Coupling: Remembrance of Flings Past

Old boyfriends and girlfriends may disappear, but their "exfluence" stays with us forever

The reason most of us keep profiles on websites like MySpace is to look up exes and crushes, so it’s not really too surprising when the ones you weren’t looking for contact you.

I dated Nate in college, but he was the kind of boyfriend you forget about completely. So when I got his message, I read it with only cursory interest: married, kids, yar, yar. But the last line startled me. "By the way," he had written, "I feed my dogs ‘foodie.’"

Now that was surprising.

Okay, I should explain, although it’s kind of embarrassing. My dog Pepper is a picky eater. Seeing as her daily meal is a bowl of mush, I can’t really blame her. So some time ago, to prevent her from just sniffing at her food and walking away, I created something of a ritual to accompany the preparation. It started out that I’d just mash the kibble and wet food together with an Emerilian pizzazz, you know, in order to make her feel like she was getting a spectacular meal. But Pepper’s no fool, and so the routine necessarily got more elaborate, with, I’m chagrined to tell you, a dance and a song in which the words “Foodie-foodie-FOODIE!” are sung along to a sort of can-can tune, and Pepper’s bowl is presented with a flourish, whereupon everyone in the room is encouraged to appear tempted and utter remarks like, “LOOK at that foodie.” “What good foodie.” “I wish I was eating that foodie” — you get the idea.

Nate had witnessed this ritual, and while at first I thought it was a little creepy that he was performing it, most likely without mentioning its origins to his wife, this soon gave way to a feeling of magnanimity. Clearly, I was unforgettable, not to mention uniquely creative and hilarious, and so he couldn’t help but imitate me. He probably wasn’t even the only one. Probably everyone I had ever dated was out there somewhere, telling my jokes and making my excellent Greek meatballs. I pictured them all in cheerfully lit kitchens across the land, singing songs and mixing kibble while many breeds of dogs wriggled in anticipation.

Later that night, I tried to remember things about Nate. Was there anything I had picked up from him? I had dated him for an entire year, I thought. There must be something. Soon, a few things came to mind. Chicken In A Biskit crackers, which I still enjoy even though most people think they are gross. Nate taught me how to change the oil in my car and use an anchor in drywall, and a good way of making omelets under a broiler that I had done just yesterday for my current boyfriend. Actually, wait. The omelet wasn’t Nate. That was Tory, who also taught me how to make mojitos and how to boogie-board, and got me saying “sweeeeet” ironically, a habit I still have. Another boyfriend had gotten me into Tetris, which I can still play for hours and hours. And I’d started saying “I’m not on board with that” after the last guy I’d dated, even though it’s an annoying thing to say.

Usually, after a relationship ends, a certain amount of physical flotsam remains: Christmas presents given to you by your ex, mix CDs, keychains, a t-shirt, a single sock — all objects that, over time, lose their emotional significance and just become part of your Stuff.

But in addition to, say, the whimsical teacup and saucer with his astrological sign on them that my boyfriend has, which is so totally obviously a gift from an ex-girlfriend, or the dusty pair of boxers I once found crammed between my bed and the wall, with each significant other, we acquire another set of Stuff: new jokes and expressions, movies and musical preferences, historical information and entire opinions, all of which blend seamlessly with our own Stuff, so much that in the end, we don’t even think to divide it up, or throw it out, making us all, in a way, collages of our exes. Which is kind of alarming, I thought, looking through my music collection, where almost every CD I had could be linked to a boyfriend, or at least someone I was trying to impress. Did I even like this stuff? Was it my taste?

In The Anxiety of Influence, literary critic Harold Bloom suggested that all poets can’t help but be influenced by the poets who came before. Maybe the personality traits one absorbs from ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends could be called: exfluence.

 “That hasn’t really happened to me,” said Maria*, 28, when I asked her if she had acquired anything from boyfriends. “Except in the ’90s, my boyfriend Chad got me into the Jesus and Mary Chain, literate hip-hop, and vegetarianism.” These days, she said, she was really into Tenacious D, Will Ferrell movies, the Elvis Costello album This Year’s Model and the show Stella, all of which she’s been introduced to by the guy she’s currently dating. “Also,” she added, “often I will mimic a boyfriend’s speech and facial patterns.”

“Mike used to say ‘shower power’ when he was getting ready to take a shower, which I still say,” said Sara*, 28. “He also had two Goth roommates who were named ‘Knifeface’ and ‘Daggerface,’ and he used to do impressions of them that I still do.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that a woman would take on a man’s interests — the number of us running around right now pretending we like Tenacious D suggests that we are acutely susceptible — but men also fall under the spell of exfluence. “I dated this girl from middle of senior year of high school to middle of sophomore year in college,” says Dan, 23. “She used to do a really cheerful high-pitched ‘’bye’ at the end of her phone calls, and I started saying it to make fun of her. But now I do it on all my phone calls.”

Often, it’s an ex-girlfriend who’s provided a man with his most basic knowledge. “My ex introduced me to Jeff Buckley and Stoli vodka, and taught me it’s water, not wooder,” says one South Jerseyan who insists on being called Sergio. If a man has a skill, like bed-making or shirt-folding, or he’s exceptionally good at oral sex, chances are he’s learned it from an ex. “My ex-girlfriend, Marion, taught me the proper way to do dishes,” says Tito. “Now I think of her sometimes when I’m standing at the kitchen sink, even though my wife is right there.”

Similarly, Sara finds herself occasionally paying homage to her exes around her current boyfriends. “Jack used to refer to things as ‘primitive’ in this screwed-up, superior way,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh God, those people are so primitive.’ I still say it sometimes as a way to make fun of him, even though he isn’t here.”

There’s something a little perverse about this, just like there’s something perverse about Tito thinking of his ex when he does the dishes, or Nate co-opting my foodie ritual with his wife. But it actually makes sense that we would deliberately and covertly make these kinds of references to our exes. It’s a way of remembering or reminiscing about something that helped make us who we are without actually, like, talking out loud about our exes, which might annoy whomever we’re with.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. “Generally, the guys I date are all so imbued with a sense of their own self-importance that they don’t care who came before,” says Maria. “That’s a Gus word, ‘imbued,’ by the way,” she said, referring to her college boyfriend. “So is ‘inculcate.’”

Most of the ways we exhibit our exfluence are so deeply encoded that our current partners would have to have the mind-reading ability of the cop on Heroes to know when we were doing it. Then there are the more obvious things.

“I’m not really a mushy guy,” says 26-year-old Phil. “I don’t do PDA or give teddy bears or anything like that. But my last girlfriend was really into us both having these pet names. She called me ‘Smushy’ and I called her ‘Spanky.’ You seriously have to change my name for this.”

Now “Phil” is dating a new girl. “She’s very different — sarcastic and not at all mushy,” he says. “But I have this uncontrollable urge to call her Spanky. I’ve been lying in bed with her in, like, a post-coital way, and it’s almost happened.”

To avert that disaster, Phil’s working on a new name for his new girlfriend. Apparently, his previous relationship has made him into the type of person who gives pet names. “I’m thinking of calling her Hooker Cookie,” he muses. “That just sounds right to me, I don’t know why.”

According to Harold Bloom, influence hinders a poet’s creativity and inhibits growth and originality. Exfluence is perhaps the opposite. The things we absorb from our relationships encourage growth and originality: We learn skills, create highly unique ways of expressing affection, amass varied and decent CD collections, and discover new snack foods. “It’s like what they say about dead people, how they live on in your heart. I guess it just proves that we never get over people,” says Kelly, 32. “Exes live on in the boring-ass bits of your daily life.”

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