There are many post-break-up firsts: first holiday, first promotion, first birthday – and the first post-break-up break-up. Though I am not sure “break-up” is quite the right word: can something be broken that was never formally whole, never fully defined? Perhaps I should write: the first post-break-up end-of-something. Our culture doesn’t have rituals for heartbreak, as Sophie McBain wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, and nor does it have sufficient words.
Of course, a few months is nothing compared to years; we were largely still strangers to each other, and there is some relief in the sense that I know how to do this part. Still, there are memories and in-jokes to be buried; conversations remembered down to the most inconsequential word despite my best efforts to forget them. My preference for drawing neat lines, logical cause and effect, is tested: I dislike not knowing exactly which feelings to attribute to which end-of-something. Everything has grown murkier.
The evening it happens my brother arrives with his dog, a sleek, gentle whippet, whom I had agreed to look after for a few days – not knowing that it would really be she who was looking after me. She is a warm body beside me, and her reliance on me for her basic needs motivates me to get out of bed. Within a day I am wondering if I could balance puppy training with a full-time job, and googling “Dog rucksack for cycling” and “Can you raise a dog vegetarian?” Her presence allows me to say, out loud and in public, “It’s OK, everything’s OK,” without anyone knowing I am really speaking to myself.
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A week later, I am on my way to Heathrow for my first ever ski trip; how strange it feels to board a plane without anyone asking for negative test results or vaccination status. We spend a couple of nights at a school friend’s house in Norway before driving to Hemsedal, and I find it curious to observe how my fellow travellers – four couples – rely on their partners, ask for their assistance with things I do alone without thought. I view it almost as a weakness, though I know this is likely bitterness, and I begin to wonder whether I am better alone.
Twenty-four hours later, on the side of a snowy mountain – more snow than I have ever seen in my life – with my feet strapped to skis and slipping away from me, my independence is revealed as bravado. “Don’t let go Jack!” I cry to my best friend’s fiancé, who is doubling as my instructor (the joke might have been funny if his name were actually Jack). He displays endless patience and willing, and maybe something of a martyr complex, as he teaches me to kick the compacted snow off the bottom of my boots before stepping into the ski bindings, to turn left and right to kill my speed; as he uses his body to prevent mine careening down the slope, as he hauls me up from the ground again and again. After my first couple of hours, I retreat to a piste-side bar for an overpriced pint – the best I’ve ever tasted – while “Jack” joins the rest of the group for some actual skiing. As I sit in the sun, Queen’s “Somebody to Love” comes on the stereo, and I can’t help but laugh at how quietly tragic the scene is.
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At the end of each day we celebrate our safe return to solid ground by giving ourselves headaches drinking beer in the sauna. It is not exactly a relaxing holiday, but it is diverting. In the rare moments my every cell is not concentrated on survival, I am too pleased that I have thus far survived to think of anything but the snow crunching beneath me, the sun on my goggles, and my gracious instructor’s kind but misguided encouragements of, “That was good!” I have pushed myself to places of discomfort more in the past year than in the previous five and, I tell myself as I put on my salopettes every morning, I do not care how badly I ski, I am simply proud of myself for trying.
All is going well until the last day, when I take yet another fall, and my arm decides it has better things to do than remain safely in its socket. It turns out being independent is all well and good until you find yourself living alone and struggling to dress yourself.
This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global