There are rules about how to act in every social situation. They may be unwritten, or contained in tomes nobody owns up to owning but everyone does; they might be whispered in corners or written about in op-eds for swanky magazines, but there are rules governing everything. If you transgress the rules, who knows what might happen? You'll get a sneaky side-eyed sneer, or maybe a public critique, or perhaps the whole of society will crumble and crash down around your ears - and it'll all be your fault, because you didn't obey the rules.
One of the things I'm aware of is how I play by these rules, even when I don't consciously mean to. I'll find myself waiting for hours to receive texts from people, and then - rather than replying instantly, which is my usual course of action - I'll instead leave the message, saved as a draft, on my phone. I won't send it until half an hour, an hour, two hours, have elapsed - to make it seem like I'm just SO in demand, I'm too busy to reply to texts instantly, and you should be glad I bestowed my pity upon you and typed out a few lines of banal conversation. It means I spared you a thought, when I could have just forgotten. Be grateful.
This applies to everyone - friends, family, crushes. I just get scared of being in a position of vulnerability. I don't want to admit I like someone, in whatever capacity, because that means peeling back a little bit of your skin and showing something raw; and once it's out there, anyone can come and prod it, and make you hurt. Better to keep your bleeding heart in your chest, rather than where it habitually rests on my sleeve. Better to wear a coat and stop your feelings from being seen.
When I do come out and say exactly what I mean, I tend to get hurt. And everyone's afraid of being hurt. That's why there's so much bullshit in who is supposed to say what when, where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to want. If you stick to the rules, you are safe. You're working within an established framework. Even if things go wrong, they'll fuck up within a pre-existing situation.You won't be far away from where you're supposed to be, and it's not that hard to get back in the game, start a new turn, and let all the rules carry you along again.
It's why I feel guilty about my last kiss. It was the end of a first date (with a boy who makes me feel like I swallowed a dragonfly) and we were at Edgeware Road. He had to catch the tube one way, and I the other. He stood on the train, and I on the platform. There was a narrow gap in the roof of the station. We shared a quick, chaste kiss while the thin snow fell through the gap and powdered our hair. The tube departed, and I watched him go, suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling I had been left behind. That was one of the rules of heterosexual, traditional relationships - the girl is supposed to leave first, making the boy wait for her, his breath catching in his throat. It's not supposed to be the other way round.
I crossed the bridge to the other platform, to catch my own train, and had to avert my eyes from all the happy couples canoodling in the cold. Their laughter mingled in front of their faces, a soft-focus mist which could have come from either set of lungs.
I wished, one day, I could be that happy - even if it was only superficial. Maybe in the grey light of morning they would sit next to each other in bed - these laughing, kissing couples - and they wouldn't speak, keeping their unhappiness to themselves, maintaining a facade on the streets of London that they were bright and chipper and in love. But there's a reason you keep misery at home: the only thing worse than public displays of affection is public displays of unhappiness.
And that's just another rule. Keep the dirty laundry to your own washing machine.
If I were that unhappy, though, I would argue in public. I would make a scene, run onto the wrong train on purpose, lock myself in a bathroom and have a public official be called to get me out. I would make old women tut and young professionals avert their eyes in embarrassment and children stare, slack-jawed. If you're going to unravel, you might as well do it somewhere everyone can see. Maybe, just maybe, there would be a sympathetic stranger around to help patch your frayed edges back together and resew your hems. I have faith in the human race yet.
But I also have faith in myself. These rules might have been around for years, but I'm sure I know myself better than some anonymous set of social norms. So I might provoke the ire of traditionalists everywhere, but I will tentatively display my battered heart, and blame only myself if it gets broken. I will text back immediately and watch people leave me behind - because I am stronger than my anxieties, and I trust that everyone I love will come back - it might just take them a while.