Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Ex-Factor

"See, I know what we've got to do: you let go, and I'll let go, too..."
- Lauryn Hill, "The Ex-Factor"

I've never been the girl who could be friends with her exes. Most of the time my breakups have been difficult, bitter things, and by the time these relationships have limped towards the finish line, I've wanted nothing more than to put them out of their misery with one final shot to the head. However, over the past few years, several of my exes, important ones, have resurfaced in my life, in very different ways, and I have found, to my surprise, that I am, on the whole, glad they are there.

When the Italian and I broke up, we were in a long-distance relationship. We had a continent and an ocean between us, which was helpful. It was as clean a break as you can get. He made it clear when I moved back to London that he wasn't interested in seeing me, as he was in a new relationship, and frankly, I wasn't too hot on seeing him either, even though everywhere I went in London, I was besieged by memories of us together. Then, on Easter Sunday, a year and a half since we'd broken up and almost two years since we'd seen each other, he sent me a text, that read: "Shall we?"

"Shall we what," I texted back. "Meet, or dance?" "Both," he replied.

I equivocated. I did not want to see him. At all. Not because I thought it would upset me, or that it would bring residual feelings to the surface - because I felt I was completely done with him, that there were no feelings, and therefore no need to meet. We'd never been friends, and I didn't see why we should start now. But, I told him he could come over. I figured I would be so bitchy and off-putting, that we would have nothing to say to each other, and that would be that.

Instead, the minute I saw him, I felt happy. I felt a sense of relief in seeing him, as if seeing someone from home. We talked late into the night, and although we made no plans to see each other again, I knew we would. And we did, meeting a few times for a casual and friendly drink in the city.

Then the real mistake came. I invited the Italian to come watch Eurovision with me, and he arrived via the river boat that docked near my flat. I stood waiting on the jetty, and when I saw him on the deck, I felt flooded with familiar old emotions of love and desire. I suppose the feeling was mutual because we didn't end up watching TV, not by a longshot. But instead of enjoying it, I felt sick, and confused, by our being together. What did this mean? All of the reasons for us breaking up still existed. Did this mean I still loved him, two years later? I ushered him out of the house as fast as I could, and didn't contact him for awhile. But a few months later, I crumbled again, and there was the Italian, making me my favourite dinner in my kitchen, sitting on the couch to watch TV with me, rubbing my back, even climbing into bed with me to stay the night, until I literally jumped out of bed, threw his jeans at him, and told him to go. I could never reconcile the comfort that his presence brought with the feeling that I was moving backward. I also felt I was being disingenuous to the Italian. I didn't, couldn't care for him after all this time, could I? So I was using him, and that wasn't fair.

We never talked about what had happened, as we had never been a talking couple anyway. The last time I saw him was the week I moved back to the Rain Coast, when he came to met me for dinner, and told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life in moving home. His criticism brought me to tears and I left before dinner was served.

The Italian is still around, which I am OK with, given that we once again have thousands of miles between us, and he is in a relationship. I like that he still knows me better than anyone, possibly even myself, and can offer support and advice that no one else can. However, this is probably as much of a role as I will ever allow the Italian to play in my life again. We just fell too easily into old, unhealthy routines. I think this happened mostly because, due to the distance, we had never had a chance for our breakup to take a normal course. When we were physically together, we didn't know how to be anything, but, well, together.

This week I met up with an even more distant ex, Ethan. It's been at least 8 years, by our count, since we saw each other. It's hard to even calculate when we broke up because we lived a sort of weird half-relationship for a long period of time before eventually getting to the point where we couldn't stand the sight of each other and broke off contact altogether. We recently connected on Facebook, had some good chats, and decided to meet up for breakfast when he was in town. Again, I wasn't sure if I was looking forward to it, but I figured breakfast was just breakfast.

Except when breakfast turns into an entire day of hanging out. It was like meeting as strangers, in one way, after all this time, but also, there was an essential familiarity there, and I found I really enjoyed the time I spent with him. We walked around town, basically getting to know each other again, although I still felt like I knew him, and that no time had passed. We asked about each others' family and friends. I wasn't sure how to negotiate the dynamics of this new relationship - how do you treat the long-lost ex? With the same level of ease as a good friend, or with the politeness and restraint of a new acquaintance? I had no idea.

Later that night we met up again to go to a concert. Ethan texted me on the way to pick me up. "Prepare thyself," he said. "I look fabulous" (Ed's Note: he did). I saw that text and quickly got dolled up, too. Which I then regretted. Did I look like I thought we were going on a date? What message was I sending? Did I look like I had feelings for him or something? And did I want it to be a date? What if I did? Did I? But I know nothing about him now, do I? Did I want to date old Ethan or new Ethan? Or both? Ack! I was in totally uncharted waters and freaking out. Why were we dressing up and behaving like adults when the last time we saw each other, as kids, we were yelling and throwing things? (Ed's Note: OK, I was throwing things, Ethan wasn't). So confusing.

The next day, though, I took a deep breath and decided it wasn't so confusing. If I wanted to talk to Ethan, I was going to talk to him. If I wanted to see him, I would see him. We were friends, and the past was so far in the past that it really didn't have any bearing on our current friendship - other than him handily remembering some of my weird quirks, perhaps, and me being able to tease him about the mercurial moods of his 22 year old self. We have both been through so much over the past 8 years, it seems unfair to both of us to revert to the dynamics of our past relationship, which was dysfunctional at best. We would do ourselves, and our new friendship, a disservice, in letting the past inform the present.

So. Two major exes, back in my life, in very different ways. Can I call this growth, d'you think?

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