You may want to read Life at 21: Me, Men, Beer & Sex for context.
Part 1: Men
By the end of summer 2015, I had to accept that Denver wasn’t going to be the man for me. While we cared about each other, we’d never had a chance, or well, the intention, to cross the friendship’s boundary. From my part, to be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted with him. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted anything with anyone at this stage of life. Admittedly, there were moments — weak moments — I thought of him and wished I could be the one to hold him every night and wake up next to him every morning. But most of the time, I was happy with the state of our relationship and had no desire to change it. I went on with my life and he went on with his life, all the magical feelings I’d ever felt about him locked safe in my heart, remaining a secret he’d never need to know.
Towards the end of the year, as I was back to university finishing my degree, I started changing my mindset towards dating and allowing myself to enjoy the single life more. I went out to a few parties and met a few new people. However, there wasn’t any spark. At one point I thought maybe I was being difficult. Maybe I should have waited it out and lowered my standard. So I did. I gave a boy who I wasn’t instantly feeling too strong about a chance. I went on dates with him. Our conversations flowed well and he seemed kind. But I couldn’t deny that something was missing. When I was with him, my mind kept wandering to somewhere else. He asked me “What are you thinking about?” and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was conveying what it was like to be with someone who was perfectly fine and nice but wasn’t for me.
I’m sure it has happened to many people that someone whom they don’t like at first gradually grows on them and becomes the love of their life. But somehow it has rarely been the case for me. I often know within the first 30 seconds whether I’m interested in something more with someone or not. There are people whom I could never imagine calling a boyfriend no matter how physically attractive I might find them. Like Sam, a boy I’d known since the first year of university. He was an absolute hottie whose beauty was admired not only by me but by anyone who had ever laid eyes on him. He was also respectful and charming and intellectual — basically a total catch on paper. But for some reason, with him, the romantic side in me was completely untouched as though it had fallen into a deep coma.
It’s puzzling to me, though I’m not going to lie — it’s refreshing and empowering to be able to call up someone like that at midnight, have him go all the way to my place, and two hours later, send him out the door without any sentiment whatsoever. I could finally understand how most dudes feel about hook-ups and I’d be annoyed too if any of these guys suddenly got emotional and wanted to claim my time.
That being said, I would not deny that the whole thing did disturb me a little. Waking up next to Sam and feeling zero attachment to him was, yes, liberating, but in a way, hollow. I might have been a mess, but that mess, for whatever reason – female biology and whatnots, had always felt a tie with the people she shared a moment with. Her heart was ready to race and it gave her a reason to look back, a reminder of her being there, a proof of her existence. But then, with this boy, with these late night encounters and the paths I would never cross again, if my pulse didn’t even rise one beat, when it was done, it was just done. There was no anchor, no meaning, no registration of my presence and I was left floating, wondering if it had really happened. My existence had become so light, and I did not know if it was the way it should be.
It was when I started to miss Denver so terribly much. I missed the way he had ignited many desires and emotions in me. With Sam, and many people like Sam, there seemed to be an invisible glass between me and them. I felt frustratingly and terrifyingly lonely when I was in a room full of people and didn’t feel a single feeling towards anyone or anything. That night, just a random night in late December, I watched the sleepless London from the balcony of a friend’s apartment, thinking this should’ve been the dream scene, yet my heart was stone-cold and my mind was white-blank. I burst into tears on the way home, questioning what was wrong with me, why it was so hard then for words to flow out of me, why I couldn’t find any reason to come back to any place, to hold onto any memory, why it must’ve been Denver but not just any new person.
Looking back to 2014 and the messy situation with Johnny (and half the bottle of Tequila), I realized how much I’d changed. I used to be so emotional and excitable, yet at 22, I was seemingly on the verge of losing my ability to experience romance and love. I’d learned my lessons and become so cautious towards every person I met. I would turn around at the first sign of bullshit, which was good, but it also meant getting to me was no longer easy. Bad boys, fuckboys, or any kind of boys who weren’t looking for the same thing as I was, weren’t at all a problem. I was the problem. I couldn’t figure my heart out. I was so desperate to feel something again. I kept coming back to Denver for writing materials which I myself had grown sick of.
In early 2016, as I tried to put Denver aside and move on with my life, by chance I met someone new — Daniel. We had a perfect start which made me want to believe this time it would be different but as the story unfolded, unfortunately, it wasn’t. I ended up being even more anxious and lonely than I’d ever been, for the guy claimed to like me and care about me yet there was nothing to show for it. There was no way for me to reach his soul and for him to reach mine. We were just two bodies going and lying side-by-side, intertwined with each other for a few hours a week, and I couldn’t bare settling for the mediocre. At one point, it was so bad that I would even get disappointed when a date didn’t lead to an opportunity to get undressed. It dawned on me that I was interested in the sex more than anything else. I smirked at that thought, my stomach knotted. I was painfully jaded. I was so tired of trying altogether.
Nevertheless, the break-up was challenging in its own right. To deal with the aftermaths, I immediately threw myself into the online dating scene and quickly got involved with new people. Right on the first day of being on Tinder, I matched with Stephen, a working guy in the city who had an impressive Instagram account. Stephen stood out right away. He was annoyingly and attractively unpredictable. He didn’t give me any clue about him until we met in the heart of Soho on a breezy summer night. I saw him across the street and I knew at first sight that I was in big trouble: My interest was sparked. My heart was racing. My mind was seeing fireworks. For the next few hours I spent with him, I was genuinely happy and hopeful. I was alive again.
However, like any other modern dating stories which never see the light of a Tuesday morning, Stephen told me he had recently gotten out of a 5-year relationship and he wasn’t looking for anything serious. Well, tah-dah, here goes the infamous Tinder catch-22. I was disappointed, yes, but I wasn’t surprised or sad. I’d been through this, used to this. I was simply clear about what I had to do: get the fuck out of his bed. But I didn’t. The romantic in me resisted. The girl who had been dying to feel something said a firm no. And I told myself, okay, fuck it.
For the next few months, I contacted him and met him again a few times. Every time I would come home feeling both euphoric and miserable, having to accept it could be the last time I ever saw him. The real last time I ever saw him was when he came to my place on an ordinary Monday night. As he was lying in my bed and I was wearing his sweater, he looked at me straight in the eyes, asking earnestly, “Why did you text me tonight?” I found it strange, so strange because the only logic here — the only answer I’d ever had in my mind — was “I like you”, of course, but he didn’t get it and I didn’t say it either. I told him, “Well, I was bored.” He believed it and probably wanted to believe it. The next morning we said goodbye at the train station then he texted me a few hours later, “Thanks for having me over”, and I replied, “No worries!” I’ve never contacted him since. I deleted his number. I liked him. I let him go.
I guess that’s the biggest difference between the 22-year-old me and any previous version of me: I’ve learned to let go of people who don’t choose me. I’ve found the strength to move on regardless of the circumstances. I know if I kept seeing Stephen, I’d eventually resent him for making me an option, a second thought, for not putting in the same effort as I would for him. Today I believe I deserve better and I will do better for myself. Evidently, even after meeting Denver again on a random night out and getting all butterflies like the good old days, I didn’t get carried away. I enjoyed the moment and I left it at that. For sure I’m grateful for all the people who have touched me and transformed me inside out, who have shown me that I’m perfectly capable of seeing magic in the ordinary but it isn’t a good enough reason for me to hold onto anyone anymore. I want someone who sees my magic too.
Part 2: Money & Drugs
By the end of summer 2015, I left the city with a job offer and almost £800 — the leftover of the £5K salary for the 10-week work experiences. I didn’t remember in details what I’d spent my money on but it definitely involved lots of drinks after work, a few steak dishes, a bag, a handful of parties, and probably hundreds of trivial things which I thought wouldn’t matter but were actually the ones that added up the most. Anyway, as I went back to university, the savings quickly ran out due to my proportionately increasing spending on food and clothing. It didn’t help that my rent for the year significantly went up and my laptop suddenly broke down. I quickly had to look for part-time jobs to fund all these expenses while eagerly counting down till the day I would be working full-time and earning the big bucks.
Towards the end of the year, I decided to focus on my study and put serious effort into the job search. I’d accepted the job offer but I still wanted to try my luck out there, looking for better options. I invested the last 3 months of 2015 in attending various networking sessions, writing follow-up emails, making job applications and doing various tests. It also meant leaving the quiet, introverted self at home while constantly putting out a sociable, extroverted face which drained me more quickly than the tropical heat. Some people replied back and some didn’t. Some firms sent out application updates and some couldn’t be bothered. I’d have to take the hint when I refreshed my mailbox for months and only the spam emails hit me back.
In particular, I was strung along by an Investment Bank throughout the New Year period, notifying me I’d passed to the final stage of the recruitment process yet being slow to provide any further information. In retrospect, I’d rather being rejected straight away than given a light of hope that kept getting dimmer and dimmer each day till it was rubbed on my face that basically I wasn’t good enough. As mid-January arrived, finally I had to face the ugly reality. I received a rejection email stating there was no position available. I was devastated. I questioned my own ability and my own path. However, I was not a quitter. I wasn’t satisfied with said outcome. I decided to take my final chance by… writing a letter to the CEO sharing my story. The next week I got a call back from HR, saying they were interested in my email but the hiring freeze was confirmed. I accepted their response in peace and was ready to leave the whole job search at that.
Most people asked me why I’d go through so much hassles while I’d already gotten a job which most students would be dying for. To be honest, I didn’t know why myself. I loved the place I’d interned in summer 2015. I was keen to work there. I was sure I would have a good time and I was grateful that they would sponsor me to live in the UK. Yet, I couldn’t give up on the other role in the Investment Banks. I figure, deep down, I still wanted to prove to myself that I could achieve anything I’d set my mind on. I wanted to be one of those people who were good enough to have options. I didn’t want to admit defeat. Not yet. Not at 22. Not when I was still looking for all the pieces of me and my only limit was me saying no to myself.
Later in 2016, as the job search came to an end, I shifted my attention to studying and making the most out of my remaining student life. I naturally stopped giving myself a hard time about partying and taking substance given that I would never let myself go as far as abusing anything to the point of clinical addiction. Especially as I was battling with my anxiety and depression which showed no sign of improving, I had no choice but to turn to nicotine and weed for the comfort I couldn’t find elsewhere. As my chest tightened and I struggled to breath, I would light a cigarette, inhaling then exhaling, and the tension began to resolve. Even though I did read that nicotine did not actually ease anxiety but in fact worsen it, during the few minutes the cigarette burnt, life did feel easier and the writer girl in me did come alive. Honestly I didn’t enjoy smoking but I adored the act of it. I found it beautiful and artistic.
It was also when Sam and the likes became incredibly handy. I would drop him a text asking, “Hey, you home?” and he would instantly reply telling me to come over. He would always have weed and Scotch ready at his flat for me, and we would smoke and drink while snuggling in his cosy bed reminiscing about all the good times we’d had together. We particularly loved the fact that none of our mutual friends knew about our hook-ups and I was always pleased to run my fingers from his sharp jawline down to his firm packs, feeling flattered by his eagerness for me and my body. As the weed hit my brain, the music sounded amazing and my mind had nothing but positive thoughts. I started kissing him with my eyes closed and imagining Denver. It felt so real that it freaked me out a little. But I didn’t care anymore. I shamelessly got off on the thought that it was Denver who kissed me, who wanted me, who filled me up.
It wasn’t my proudest moment but I guess you could say it was one of my wildest dreams. I wasn’t a fan of one-night stands but when it came to Denver, exceptions could always be made. Well, this would probably sound thirsty but I would jump at any chance to have a private moment with Denver. I would trade anything to get drunk and high with him then find his lips on the first impulse. I would agree to take him home for one night even if it meant I’d never get to touch him again in this lifetime. I just wanted to know what it was like to exchange my body with someone whom I had my heart and my mind for. Would it be as magical as movies and stories made it out to be. The writer girl in me demanded the answer as my words begged for a deeper layer of meaning.
In Spring 2016 when I met Daniel, to be honest, I thought I was able to find that answer. We mutually liked each other and couldn’t wait to get in bed. Then when we finally did the deed, yes, it was mind-blowing. I’d never been so horny and enjoyed sex so much. It was like I was on some kind of pills which totally brought out all the sexual wildness in me. I was surprised at myself and I was excited to finally be able to go all the way experimenting my own body. However, soon it was clear I couldn’t find any answer. I only discovered the core problem of our relationship. As the sex was so good, the emotional side fell extremely short in comparison. I realised we weren’t able to connect on deep mental levels. And because of that, when we weren’t having sex, I wasn’t very interested in meeting him and when we weren’t meeting and having sex, I started becoming difficult and picking fights. Eventually, I had to be honest with myself and call it off.
In hindsight, it could’ve worked out had we set the expectation on a “let’s see how it goes” level instead of being so full on with the idea of “the one”. At least we could’ve stayed friends and perhaps occasionally had the benefits… Hey, he might be far from the man I want to marry but damn… was he great in bed.
As the summer of 2016 ended and I took on the full time job, alcohol, cigarettes, or clubbing were no longer a thing that I needed to be cautious about in conversations. I was open to admit that I was a social drinker and smoker and I went wild occasionally with my friends, or well, even alone. I did what I did when I felt like it, when I was stressed, or needed an easy excuse to do something crazy, something organically me. Plus, compared to the 21-year-old me who had always felt awkward in bar settings not knowing what to order, I knew my drinks and my cigarettes now. I also knew my bars and had my own lighter (even though I didn’t use it). “Something sweet” wouldn’t be the first thing that came out of my mouth. I would have a specific name, a specific taste for a specific mood. And I would be the one who recommended good stuff to people.
Luckily, working full-time suited me much better than studying. I took great pleasure from doing a good job, earning money and managing my money. Even though my monthly income wasn’t all that much, it was enough for me to buy certain things without having to think twice, to be generous to my friends and family and take better care of myself. Though, inevitably, there were dark days when I absolutely loathed myself and felt like I couldn’t go on anymore. When a few K in the bank account did not at all matter and all I wanted was to disappear. When I suddenly had no clue what the hell I was doing with my life and doubted every single thing I had and I was. It was unbelievably tough, tougher and lonelier than anything I’d ever gone through in the past. But in those moments, I also found myself and my strength. I was reminded that I wasn’t alone. I was supported and loved and I had the power to do the same for others. For that, I would always stand tall and keep on fighting till my last breath.
One very important thing I’ve learned in the past year is that everything in my life all comes down to the way I feel and see. I’m the teller of my story. I’m the one who decides if what happens to me is good or bad. I’m the one who determines my own happiness. Nobody’s feeling and thought of me matters more than my own feeling and thought of myself. As long as I’m happy with what I do and where I’m at in life, it’s good enough. And when it isn’t good enough for me, it’s up for me to change it. I’ve also learned to detach my self-esteem from all the bullshit coming my way that has nothing to do with me personally. I put the focus on myself and make sure I know my values, which enables me to stand firm on my ground and set my boundaries. I’m worthy and nothing can change that unless I let it so (I won’t — now go away)
See, my thinking and approach to life has evolved dramatically ever since the day I turned 22. I’m now more straightforward, more purposeful, more cautious yet also more relaxed. I stop sweating over the small stuff and start thinking more about the big picture of who I want to be, where I want to go and how exactly to get there. It may not be obvious, especially in the midst of my own depression, but I’m making progresses. I’m taking courageous steps towards liking and loving myself more and more each day. It’s okay I fall because I will get back up. I will live the life I promised my 16-year-old self I would. I will not settle for the mediocre. I will not stop moving forward and giving myself chances.
Sometimes I still wonder about Stephen and all the short-lived encounters which have passed me by… It’s strange to me how we left things like that… no break-up, no closure — the typical modern-dating ending. I didn’t get to find out if he could be the one to give me the answer because I’d never had the chance to get through to the place closest to his heart and familiarise my body with his. Perhaps to him, it was just it. But to me, till this day, I’m still not sure if what we had meant anything, or it was just circumstantial that I felt the way I did. Anyway, it’s gone now. I’m fine that we parted ways and might never see each other again. I accept that things come and go and most of the time they don’t make sense. At the end of the day as long as I love myself, the rest is easy.
On that note, I’m 22 now and I’m ready for my life.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction inspired by true events. All names are fictitious.