Talking With My Exes’ Exes
“Saxamanda” was friendly, but she always intimidated me. She was a couple years my senior and had lived in Israel and Russia and once hitch-hiked across North Africa on a whim. She looked like Penelope Tree, dated the singer of a punk band everyone loved, and always seemed to be chugging from a tall can. I was 18 and lived with my parents and got homesick even on school trips.
After Saxamanda and her boyfriend broke up, she started dating my friend “Fergus.” When she went abroad to study, Fergus and I became close. He talked about her constantly and wore one of her hair elastics around his wrist so that he could snap himself if he thought about other girls. When she came back, she broke up with him, and Fergus and I got together in a big flurry of tears and joy and regret over wasted time.
Everything was great, except that I was batshit crazy about Saxamanda’s continued existence. It made me sick to think about how much Fergus had liked her, when she clearly hadn’t been as attached. I felt sorry for him, but also ashamed of him, and embarrassed for myself, being the sloppy second. So I stalked her MySpace page and scrutinized her face for imperfections and pretended she was some crazy witch.
After Fergus and I broke up, I realized that love is not a totem pole of options with me at the bottom, and that Saxamanda is actually really cool and sane. She never held any feelings of resentment toward me, which I kind of knew all along, and which was probably part of why I resented her in the first place.
Me: You and Fergus only really dated for about 2 months, right, before you moved to Italy?
Saxamanda: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t really think of [the relationship] as anything until he said he was going to visit. Then while I was away he’d always call and email and send me shit, like 20 mix tapes. Which was great! And I liked him, just didn’t think it was all that serious.
Me: He took it really seriously.
Saxamanda: I got the feeling he did. What was going on while I was away?
Me: Well, we were hanging out a lot, but he was super faithful to you. I remember he grew a beard that winter because he’d always wanted to and for once he didn’t have any girls to impress. It was a horrible, patchy beard.
Saxamanda: Oh man, yes. I remember. He sent photobooth pictures.
Me: I have to be honest. In the beginning I felt totally threatened by and resentful of you.
Saxamanda: Oh no why!!
Me: Because I was super in love with this guy, and most of the time I’d known him he’d been obsessed with you! I kind of felt embarrassed for and of him, because it seemed even then like he’d been way more into you than vice versa. We ran into you in Kensington Market once and he got all sullen afterward. And that just cheesed me right off.
Saxamanda: Whoa! I remember that day. I was biking with groceries and said hey and you guys were acting really funny.
Me: And I remember I stormed out of his house once after I prodded him into admitting he’d been in love with you! But I ASKED, point blank, Were you in love with Saxamanda?!
Saxamanda: Oh man that makes me feel awful, you have no idea!
Me: Don’t feel awful!!! I was being crazy and fanning these weird flames. I think I was just looking for drama.
Saxamanda: Yeah. It’s tough too if you were there the whole time, I mean basically through my whole relationship.
Me: And he had so idealized you. You were like this insanely cool, tough babe. You’d been in the IDF! And you hitchhiked in North Africa!
Saxamanda: Haha! Only in the civil guard. But I don’t know, it doesn’t seem that big of a deal!! It’s much harder to actually do something with yourself.
Me: Did you have feelings like that about [Fergus]’s exes?
Saxamanda: not Fergus’ ex, but my ex bf, the one I really liked, had a mythological pixie dreamgirl ex. Once he told me she sold a painting, and I got all mad, because I had never sold any art at that point. And I was getting wasted with him every day and skipping school and basically making sure that would never happen.
Me: Have you met that ex since?
Saxamanda: I have! She was okay! Definitely not the intimidating crazy anorexic pixie I imagined. She just seemed like a quiet suburban girl. But I don’t really look for that stuff, you know? Like seriously I would rather not know.
Me: That sounds like the right way to do it.
I met Ralph when I was 19, at a coffee place, and right away I was attracted to how much of a weirdo he seemed to be. We had a short, heated fling, which ended when I went completely nuts on him. I let my freak flag fly because a) his own weirdness seemed to call for it, and b) he didn’t know anyone I knew.
Then, about a year later, Ralph started dating an old high-school acquaintance of mine. This was difficult to wrap my head around, because a) Maureen was not a weirdo, but rather a friendly and good-natured human being, and b) in my mind, Ralph was a shape-shifting sprite lying dormant in another dimension — he’d been a green screen for all my weirdo fantasies. Maureen projected her fantasies onto him, too, but those particular fantasies involved being loved by a nice boyfriend. We saw two very different Ralphs.
Me: I’ll just start by explaining the way I’ve thought about this over the years. So I met Ralph totally randomly. And at the time I was really freaked out about STDs, and just thought that every time I had sex I would die, and I had it in my head that he was an evil ruiner who was going to give me HIV and skip town or something like that. I went totally bananas. I guess I thought I could get away with it, because he was completely outside my social world. And then, I think it was [our mutual friend Nancy] who said, “I think you know this new guy Maureen’s dating.” And it was very embarrassing.
Maureen: Well, that is a good opener. I met Ralph at a barbecue through friends. Super innocent, discovered we had lots of things in common. And I had been single for AGES, and he really liked me and showed it to me. So I was like, Done deal! You’ll be my new boyfriend. Because it had been a long time before anyone had shown any particular interest.
Me: I find that very surprising.
Maureen: I did too. [Laughs] But yeah, we had a summer fling, and when I told him how old I was he was like, “I promised myself I would never date anyone your age again.” And I thought, Huh, that’s silly. I wouldn’t normally date someone as old as YOU are, Ralph. He said he’d just had a bad experience with someone young. Then, I guess it was probably a month or 6 weeks in, we probably had a fight of some kind, and he said, “I knew I shouldn’t have done this.” And then it kind of came up who it was, and I was like, “Oh my god, I know her! We went to school together!” I don’t remember feeling particularly freaked out or weird. But it’s funny you say you went crazy on him, because I went fuckin’ crazy on him, too!
Maureen: Yeah, near the end of our relationship. In the beginning I thought, well this is going to be an awesome summer thing, but it lasted, and I ended up just needing space. And then the age thing came up again because he was like, “We should live together!” And I was like, “No we shouldn’t!” So I told him I was taking a class that didn’t exist, and would just go do my own thing — like, thinking you have to make up a class to go to, just so you don’t have to hang out with your boyfriend? That’s crazy! Why didn’t I just grow a pair?!
Me: I should finish my saga with Ralph by saying that we reconnected last summer, and had another two-week long fling. He’d always haunted me in this weird way — this probably sounds totally ridiculous–
Me: But I realize now that I completely skewed our first little thing through a fantasy of what had happened. In my mind, he was this crazy weirdo who roped me in and then disappeared into the ether. But it was really fun. He’s really generous with massages.
Maureen: Yes! Yeah.
Me: And I think the second time around, I experienced some of that clinginess you describe. Except that I was 25, so less susceptible to it. When you’re 20, you’re just psyched that a guy loves you.
Maureen: I was dating a few different guys when I met Ralph. And I decided that summer that I was going to find me a boyfriend. But I had never thought about which one I wanted my boyfriend to be.
Me: It’s funny, the few times I’ve seen you over the years have been colored by “oh shit, she dated Ralph. What does she know about me?!”
Maureen: Oh. Well, you shed more light than Ralph ever did. So we should cheers to his discretion if nothing else.
Alphonso and I weren’t together for very long, but when he broke up with me, I couldn’t eat or sleep, and for weeks the only thing that could soothe me was Pisces Iscariot by the Smashing Pumpkins. I have no idea why.
Our relationship was doomed, partly because neither of us was over our exes. We were both a year out of our first big relationships and still spasming with the realization that we weren’t in them anymore. I loved that he wasn’t Fergus and he loved that I wasn’t Muba, but I also hated that he wasn’t Fergus and he also hated that I wasn’t Muba. By the end, I had this impression of Muba as a wild funster whose fresh attitude made me look a dour stick-in-the-mud.
When Alphonso and I broke up, I realized I didn’t know anything about Muba, save for the fact that she’d been through the same shit I had. I was excited and a little nervous to meet her, but we gelled instantly. I found her funny and smart and charismatic — all the qualities I’d seen in him — and at first I chocked this up to his good taste. Then I figured it out: a whole bunch of what I’d seen in Alphonso had actually come from Muba.
Me: The last girl I interviewed, I didn’t have any weird feelings toward — it was more, “Oh god, what does she know.” But you, I totally did have weird feelings toward. It was this super emotional thing with Alphonso, and I guess I was the first person that he dated after you guys broke up…
Muba: I don’t know when you guys started dating, but at the time I was leaving the country, and everything felt totally upside-down. So Alphonso’s new girlfriend was totally a thing to fixate on. It was kind of unpacking the aftermath of the breakup, and not necessarily about him — you use this person as a mirror of yourself. Even though I am no reflection of you, and you are no reflection of me, aside from the very obvious things [Note: we look similar], you put so much on this other person. And like, you’re just some lady! I don’t know you, I have no reason to dislike you or feel weird about you, and I certainly don’t anymore. But for a time.
Me: I remember going to Montreal and meeting your friend Teresa. And then someone sent Alphonso a message saying, “Oh, I see you’re with someone who looks exactly like Muba.”
Muba: It’s funny, that Teresa thing. I had moved to this horrible place with largely horrible people, a great place to fester in all of the questions I had about my life. Just like, I’m going to die alone. I spent a lot of time Googling how to freeze my eggs, like how much that would cost. And Teresa said that she had met you, and I said, “You just can’t like her more than me.” That sounds so petulant, but I really felt that. I had this idea — I don’t know what I thought, but I had this idea that you guys would be best friends, and I’d be knocking on the door crying and it would be raining and you guys would be like, Ha ha ha!
Me: We didn’t date nearly as long, but I felt similar after we broke up at first. I was really heartbroken, and my self-esteem was pretty friggin’ low. But then after a while, rejecting all of it was actually great! And I still respected him, so it was like eating his heart in a way. Here are all these shitty things that I now think are bullshit. I’ll take the great things, make them work for myself.
Muba: I agree, in that I feel like working through all that shit was a useful experience as a human being. I don’t want to do it again. But it was useful.
Me: When you’re with somebody for that long, you get into this hegemony of two. Even when you fall out, and even when the spark is gone, there are still certain ways you’re melded together. And it takes so much longer for that to fade away.
Muba: I think that’s what the whole challenge of breakups is — getting out of those thought patterns. It’s like climbing out of this pit and realizing, Oh, that’s not actually how the world functions.