Haunted By an Ex-Boyfriend

You might think that once you’ve met The One, all of your former flames fade into the background…

You might think that once you’ve met The One, all of your former flames fade into the background. But Kelly Bare, author of The F Word, learned that memories of past partners aren’t so easy to purge.

I didn’t do bad breakups; I was one of those girls who liked to think she had her exes within arm’s reach. Sure, they were probably dating someone else. And no, they wouldn’t come running back to me at a moment’s notice. Hell, I wouldn’t want them to. But I was pretty sure that deep down, they’d rather be with me.

As we all moved into marrying age, I even got some perverse satisfaction from the fact that these guys remained single. Like having no cavities, having no married exes was something to brag about. But eventually, that changed. Over time, as I heard of my exes getting engaged, I felt nothing but good feelings about it. I suppose that’s due to a lack of scar tissue and my happiness in my current romantic situation. But when it came to deliver¬ing the news of my engagement to my most significant ex, I found I had a few exposed nerves.

When I first met my husband, Jona¬than, I was packing guilt. Just four months earlier, I had moved out of the apartment I’d shared with Sam, my boyfriend of almost four years. Sam and I grew up in the same town, met years later in Chicago, moved to San Francisco, then picked up together for a new life in New York: graduate school for him, a new career for me, with one apartment to hold us both. It was the first step in what we imagined would be a long life together. But a little over a year later, we were saying our good-byes.

What went wrong? Well, I guess the move triggered a growth spurt in both of us – only we grew in different direc¬tions. He studied all night; I worked all day. We ate dinner apart, made different groups of friends… We barely saw each other. And when we did, it felt more and more hollow.

I wasn’t sure what was more trou¬bling: the lack of connection or the fact that he didn’t seem to notice. Or maybe he just didn’t miss me. But when I thought about it, I realised that I didn’t miss him either! And then I knew it was over. How four years of adventure and camaraderie could flatline so quickly was terrifying, but the truth was undeniable.

My relationship with Sam had been my typical 0-to-60 affair. So when I started dating, I made a pact with myself to go out with at least 10 guys before getting into a relationship. I dated a guy I met at a bar, got set up, and even got singed by an old flame.

Then came Bachelor Number Six – Jonathan. He was sweet, quirky, and shy, with an encyclopaedic brain and dark good looks, of which he was barely aware. After our first date, I realised he might suit me for the long haul in ways I was only just beginning to realise might be important.

It was a startling thought. I wasn’t looking for a long-term commit¬ment… and I still had four guys to go! But if a long-term commitment had found me, what could I do?

During the first year of my relation¬ship with Jonathan, I thought about my ex all the time. I called it the Sam echo. Every time Jonathan and I would hit a milestone, big or small, I’d reflexively wonder, Was this how it was with Sam? Every time we’d have a first – first vacation, first parental visit, first argument – I’d check myself: Did I feel this way with Sam? I hated that echo because it felt wrong, tainted, mean to Sam, and unfair to Jonathan.

In some cases, the differences between them were striking. First date? With Sam, it was a boozy night out with a group and – I’ll admit it – a sleepover, with a ‘proper’ first date a couple of days later. Jonathan asked if he could ask me out (no kid¬ding), then made dinner for me at his place – three courses from scratch.

First kiss? I put the moves on Sam in the front seat of his Honda Civic; Jonathan and I had a tentative but promising third-date good-bye outside a subway station. First vacation? With Sam it was camping; Jonathan took me to the beach (and a hotel).

But there were more subtle echoes too. My mind kept returning to a con¬versation Sam and I had before our big move, in which we affirmed that it was time to make big decisions as a couple. ‘We’re a team, right?’ I’d asked him. With Jonathan, I never even had to pose the question.

And then, about a year after my first date with Jonathan, before I even had a chance to wonder what kind of echo might pop up next, he proposed to me. I said yes without a shadow of a doubt in my mind.

Of course, the echo was still there. I felt guilty that I was getting engaged so soon after Sam and I had broken up. The thought of all the friends we have in common triggered a shrill warning bell – Sam might hear the news from someone other than me! I couldn’t rest until he knew.

Since we live in the same city, e-mail seemed cowardly; the phone, only slightly less so. The best way to do it would be in person. Ten days after Jonathan’s proposal, I e-mailed Sam to ask him to lunch, and we made a date for the next day.

We got burgers and fries and sat outside. I ached – a nonspecific, everywhere sort of ache – and my throat felt funny. We made small talk. I choked down some food. I psyched myself up. ‘I’m getting married.’

He hadn’t heard yet. But his face registered no surprise. He was reserved but polite, gracious, and con¬gratulatory – just as I’d expected him to be. I didn’t think he’d try to stop me of course, but his cool, controlled reaction conjured up the emptiness of that hollow time before our breakup. The familiarity of his response hurt almost as much as telling him did.

Jonathan and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary and entered our fourth year together. Like first dates and first kisses, it’s another milestone; Sam and I didn’t make it past four years.

It has crossed my mind that four years might be some kind of thresh¬old over which I cannot pass. But here’s what I’m learning right now, as a still-new wife: Despite our faltering forward progress, there’s a very sturdy core. It’s that same ineffable thing that helped me recognize the poten¬tial for lifelong partnership on the first date, that thing that meant never wondering where I stood.

I recently found out that Sam is engaged (he didn’t share the news with me himself). Did I hear a note of that echo again? Of course; only now, it sounds like a reminder that I’m where I’m supposed to be.