When I saw a teaser for Dolly Alderton’s latest agony aunt column on the Sunday Times Style Instagram account the other day, I’m fairly certain I cackled with glee. As you can see from the below, the problem is a juicy one, almost precisely because it’s not all that juicy. The writer doesn’t want to end a decades-long friendship over an argument at a hen do, or suspect a parent of having an affair – they’re having a Sliding Doors moment, looking back at a single evening years ago and wondering ‘what if – ?’ It’s just so painfully… human.
When I saw the Instagram post, I immediately thought of a party I went to in 2007, where I met Jamie. My best friend wasn’t there that night for some reason, so I slotted myself into a group of guys, some of whom I knew and some I didn’t, and one of the strangers was Jamie. He was cute, nerdy and witty, and of course the thing I remember more than anything is him finding me funny. I think he even exclaimed at one point, between peals of laughter, “you’re really funny, I like you!”
There was a crackle between us as we stood with the others, the unspoken tension that thickens the air around two people who have recognised something in each other. The fleeting, silent knowledge that if everything surrounding them suddenly fell away, it would take them a long time to notice, or care.
Nothing happened. He left early, and I ended up snogging the guy whose party it was – a turn of events that had itself been inevitable for quite some time. Teenagers, huh? But for some months (and apparently years) afterwards, I would sporadically think of Jamie, and that evening. The potential for something had hung like a question in the air, albeit briefly, and nothing sends a restless mind into overdrive like a question left unanswered.
Could that evening have gone differently? If I’d been bolder, more sure of myself? If Jamie hadn’t left early? If the birthday boy and I hadn’t already had something going on (something we were too embarrassed and immature to admit publicly)? It doesn’t matter. We are for the most part what we decide to do. And of course, this particular example involves kids of 17, so it matters even less. Best case scenario would have been, more likely than not, a snog in a field and then some awkward post-party texting. Or maybe we’d have dated for a bit, I don’t know. But the chances of staying with someone you meet at 17 for a significant length of time are slim. And while things don’t have to last long to matter, it’s the long-term loves that tend to become decisive forces in your life, not the brief moments of paralysing chemistry.
Because that’s what is at the heart of our letter-writer’s problem: chemistry, and how much authority it should be given, if any. The kind of chemistry she’s writing about is intoxicating but tricksy, powerful but unreliable, and I sympathise with her wholeheartedly. It can take a long time to learn that surging chemistry with someone is not necessarily indicative of compatibility. And even when you’ve gained a bit of wisdom, a bit of world-weariness, you can still be caught off-guard occasionally. If the timing is right and the lights are low and the wine is velvet-soft.
And it’s rare enough for those things to converge that when it does happen, it feels like you’ve won something, beaten some ever-shifting odds. For all the people we meet as we go about our lives, all those chance encounters, those lightning strike moments are relatively infrequent. It’s not exactly common to find yourself feeling drunk on the mere presence of someone else’s body. Desire that hits at cell-level, desire that rushes the blood before rational thought has had time to kick in, doesn’t happen every day. Of course it’s hard to resist reading too much into it. Of course it’s easy to think it must be meaningful. This quiet magnetism, this humming magic. Sometimes, the question posed by intense chemistry with someone sounds like, “how alive are you right now, and how alive do you want to be?” I don’t blame anyone who feels tempted to chase a spark and see if it starts a fire. I don’t blame them at all.
Obviously, our letter-writer should do precisely nothing about the man in the pub (I deliberately avoided reading Dolly’s answer until I’d written most of this). She had smart reasons to not pursue it at the time, and now says she’s in a relationship with someone wonderful. From her timeline – meeting the guy ‘seven or eight years ago, when we were both in our twenties’ – I assume she’s in her early thirties now and is having extremely reasonable doubts about the way life seems to narrow when you reach that age. Suddenly, the stakes have been raised: are you with the person you want to spend decades with, not simply months or years? Is this the person you’ll have children with? Are the years you’ll spend in Breton stripes, dungarees and Toms, headspace taken up with paint samples and weaning and nits, within spitting distance?
Your thirties are when the pressure to settle down is as high as it’s been so far. If you haven’t got married or had kids already, this is the decade in which those huge, life-altering commitments are most likely to happen. Yes, all of that is painfully heteronormative, I know – but it’s also reality for a lot of people. A sudden, powerful urge to plunder one’s past for an escape, imaginary or otherwise, is hugely understandable. We’re creative creatures, built for yearning, wondering, taking wild flights of fancy. Yearning can be useful – so often, when you’re losing yourself in a daydream about someone else, it’s because you’re not giving yourself the right attention. Maybe our letter-writer needs to do something with what’s haunting her: turn it into fiction, use it as fuel.
And if you’re used to yearning because having an exit route has always felt to you like a necessity rather than a luxury, it can be hard to trust reality. Hard to believe that what’s here in front of you right now won’t buckle. Imagined escapes are comforting. I can’t tell anyone how to reconcile the part of them that needs to chase sparks with the part of them that loves the life they have. I can’t tell anyone they shouldn’t, occasionally, let themselves be felled by desire most inexplicable – nor would I. But we are, for the most part, what we decide to do.