Time travel on a train platform, at the end of an exhausting day - out of nowhere, it is December 1993 and I'm in the corridor at top of one of the stairwells in my old college building, arguing with Anna. We have split up a few days before - nothing new there, we do that all the time. We can split up several times in an evening and we often do: our shouting, late at night, keeps the neighbours awake. There are more fireworks to come, further down the line. There will be cups thrown hard at walls, breaking into jagged, ugly fragments, and there will be nights where I chase her down Catte Street in the cold, undignified in my pyjamas, standing in the path of her bicycle like a man lying in front of a bulldozer and ordering her, begging her, to stick around and finish what she's started. I don't think most people have as many break-ups in their lifetime as I will with Anna, although all that is still in the future in December 1993.
This particular break-up is different, because we don't get back together that night, that week or that month. Instead, I am edging towards getting together with somebody else and Anna somehow knows that, because women always seem to instinctively sense that kind of thing. I do get back together with her eventually, but only when I've done enough damage to give her ammunition for the rest of our time together. Anyway, this particular night has always stayed in my memory because it is the first - though by no means the last - time that she hits me.
Many things, like accidents, blunders and losses, happen in slow motion. You see them unfold more gradually than they could ever actually happen, frame by frame, with the grim inevitability which always comes with regret. You'll have to take my word for it that being hit is nothing like that. One minute her hand is by her side, the next it's across my face, a sharp flash, blink and you'll miss it. It's such an unreal thing to happen that it's easy to feel like it didn't, easy to pretend. Or at least it would be, except that she chips my tooth that night.
The reason it happened, that time, was the same as the reason that it happens every time after that. She was angry - about her childhood, her parents, feeling like she was missing out, not fitting in - and she had no other way to express it. The words didn't come for her the way they did for me, she couldn't drip spite the way I could, so this was the outlet. And after a while, it must have been my fault too because I did drip spite, understanding perfectly well what the consequences were. When you know someone well enough, you can hurt them. They can hurt you. And, as it turns out, you can make them hurt you - a lesson I learned early on. I pressed those buttons of hers knowing what they did. I was complicit. I must have been. When she threw that cup at the wall I was right behind her, guiding her arm.
I learned other things from it apart from the awareness that I could make her hit me if I pushed her far enough, apart from my complicity. I learned that when this sort of thing happens to a man it's funny. It became a running joke with my friends, my regular Monday morning trips to the optician in the city centre, asking them to adjust my spectacles so they sat right on my face again. I had Sundays where I couldn't really leave my room, the lopsided frames too embarrassing to wear down the bar, or to the pub. There are only so many times you can pretend that you sat on your glasses, except that of course when you're a man that isn't true. You can pretend as often as you like, because this sort of thing doesn't happen to a man. You say I'm so clumsy, and you are always believed.
Another time she ambushed me at the foot of the stairs and hit me so hard the plastic nose piece flew off and the metal gouged a cut by the bridge of my nose. Minutes later, I was on the payphone in the basement, dabbing my face with a bright red tissue, talking to my father with the BT chargecard he'd so kindly given me at the start of my university career. I told him what had just happened: he found it hilarious. I laughed along, because I didn't see much alternative. My life was turning into slapstick, and if I didn't join in I'd just be doubly a victim. Besides, if it was that bad I would have left, wouldn't I?
I wouldn't have left. She was my first real girlfriend, and I'd never thought I'd get one, and I never stopped to think about whether it was right or normal. She was so very pretty.
One time she hit me, and I hit her back. Even I knew that wasn't right or normal, but by then I felt responsible for everything - when she hit me it was somehow my fault, when I hit her that was somehow my fault too. I hated the fact that she could press buttons I didn't know existed, that I didn't want to exist. When it happens to a woman it isn't funny, and I couldn't even say that she started it, because what there was between us was a team effort, a horrible collaboration that was both our faults. I never did it again.
All this comes to me, out of nowhere, as I stand on the platform watching the afternoon sun glinting off the glass of the office block, my train late again. There are consequences long after that night, those buttons clicking, that flash and the stunned numbness that followed it. You wouldn't know this about me unless I told you, but I flinch every time my wife raises her hands quickly near my face, even after all this time. It's an involuntary response that has ruined dozens of moments of tenderness. It's a running joke now that I'm like a rescue dog, because I'm still making a joke of it, even now. I can still feel the chip in my tooth with my tongue, twenty years later, if I try. It's a warm muggy day, the first time I haven't worn a coat to work all year, but for a second I feel the kind of cold that no embrace can completely wipe away.