One of the nice things about getting past the initial sex and booze phase is you can begin to open up about some of the more serious things in your life.
In the first few months, there can be a tendency to paint a portrait of yourself that’s rose-tinted. The stresses of work, family and finances are put discretely to one side as you jazz hands your way through the early dates. Problems get downplayed. Conversations are purged of hard subjects, like you’re talking to one another through mouthfuls of candyfloss.
Eventually though, the seatbelt has to come off. One by one, all your hardships and foibles tiptoe into view and all you can do is wait anxiously to see if the other person crashes the car.
The linguist has started to reveal some of her hardships. For example, she has eating disorders in her family. Growing up, she was sent to school with a sandwich and apple, no treats. She was never allowed jelly and ice cream at her parties because they were bad for you.
As a child, she had to do exercises to make sure she didn’t end up with “ze flat english bom”. I find that memory particularly absurd. This poor 9 year old doing arse exercises after school whilst everyone else eats chocolate ice cream in front of the telly.
Now, she has a muted relationship with her family. Her mother disappears for months at a time – in France, Austria, North London. She’ll send text messages that don’t get a reply for weeks. Once I take some lovely photos of us and say she can show them to her mum at the next family barbeque. “Oh,” she says, “I don’t think my mum’s ever asked to see a photo of me.”
It’s terribly odd and sad, this étrangère familiale. It’s not you, I say over and over again. It’s not you, never you, don’t think it’s you. “I know,” she replies, “I just wish she’d take an interest in my life sometimes.”
I begin to understand her through the prism of her past. Beneath the constant hard work and accolades I wonder if there’s a teenager longing for her mother’s approval. She wants as much time as I can give her, filling the empty spaces left by her family’s indifference.
When we’re in bed together I can feel her intense vulnerability and need to be loved. Sometimes she looks at me with such yearning I feel like I could be sucked in through a pupil and remain trapped there forever, the slowly rotting apple of her eye.
Bit by bit, I see her and all her flaws. And yes, it is a bit scary at first. Maybe she’ll always work too hard. Maybe she’ll always demand more of my time and energy than I have to give. Maybe she’ll always need someone as an emotional crux to fill the void her mother’s left. But I’d so much rather this – this whole, luminous, smashed-and-stitched-back-together human being – than some perfect façade.