“Say for me that I’m alright, though things get kind of slow. She may think that I’ve forgotten her. Don’t tell her it isn’t so.”
– Bob Dylan, If You See Her Say Hello
I don’t write about breakups often, because Bob Dylan and Nick Hornby already said it all, and better than I ever could. But I’ve been wrestling with a unified theory of the ex lately. This isn’t just because of my own devastating breakup experiences and aftermath this year, but because many of my friends clearly find themselves plagued with where to put their exes. Not physically where to put them. See, all our exes live, not in Texas, but in a murky chunk of memory reserved for confusing dreams and late night drunken phone calls:
- N’s dating experience before he joined up with his wonderful bride was all folly, and therefore can easily fall into the strategy of self-deprecating jokes. Nicknames for his ex-girlfriends: “The Buffet,” which I never really understood, but somehow means she’s a slut. And my favorite, “Locktwat,” which you can probably figure out for yourself. God bless you, N. We should all be so lucky, you happily ever bastard.
- M started sleeping with a close friend of mine, even though she lives in CA and he lives in AZ. Once we were talking and she showed me a picture of her boyfriend. “Wait, how do you have a boyfriend?” I asked. She explained that he lives in Texas, and that they have an open relationship. “So you live three states apart, you don’t have any commitment and you sleep with anyone you want. By those standards, couldn’t I be considered your boyfriend?” I said. She replied, “I guess, except you and I don’t have sex when we get together.” Good point.
- J, who has been sleeping with M, has four true ex-girlfriends. He sees them occasionally, and it’s always awkward. J is a man’s man. When he breaks up with a girl, no matter how cordially, it’s over. He doesn’t want you as a friend. He’s got plenty of friends. Still he and his most recent girlfriend would, for awhile, get together, get stoned, watch TV and do it. Not healthy by his own admission, but as he put it, “I go over there, we get stoned, watch TV and then do it. I like all of those things.” Good point. I went to our friend’s wedding last month and two of his exes were sitting next to each other at my table. I can’t help but think whoever made the seating chart did so because he knew my cruel sense of humor would enjoy the tension.
- D has a frank and revealing explanation of how he deals with his ex-girlfriends. Me: “Do you still talk to your ex-girlfriends’?” D: “Not the ones I ever had any feelings for. Otherwise it just makes my life miserable.” Not only does this unapologetically concede that, sometimes, you just don’t love the one you’re with, but if you do love the one you’re with and you split up, you might as well just lose that phone number. It’s a sad, but honest approach that I think makes good sense. Are you really going to call each other up and shoot the shit, unless one of the two is shooting the shit with the intentions of getting back together, or masking gut-wrenching pain over the loss you’ve experienced? Not likely. Black and white? Cynical? Maybe sensible. Keep in mind that when one of D’s exes recently called to say she’s going to surpise him with a visit, he had to increase his diligence in making sure the door is always deadbolted.
- C has a fairly healthy distance and civility with his exes. You really have to develop this dynamic when you live in a town as cozy as his. You’re going to run into these people. Often. And when that happens, you have to either politely nod, avoid eye contact, or take one another home and do it. C has done all three, but manages polite avoidance usually. But his last girlfriend did a number on him. They dated for just over a month and he was stuck on her for almost a year. I’d heard him refer to her as the “once and future girlfriend.” Awful. He makes the mistake of hanging out with her constantly after the split. All the time. Against constant warning, and with the misconception that she was the only girl for him ever, and that he could never do better. Once some friends and I actually had an intervention, explaining that this girl is no good, and has a track record of stringing ex-boyfriends along and treating them like crap. I referred to her as the C-word several times, and it had a solid, if temporary effect. The “lose her phone number” theory is looking better all the time huh?
- A has taken the Woody Allen approach. A talented comedian and writer, he has funneled his broken engagement into a creative outlet with a brilliantly funny and poignant blog. This is your typical artist wallowing in his own misery. I’m not sure how he does it. He posts her old grocery lists, pictures of their engagement ring, an unused box of rubbers. Torture. But I suppose when all is said and done, it’s actually sort of healthy, like exchanging your therapist with the entire interested world. It’s cathartic. And I get a good laugh out of it, so hey.
- F has maintained what I’d consider a pretty healthy friendship with his old flame. They talk on the phone often and even visit each other. This may stem from his family history. His parents are divorced, but every year on Christmas, his dad, mom and mom’s boyfriend all get together to celebrate as a family. Nauseating isn’t it? My mom is divorced twice. She talks to my dad once every few years maybe, and out of necessity alone. Still it usually ends in someone crying. She only talks to her second husband by email and in court, as directed in their mutual restraining orders. Isn’t love grand? But there it is, right? F proves it’s possible to stay friends. Right? Wrong. See for the past year or so, F has in fact been trying to work his way back into a relationship with this ex. They even went on vacation together. No sex, no reconciliation. Nothing. He was kind of wrecked. And when he started dating someone else, the ex found out and called. It didn’t go well and she became very upset and hung up on him. “I guess in a way, I feel like she had that coming,” he confided in me later. Score another for D.
And I guess that brings us to me. I had a couple breakups this year, one of the earth-shattering variety. It started as a “temporary separation,” or an “opening up of the relationship.” I was all for this, at first. We were content together after 7 plus years, but had become complacent. I was surprised to discover that our temporary separation actually meant her getting a new boyfriend right away and me crying/drinking myself to sleep every night. Pain. The whole no eating, sleeping, smiling routine. You know what I mean. So I totally removed her from my life and it was the only way I started to get any better. I also left someone behind in Arizona. Also not fun, and painful. We tried to stay friendly, but it didn’t work.
So I guess I fall into D’s camp. I think you have to lose that number. Sometimes I think people break up, but don’t really break up for several years. They stay in contact for the emotional crutch, because neither side has anyone else to fill their emotional lives with. Or there’s that glimmer that maybe we were really meant to be. And if that’s the case (and it rarely is) you gotta figure it’ll take care of itself. But otherwise, it seems to me that there are way too many catalysts for misery without self-imposing an eternal doomed relationship.
Still, while I’ve characterized the “let’s be friends” approach as naive and overly optimistic, it occurs to me that D and I’s approach isn’t without a certain delusion. Cause it really isn’t that easy, is it? Sort of like socialism, right? Sounds great on paper, but it doesn’t take into account the human element. You can lose a number, but you still have it memorized. You can’t lose a memory, and you don’t want to. You can’t lose a song. You can’t lose a perfect afternoon with that person that, even though you two weren’t perfect, everything else was. So you banish that afternoon to the murky part of memory that isn’t quite the best of times or the worst of times. It’s a fond memory that you put in the back pages of the photo album, and not on the mantle, because while you love it to death, it kills you to look at it these days.
I mentioned I was wrestling with a unified theory of the ex, not that I had one.