I used to have a fairly regular nightmare that went a little something like this:
Guy meets girl, guy starts shagging girl, girl and guy tangle together, sexily. Their limbs slide over each other, their hands grip flesh. His fingers dig hard into the crack of her arse, the way he does so gorgeously with me. They see me approach but they don’t care.
I’d dream about this quite frequently – a side-effect of an intensely jealous feeling. Part paranoia, part justified worry. He’d never actually do this, of course – not to the same degree. But in the dream it wasn’t the sex that bothered me so much as the openness of it. The fact that, when I approached the tangled, tousled couple, giggling and snogging and touching and worse – as I watched my fucking boyfriend fucking hard with someone else, he’d shrug and brush it off like his betrayal was nothing.
“Oh, didn’t you know? I’m with her now.”
They’d carry on, as I stood stunned and watching. Stuck in the moment, unable to escape until the second I woke up.
The guy who starred in this dream wasn’t really a flirt. If he fancied someone other than me he’d do his best to pretend that they were mates, or sometimes even less. He’d tell me stories about how this one girl annoyed him, this other girl had got boring since he saw her last, any interest he’d had in this particular woman had waned.
It was bollocks.
He was a nice dude, and he loved me, but he wasn’t superhuman. As I learned a few times – most of these women turned out to be more significant than he’d ever wanted to say. Not straight-up cheating in the traditional sense, just a series of small betrayals: a comment to a friend about a ‘crush’ he’d developed. A stolen kiss which I stumbled on when I popped back home to collect something.
Ouch. But not as hurtful as the nonchalant look on his face as he styled it out: it was nothing. It meant nothing. You won’t leave me.
That’s what hurt – the pretence that it was no big deal. It was meant as a way to make me feel better, but it made things so much worse because taken to its heights it made light of something that absolutely crushed me.
Hence the dream, I guess: the gut-wrenching pain wasn’t caused by the fucking but by the fact that he didn’t care. There was no guilt or sadness, there were no apologies, because the new girl and I had just switched places: now I was the one who didn’t matter. Who meant nothing.
I understand the desire to play these things down. I realise that it’s often easier, if caught in betrayal, to say ‘it ain’t no thing,’ because the terrible dark weight of the truth might crush you if you acknowledge it: it was a thing. I fancy her. You apologise profusely, lay bare all your shame and regret. Even, perhaps, deal the final blow: ‘I don’t think this is ever going to work for us.’
But that truth – crushing though it might be – is far less hurtful than the charade that replaces it: you’re awesome. I love you. It’s all good. All the while I’m screaming silently, begging you to recognise that it hurts much more than you’re giving it credit for. The casual brush-off is disproportionate to the pain.
I could cope with heartbreak delivered with weight: a hammer-blow of earnest misery. But I can’t cope with heartbreak disguised with an ‘oops.’
Grinning, laughing, patting my head: standing in front of a shattered vase and telling me nothing’s broken.
There are greater relationship mistakes than this. There are liars, cheats, abusers and bastards. But when I imagine the worst thing I could do, I don’t picture the guys I could fuck on the side, or the crimes I’d commit that’d leave him sobbing angrily on the bed.
I imagine standing in front of him with a plastic smile, making half-hearted excuses and lukewarm vows. Impassively watching him crack before my eyes, while reassuring him he’s not broken.