‘Meeting new women became an addiction’: one woman, 30 dates

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 10, 2017 in Rat News | Subscribe

C is Spanish. She tells me that life in London is so hard that it is making her into a hard person. She has stopped helping people because they take too much and do not give back. In Spain, it was always easy for her to get girlfriends, but in London she finds all the women to be sad and quemada, burnt. She works as a waitress in a restaurant in Chelsea. One of the waiters, a Polish man, has a problem with her being gay. A few days before I meet C, he came up to her and said there were some friends of hers in the restaurant. C said it was unlikely, because she knew nobody who could afford to eat there. He pointed to a table where two butch women were sitting and then burst out laughing. C wants to be an artist. She shows me a tattoo that she got that day of a flower. Every time she feels sad, she gets a tattoo. One day, she wants her whole body to be covered in them.

I don’t know what I would have done without the internet. I came out when I was 31, after a brief and chaotic relationship with a woman, for whom my feelings ebbed away as dramatically as they had come, leaving me at times wondering whether I had ever had them in the first place.

Before that, I had been with a man for five years. He was my best friend, kind, intelligent and handsome, whose presence I found – and still find – reassuring. I loved him, but our relationship was curiously passionless. When it came to love, I just assumed I was a bit cold. I was different from most of my friends in that I found it easy to separate sex and emotion, I never got hurt or jealous, I had never had my heart broken. In my mid-20s, I began to wonder if I might be gay. I kept turning the idea over in my mind. But since it was based on a hard-to-define intuition of my being somehow different and not because I had ever felt attraction to a woman, it was easy to dismiss.

N is a bicycle courier. We meet at a bookshop wine evening. When I text her to ask how I will recognise her, she tells me she will be the only person there who looks like a bicycle courier. All day I wonder what this could mean. I picture a woman with strong arms and tattoos. When I get there, she is wearing cycling gloves and a peaked cap and does not take them off all night. I’ve never met anyone who loves her job as much as N. She does not care that her friends are earning double what she earns. She loves hanging out in Soho Square with the other couriers, waiting for the next job to come in. She cycled to Japan. It was great, she tells me, but there were sadly no lesbians in Asia. Her next trip is going to be from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. I ask if she buys souvenirs along the way. She says she gives away anything she owns. She is 31, homeless and has no possessions except her bike, and that is how she likes it.


When I finally fell for a woman, I knew immediately that I had never had those feelings before with a man. I was overwhelmed. I followed the woman around like a little puppy dog, much to the amusement and bafflement of my friends, who had never seen this side to me. Then, all of a sudden, it ended, leaving me with a thousand questions, the most pressing of which was: am I gay?

In truth, I knew that I was, but I did not want to be. And there were so many confusing elements to weigh up. It seemed strange that I had never felt attracted to a girl at school or university; that in those febrile times of adolescence, I had never looked at another girl and thought about kissing her, never idolised an older girl at school or had one of those intense friendships that turn into something else. I thought that if it was so hard for me to fall in love, maybe the next individual would be a man. It is difficult to conclude anything from one experience, and yet it had undone everything. I had come out of it feeling dismantled, all my expectations for my life that I had never articulated laid bare. I needed to test my hypotheses about myself by finding another woman. That would be the proof.

That was where the internet came in. At that time, I had no gay friends; I did not know what queer even meant. I did not know how to be gay. I could simply get on with my life and wait for love to strike again, whoever it was, whatever their gender, but the question was too urgent for me, too insistent. So I decided I would start to date women, as much to find friends and some kind of community as to find love.

R is a trapeze artist in her spare time, and this means she always has bruises on the backs of her legs. She wants to meet me early, so she can be back home in time to watch Ice Road Truckers. When I ask what it is she likes so much about the show, her eyes light up and she tells me it is the music that creates a real sense of jeopardy. The trucks are driving over this dangerous road over a frozen sea, and they put cameras on the bottom of the trucks, so you can see how thin the ice is. Next week, she is going to Alaska with her sister. They are trying to visit every state in America. They chose Alaska because her sister thinks that is where real men are. R lives in a crumbling flat with no heating. She cannot get the landlord round to fix the heating because she does not want him to find out that she has a pet pygmy hedgehog: they are not allowed pets. It is nocturnal and runs around her bedroom at night. I ask if she is afraid she will step on it, but she says she hasn’t so far.


I signed up to Guardian Soulmates and OKCupid (this was in the days before apps) and switched my preferences to women only. My first date was with an artist. I waited nervously in an empty cafe one summer’s afternoon. We talked for a long time about geodesic domes, until it was almost embarrassing. She made big surreal sculptures out of fibreglass. I spent most of the time staring at her, trying to work out if I found her attractive. Afterwards, cycling off, I thought with relief that the experience had been as sexy as a job interview.

Quite a few of the dates went like this. Each one that I did not find attractive seemed to be proof that I was not gay, which I knew was a perverse test, but one that was easy to buy into. Part of the relief also stemmed from the fact that I would not know what to do with a woman if I did like her. I was not confident at all when it came to women, especially those who had been gay for a long time and who I thought might regard me as a novice or even a timewaster.


K is studying to be a photographer. She loves Lars von Trier and we talk about the film Melancholia. If there was a planet hurtling towards the Earth, she would not kill herself in advance, she said; she would wait for the impact. She used to have two pet rats. Both are buried in Victoria Park. One was grey, one black and white. The grey one liked being stroked so much it was as if he was having a long orgasm; he would flutter his eyelids and get cross if she stopped. K has OCD and until recently could not eat in a restaurant without wiping the glasses and polishing the cutlery on her sleeve. She tells me she is a Top. I ask what that means, though I can guess. She says that she likes to be in control during sex. I ask what happens when she meets another Top. She says, I will win.

Detail from illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion

Over time, dating became something of an addiction. Often, I went on two or three dates a week. I found that nothing else matched the sense of possibility I felt when I was sitting there, waiting for my date to show up. And there was something satisfying about talking to strangers about their lives. The sheer variety in the details of their outlooks, experiences and personalities excited me. I felt as if I was living in another city. At least half the women I went on dates with had come from other countries to live in the UK. My diary in those years, 2013-2015, reads as a chronicle of London in all its multiplicities, albeit only the smallest part of it, but still: a snapshot of chaotic existences in the aftermath of the economic crisis and before Brexit.


F is Greek. She came to the UK to be a model and accidentally got pregnant when she slept with her friend. She was walking down the catwalk at six months pregnant. Her parents had got used to the idea that she was a lesbian and would not accept that she was a single mother, so will not see the baby. She wanted a child, because she does not want to be alone when she is old. She loves London, because she can be whoever she wants. She came to the UK to be with a woman, but the woman stole all F’s savings and ran off.


Internet dating coincided with a period of relative instability in my life. In the five years after I broke up with my boyfriend, I lived in seven rooms in seven different houses or flats. I kept my books and the majority of my possessions at my parents’ house and took what I needed in a couple of suitcases and bin bags. Rents in east London had doubled since I had moved there in 2006. I worked in television, where contracts are three or four months’ long, six if you’re lucky. But the main reason my life was this way was that I wanted to write. I wanted the freedom to move home to my parents’ house, or find a housesitting job in the periods of unemployment between contracts, so that I could work on my novel.

The precariousness of my situation, however, was nothing compared with that of many of the women I met, many of whom had been forced to leave their countries because of the economic crisis and find work wherever they could. In those years, I met a lot of Spanish women, because I liked to practise speaking Spanish with them, helping them in return with their English. Most of them had lost their jobs, often well-paid careers for which they had studied, and now were taking jobs in London that were beneath them. I met one woman who had been a laboratory researcher in Barcelona who lived in a room with five other Spanish women in Lancaster Gate. Another was an au pair in Greenwich, where the family had not even given her a bedroom and made her sleep on a mattress in the living room. The father made sexual advances, so she left.

I met a lot of women from eastern Europe who had come to London for similar reasons, though in their cases there was often the added incentive of escaping an environment that was hostile to LGBTQ people. For them, London represented a haven, a place of freedom and tolerance, and I was proud of that fact.

S has just moved to London following her divorce. She was married to an aristocrat and lived in a big country house. She shows me pictures of her on a wedding day wearing a huge white dress, like a princess. She knew deep down that she was gay. When she was in her early 20s, she had gone to a gay bar out of curiosity and slept with a woman. She had some kind of panic attack the next day, and the woman had been very kind and patient with her. She told some of her friends about it and they said what she had done was disgusting. So she swept it all under a rug and went through with the wedding. It was hard to leave her husband. She loved him in her own way and finds it really upsetting each time she sees him, so she tries not to meet up with him any more. She never wants to have children.


I found a complete variety in terms of where women sat on the spectrum of sexualities. On most dates, we would get around to talking about our stories of coming out: when did we first realise, how did our parents react, what did we call ourselves. Some women had never told their parents, or had lost contact with their families because of their sexuality, especially those from African-Caribbean and Asian backgrounds. Others were accepted with no issue at all. Some, I could tell, had not made peace with themselves. I went on four dates with women who had left their husbands, in one way or another, for a woman. Others knew at a very young age and were perplexed by my story. One woman, who knew she was gay when she was 13, kept asking me over and over again, had I not had any feelings as a teenager for other girls. When I told her each time that I had not, she looked annoyed, as if I did not fit into her narrative of what gayness should look like. I sometimes felt jealous that sexuality seemed to be intuitive and irrefutable for everyone else, while I seemed to have to piece mine together from inconclusive evidence.

I went on dates to make gay or bisexual friends, to maybe find myself part of a gang of them. All my female friends were straight and most, being single, were not interested in coming to lesbian parties with me. I was successful in finding a few short-lived friendships, women who invited me to play poker or to a Eurovision party, and ended up being good friends with a couple of them. Others I lost touch with, but because we were friends on Facebook, I experienced the strange phenomenon, common now, where we continue to feel connected to someone long after we have ceased to see them physically.


P cycles to Oxford Street at four in the morning every day to change the clothes on the mannequins in one of the major clothes shops. She is Spanish and has come to London because of the economic crisis. In Spain, she was a construction site manager. Two evenings a week, she has English lessons at a school in Soho. She is often so tired she falls asleep holding a coffee cup. Her life’s ambition is to cross every desert in the world. She drove across the desert in Morocco with a girlfriend and their car broke down. While they waited for help, she climbed a sand dune. She could feel the heat in her chest so powerfully, it felt as if she was dying. When she got to the top and looked at the unending sand, she started crying.

It was through online dating that I met the woman who inspired my novel, English Animals. I was writing about a married woman who was unhappy and secretly gay, who lived in the countryside. One night, I went on a date with a woman from Slovakia who told me that the first job she had done in the UK was on a pheasant shooting estate, helping out the husband with his taxidermy business. The next morning, I woke up and knew I had to write that story. All the things I wanted to talk about were there: the hatred of the EU and European immigrants, the underlying and casual homophobia I had grown up around in the countryside. I wrote to tell her I was writing that story and I hoped she did not find it too odd. She said she did not care. On the day of publication, we had lunch and I gave her a copy of the book. She texted a few weeks later to say she loved it. I hope she meant it, because it was her opinion I cared about.

At times, I found going on so many dates exhausting and depressing. For some people, the process of coming out must be tempered with the consolation of being in love. I found it hard and lonely. I would find the odd woman attractive, but only in a superficial way; there were none that I could see myself being with in a long-term sense. Two summers after I separated from my boyfriend, I had something of a crisis. My feelings for my ex-girlfriend seemed distant and indistinct, and I began to doubt them. I would often meet up with my ex-boyfriend for a drink or a coffee. He had a new girlfriend by then. Each time, for days afterwards, I would burst into tears randomly, on buses, in the British Library toilets. I began to wish that I had never experienced these feelings for other women. I wanted to pack them into a box, get back together with him and have a nice, peaceful life with a home and children (ironically, things I had never wanted much in the first place). Anything would be better than this, I thought: this nothingness, this confusion and uncertainty. The best marriages were beautiful friendships, I told myself. I felt that I had thrown away the best thing I had had in my life and I needed to get him back. But, deep down, I knew that it was not possible.


G is from Belgium and has moved to Barcelona. She is so happy, and for the first time in her life does not want to be somewhere else. She has the air of someone who has survived some kind of disaster, in awe of her own lucky escape. She shows me pictures of her old flat in Brussels, her expensive furniture and huge television. Now she is living with four other people in a cramped apartment. She was working in marketing and was made redundant. She tells me she keeps thinking about her old colleagues with their titles such as associate manager or executive director. She pities them, because they think those titles are important. It was not a life. Now I have a life, she says. She does not care what kind of job she gets in Barcelona, she just wants to exist.


After about 30 dates, I met a woman online whom I liked. I remember the first moment I saw her, reading in the gardens along the cycle route below Angel tube station. It was probably the closest thing I have experienced to love at first sight. We met a few more times. She was forward where I was awkward, but I always felt that she was holding something back. She had come out of a long-term relationship with a man. She said, I’ve been so cold. I felt I knew what she had been through, but the more I tried to get close to her, the farther she moved away. In the end, I had to accept she did not like me enough.

That was a few years ago and I have not felt anything for anyone else. I still go on dates but far less often, and they have to be with someone I think might really be a long-term partner. I’m not interested in going out all the time to meet new people. I have enough friends.

But I will always look back on that time of dating as a formative experience, one that allowed me to gain confidence and experiment with who I was and would become. Now, all I want is to be in love and for that person to love me back. It seems simple and yet, at times, totally elusive, but I continue to hope. And I have a feeling that whoever it is, they will just walk into my life. They will not come from the internet. Who knows.

In the meantime, I can be found on Tinder.

English Animals, by Laura Kaye, is published by Little Brown at £16.99.

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