How to live

To the unexpressed disappointment of your parents, study English Literature at a mid-ranking university. Write them long letters at first, filled with exaggerations and half-truths, and for a bohemian touch send them second-class from the postbox that stands sentry outside your favourite coffee shop. Tell people that you’re sad that letter-writing is dying out, but never write them other than to your parents – there are too many cocktail nights to go to and patriarchy-denouncing articles to write. Your letters get shorter as you have more to write about.

Consider this irony guilty and delicious, the way your mother considers cream cakes.

Declare yourself a tea-drinker, and join the tea and wool society. Learn to knit, badly but enthusiastically, and start a guerrilla knitting campaign to wrap scarves around as many university railings as you can. Become a minor campus celebrity for this and get interviewed by the student newspaper. In the accompanying photo, pose in a woollen hat and appear under the headline ‘Make peace, knit wear’.

Post this first-class to your parents and receive leaflets about teacher training courses in return. Blu-tack copies of the article to noticeboards, where they stay for weeks.

Meet a boy in your lectures and ask him for coffee. Feel powerful, and sexual, when he says yes. Take him back to your room that night and lose your virginity on a narrow bed in one bloody, stinging, glorious fuck.

Afterwards make tea and eat a yoghurt tube. Compare its spurt to his orgasm, then laugh and place a hand on his shoulder when he looks hurt.

Do well in your exams but not too well. Increase your scores by two or three marks when you call your parents. Decide that their opinion doesn’t matter, and wear this belief this like armour. However hard you try, it never quite becomes skin.

See a succession of boys, none of whom light you up but you have fun. Contribute to a feminist magazine called Read My Lips, and participate in earnest editorial meetings about intersectionality. Refer to it as RML. Wear only clothes from charity shops and those you have made yourself – your knitting has really come on.

Take a job behind the bar at the Students’ Union and berate customers you overhear making sexist comments. Keep a record of all the interesting things people say in case you want to write poetry. Never do, but drop the lines into conversation.

Read Virginia Woolf for the first time and develop an obsession. Curate your first night upstairs at a gin bar and name it The Virginia Monologues. Refer to her as the most significant woman of the 20th century in a tone so definite no-one can argue. Dye your fringe blonde.

Meet your boyfriend on a free Palestine march. He asks if you know who’s giving out the Palestines. Laugh and give him a leaflet.

Brochures for postgraduate courses in journalism arrive in the post from your parents.

Leave your bar job when the shift manager grips your backside as you serve a customer. Organise a protest against the institutionalised sexism and call for women-only shifts through a megaphone in front of forty people. Experience a thrill of leadership then a slow despondency when nothing changes.

In final year read Milan Kundera unselfconsciously, and publish a double-page spread in your friend Anna’s cultural zine, a wall with ‘I ♥ MY CLIT’ scrawled across it. The first time you see it feel an electric buzz, like your blood is causing static shocks as it hits the walls of your veins. Hear someone call it sexual graffiti and start to describe it that way yourself when people ask you about it (they often do). You’re proud, but you don’t take compliments well; your cheeks flush and you mutter and turn away, and this shyness spreads into the cracks like moss until you stop going to those parties and eventually forget it was you who created it. Now it’s a niece’s drawing in art class. That’s nice dear.

This cold raw feeling doesn’t leave. After you graduate – with a 2:1, although you tell people you could’ve got a first if you’d tried harder – move in with your boyfriend and take a job in publishing. Leave on time every day to show your independence, but the evenings are long and difficult. Try knitting again but find it twee. Join a reading group and make insightful, academic points on The Lovely Bones. Feel like the others dislike you and overcompensate, smile maniacally and bake cakes. Drink a glass of wine before the meetings.

Tell your boyfriend none of this.

When your boyfriend asks you to marry him, look down at your interlocked fingers and say no, you’re sorry, no. Wish you’d looked him in the eye – it’s like dismissing a Big Issue seller. Move back to your university town and for a few months feel an artificial high. Go to the evening lectures they organise and feel patronising in your pride at the students who speak in favour of bodily autonomy. Visit art galleries at night. Only leave when the security guard tells you it’s closing time.

Develop a dark sense of humour. Say things like “Isn’t it strange how when at school you’re asked what you want to be, and you can’t answer kind and compassionate? You have to answer how you’d like to sell your labour.” Draw sympathetic smiles from your colleagues.

Call your ex-boyfriend but hang up without speaking. Don’t answer when he calls back.

Put letters from your parents straight into the bin. They’re only ever coupons for washing up liquid clipped from the newspaper anyway.

Agree to have dinner with a man from work. He’s nice, and funny, and five years later when he asks you to marry him you say yes, yes, of course and kiss him on the mouth, willing tears to come.

Read Sunday supplements about whether you can have it all. Play Monopoly in pubs and cultivate opinions on house prices.

When a production of To the Lighthouse tours near you, sit in the circle and applaud vigorously, slapping your hands together like mud-caked hiking boots. Leave before the encore and when your husband – husband! – asks how it was, panic that you can only say “good”.

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