By Rhea David
My mother teaches me to say no to boys when I’m eleven, because a guy in school with floppy brown hair has called me hot and tries to get me to go out with him.
When I’m 14, I’m in my first relationship with a boy in my class. He’s tall and skinny, with short hair; the boy who wears Livestrong bands around his wrist and a ring on his middle finger. He plays football. He writes poetry. I write poetry because he writes poetry. I know he cut himself when the girl he liked before me didn’t like him back. The first time we kiss, we are standing in a forbidden corridor on the fourth floor in our school. He is wearing his red Torres jersey, and I’m wearing my mother’s black t-shirt. He gives me a chain with a heart pendant that has a hole in the middle, and I wonder whether the hole has a symbolic meaning. It doesn’t.
He breaks up with me on the last day of our exams, two months after we get together. We are standing next to the sand pit in school, and I’m not really thinking about what he’s saying, because there are two girls behind him throwing sand in each other’s hair. My mother had always hated seeing sand in my hair. He says he’s sorry, that he’s doing this because he doesn’t want to hurt me, and when I turn to leave because I don’t have anything to say, I suddenly realise it must look like I’ve turned away because I’m crying. He follows me from a distance and we join our friends. I hear him whisper to one of them to take care of me.
I wish she’d rolled her eyes.
The only thing that really bothers me about this relationship ending is that I’m told by two of my friends that he is thinking of breaking up with me, a week before he actually does. He’s told them that he likes another girl, and I wish he tells me this when we stand next to the sand pit. In moments that I miss him, I also know that I miss playing basketball with him more, and now he doesn’t play when I’m playing. Other times, even though I’ve never kissed anyone before this, I think about how he was a rather good kisser.
We make out again, a year later, when we’ve both just got out of relationships. And then we make out again two years after this, and he calls it ‘unfinished business’. The first time I cry about a relationship ending, I’m 15. This boy is different — he doesn’t play football, and he talks enough for the two of us. He starts writing poetry on my birthday about how our hands fit perfectly, and he calls me often, and is upset that I never do the calling. He comes home on his bike when my father isn’t around. One day he kisses me in my room. We’ve kissed before, but this time his hands are everywhere. He asks if he can put them in my pants, and I refuse. He asks again. I refuse. Please, he says. No. Please, just once, he asks again. I don’t respond, and he puts his hand in.
I remember this afternoon when I date a boy in college, and I spend the night in his house after we have gone to a movie. We make out in the theatre, and he laughs, because he says this is the first time he’s made out in such a place. In his house, he asks me if he can put his hand in my pants. My t-shirt is on his floor. We’re lying on his hard bed with no pillows and I’m on top of him; he smells of shampoo and Pears soap. We’re laughing about biting each other’s necks, and I like how I can feel him breathing heavily under me when I unbutton his shirt. But I say no. I don’t want anything from the night except to make out with him, because he makes me uncomfortably conscious of the way I look. Please, he whispers, and again I don’t answer. He puts his hands in. This time I wonder if I’m being paranoid, if I’m over thinking this, because why couldn’t I just go with the flow? I momentarily forget to kiss him back because I’m wondering why this is bothering me, but he doesn’t seem to realise.
But at fifteen, no movie that I’d watched had any girl pushing the boy’s hand away, so I let him. When he leaves, I ignore the pain that I feel between my legs and cry because I think I’ve disappointed my mother, who taught me to say no.
Six months after we get together, this boy begins to complain that I don’t talk enough; that it’s always him telling me stories. This is true; I’ve never talked much. He breaks up with me in a mall, and I can see our friends are walking slowly in front of us, turning back occasionally to look at me. He reminds me that it’s just a few days short of a year of our being together. He says he just can’t be with someone who doesn’t express themselves, and that I don’t tell him I love him as much as he would like to hear. I’d never heard my parents say to one another that they loved each other, and I liked this, because I think it shows in other ways, and I don’t see why we need to keep saying this to each other.
Some years later, he tells me it drove him mad that I wasn’t desperate to fix the relationship, and that he broke up with me because he was jealous of the boys I spoke to, and that I seemed happier around my friends. He has texted to wish me luck because I’m leaving the city for college, and then we talk about his girlfriend. He suddenly tells me that she is like me — she sounds nothing like me — and our attempt at conversation has suddenly arrived at our break up.
My best friend in college breaks up with her boyfriend. This boy is 19. When they break up, his eyes are always red. He puts his head down between classes, and stops talking to the rest of us. He smokes incessantly. He puts out cigarettes on his hand. He makes up stories about my friend and tells them to others in class. A year after they broke up she tells me and our other friend that he’d get upset when she seemed happier with us. She tells us this when I tell them that my boyfriend was upset that I didn’t text him when I was out with the two of them. And that I laughed more with them than I did with him.
This is when I realise that the calmest break-up I’ve ever had was back in that sandpit in the school.
In college, I get into relationships that weren’t supposed to become relationships. They were meant to remain auto rides and walks down crowded roads near college with breaks for coffee and cigarettes, but they were never meant to become ‘official’ in the way that meant I couldn’t disappear on them because I had other things to do, or that I couldn’t see other people. They became relationships that I just slipped into — not only me, but these men too — the same men who told their friends that he and I didn’t see the need to call this ‘thing’ we had by any names.
A friend of mine, who is a teacher, once showed me her ex-boyfriend’s Instagram post. She looked shaken. It was a photo of her house at night, lit by streetlights. Its caption was #2 am. She tells me that she was once getting ready to take a class, when this ex-boyfriend called her. He told her he was at our college gates and would cut himself if she didn’t meet him that instant. He was 26 years old.
This time I realise that the 26-year-old man is like the boyfriend I had when I was 16. He was short, and read a lot of writing by Indian men. He wrote, and he was one of the few people who read the things I wrote back then. He liked Lord of the Rings, and drew maps. But when we fought, and he was sitting next to me, he would always immediately try to hurt himself with what was closest to him. He once kept rubbing his palm against a rusted nail on the wall next to us, and sometimes, when he found nothing, he would bite the skin on his fingers hard enough to draw blood.
I was once sitting outside my class and studying for our exams when that boyfriend had walked up to me, slid a note into my hand, and left without saying anything. I opened it. Some of the words were smudged by blood. He threatened to kill himself, and said that he couldn’t stand to see me talking to other boys. This was the second time I cried about a guy. This time it was because I was scared, and didn’t know what to do. For weeks he would eat exactly how much I ate for lunch, because he thought I ate very little, and this would make me eat more. The cutting continued.
It was months before I could break up with him. I did it in the library, and he refused to eat after this. I heard from friends that his mother, a doctor, put him on anti-depressants. When we left school, he tried to get into the same college as me. I stopped returning his calls, and didn’t respond to his emails or messages. I’ve never blocked him.
He has apologised multiple times. Sometimes he sends me emails that are signed off as ‘yours friendlily’. I have some friends who don’t understand how I can still not talk to him. But I’ve never hated someone more than I hated him then.
I break up with a boy in college after we’ve been together for five months. I really like him because things are easy with him — we talk easily, and he always, always has stories. We watch movies together, and he tells me about his History professors, and reads books on war and travel. Sometimes he writes. I tell him about the books I’m reading, and show him sketches I’ve made. He’s the first of my close friends who smokes.
But when we break up, I do it quickly, without thinking about it, as soon as we begin to fight. We fight about small things, and I tell him he is being too clingy, too demanding of time and space, and always making sarcastic comments about a boy he knew I had once liked who I had just begun talking to. (I do eventually date this other boy, and with him I realise that young men in relationships are used to getting their way. When they don’t, they become mirror images of each other in varying degrees.)
When things end quickly with this boy, he is angry. A friend of mine tells me that relationships take work, and I wonder momentarily if I have put in the effort that this relationship requires. But I’ve made up my mind about time and space. I’m just discovering Alice Munro; I’m reading her short story Runaway.
A relationship is two people, he tells me; it can only end when both people involved want it to end. I tell him I disagree, and we stop talking. When the next girl he dates breaks up with him, he tells her the same thing. She says that her other exes have told her this too, and we wonder where they learn this from.
When I’m twenty, I’m in another relationship for almost a year that doesn’t end well — a relationship is two people, he starts to tell me the morning after we’ve broken up. I finish the sentence for him. He’s a boy I like for months before we even become good friends, and I know he has a complicated relationship with his ex. We study together and sometimes we go on bike rides, and eat Maggi. He’s the first boy I write about. We also drink lots of coffee together (sometimes I wonder if I make boys drink coffee because they stop drinking it after we break up), and he always has more stories than I do. Sometimes I listen to him tell the same stories again and again — about work, and his school. He doesn’t drink. I quickly realise that he doesn’t understand space or work.
With him, I keep fighting for months before we break up. Sometimes I wonder why I argue with him when he tells me that I’m smoking and drinking too much, because he thinks it is his business. We fight because I talk incessantly to some boys. When our friends are talking about sex, he tells them I’ve not done it with him, but have, with other boys. Sometimes we sext and I enjoy this, but when I don’t want to, or I’m busy with work, he gets upset and tells me that he’s sad I don’t find him attractive. It took me eight months to angrily tell him that he could think what he wanted. He tells me that even if I’m a feminist and have strong beliefs about something, I need to learn to listen.
When we break up, he tells me he misses the old me. He also says that when I finally tell him it’s over, he realises I really can end things if I want to, and that he will do anything to fix us, because he never thought I had it in me to leave him. I’m furious with myself. He says he can’t sleep. He sends my friends texts telling them to take care of me. We stop meeting each other. He sends me messages when I’m out with friends. If he knows we’re out drinking, he tells me not to get pregnant, and wonders who I’ve passed out next to.
After him, I’m finally learning to stop feeling responsible for such men — dramatic 26-year-olds who do the same things that boys did when they were 16, 20-year-olds who think that relationships can only end when it’s a mutual decision, or, like 15-year-olds, don’t understand consent and blackmail, because they’re not used to looking beyond themselves.
My mother taught me to say no to boys when I was 11. I learnt 10 years later.