It’s 11:52am on a Monday morning. I have thus far woken up next to my boyfriend, Keiran, made his lunch with him, kissed him, text him telling him I’m going to sing to him in Italian (I watched this year’s Eurovision and now I’m the kind of person who listens to songs I can’t understand), and anticipated whether he will indeed cut his long hair off in a style-180 this same afternoon. I’ve sat in my usual Starbucks’ spot, soaking in soul music through my weathered and worn headphones, editing photos, glossing over emails and browsing the web for writing inspiration. I feel familiarly rooted in this scenario; I recognise it well as something I’ve rehearsed and relived a thousand times over. I am comfortable here.
This is my life. At 25, I can cast my eye back over the last 7 or so years of “adult independence” and I can pinpoint the moments which have shaped all that came after. An unextraordinary novella with 7 chapters, corners clipped in lieu of bookmarks at the points which seem significant. There’s my first job, my first relationship, my choices in education and the route that followed thereafter. There’s my first home, my reconnecting with my Dad, the developments in my career and the inevitable low points that came then too. All which seems significant is highlighted in some way, less so for the event itself and more so for the avenues which presented themselves immediately after. For the choices and for the existence that went unlived, and potentially still goes unlived if you’re partial to an alternative timeline theory (or two, or three…).
The notion of a “ghost life” is something I've been acutely aware of for some time now, but haven’t been able to articulate fully until I read this ManRepeller.com article about only having one romantic partner. Addressed in an agony aunt forum, the original question asks whether the writer - a 27 year old woman - has missed out on a ‘life fully lived’ because she’s been in a relationship for the past 5 years and hasn’t had the ‘fun dating phase that everyone goes through in their twenties’. She worries that through lack of these romantic liaisons, she’s also missed out on some vital self-discovery. Should she be grateful for the security and love that she has, or will this latent regret ultimately tear their bond in two?
I found myself relating hard. This is a quiet worry that has permeated my twenties because I’ve always been attached, and as such I’ve never been on a Tinder date or been ghosted or hooked up or engaged in the table-tennis that is early-stage texting. I feel like I’ve missed out on so many of the cultural milestones of our generation - milestones which could have been the catalyst for the birth of my “best self”. I wonder if choosing the “safe” option - the comfort, reliability and security of a relationship - has stunted my personal development both emotionally and sexually, and whether, rather than feeding me, my deeply powerful ties to another person are starving me of life experience.
Tee - Topshop
Jeans - Weekday (affiliate link)
Sandals - Birkenstock
That being said, I am so very certain of my love. Relationships are hard but I adore the bones of Keiran, and there’s much to be found in the fabric of another person’s being. I understand that within the walls of this commitment I’ve been able to unearth and nurture facets of myself that may not have come to light if I was single, and I recognise the value in that too. I am grateful and I am loved and I am loving.
‘What if’ continues to exist, though. She’s quiet and she’s unobtrusive, but I know she’s there. I can hear her breathing. I can see the whites of her eyes as she turns to look at me, silent in my decisions, knowing she bears the weight of the consequence. Even when I don’t see her - when I’m not certain that she’s beside me - she manifests in other ways.
‘What if’ is a low pain. She’s a hum - a dull ache in the back of my calves and a little sickness which feels like the first pangs of hunger unchecked. ‘What if’ is the terms and conditions at the bottom of a contract; she’s the damp spot in the corner of the living room; the direct message I received three years ago but have neglected to delete ever since. ‘What if’ remains, there, though rarely addressed. She exists as a constant, always the other to whatever I decide to choose. Every option I never pursued. The alternative path in every fork which divided me. She is continuous, and I am curious.
I often wonder about my ghost life. What would have been if I’d have decided differently. Where I’d be now if I didn’t press eject on my dream university in a bustling new city; where that education, that degree and those connections could have taken me. Would I be living abroad? Would I be more accomplished? Would I be more confident?
What experiences I would have had, had I not jumped straight into a second relationship after finishing the first. How many people I would have slept with. How much more explored my sexuality would be. How enjoyable I would have found dating. Would I know myself more? Would I, through practise and person, have decoded more of what I look for and need in a partner? Would I be less likely to compromise, more steadfast in the necessity that another person must bring some value to my life that isn’t already there?
I even wonder about the small things. Is ‘what if’ running a 10k somewhere? Has she written a book? Has she learned how to pour the perfect latte? Is ‘what if’ happier? Healthier? More successful? Does she bite her nails and have split ends? Does she own a home? Has she travelled?
In truth, what I’m wondering is whether I’ve made a mistake. Or rather, a long, 7 year series of mistakes. Whether when presented with a split in the road, I’ve time and time again chosen the right path. I’m wondering whether my life could have been better. Whether it could have been fuller. Whether I’m living out the B-side of the record, naive to the hit single on the other side. I’m wondering if later down the line I’ll regret my decisions, and realise all too late that I’m living as the ghost.
I try not to admit that ‘what if’ sits by me so often - not consciously anyway. I’m aware of her always, but like I said, she’s a very quiet guest. What I’m coming to realise though, is that we all carry a ‘what if’ along with us. A few steps behind, just tickling our ear. I’m realising that it’s natural to consider every innumerable plane of existence that has at one time presented itself to us; to consider the butterfly effect of how that one tiny ‘yes’ five years ago could have altered where we are now. It’s not a statement of dissatisfaction or a sadness or a malady. To acknowledge my shadow is not a confirmation of regret, it’s simply possibility.
The more I turn my back on her in fear of her presence, the heavier I feel her eyes on the back of my neck. I can’t deny her; she needs her space to breathe and to be acknowledged. This panic I feel at knowing she’s there only mellows when I’m honest about her shadow, and accepting her does not equate to regretting (or envying) her.
Recognising that I’m sometimes curious about how my life could have been different does not mean I’m not happy with how my life has turned out. I can harmoniously co-exist with ‘what if’, I just have to be welcoming of her. I have to let myself wonder.
It’s 15:48 on a Monday afternoon. I have thus far taken some outfit photos, sent some emails, and written 1,337 words (plus more) on the invariable presence of ‘what if’ in my life. I wonder in what small ways writing this could and will change the course of my life. I consider what else I could have done with my day, and think about what she’s doing instead. If she’s made a wiser or worse choice. Whether she's wondering too.
I sit, and I wonder what if.