Folie a Do-Over: Back with an Ex

Not everyone can rewrite history. Here’s one woman who got uncomfortably close to an old flame.

By Jane Monroe

After All These Years

It was almost too weird to be true. But I was thinking that it might be love. Again.

If you know me at all, you know this is not how I think. This was against all odds, something I’d put out of its misery — years of misery — years earlier. But, yes, it was true. I was getting back together with my college boyfriend.

If you could call him that. I met him midway through my freshman year, when I had a superior air and a pathological curiosity about how far I could push my limits. James was a senior, a well-respected writer on campus. I was a budding poet and girl-about-town, and we looked good on paper: "She loves punk rock, pub-crawling, and pointy boots. He is reed-thin, with an aquiline nose, and the only guy on campus who knows how to wear a leather jacket." Together we cooked up a mutually beneficial origin myth that destined us to each other and each other’s greatness. Because he was closer to greatness than I was, it appeared to me that I was getting a very good deal. He was New York City-ready, a prizewinning wisecracker, an Ivy League army brat who dropped his g’s, pretending he was Lou Reed (without the heroin and dachshunds), definitely slumming.

James graduated with high honors, I dropped out, and we lucked into a spectacular summer sublet near Washington Square Park. I was now entering — or so I envisioned — a dark den of decadent fun. Once in New York City, though, havoc. During one of the hottest summers on record, the entire city plunged into a two-day blackout with thousands roaming the streets. Elvis died. The penthouse apartment that we rented was filled with Duchampian assemblages of black rubber and glass shards that stuck out straight; inside its badly air-conditioned rooms, James and I cracked. Our intellectual jousts routinely exploded into power grabs. He argued that Norman Mailer was right about masturbation and contraception, that they impeded the life force; I insisted on separate bedrooms. His bitten fingernails began to loom before me like bloody stumps. In an act of desperation, James proposed marriage. I responded by vacationing in Maine and sleeping with a painter there. By the end of the summer, our great love was officially off.

James and I went our separate ways. We lived within a 10-block radius of each other in the East Village though, so I’d occasionally run into him on a break from table-waiting or artist-loft-sweeping or another of the auspicious jobs I held while he established himself as a shiny new under-30 literary light. In a club late at night, he’d drag on his cigarette and glance up at me sideways with an inscrutable expression. I’ve been given that look since and I can tell you, although it’s sexy and mysterious, it’s nothing good. But it kept something flickering between us.

At one point, in a moment both hopeful and resigned, I gave James the opportunity to burn me. I went home with him after a concert. Some recent ex’s sequined mules lay dashed beside the bed. I took one look and said, "You and I will never go anywhere." Prescience becomes me. He was already at his desk when I woke up in the morning, and I slouched home.

Our misadventure faded mercifully to black. I found a real boyfriend. James registered as a distant folly, as far-flung as Egypt and as risky as a tightrope tarantella.

Years later, I decided to leave my job and my fiance to try living in Los Angeles. I’d spent a lot of time visiting my father there, and I’d harbored a fantasy about Southern California as a fine and fitting place for my reinvention. James, now conveniently transformed into my old college chum, had relocated to L.A. a few years earlier and situated himself among a group of like-minded creative types who might be able to help me find some work.

He met me at LAX and took me to a hip little restaurant in Santa Monica. I noticed he wore loafers but the same old threadbare T-shirt-and-jeans outfit — evolution from the bottom up. He seemed so excited to hear my voice on the phone that I jumped at his suggestion to use his apartment — adorably situated beneath a freeway — for a few days. We hadn’t been alone in a room together in 10 years. That night, we sat on his floor, smoking furiously and swigging Scotch, just like the old days. He had recently broken up with someone. He had started script-doctoring. There were some disturbing sights around the house: The bathtub floor was the color of lichen. A bloody bandage sat curled up inside a box of tissues. And a Vietnam vet lived on the porch and periodically knocked on the window for money or beer.

Nevertheless, we spent our evenings listening to music, driving to the beach and watching movies, doing things we hadn’t done properly even when we were a couple. One afternoon I visited his office, and the young, orange-haired, kohl-eyed receptionists stared at me. They struck me as throwbacks, like New York punks we used to know, so full of themselves and mindlessly rebellious. So like us, really. "Oh, they’re all right," James said. "A couple of them are smart." He’d become so mellow.

The magic net of wishful love descended. In a state of giddy disbelief, I moved from the couch into his bed, and three days later we pulled apart only long enough for me to fly to New York to give notice at my job. "When you come back, stay here for good," he said, his whiskers brushing my cheek. My flight was delayed eight hours, and I lay across a row of seats at the gate, occasionally breaking into a big grin, thinking, so this is it. I always wondered when we’d pick up the stitch. It was as if he’d been waiting for me all these years.

Repeating Old Patterns

It happened to my mother, this kind of love. A few years earlier, she too had connected with an old sweetheart, Leon, at her high school reunion. It was the first time they’d laid eyes on each other in four decades. He’d been married to the same woman for almost that long and had three children. When they saw each other again, it was as if they were still in school. "Hi, Joanie," he said. I squirmed when she told me, worried she was in it for the wrong reasons. She behaved, yes, like a schoolgirl, in all sorts of ways that could only bring black magic: She printed up a bookmark and T-shirt with a photo of him naked. It was hilarious. But she was uncautious with her heart. What part present, what part future, what part past had possessed her? And, maybe condescendingly, I wondered about the irresistible will to rewrite history. Only later would I also wonder whether this romantic urge to march toward a mirage and stake a claim ran in the family. Call it pitching your tent on quicksand. Her tent went under after a year of furtive meetings, and she stayed single for a long time after.

Just two weeks after our western idyll, James leaned against my bookcase in New York and cracked open a Russian novella. He’d been the one to suggest that he follow me east to jump-start my exit, although he added that he also had to see his agent. When he arrived at my apartment, I had a drink ready. I gave him one too. "Hey, I was wondering," I asked in a carefree way, "do you think I’m better now than when we met?" I was sure I knew the answer.

"You were pretty great back then," he said, after a beat. The way he looked at me made me feel at once very old and very young. The next day he blew off our lunch date to spend the afternoon in a tavern reminiscing with an old pal. When he got back to the apartment, we discussed my next step. "I’d love to stay with you for the first few weeks," I ventured, "but maybe I should have my own apartment for a while…." "I don’t see why," he said. He sat up all night in a chair, I think, and when I woke up, he was gone.

He’s anxious, I thought. So was I. It’d been so long, and we were moving so quickly. Days went by. I packed in earnest. No call. I called, with a serious case of the shakes. "Actually, you were right," he said. "I don’t think you should stay here." "But I’ve sent things to your house," I replied, idiotically. "Will we be seeing each other?"

"I don’t know."

I sleepwalked through the next couple of weeks, with no interest in bon voyages. Once I touched down in L.A., I headed to Torrance, home of a thousand car dealerships and my stepsister, who had graciously offered her couch as refuge. I burrowed into it, rousing myself only to job hunt. Naturally, I got a call from the place where James was working. In no position to turn down the project they offered, I went in for a consultation and ran into my friend Katrine in the parking lot. "Have you seen James yet?" she asked innocently. "Maybe you’ll get to meet his girlfriend today." "His girlfriend?" I said. "Ohh, riiight. "

James was at the far end of the hall when I walked into the lobby. He was frantically corkscrewing his forelock, in animated conversation with an orange-haired, kohl-eyed pop tart. They beat it around the corner almost instantly. There must have been an all-points alert. When we did cross paths, James barely made eye contact with me, except to introduce his new friend (though how new she really was, I do not know; perhaps someday one of them will tell me while hanging from a bridge or tied to a railroad track as the train is coming around the bend).

A few weeks later, she wordlessly tossed a package on my desk; it was a book I’d sent to James’s address two months earlier, when we were still planning to live together. What was that book? Remembrance of Things Past, maybe, or The Picture of Dorian Gray? Or perhaps Frankenstein — I really don’t remember, though it probably had something to do with never growing old or getting a second go at love. It might even have been a book my mother and I had read together, just a lulling fairy tale, back when I was a girl.

Jane Monroe is a nom de plume.

Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:08

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