I didn’t explicitly tell any of my friends that I was using my boyfriend for a place to stay. But I spoke to them often about our arguments, sometimes leaving out certain details that I felt would cast me in an unflattering light, and they always agreed he was completely in the wrong on all counts. My circumstances seemed to fit, vaguely, into a familiar story about heterosexual relationships: bad and useless boyfriends and their stoic, long-suffering girlfriends. I have wondered since if a man who had behaved as I had, using a woman for a place to stay, could have told himself a similar story to mine.
Once, he even asked me if I was using him for a place to stay. I told him that was an absurd thing to think. It was about four months in the end, until I’d gotten a job in insurance and saved up enough to pay a deposit and my first month’s rent for a room in a shared house. I added another month or two, once I’d moved out, for appearance’s sake before I ended things. I remember our last, slightly surreal conversation. I explained, in a tone of businesslike detachment, that we didn’t have anything in common. “Really? Are you sure?” he said. We were out of sync right ’til the end.
That was around seven years ago now. It wasn’t until about three years ago that I finally found the time to start on my novel. I worked in unrelated jobs for a while, but the bylines I got from that internship helped me get more freelance writing work, which got me an agent who sold the book.
I don’t know exactly when the story I told myself about this relationship changed. Looking back, I’m amazed that I could be so cold and self-interested. It doesn’t fit with how I see myself now. But maybe less has changed than I’d like to think.
When I finished my novel, I realized there are two situations in it, in two heterosexual relationships, which mirror this dynamic. The female character doesn’t see herself as at fault in any way. The reader (I hope) understands the situation differently.
But I realized too that I had gone to great lengths not to condemn any of my characters either, even when they’re at fault. In the end, the story I told myself changed. But I’m still grateful that I got what I wanted.