"We Will Not Be Erased" is a new anthology from some of the women and non-binary people of colour who write for award-winning online magazine, gal-dem. Fourteen writers have contributed deeply personal, powerful essays about what it's really like to grow up as a person of colour. They use old diary entries, teenage poetry and chat histories to piece together their memories. We cannot wait to read the whole thing, but for now, here's a special extract from the book. This funny, deeply relatable piece was written by gal-dem contributor, Layale.
After every break-up, I have a ritual. I throw away or delete all traces of that relationship. Photos, text messages, scrapbooks and jumpers – everything. It cleanses the soul far better than chocolate or crying. But I do keep one thing: a love letter from each boyfriend, written in the scruffy cursive of a boy between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three. And to each letter I attach a list detailing why exactly we broke up. I keep these letters because I think somewhere, between the cringeworthy lines and heart-wrenching memories, there are lessons to be learned about love. Some people read Rupi Kaur after a break-up. I read love letters from old flames.
I’ll be honest: I hate being single. Being single means takeaways for one, and no one wants to be that sad loser eating a kebab (OK, let’s be honest, two kebabs) in bed on a Sunday watching TV alone. But when I look back through the letters and break-up lists in my boyfriend box and remember those feelings of love lost, validation and rejection, I’m glad that however nostalgic I might feel, I haven’t yet settled for someone who isn’t right for me. I am still figuring out all of this. So if you’ve come here looking for answers on love and relationships, my boyfriend box is unlikely to be helpful. But if you’re searching for something that shows how love is messy, complicated, funny and sometimes just plain crap, then I suggest you get some ice cream or two kebabs (not both – that’s gross) and buckle up – it’s a bumpy ride.
Let’s start with the first boy I ever fancied. There’s no letter in the boyfriend box, though – you need an actual boyfriend for that.
Name: Laith (or Nice Eyes)
Song: “Otherside”, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Reason for break-up: We were never actually together
Do you remember the first boy you ever fancied?
Like, properly fancied, couldn’t-stop-thinking-about-him-thought-your-life-would-end-if-he-wasn’t-in-it fancied? I do. The setting was perfect: an Islamic summer camp. That meant gender-segregated dorms, night-time curfews and a horde of sexually frustrated Muslim teenagers.
I was thirteen; Nice Eyes was sixteen. I was wearing a headscarf, had braces on my teeth and had zero sense of style. He had bad acne, olive skin and piercingly beautiful blue eyes. A group of us snuck out and climbed onto the roof. We talked about Red Hot Chili Peppers and he told me to listen to “Otherside”. I nicknamed him Nice Eyes (imaginative, I know) and “Otherside” became the top-played song on my iPod Classic (yes, back in those days).
After camp, I obsessed over Nice Eyes and his dreamy blue eyes. Two years later, my wish to see him again was finally granted. I was going back to summer camp and, through my diligent investigative skills, I learned from his sister that Nice Eyes was going to be there. This time I made sure I looked hot.
I wore a skin-tight dress (over jeans, of course, to keep it modest), my headscarf backwards in a turban style, an inch of make-up and large hooped earrings. I was ready for the love of my life.
The moment came. Those dreamy blue eyes were just as I remembered. His acne was significantly worse. He said hi. I almost died.
And that was it. For the next five days he barely spoke to me. The moment that I had been playing over and over in my head – that he would take one look at the new, hotter me, fall head over heels and instantly profess his love – never happened. In fact, I’ve never seen Nice Eyes since that summer (or found him on social media).
While I didn’t technically break up with Nice Eyes – I don’t think you can break up with someone whom you were only with in your head – my break-up ritual began to take shape. I also learned a very valuable lesson. Sometimes, however much you may wish otherwise, they’re just not that into you, even when you’re at peak hotness. Harsh, but true.
At this very same camp, Nice Eyes had a less hot, dorkier cousin. So I decided to mend my broken heart by flirting outrageously with the next best thing. Introducing actual boyfriend number one: Haaris.
Song: “Cecilia”, Simon & Garfunkel
Reason for break-up: My GCSEs
At camp, Haaris would pass me notes in class and text me from the gender-segregated dorms. I was rebelling against my parents’ conservative religiousness, and his attention came at a pivotal moment in my adolescence when I realized I was a) hot and b) not very religious at all. By day we learned Qur’anic Arabic and by night we made out in the bushes behind the school.
After camp, we began a long-distance relationship between Sheffield and Liverpool. He would send me soppy notes detailing our love. This is the one that made it into the boyfriend box. It’s about the first time he saw me and it’s gross. (I apologize in advance.)
When I saw you at the recent course… You were so beautiful … lyk stunning. I’d lose my appetite in the food hall sometimes from getting butterflies. I lost a lot of sleep on the first night thinking about you. I never would’ve conjured the thought that we’d be in each other’s arms 2 nights later… =) yumyumyumyum hehe!
Haaris was the first boy I explored my body with. He came to visit me at the weekends. I’d lie that I was seeing a Muslim (girl)friend to my parents and then sneak away with my new boyfriend. We would make out wherever we could: in parks, cafés or pubs if we could get served. We were shameless and it was both disgusting (for spectators) and amazing (for me).
One time my parents were out of town for the evening and Haaris came round (tip: never, ever do this; it’s not worth the stress or fear). I let him explore me with his hands and tongue. He asked if I orgasmed. My response was, “What’s that?”
After that, I was determined to figure out my own body. The first thing I did was hold up a mirror to my vagina. I had never seen it before. I discovered there was a lot of information out there: videos, diagrams, TV shows, books. I had one goal over the next few months: make myself orgasm. It took a while, but after much patience, relaxation and exploring what turned me on,
I got there. Knowing what works and feels good for you is far more important (and useful) than any amount of snogging on a park bench.
While I was figuring all this out, I was also revising for my GCSEs and starting to think about my A levels. I knew one thing for sure: I was going to go to a good university and no one was going to stop me. Haaris began to feel more like a distraction than anything else. While I liked having someone to message and discuss with my friends, I was frustrated by things he said and did. I realized I liked the idea of having a boyfriend far more than I liked my actual boyfriend.
But should we break up? I dealt with my indecision by writing lists. This is my fifteen-year-old self’s guide to spotting the end of a relationship, finishing it and getting over it.
Why we should break up
· Talks about himself constantly
· No Valentine’s gift
· Hard to keep convo going
· Going into moods constantly
How to break up
· Really like you – been awesome
· Ultimately completely different people
· Not going anywhere long-term
· I’ve got a really important year – very serious
about doing well
· Nothing to do with you; it’s ME
What to do after break-up
· There are lots of other things more deserving of your time. This is NOT worth ruining your GCSEs.
· Read a book!
· Stop texting in English class – you need to focus
· Do ART. Your art GCSE is in a MONTH
· Hang out with friends – make more of an effort
· Start going swimming
· Start an exercise class
· Deactivate Facebook
· Order university prospectuses
· Clean your room and KEEP IT CLEAN
· WORK HARD – it’ll be useful in the long run
· Perfect guitar
(The last one may have been slightly ambitious but hey, gotta aim high.)
Eight years on and these lists are still pretty badass. It’s hard to break up with someone. You never really know if you’re doing the right thing. Haaris might not have been the love of my life, but I did like (maybe even love) him. And at the time it was hard to see how I could find someone else whom I could be that silly and strange with, and whom I could be so open, vulnerable and honest around. It felt like it would be so much work to have to build all of that up again.
All you can do is trust your gut. Deep down, when I wrote those lists, I must have known there would be someone more compatible with me. I broke up with Haaris and in the first two weeks of being single watched six seasons of TOWIE. By the end I had no regrets. And now I’m so glad I didn’t settle for the first boy who walked into my life.
Instead I focused on my exams, became a French fanatic and found boyfriend number two: Pierre.
Song: “You Are My Sunshine”, Nat King Cole
Reason for break-up: I went to university
This was the year of my A levels. I had moved from TOWIE to Truffaut. I memorized quotes from French movies. I thought of myself as a mini Audrey Tautou and couldn’t wait to go to France on a summer holiday.
I went to a little remote village and I met Pierre
at a village party. I was sick on his shoes. He kissed
me despite my vomit breath. A week-long holiday romance ensued.
When I returned to England, Pierre went to Cuba. He sent me a postcard. It was the first postcard I’d received from a boy and it felt so adult. It was also written entirely in French. I think it’s in my boyfriend box mainly because I was so happy I could understand it.
Coucou mon amour. J’ai pensé que tu aimerais que je te rapporte un petit cadeau de Cuba, alors voilà ce que j’ai trouvé de mieux, j’espère que tu apprécieras (si tu ne les aimes pas tant pis, “c’est l’intention qui compte”).
Translation: Hiya my love. I thought that you would like it if I brought you back a little present from Cuba, so here you go, this is the best I could find, I hope you appreciate it (if you don’t, no worries, “it’s the thought that counts”).
Pierre and I started a long-distance relationship. We spoke on the phone, Skyped and WhatsApped for seven months before we saw each other again. I introduced him to the basic concepts of feminism; he introduced me to French swear words. He was the perfect form of A level revision in many ways, although sometimes I wonder how much more work I would have done had I not spent most of my evenings Snapchatting him.
It made sense that I went out with Pierre. I wasn’t allowed to party, and long distance meant that my parents were unlikely to find out. And I was still determined to do well at school. As most of our chat took place online rather than IRL, it meant I was in control of the time we spent together.
When he finally came to England, I was eighteen and we knew that we were going to have sex. We knew because we had spent so long talking about it. I knew his reservations, excitement and fears and he knew mine. I had also spoken to my older sisters and friends about their experiences of sex. I didn’t feel alone, nothing felt taboo and I felt safe.
We were also very prepared. We had lube by the gallon, and I had started on the contraceptive pill the month before. While many friends described their experiences of sex as anticlimactic, I’d say it was less of a let-down and more of a relief that it could only get better from here (and boy, did it get better).
I have a lot to thank Pierre for. He made me feel awesome when most of my friends were dating snotty-nosed boys in our school who made them feel like crap. He was funny and weird and kind and utterly head over heels.
But unfortunately for him, I didn’t get an A* in my French oral exam. From then on our relationship spiralled. My relationship with the French language was tense, and in turn my relationship with French men was wavering. Amidst rage at my parents, listening to Laura Marling, learning guitar and reading Voltaire, I wrote lists about everything I was going to achieve at university away from my conservative Muslim home. Pierre didn’t feature in those lists.
My next two relationships took me through my university years. It was here that I realized I had been pretty shielded from the world and those break-up lists didn’t match reality. I thought folk music, guitar playing and reading French philosophy were cool. (Apparently they’re not?!) I was also suddenly surrounded by a lot of people who were very different from me – namely posh people who oozed entitlement.
Consequently my next two boyfriends were quite obviously a result of my growing confusion about who I wanted to be. The first one, Joe, was, on paper, perfect. He was a guitar player, and he loved poetry and books and theatre. But he was also posh and white and wasn’t raised in a strict Muslim home. We were too different. His boyfriend box letter is full of stanzas like “the Rolex on your wrist, cursed gold, will tear you down from Lego Babels, down to lonely patios”. With Joe I felt unwanted, undesired and stupid. As a rule, if they claim they’re a poet, run a mile. I’m kidding – #notallpoets.
The next (and most recent) boyfriend, we’ll call him Dean, seemed cool in the way most people define cool at university. He loved to party and drink too much. He listened to techno and wore bucket hats. With him, I felt part of a crowd I’d always thought I wanted to be part of, doing things I saw as far cooler, trendier and edgier than things I had done without him. (I conveniently overlooked the time when he and his friends dressed up as “chavs” for a party, or the time his friends said they “just didn’t fancy black girls”.) But actually I was already pretty cool – I was a published writer, an avid reader, a political activist – I just didn’t believe it. At twenty-three, I finally realised that coolness is subjective – and I cared more about dinners and books than I did about drum and bass.
15 empowering feminist books everyone should read
Since coming out of these relationships I have been spending time figuring myself out, nourishing my friendships, dating too much, eating kebabs and, of course, writing messy lists. My current list starts with two words repeatedly underlined:
· You’re determined and passionate and full
of love for (marginalized) people
· Intimacy is powerful
· Don’t let them play the “angry brown woman” card
· You’re fun and independent (and frigging peng)
· Befriend women
· Take time to figure yourself out
· Chill. He wasn’t that hot
There is no rule book for relationships. The more break-ups I go through, the more lists and letters I add to my boyfriend box, the more I learn that it’s not too much to ask for a hot, woke, funny, weird and interesting person who adores you for who you are. And while my relationships are unique, there are some takeaways from these four that I think we can all share. I will display them to you in my favourite format:
1. Don’t rely on someone else for your self-esteem
2. Keep your own hobbies
3. Be careful with people’s hearts
4. You are infinitely more beautiful than you think you are
5. Boys come and go
6. Don’t call them
7. You owe no one your time
8. Nourish your friendships
9. If they’ve hurt you, don’t take them back
10. Let yourself cry
11. Know your own body
12. Never bail on your friends for a boy
13. Block them from social media
14. Listen to your gut
15. Be vulnerable
16. Say no
17. Cherish being on your own
18. Delete their number
19. Listen to your friends
20. Set your own boundaries
21. Give yourself time
22. Be unapologetic
23. Stop watching Bridget Jones
24. Chill out on the kebabs
25. Write lists
26. And never settle
“I Will Not Be Erased”: Our stories about growing up as people of colour by gal-dem is published by Walker Books, June 2019