Island of the Exes

PEOPLE OFTEN SAY THAT PHILADELPHIA IS SMALL. This isn’t really true, because we’re a city of 135 square miles and around 1.5 million people. That’s not as many as there are in, say, Mumbai, but try to picture 1.5 million people all at once and you’ll see what I mean.

But Philadelphia feels small, and that is primarily because Philadelphians are always running into one another. It’s like on Lost — there they are, 48 people on this vast, uncharted island, but no one can do anything without being stumbled upon by Jin or Charlie. (Except Desmond. Where the hell is Desmond?)

Even with 1.5 million people and 135 square miles for me and Andrew Hohns to cruise around on, I still see the two-time state rep also-ran every single time I go to the South Street Whole Foods, although he doesn’t know it because I usually hide near the grains while he checks out.

This happens to everyone in Philadelphia. Not with Andrew Hohns, specifically, although I suppose that is possible, but with people they know. That’s because we all — lawyers, teachers, SEPTA workers, Taiwanese immigrants — have our own versions of Philadelphia, comprised of the blocks we walk on, the coffee shops and grocery stores we go to, and the people we know, a sort of sub-city of our own that seems to have an approximate population of 48.

This means dating and sex can be particularly fraught. Dating someone from outside your circle and meeting his or her friends can change your perception of the city, like discovering a new land with an indigenous population and completely different restaurants. I once went out with a guy from Andorra. Andorra! Who knew that was there? It was like Narnia.

But usually, it makes your world feel infinitely smaller. Sometimes, too small. Take this tale from Gavin*, in Center City. “I was dating this girl. She had had, like, two bi experiences in college, and she wanted to hook up with a woman or another couple,” he says. “We look through the Philadelphia Weekly personals — this was before Craig’s List — and we end up meeting this couple, Sophie and Donald. We go out to dinner with them, and it’s all oddly normal. Sophie’s telling us about other couples they’ve met, and she says, ‘Actually, last week we met another guy named Gavin. But he’s a lot older than you. His wife’s name is Katrina. They really like to dance,’ and at that point, alarm bells started going off, because I was sure that was my dad.”

But wait — there’s more. “Okay, not long after that, I meet this guy who runs swinger parties at this big place in South Philly. Sex out in the open isn’t my thing, but he asked if I could help out and I said yes. It was all done very seriously: We had a security guy at the door, we took IDs, and we had these walkie-talkies. One night I was upstairs, and the guy at the door radios me. He’s like, ‘Gavin, this is really weird, but there’s this middle-aged guy out here, and he has the same name as you on his license.’ I freaked out. I was like, ‘No! No! Dude, you absolutely cannot let him into the party.’ He didn’t, thank God.” He paused, anguished. “I didn’t even know my dad read the Philadelphia Weekly.”

Gavin quit swinging not long after that, and he never discussed what had happened with his father. “The swinger scene is small anywhere,” he says, “but I think in New York, that would have taken, like, a year to happen. Here, it happened right away.”

Luckily, very few of us will ever have an experience so scarring. Most single people in Philadelphia just exist with constant, low-grade awkwardness. Like Chris in Center City, who knew exactly whom his girlfriend slept with before they dated — because she’d had a one-night stand with his best friend. Kathy, who’s from Malvern, J-dated one guy and, soon after, J-dated his brother. And Mara’s past three exes have, independently of her, started hanging out together. “Whenever I see them, they’re all together, like this little club of guys who have seen me naked,” she says.

THE UPSIDE OF ALL THIS CLOSENESS IS, for starters, it’s pretty easy to find out who’s carrying what venereal disease.

The downside is that when a long relationship ends painfully, some of us have to redraw the maps of our own private Philadelphias. Certain demarcations must be made, so you don’t suffer the awkwardness of running into your ex having a morning-after breakfast with someone else at Reading Terminal’s Dutch Eating Place, his favorite spot. Or maybe you can’t even go near the Mütter Museum now, because Sheila loved the horn lady! Three years ago, when I broke up with Satan (not to be confused with The Great Satan, who came later), I studiously avoided anywhere I knew he went or that he had ever even mentioned. I got so used to not walking down 2nd Street in Old City that I almost forgot it was there.

One of my best friends, Angela, was a serial monogamist who had a unique way of dealing with this problem. She moved. Like, out of town. A free-spirit type and an Army brat who was prone to moving anyway, she didn’t even really register that the fleeing urge came at the end of relationships. She had moved to Philly with me to see what it was like; she had also just broken up with someone. When, after she’d been here a year, the local vegan guy she was enamored of became enamored with another vegan girl, she moved to Florida.

“The thing that’s bad about Angela always moving,” our friend Meredith said at the time, “is that she won’t ever experience consequence.” Although I think she was stoned when she said it (it was college), Meredith had a point. Consequence can be good. Maybe in our small town, knowing that we may have to face exes again makes us a little more careful, a little bit kinder to others.

“I am definitely nicer in Philadelphia than I was in D.C.,” says one transplant. “There, if I wanted to stop seeing someone, I just stopped calling them. Here, you don’t return a phone call, and an hour later you run into them at Barnes & Noble.”

In our little Harper Valley, those who behave badly get a bad reputation. Take the story of Jason from Manayunk. Two years after he had a terrible breakup with his girlfriend of a year (he did it on the phone, and subsequently there was crying, screaming, suicide threats, the changing of locks on doors), he met another girl. “Okay, so she’s beautiful, smart, loves ESPN, and thinks I’m great,” he said. “I think she’s great. Everything is great. I meet the parents — love me. Sister — loves me. I meet the friends from college, high school, camp, work, neighborhood — and they all love me. The only person I hadn’t met was her best friend, because she’d been traveling. Now, my ex’s best friend, like, hated me because of the whole fiasco, so the whole best-friend test makes me a little nervous, but when the friend gets back at Christmas, we make a plan to meet up. What do you think the chances are that she would be the same best friend from the other relationship? Philadelphia is the smallest city in the union.”

If Angela had stayed in Philadelphia, she, like the rest of us, would have had to live with the fact that she might cross paths with Vegan Guy, say, in the vegetable aisle. Seeing him might remind her that he had left her for someone else, and it might make her feel terrible all over again. But there he would be, still existing. Without her. Wearing that stupid Rastafarian knit cap. Without her. And maybe it would make it easier to stop feeling bad. Maybe she would realize, in the vegetable aisle, that Vegan Guy wasn’t right for her, and be okay with it. Anyway, sometimes these things turn out okay. Like with Jason, who talked things out with the best friend. “It was awkward at first, but she turned out to be one chill cat.”

And as often as Philadelphians do run into each other, we don’t. Like Desmond on Lost, some people just disappear into the ether. Like Satan — I haven’t seen him in three years, not even once, and I walk down 2nd Street all the time.

“I used to work at Blue Cross,” says Gavin, “which is across the street from where my office is now. In the three and a half years since I left the company, I’ve only bumped into one ex-co-worker one time. I should see people all the time that I never see. Of course, then I run into my dad on the swinger scene. Twice.”