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To forget the one that got away is hard & here is why

"I've seen tears well up in the eyes of women in their 50s telling tales of adolescent heartbreak."

“I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of women in their 50s telling tales of adolescent heartbreak.” Photo: Stocksy

My friends and I have an expression: “pulling a Mike”. To “pull a Mike” is to throw yourself at someone and declare your love, only to be knocked back so completely it takes a week for the pulpy remains of your heart to resume beating again.

Mike was a guy I knew in university. He was a history major. A dark, pony-tailed type, he was just a little bit smarter than the rest of us and his slightly frayed Levi’s fitted just a little better than anyone else’s. He was partial to big words with lots of syllables and stroked his chin when he spoke. I used to gaze at him across the classroom, imagining the bright, pony-tailed children we’d have, all the while missing the finer points the professor was making about the economic implications of crop failure in Tudor-Stuart England.

Having pined for him all year, I decided, as exams approached, that I needed to make my move. I prepared myself carefully, skolling at least four cans of VB before approaching him. This made me feel bolder than I really was, not to mention more attractive; it also made me drool a little and sway from side to side as I delivered my speech.

It went something like this: “So Mike, is this attraction mutual, or is it just me?”

His response was swift, and unambiguous. “It’s just you.”

Flashback: my parent’s holiday house, the summer of 1979. Sean Lewis was nine, a year and a half older than me. He had charisma. He won the local Fonz contest; I wanted nothing more than to be his Leather Tuscadero. So I was thrilled when he came up to me down by the swimming dock and said he wanted to talk. As he spoke, I was so mesmerised by the lock of sandy hair that tumbled over his left eye that I almost missed what he said.

“Why do you keep following me around? It’s weird.”

I’ve had plenty of successful dates in my life, and several happy relationships, but for some reason it’s the rejections that stick. I can barely recall the name of my first high-school boyfriend, or the guy I lived with for two years after I finished university. But I remember specifically that Warren Black took Carol Mayfield to the first boy-girl party at primary school instead of me.

I’ve talked to a few people about this, and I know I’m not alone. I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of women in their 50s telling tales of adolescent heartbreak; it seems there is no scar like the one inflicted by a 17-year-old boy on a 17-year-old girl when he takes someone prettier to the ball. Why do these romantic mishaps sting for so long?

For one, we just seem to be predisposed to remember bad times more clearly than good. Maybe it’s a primeval survival thing. (Wow, things went really badly when I tried to pat that sabre-toothed tiger. Next time I’ll just stay in the cave.) Rejection is traumatic and love is not; obsessing over an unrequited passion 20 years gone might be like remembering exactly where you were the day Kurt Cobain died, or on the morning of September 11.

And heartbreak hurts, literally. Science tells us so. Anxiety (and romantic knock-backs definitely cause angst) releases hormones, like adrenalin, which can stress the heart and force it to work harder.

Some scientists also equate love with other forms of chemical addiction. In this case, it’s the oxytocin withdrawal that gives you the DTs. And how about this: Dutch researchers had test subjects send in photos of themselves to be viewed by other volunteers for an experiment on “first impressions”. Weeks later, the scientists hooked each individual up to an electrocardiogram and measured their heart rate as they heard what the other people thought. When they were told another person didn’t like them, their pulses slowed. Rejection really “broke” their hearts.

Then there’s the simple fact of age. When we’re young, romance and dating weigh more heavily than in later years. Life’s true traumas are not yet apparent, and so we assign our quota of emotional turmoil to affairs of the heart. Somewhere around the age of 30, things change. Children are born, parents grow older and weaker, friends disappear or are lost. Romantic anguish takes a back seat.

And this, maybe, is the point. Looking back on the dockside rebuff of a schoolboy, or the beer-fuelled longings of my 20-something self, I actually feel nostalgic for those early heartbreaks. There is a wonderful innocence in idealising someone the way you do when you are young, of fantasising about marriage and family and love, without the foreknowledge of how nice but, well, mundane these things can become in adult life.

I’m not as brave as I used to be (or I don’t drink as much) and haven’t “pulled a Mike” in a while. I did look up the original Mike the other day. He’s a history professor, still pony-tailed, still in Levi’s. I’ve moved on and I can see now it never would have worked between us.

But he’s left me with some useful words. A younger friend came over the other evening, regretful and teary after propositioning a guy by text and getting the following reply: sry not in2 U.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “you’ve only pulled a Mike. Enjoy it while you can.”

Sunday Life

Henry Sapiecha

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