In 70 years’ time, I would like to look back at my life and view it with the appreciation that comes when one has spent their time wisely and had a positive influence on others. Of course, I would like to accomplish more self-serving things too: I would like to look back and relive all the countries I have visited, cultures I have spied on, and culinary delights I have tasted. I also would like to have had the good fortune to retain excellent eyesight, thus ensuring my voracious reading appetite gets appeased through all my years. However I think one of the things I would most like to look back on is the fondness and intimacy shared with another, and how as a wife I had served my husband, and made his life more pleasurable than it otherwise would have been.
I was very close to being married once (not counting the time a local tribesman in Thailand asked me to be his second wife – due to the cultural barrier I am not sure how much of this offer was sincere, and how much was humour). I had moved to Manchester (England) to be with a man whom I had spent several years corresponding with via email. We had met on an international Christian penpal site, and our connection had built very slowly over time. He was suspicious of others’ intentions and very guarded with his emotions, and since I had never had a friendship with a male before, both of us were in very unfamiliar, dimly lit territory. Of course if you spend enough time in the dark your eyes gradually start to adjust to the darkness and so it was with us: we found a rhythm and began to open up to each other, and shared things we had not told anyone else. After about three years of emails, I visited him on holiday and spent the most blissful two weeks of a particularly sundazzled English summer with him. He introduced me to new things: Top Gear, hiphop music and drinking beer for the first time, and when I found myself crying softly on the arduously long flight back to New Zealand, I thought to myself, I have to go back.
The second time around, this time during a very bleak and cold Mancunian winter, I began to see that this might not be the relationship for me. I had a lot of growing up to do for one thing, but also there were too many aspects of me that he desired to change before he would accept me – from how I dressed to the friends I associated with. It seemed his love was conditional, though I don’t think he ever meant it to be. Everyday I woke up to a new argument with him or a continuation of one from the previous day, until one day I was standing with this man, this tall, slender man with smooth black skin and full pert lips, in a suburban department store, having a screaming match about a pair of shoes.
The shoes in question are my black high heels. Nowadays they are my favourite pair of shoes, but at the time I hated everything about them. My former partner bought them for me despite my protests, saying that I needed to dress smarter so I didn’t embarrass him in public. I remember trying them on in that store. The square fronts of them reminded me of Roald Dahl’s witches’ feet, and I remember thinking that they were the ugliest things I had ever seen. They were also immensely uncomfortable to wear, but what I despised most of all was what they represented – my apparent lack of femininity. The only positive I could salvage from the situation was that the heels were thick wedges, not pointy little pencil sticks. This was important to me – as someone who didn’t usually wear heels I thought this might be the one redeeming feature of these shoes, the thing preventing me from falling over in the street (it was: I only fell over once).
The shoes mirrored my relationship at that time in so many ways. They gave me blisters (even more so than normal new shoes), and as I walked around in them and served customers for hours at work with a congenial smile, my feet (and heart) bled crimson ribbons of anguish.
It was no one’s fault – we were equally to blame for the mess we had created. Possibly the biggest mistake both of us had made was in thinking that there ever could be an ‘us’: looking back now, the truth – that we were two people who never should have been together – seems so unambiguous I fail to comprehend the path we took.
We were both running. He was running away from his responsibilities, and I was running towards him, desperate for him to help assuage my pain, and heal my brokenness. Back then, marriage was high on my list of priorities in life; urgent even: it meant safety and companionship in a (hopefully) forever kind of way, and my single-minded focus on this blurred my vision, preventing me from disentangling myself from a relationship without sustenance for quite some time.
Years later, having now learned how to provide safety and companionship for myself, marriage seems less urgent, and while I think I would still like to get married, my desire for it does seem to be waning. In my head where I used to imagine adventures with another person, I now imagine adventures by myself.
In some ways though, I think that my desire to have a husband has made me a better person, because it gave me a reason to change. When I look at my black heels, I am reminded of the things I went through in my last relationship and how much I don’t want to inflict that sort of craziness on anyone again. I think about all the qualities I want to substitute for better characteristics, a bit like how one might make simple swaps when baking a cake to make the recipe healthier. In order to make me healthier I want to swap immaturity for self-awareness and wisdom, pride for humility and gentleness, and the need for someone to save me for a desire to support others through their struggles. What started out as a commitment to another (as yet unknown individual) has turned into a commitment to self. I had wanted to develop these things for me for some time, but having a purpose outside of me really gave my languid spirit the extra motivation.
However as I lie awake at night and stare at the ceiling, there is a small part of me that wonders if maybe my quest for self-improvement is not entirely as noble as it seems. What if I do these things not out of sacrifice and self-respect, but out of shame? In a little container in the recess of my mind there is a thought that this keeps me safe, this avoids putting myself out there only to discover that men do not find me beautiful or attractive or feel that I have anything to offer them. So instead maybe I keep making adjustments and changes, claiming I’m not ready for such a commitment. The question then becomes that if this is the case, at what point do I relinquish this soul-destroying belief and create new meaning for myself and my life in relationship to others?
I do not know the answer to that question. What I do know is that I am living in the middle of the question, in the grey borderlands, lingering between a past that the shoes represent and a future that is yet to be written. Questions used to scare me, but now I understand that they are like waves. They roll into the coast from miles offshore, crest and peak, and throw themselves at the sea wall releasing a hiss of power, spraying white foam everywhere. One comes, and then another, and then another. On it goes – there is no end and no beginning. Similarly it appears to me by the time one finds an answer to a question, there are more questions waiting to be explored.
My shoes have a certain cadence when I walk in them. One makes a ‘clip’ sound, the other ‘clop’. They are opposites but they belong together. Just like questions and answers. Just like the failure of my previous relationship, and the victory it was to walk away. Just like the uncertainty of the present moment as I write this, which holds untold possibilities. The question remains though: can I hold this uncertainty myself? As a writer and an organisation freak, there is a part of me that likes to wrap things up neatly, have a conclusion, and line things up in colour-coordinated rows. Yet the problem is that right now I can’t imagine or script the perfect ending to my own story because I don’t know what I want it to look like. I’m not sure if it involves an amazing guy, who will seduce me with his words and who I can lavish all my love upon, or whether I would simply prefer to walk another mile in my favourite pair of shoes, all by myself.
Michelle is now accepting applications from eligible bachelors. You can apply by emailing your application (including a current photo and character reference) to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Just kidding!)