I get these bursts of it, every now and then. Like a high. It swells upwards and outwards from the centre of my chest – rushing with a power that’s so much stronger than the first tingles of love. In the beginning, these rushes were so intense that sometimes they’d stop me in my tracks. Make it so I had to pause whatever I was doing and just breathe for a few seconds. In and out. Spine straight, shoulders back, slightly light-headed like you get when you stand up too quickly.
Last Thursday at 2pm when I’d stared at a blank screen panicking for far too many hours, I downed tools and picked up my credit card. Popped my headphones on, marched to the station, tapped in and then hopped on a tube. I took the train four stops away then walked the long route home: stomping from park to park in the sunshine, then the rain, and then a full-on storm. Thunder and everything. Serenaded by Jimmy Eat World and Skinny Lister and Less Than Jake, I carved a path through the downpour, tingly-high on that shoulders-back, light-headed freedom rush. No one was waiting for me at home. There’d be no new worries for me when I walked in the door: everything would be just as I’d left it.
Billions and billions of words have been written about romantic love. Aspirational ones – the words that make you ache to have someone who understands you. Who adores you. Who’ll be there by your side. I’m guilty of it myself – writing romance which always has to have a second character. It’s harder to write romance with a solo lead, but I’m trying. Here in this post I am trying.
In real life I don’t need to try.
The rush still sometimes comes to me in waves, though I’m taking it for granted more lately. And sometimes I get bursts of meta-joy from that: the knowledge that freedom is such a constant in my life I often barely notice that it’s there.
I am not a tidy person, it turns out. I knew this already, deep down, but I’d never fully grokked it. My living room is strewn with tools and weights and books. Plastic boxes full of paint tins and brushes. To get to my desk, where I’m writing right now, I must first step over a camping chair and a Black and Decker workbench. Shoeboxes filled with stickers and other GOTN merch.
It seems silly to flash you this as a snapshot of my joy, but here: my joy. Observe. A pile of wood offcuts and a bag of clothes for the charity shop. Admire it the way I admire cute pictures of your children. A cycle pannier spilling sweaty clothes and broken lights and locks. A box of mixed drill bits and screwdriver heads which I’ll sort back into order one day, I swear (I won’t). This is my life and I love it. On my desk, a pack of Rizlas and two debit cards and four half-used notebooks and an antique wood plane. A pile of cue cards with sex acts scrawled upon them. A book about walking in Essex.
My world. My freedom.
The most pragmatic therapist I’ve ever had once asked me for three words to describe the kind of life I wanted to lead. Which three things did I value most?
Freedom. Independence. Friendship.
Aren’t two of those the same? Not exactly. They’re definitely cousins, but the first means freedom from where independence is freedom to. ‘Freedom’ itself is liberty – the absence of orders and external controls. I am free to do this because there’s no one telling me I may not. Or cannot.
No one writes romcoms about being single. Where’s the plot, for a start? Where’s the conflict when the only person starring in the story is you?
When I moved into my own flat, I jokingly came up with a set of ‘house rules’ for guests: help yourself from the fridge; sing along to the tunes if you know the words; don’t hog the playlist; feel free to bring your slippers… that sort of thing. But beneath all of these was a rule that I held tightly in my heart: no shouting. In this house, no one may shout at me.
Since I’ve lived here, this flat has seen many guests. Many men. But within these four walls no one has ever shouted at me.
It’s hard to romanticise this kind of freedom without comparing it to sadder times. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see it written as often – in books or on the screen. You don’t get romcoms about being single. A romcom about being single has to be rooted in the sadness of being attached. That’s why I don’t write it often, at any rate.
How do we illustrate ‘freedom from’? The absence of stress. No mornings when you wake up not knowing whether you’re in trouble. No more coming home and wondering if the face that greets you will be smiling or painted with rage.
Talking about this good freedom means mentioning times when things were not-so-good, so speaking that joy aloud feels (sometimes, not always but sometimes) like an act of betrayal. Disloyalty. A knife sharpened then twisted. Bitter. Bitchy. Unkind. But the fact that this moment right now is good doesn’t mean the whole past was bad. So much of the past was wonderful, but you know that already. That’s one of those stories that everyone tells: a two-person romcom. It’s time for something new.
In the summer, sometimes I take myself for a picnic after work. I pack up whatever I was planning to have for dinner then throw it in a pannier and ride to whichever park I’m feeling on this particular day. The one with the hill, so I can see a bit of the city; the one with big trees and perfect shade; the wilder one with bugs and tickly long grass and fewer people; whatever. I take myself for a picnic dinner with the love of my life (London), and I read a book or listen to Radio 4. It’s mundane but it gives me that rush.
I didn’t have to wait for anyone else to get ready, dragging their feet like I was forcing them to come. I didn’t have to counter arguments that it might rain later, or debate which park we’d go to or how we’d get there. I didn’t have to offer quid pro quos – “if you come with me tonight, we’ll have takeaway tomorrow!” – or walk that tightrope of making someone feel included but never compelled – “I’d love you to join me if you’re up for it, but I’m happy on my own if you’d rather stay home!”
It’s hard to define freedom from without mentioning the times before and that feels bitter. So here, instead: independence. Freedom to. This one’s more like self-reliance. Freedom to set off on an adventure if you want. Freedom to make bold choices and carve new paths. Money in your bank account. Food in the cupboards for when you’re hungry and a bike in the hallway for when you need to ride. A Friday night with a clear weekend diary, two whole days to spend however you like. Absurdly rich in time.
I set myself silly little challenges these days: walk the whole Capital Ring, now the London Loop, now the Essex Way. Learn to do a pull-up. I throw myself little parties, too: Taskmaster and cocktails; Carpenters singalong; ISIHAC and spring-cleaning marathon; punk cover playlist Tuesday night with a bottle of wine. My list of projects grows by two with each one I tick off: I’m going to finish these weirdly-shaped shelves on Sunday, and when I’ve done that I’ll make a start on the bedroom wardrobe and bike storage.
I have so much time on my own these days, but no matter how much I get I still want more. Like the first stages of a relationship when you’re greedy for the other person, often I’m just greedy for blissful solitude. On the few occasions when loneliness does drop by, it feels deserved. Cleansing. Like the fall which comes after pride or the spanking you get when you’ve been a naughty girl. Restoring equilibrium. Balancing things out. Because the joy I get from flying solo most of the time feels taboo. Even obscene.
Single life isn’t romantic in a big, dramatic, diamond-ring-grand-gesture kind of way. There are some huge moments, for sure, like carrying the first box of stuff over the threshold of a place that’s purely yours or flashing your passport to board a ferry on a longed-for solo trip. But those rushes of pleasure are as likely to come on mundane days as they are on exciting ones. Just as the love you have for other people can often be found in the everyday moments, the love of being single is an everyday thing too. The dinner you make for yourself when you’re back from the supermarket: an orgy of fresh ingredients. Treats you bought to pair with that film you’ve been saving to watch. Then there’s the dinner you don’t eat because you’re not hungry, so you settle for a sandwich and know no one is there to complain. Fresh bedsheets just for you, the ability to stretch and dominate every inch of your king sized bed. See? Single romcoms have montages too.
Perhaps the drama comes from learning new things. Making choices that you never thought you’d make because it wasn’t until now that you knew they were an option. Achieving stuff that you wouldn’t have been compelled to try if someone else was there to either help you or tear you down.
I plumb in my own washing machine. I now know how to dry-line a wall. With the help of a friend, I learn how to replace plug sockets and light switches. This weekend I will learn to use my router. All these tiny things, little gifts to myself. In this solo romcom, my love language is learning on my own. Quality time with myself. Little projects and incremental achievements. Doing things because I need them done, and I am worth it.
One friend jokes that she’s a feminist but… “getting drugs is a boy job.” It annoys me that she’s right, but yeah, it is always the boys who get the drugs, I’ve never done it either. But now, here, look: a grand romantic gesture from me to me. A jar of decent(ish) weed. I grew it myself.
You don’t get romcoms about being single. We don’t often romanticise spending time alone. We hear a lot about loneliness, but rarely about the other side of that coin: the all-encompassing freedom that comes hand in hand with solitude. It feels taboo to say that singledom can be fulfilling, even though (for me at least) it’s more often uplifting than sad.
I find it far easier to lean into the lows than the highs when I’m writing for you here. Moan ‘I want a guy to fuuuuuck’ with a petulant pout, or note the moments when I’m aching to be kissed. And I do feel that way sometimes. But so what? Couples aren’t always trembling with lust for each other, or shining with the glow that comes with contentment: sometimes they’re bickering over whether to get pizza or curry or Chinese. Sometimes they’re raging with passive-aggression over Ikea flatpack assembly or moaning because it’s Christmas and they have double the rounds of obligatory visits to family.
Your romance doesn’t need to be perfect in order to earn a happy ever after. There’s no such thing as a ‘happy ever after’ anyway. The sunset at the end of a romcom is no more than a snapshot. The last one the director chose to show you before they packed up their camera and considered that story told.
If I had to zoom out here, pan away then cut to credits, I’d do so from the hill in the park I go to most often. Eating a half-arsed picnic dinner and smoking a badly-rolled joint. Watching the evening sun warm the bones of East London, and soaking up the romance of this moment.
Just me, myself, and my freedom.