When An Ex-Boyfriend Pops Up From The Past
I must admit. I wasn't sure what to do.
In the hilarious innovative hit TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which ended recently, the unending relationship between Rebecca and Josh makes it clear that it takes two not to tango. My own long-term crazy ex-boyfriend popped up recently.
I was glad my husband was in the other room of our New York apartment as I nervously reread the email from my former flame in Los Angeles. I scanned every word of the innocuous greeting, as if to break a secret code. What did he want after so long? Was he just feeling nostalgic and trying to touch base?
The day before, I'd cc'd worn photos, taken in our Michigan dorm, to a mutual friend, who — without telling me — had forwarded the photos to my ex in California. He was the one who’d devastated me most for the longest, whom I'd nicknamed "Studrocket."
A Jewish neurotic overachiever like the TV show’s Rebecca, my romantic obsession began at 16 with a teenage crush on a guy my opposite. I'd gone to college early, a chain-smoking hippie poet. Studrocket saw me in our dorm lobby, took my cigarette from my hand and commented, "That's bad for you."
"So are you," I'd answered.
A science major with big shoulders and a white boy's Afro, he scanned the schedule in my hand, calling my English and writing classes “worthless." I put him in a choke hold my brothers taught me, not anticipating the grip he’d have on me. The first time he stayed over, I woke with his huge arms and legs draped over my limbs. I'd never been with a guy who'd slept so close, like he wanted to lock me in place. But only physically. Turned out that was how he slept with women. Plural, always plural.
"If I was capable of loving someone it would be you, but I'm not, so I don't," he said.
A commitment-phobe like the TV antihero, his honest line made me laugh while shattering my heart, as Josh did to Rebecca’s. It drove me to therapy to deal with issues from my past, long before the show tackled mental health issues with dark musical comedy. (While I wrote humorously about my addiction and chronic anxiety, Rebecca sang of her borderline personality disorder.)
Now, decades later, reading my ex's email, I tried to answer in a light tone. “How’s everything? You know, I gave a lecture at your school." Before sending, I recalled messaging him three years ago, saying I’d be visiting his West Coast campus. But he'd never answered. I deleted my note.
Like Josh and Rebecca, our chaotic connection became bicoastal. After graduation, we’d both moved to Manhattan, where we were off and on for 15 tempestuous years. Every time a new relationship tanked, I feared I'd never meet anyone else I'd be hot for.
Following the advice of a self-help book I read on optimism, I'd "dispute myself," to prove my fear was unfounded. By calling Studrocket. (Self-help books always screwed me up.) He'd jump back into my bed, like a doctor on call for such emergencies. Or an inflatable bozo: I knocked him down; he'd pop up again. That is, until he relocated for another degree, and disappeared.
Luckily at this point I met my husband, who was older, taller, smarter and sweeter. We'd been wed five years when Studrocket sent me a copy of his newly published biology book. Did he want to show off, or to get my advice on publicity?
Fine, let’s reconnect as adults, no problem, I’d decided, helping him for old times’ sake. He came to my Greenwich Village neighborhood and took me to lunch, where I interviewed him for an author profile I published. Yet seeing Studrocket sent me into a spiral, calling up old hurt from our breakup. My obvious emotional confusion after the meeting bothered my husband, a brilliant screenwriter also curly-haired and big-shouldered, who didn't sleep as closely entangled, but stayed.
“You don’t have to drop people who were meaningful to you forever, just because you tied the knot,” I'd argued, insisting that couples who'd once dated could stay friends. In 2003, I even launched a memoir about my top-five heartbreaks of all time, analyzing the phenomenon. Yet the description of Studrocket further aggravated my mate, especially the part about our previous intense passion.
"You've written a better character than I am a person," was Studrocket's critique of his portrayal. (Though one colleague updated my ex's alias to "Dudrocket.") I'd sporadically contacted other old flames, too. While faithful to my husband, I still saw myself as the liberal, cool, fun woman who'd already dealt with problems from my single days. Indeed, over the years my husband and I met several of each other’s old lovers. I’d recently asked his opinion about lending $500 to a sweet former boyfriend who was in a bad way. ("Don't make it a loan, make it a gift," he'd generously responded.) My spouse — also a professor — had spent hours writing recommendations that helped two of his ex's children get into good colleges. I did, however, put my foot down when he wanted to invite his onetime fiancée — who was still single — to our wedding. And when another of his ex-girlfriends, who was divorced, kept asking him to go to evening parties and the theater — without me.
Not long after our Manhattan lunch rendezvous, Studrocket tied the knot with a former student of his, 16 years my junior, who got pregnant three times in a row, becoming a stay-at-home mom. If that was what he wanted, no wonder we'd fizzled. I said mazel tov on posts with pics of their cute little kids. Since I had books, not babies, he congratulated me on good reviews. He once referenced "Little House 202,” my dorm room in the ’70s. I was flattered — though weirded out — that he'd remembered a detail I’d forgotten. Then he disappeared again. Perhaps because his wife didn’t like that he was corresponding with an ex, he unfriended me on social media and in life — just like before.
“Thanks for ghosting me 10 years ago," I wanted to reply. Or, “Why do you always get to choose when we communicate?”
I usually returned all emails on autopilot. Yet, rushing to my evening class, I held off reacting. It wasn’t easy. Something didn’t feel right about his casual hello. Teaching that night, I noticed my ring finger was empty. I was shocked that I’d forgotten my wedding band. I always wore it. Didn’t Freud say there's no such thing as an accident? That one casual (and boring!) email could subconsciously confuse my head enough to interfere with a comforting long-time ritual convinced me my ex's original strategy was right: We had no reason to be in touch.
If he was ever in trouble and needed help or wanted to explain why staying connected was too difficult, that might be different. For ow, my response was to not respond. I was older then Rebecca. Unlike her, I was a happily married human who'd learned healthy boundaries. I’d finally figured out: Some relationships should remain relegated to photo albums, diaries, dramady and bad memories. I closed my browser and watched a new episode with my arm around my amazing husband.
Susan Shapiro's new book is Barbie: 60 Years of Inspiration (Assouline Books).