Diary of a Marriage: How I Felt When I Met My Husband’s Ex
I think that there are two groups of people in this world: those who can be friends with an ex, and those who can’t. I am one of the latter.
I call it the ‘dead arm’ effect. When I’m dating you, all’s good. Once we break up, I prefer to pretend you no longer exist. I, quite literally, cut you off. Like a dead arm, withered and shrunken and altogether unnecessary. I don’t care if you were my first love, or if you saved my grandmother from a burning building, or gave me a kidney. If we dated, and then broke up, poof, you need to go away. To a different country, or somewhere further. Like space. I delete your phone number from my phone, erase your birthday from my calendars, pack away or toss (depending on length of relationship and cause of breakup) all photos, gifts, and sentimental tokens from the relationship. You are methodically erased from my life and, before long, I’ve actually forgotten things like your phone number, birthday, favorite song, and then I pretty much do forget you exist, until someone mentions you, always by your nickname: Surf God. Nick the Dick. Nomadic Writer.
J.’s exes don’t have such nicknames. There are two: the curly-haired brunette and the straight-haired blonde. When we first started dating, I was curious: Who were these people who loved him before me? What were they like? How did I stack up? I’d ask J. questions I didn’t want to know the answers to—Did you love her? Like, really love her?—and then back off. No, no, no, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. But then, like rubbernecking a car accident, I’d press on: But wait, did you ever think you could get married to her? It’s sick. Really.
At first I was mildly jealous of Brunette and Blonde, but then—like my ex-boyfriends—they became faint memories of his past, the people who make up this weird little fabric of who we are.
And then I met Blonde.
It was at Easter mass, a few weeks ago. Instead of going to the tiny, sweet church where we got married, we went with his parents to the big ugly church both of us grew up going to. I think it’s where we first learned of each other, our parents dragging us each weekend, plopping down in the same block of pews (far right of the church, somewhere in one of the middle rows, close to the windows). For years we sat a few pews away from each other; as an angsty teen, I’m sure I spent many homilies staring at the back of J.’s head while my mom poked me: That boy is nice. He plays tennis. Comes from a good family. I’d roll my eyes and pray to God she wouldn’t try to introduce us. And there were times he’d sit staring at the back of my head, while his mother poked him: That girl is nice. She plays tennis. Comes from a good family. I’m sure he rolled his eyes, too.
Anyway, there we were over a decade and a half later, on Easter morning, flanked by J.’s parents and whispering to each other about how old everyone looked, the same people who’d been going there forever, filing into the same seats they’d sat in for years. Then suddenly his mother poked him. Again.
“Look, honey! There’s Michelle! And her family! They are always so nice.” His ex-girlfriend had walked into the church with her parents. Blonde was in the building.
Worst. Easter. Ever. J. mouthed to me. I giggled. This was awesome. For so long, my dating life had been the brunt of family jokes: “Remember the time your boyfriend puked every time you went out on a date?” “Did you know her seventh-grade boyfriend works at Taco Bell?” “Remember when you woke up from surgery and your hippie-era boyfriend was in the room and you asked him about smoking the ganja in front of mom?” Now, finally, it was J.’s turn to squirm.
It was weird. I saw J. give her a big hug, and I didn’t feel, well, anything. I waited and politely shook her hand, overcompensating for the awkwardness by being overly nice and self-deprecating. But then I saw J.’s dad—the man who calls me ‘his girl’—give her a big happy hug and I felt it: A searing stab of jealousy. Hug my husband, ex-girlfriend—but hands off his family. They’re mine now. I felt stupid for even thinking it, but I did.
I’m at a point now where I guess I wouldn’t mind running into an old flame. That’s life: You let people in, you love them, you let them go, and you wish them the best (sometimes that last part takes a while). All of them—even Nick the Dick—helped shape who I am and how I see J. They helped me whittle down what I wanted (yes to love notes, no to love poems, yes to opening car doors, no to ordering my dinner for me), and in a small way, I’m grateful to them.
Even Brunette and Blonde, they helped shape J., helped him figure out what he was looking for, and I’m guessing he did the same for them. Maybe you don’t ever stop loving these people. Maybe it just changes from love into something much less, but still important. It’s like a nebulous by-product of love: I knew you. I knew you then. I knew you before, when you were still being shaped, like a spongy blob of Play-Doh.
I haven’t run into my exes. I think one’s on a boat somewhere in Hawaii; the others I’m sure are scattered about the country somewhere. I hope they’re happy. And that they stay the hell away from our church.
Have you and your groom ever met each other’s significant exes? How did it make you feel?
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