We met in the first week of university. Sam* was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen. He was studying maths, had grown up in a remote cottage with hippy parents and no electricity and wore a silver hoop in his left ear.
I was a self-conscious London girl with a teacher mother, an alcoholic father and a penchant for wearing skirts over trousers. Within seconds of seeing him on my second night out, I turned to my friend and said: ‘He’s going to be my boyfriend.’ She laughed and said he was gay; he was too pretty and well-dressed not to be. I won the argument.
For months afterwards, Sam and I were inseparable. We spent our days smoking spliffs, discussing the meaning of life: me attempting to convince him on the merits of Hollyoaks; him attempting to explain the concept of infinity. Despite – or maybe because of – our differences, we loved each other in a way I’d never known. He was strange and brilliant; his existence allowed me to become a version of myself that I could never have been at home.
There was something almost fraught about my love for him, as if, in his absence, the person I had become would disappear, too. After university, I got a job on a national newspaper and moved back to London. Sam, however, was still trying to work out what to do. That he would move with me was a given, until he announced that what he needed was to go travelling for a few months, alone, to see the world before we settled into adult life together.
The arrangement worked well. Living without him, I felt myself flourish. I forged a career I cared about and made friends in a way I wouldn’t have bothered doing if he had been there. For the first part of his time away, we spoke every day. That quickly dwindled to once or twice a week.
When we did speak, there was so much to say that it was impossible to know where to start, so we resorted to the platitudes of ‘I miss you’ and ‘I love you’. It never once occurred to me to question if or how that love might have changed. And then he came home. Changed. It was hard to say exactly what had altered, only that it indefinably had.
We were so young, he said. We’d been together for more than four years. He still loved me but needed to work out who he was without me. But I didn’t want to know who I was without him.
The next day, Sam left – and I fell apart. I clung to the pain of our break-up and tried everything to win him back: calls, tears, kissing someone else in front of him at a mutual friend’s birthday. Nothing worked. When my friends mooted that he must have met someone else, I shut them down.
Eventually, I confronted him. Once, twice and then endlessly – to his face, on the phone. Every time, he denied it. Then a mutual friend let slip that not only had he met another woman while he was away, but she had moved back to England with him and they were getting married. I found out when I was crossing the lights on Holloway Road and dropped to my knees at the traffic island, as if I’d been shot. The betrayal was immense. Not just the betrayal of lying to me, but that he’d found someone he simply loved more.
For a long time, I imagined who this woman could be. I liked to envisage her as some humourless boffin, but most of the time I thought she must have everything I lacked. It was a period of intense sadness and longing until, one day, I met Barney – and the fog lifted.
Suddenly, I realised it was possible to have that depth of feeling for someone else. Barney was part of our extended friendship group, funny and quietly confident. Rather than him completing me, as I had felt with Sam, with Barney I became a person who was able to complete herself. Which was just as well, because shortly afterwards I met her.
Given the closeness of our friendship circle, it was inevitable we would bump into Sam and his new wife. And soon we did. It was one of those long, boozy Sunday afternoons, and I looked across the bar and there she was. I recognised her instantly from Sam’s Facebook pictures (yes, I’d done some light stalking) and she was, I had to admit, beautiful. She was a glorious free spirit, too.
The first moment I saw her, she was slapping a stranger’s bum in a packed east London pub with the impishness of a Year 11 schoolboy. If I hadn’t hated her with every inch of my soul, I would have wanted her to be my friend.
It was such a shock when she looked up and saw me there that the only thing I could think to do was to let go of Barney’s hand and go and hug her. It was one of the most uncomfortable and strangely tender moments of both our lives as she gripped me back.
The next time I saw her, I worked hard not to make eye contact. I didn’t want to make friends with her, yet there was something about her that I couldn’t resist; a connection she clearly felt too. Whenever we were in the same place, I found my eyes drawn to her, and vice versa. There was something about her energy and her laughter – but there was a kindness, too, that I recognised even before we spent any real time together. With Sam, things were more stilted; forgiveness took a long time.
Three years after Barney and I got together, I became unexpectedly pregnant. And when we bumped into Sam and Jess* – as I found out her name was – we discovered they were too. We were the youngest people we knew to have children, so we found ourselves finding reasons to speak to one another, grateful for a comrade in this strange new world.
Tentatively, like teenagers arranging a date, we swapped numbers and agreed that we should perhaps, maybe, possibly meet once the babies were born. When they arrived, she texted to say that we should convene, not at one of the terrifying baby groups I’d heard mention of, but at a nice pub, signing off: ‘My tits hurt, I need a drink.’ My worst fears were confirmed: we would be friends.
Within hours of that meeting, Jess and I became almost like soulmates. It was as though, having loved the same man, we had been connected for years. Perhaps because of how we came together, and what we’d overcome in order to be friends, the bond between us became rock solid very quickly.
For a long time, I harboured some resentment towards Sam, which would occasionally flare up, but one day we had a long, very honest conversation and I finally started to understand things from his perspective. I was not always an easy person to be with, or to break up with. We were both young and we were both dealing with things in the best way we knew how.
The more time we spend together, the more I’ve come to understand and love Jess and Sam’s relationship. While he is like a brother to me now, I can appreciate the many ways in which we weren’t meant to be – at least not as a couple. That’s not to disrespect what we had, and the importance of that period in our lives. I understand that love can change and mutate. That doesn’t diminish what it once was, or have to cast a shadow on what it later became, which in our case is a beautiful and robust friendship.
Today, Jess and Sam are godparents to our youngest child, and our eldest girls – who are in the same class at school – are as close as sisters. As a family, we’ve spent holidays and every Christmas together, and most weekends. The girls know that Sam and I are old friends from university. One day we will explain the details of how we met, and I hope that they find it as life-affirming as I do now.
I hope it will help them to see that it’s possible to love more than one person in a lifetime, and if and how that love thrives is sometimes as much about circumstance and compatibility at various points in one’s life as it is about pure emotion. And I’d tell them that losing Sam is a part of my life I would never give back, because without it I would never have met Jess, who I consider one of the great, and least expected, loves of my life.
A Double Life by Charlotte Philby is out now. This article appeared in the August 2020 edition of ELLE UK.
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