“Dude. Have you seen Kyle’s Insta? Guess he’s gay now.” I re-read the text a handful of times, waiting for the information to compute. I had grown accustomed to intermittent updates from my best friend on the status of my college ex-boyfriends. She would supply me with fun facts to mull over, and these gave us another reason to connect with each other when we lived so far apart, and our lives looked so different. After college, I chose to walk the path of a stay-at-home mom, wife, and would-be writer, while she traveled the road of a highly educated, highly paid, independent working gal.
At the risk of sounding weirdly condescending, I’m so proud of her accomplishments, almost as though they’re my own. She lives the lifestyle of which I only dream, but we’re both living our version of paradise in different ways I suppose, fulfilling the complicated needs of our souls. In an odd way, we complete each other as two halves of the same whole – I live the experience of motherhood for which she one day hopes, and she lives the successful and lucrative career to which I aspire.
I enjoy the updates she sends me about past acquaintances and ex-lovers, mostly because they fill in the annoying gaps in the mystery of “whatever happened to…?” It frustrates me to no longer know these men who touched my life in so many profound ways, men who challenged me and with whom I shared experiences littering the spectrum from delight to despair. A storyteller at heart, it nags at my spirit to have cut ties to these people with whom I was once so close. For me, their story ended the moment we called it quits on our relationship, but I can feel them still out there, gathering memories and evolving into completely new beings, unidentifiable to me. I catch glimpses of their lives through the Facebook feeds of mutual friends, always feeling a twinge of sadness that I’m not allowed the same peek into their worlds.
And apparently, some of their worlds have changed rather drastically. The specific ex in question, the one mentioned in my friend’s text, is now working a high-power job in Washington, D.C., wearing dapper suits and fancy sweaters, traveling the world, and in a relationship with a quite delicious cinnamon-skinned gentleman. After a bit of light detective work to find his Instagram handle, I skimmed through his feed, totally creeping on this person who looked vaguely familiar, but whom I didn’t really know. Not anymore.
As the images traveled to my brain for digestion, I registered in my chest a faint pang of regret, and sadness. Not because I wished to still be in romantic love with this man – my husband always says that exes “are your exes for a reason,” and I believe that’s true. It’s just that when you’re in a dating relationship you wish to end, all you can see in the other person are the dark bits – their shortcomings, flaws, and annoying ticks, the ways they’ve hurt and steamrolled over you. Then, when the relationship is finally over, your mind clouds over with all of the sweet memories, laughter, and reasons why you probably made the biggest mistake of your life (even when in reality, you didn’t).
Eventually, perhaps years later, when your brain relaxes and you gain a good bit of distance between you and the person you once were, you get this amazing gift, this magical freedom of perspective. It’s as if you’ve been hiking this steep mountain for years, and without warning the trail gives way to a clearing atop a cliff. You walk to the edge and can see for miles. The canyon below is the depth of your life experience, the panorama broadcasts a full, clear picture of how everything came together to land you right here, in this moment, where you’re supposed to be. With this degree of distance, time, and road between us, I can see with crystal clarity that both my ex and I ended up with the right people, in exactly the right places. We’re both happy, healthy, and (as far as I can tell from a smattering of filtered photos) well loved.
I can remember now, almost a decade later, this person with whom I could have fun, share secrets, and be honest. The friendship was real, it was true, it existed, and that’s the part I miss. I feel sad that we aren’t even connected enough to share the joys of our current life situations, that I had to suppress my urge to comment under his photos about how happy he looks, and how delighted I am for his accomplishments. I think sometimes about getting in touch, re-establishing a connection, but always hold back, fearing that I’m the only nutball with these quasi-stalkerish thoughts. And fearing the assumptions my husband might make about my reaching out to an ex.
So, I asked him. One night, after putting the kids to bed and brewing our evening tea, I told my husband about the text, and my reaction to it – all of the thoughts it birthed in my brain. Apparently, I’m not the only person under my roof who wonders about their exes, or considers reconnecting from time to time. We’re only human. We all wonder about the stories on which we’re missing out.
But we also long to tie up loose ends. I made so very many mistakes with past boyfriends. I said ridiculous things, made preposterous demands, and probably created some wounds about which I know very little. I’m at a point in life where I want to make amends, fix the things I broke, and clean up my messes. Becoming a wife and a mom helped me see quite clearly that I’m far from a perfect person, and I’m finally at a point where I’m more devoted to healing the rifts I create on this earth than on maintaining my own sainthood. I’m pretty sure I f*cked some shit up, and I’d like to make apologies where applicable.
And a selfish part of me also wants to know if I’m remembered at all by my exes. It’s only natural to wonder if this person who made an indelible mark on your life, this person who fleetingly crosses your mind on occasion, thinks about you, too. It’s our way of asking, Am I important? Did I make an impact? Did I matter?
For such a long time, I’ve carried a certain fear of my exes. I’m surprised to find that they still hold small sections of real estate in my psyche, that their ghosts emerge every once in awhile when I hear a song, or catch a scent, or suddenly recall an old joke. If these were old friends with whom I’d lost contact, I probably would have reached out a long time ago. But exes are an odd breed. There’s an unspoken stigma attached their memory, maybe because of the bad blood between us when things ended, or because of the richness of love that existed when we were “Us.”
Perhaps I’m ready to make contact because I want to finally purge the guilt that accompanies their memory, the feeling of betrayal that pricks my conscience when they flash across my mind, as though I’m cheating on my husband just by experiencing a natural curiosity about them. It felt great to expose these thoughts to my husband, for us to both admit what we already knew anyway – that we’ve loved other people in our lives, and yes, some of those people once meant a great deal to us, and changed us in profound ways.
But these stale relationships and old loves don’t change the love that we found in each other. We bring pieces of these ancient bonds into our marriage, because each relationship taught us important lessons about how to best love a person. The mistakes we made enable us to love each other more deeply, to make different, better decisions that strengthen and enliven our relationship. Sure, all of it – the good and bad – happened alongside some sweet memories that root us to a different time and place. It’s good to hold onto these, to cherish, and feel gratitude for the joy that we felt then.
The key is to cherish these memories without resurrecting the ghosts. Remember them, but without giving them life and breath. The people we knew and loved back then are no longer living, after all; we’re all different people now, with different passions, interests, and paths. The trick is to shed the guilt and fear that accompany these memories, enough to cultivate gratitude, not just for the moments of love and laughter you recall from the past, but for the moments you’re creating right now.
Sitting here today, I feel thankful for the moments I remember. The inside jokes, the walks on the pier, the late night trips for cheeseburgers, the introduction to the world of Harry Potter. For better or worse, these experiences are part of me, they make up crucial pieces of my soul. But I feel equally thankful for the man with whom I now share life, who fathers my kids and polishes my dull spots with care and conviction. When I hear news of old lovers, I remember them vividly (although not always accurately), but I don’t let myself live in those memories. They come, and then they go. We high-five one another as they wash me in ancient emotions long since passed, then melt away into the abyss. They’re part of me, and I recognize them, but the Me I’m cultivating no longer feels at home in them as I once did. I’m different. I’m new. We all are. And maybe one of these days, our paths will again cross, and I can finally say, “Hi. It’s good to see you. I’m so sorry about the mess, and I’m so, so happy for you.”