Two weeks ago, I found myself driving by my ex-boyfriend’s house. It was the first time I’d seen it in months. My fate was in the feeble hands of a finicky GPS my mother had named Lexie, and she had decided to play the role of tough-love friend. After a completely obscure and unnecessary detour down perilously narrow roads dotted with hollow shanties and farmhouses whose structures had been devoured by time, I rounded a weedy bend with an almost familiar feeling. I was being yanked down memory lane.
The effortless comfort of routine was at once braided with the unease of a new sort of dread. I didn’t know if I just liked torturing myself or if I thought I would gain some sort of satisfying insight, dare I say it: closure. Whatever it was, I was anxious and eager to peer down the long country road lined with round cartoon trees. I couldn’t help but crane my neck in the hope of seeing the red car that had always sat in my driveway, giving me that sparkly Christmas morning feeling when I saw it easing towards my house through parted blinds. Now my car was serving as a cruel conduit to the memories that were usually languidly curled up in some tendril of my mind.
As we neared his street, my mom fumblingly joked about egging his house as if the distracting hilarity of her mischievous mom routine was the vital panacea. Yet if you can believe it, there are some things that even the improbable picture of your mother smashing raw eggs against shadowy windowpanes can’t mitigate, and heartbreak is one of them. That juncture was just as cliché and momentous as any ex-girlfriend will have you believe, and I surprised myself by crying at a wedding shower just moments later. I stood in a sunny house on a hill above a bulbous cluster of brown cows that he had probably driven by countless times with his windows down, and the wind fluttering through his incredibly random mix of music.
From the moment you’re taught of clichés in middle school, you are sure they are a thing to be avoided. You draw out that accented “e,” like a disgusted Frenchman and turn up your nose at damsels in distress and brooding bad boys and football players that sleep with cheerleaders, and angsty rebels that sleep with preachers’ daughters, and consider yourself much more complex and multifaceted than these simple characters.
There is no way to say the word “ex” without automatically sounding like something slighted and simple. Sometimes that great big ex stands by itself, nefarious, unoriginal, and a little awkward, like a kid proudly testing out the taste of a bad word. When people speak of “exes” they utter the “ex” in nameless isolation. The ex is submerged in the monolithic pool that becomes the mass of all the indistinctly awful former flames that anyone has ever had, hardly a real person now, but a specter intertwined with the sins of boyfriends and girlfriends past.
When an ex, you are no longer someone who once marveled at the existence of a counterpart so perfectly inverse that when with him, you found yourself carefully cradling the missing parts of your personality in your cupped palms and allowing yourself to contemplate that maybe opposites do attract. You are no longer someone who snuck to hold hands under the computer table in school, never more conscious of the feeling of your own hands or of anyone else’s. You are no longer someone who had once learned and shared an effortlessly clandestine language, even if sometimes you wondered if he had spoken this way to the girls before and would again to the girls that come after.
Our long-distance relationship lasted longer than it should have and I asked more than he could give. By the end of it, we were each falling nicely into roles. I became the nagging shrew who unreasonably asks more than she deserves, the sort of girl men retreat to bars or beer-lined basements to avoid. He became the underappreciated victim to the tedium of these demands, the sort of guy who suddenly retreats to his father’s remote mountain home moments before his long-distance girlfriend arrives in town for Christmas. I was the obsessive critic full of undue and undeserved expectations, and he, the dismissive partner who doesn’t want to hear any of it. But opposites attract and I had fallen head over heels and didn’t see the writing on the walls.
I recoiled from him and from myself as I watched old married couple tropes unfolding before me. I envisioned him on the couch in a stained wife beater demanding a beer, ignoring pathetic pleas for attention. Someday he’d call me “woman” and act like I was crazy and any feelings of neglect were irrational grievances. And even though I was a student and he was a student, I imagined him taking a metal lunchbox to work and complaining to the hardened ears of those who were just as disillusioned as he, and they’d hardee-har about what a chore I was—irrational, critical, and naggy, just like the rest of ’em.
I was ashamed of myself when people asked when he was going to visit. I said every mean thing I could think of to drag him into caring, yet he readily succumbed to my accusations to shut me up. “Yeah I know, I’m a shitty boyfriend,” he’d say stolidly, bored of the entire prove-your-love routine. He made it known to me what a hassle loving me was, the way a father guilts his daughter for the roof over her head. Even responding to my messages was a laundry list bullet point to put off until the next day.
When I broke up with him, I was simply upset because he wasn’t there to pamper me with sumptuous bouquets of roses and lobster dinners and sparkly diamonds. I was just a spoiled brat and he was a wind-worn lover doing the best that he could.
I saw in him a familiar dismissive apathy. I saw in myself a familiar critical obsession. I saw the faults of our fathers and mothers. I didn’t know if we brought it out in each other or if that was what we were always to become. I wondered if maybe I’d always be looking for something to be so unbearably wrong that I had to question it, see to it that it was fixed or nixed. In spite of all that I loved about who he already was, I was cleaving to who he could be, and he was cleaving to who he thought I was.
I blamed him for a lot of things, perhaps least of all, how unoriginal he and I and the whole story had become. Yet after the four-year relationship came to an end, I continued with near-practiced predictability, crying in bars, public bathrooms and my bathtub, tearing up old photos, looking away at PDA while pretending to just be too prudish to stand the scandalous sight of hand-holding in public. I was full of obnoxious single jokes and bitterness for couples, and held a special resentment for girls in long-distance relationships, wondering what je ne sais quoi or whatever magical essence they exuded and I didn’t that made them worth the time and a text back.
Apologizing into a tissue at the wedding shower that day, I was that petty bitch, selfishly crying in the face of someone else’s joy. One minute I was marveling at a spacious sun room overlooking an emerald valley, the next I was marveling at the resilience of my new mascara and praying that my mom wasn’t irked by the whole weepy display. Nearly five months had passed since calling it quits and I knew everyone thought I spent all my time sniffling over drugstore truffles and wiping my tears with sheets of Adele lyrics.
It wasn’t white-horse-flower-fields-feet-in-the-sand love, but there were red roses, and pink prom dresses and mildly witty anecdotes exchanged by lockers. Sometimes I still fit his name in where it doesn’t belong like in those early stages. I have a friend who adamantly accedes to the belief that a great many of the world’s problems would be resolved had so many children not been raised believing that they are special snowflakes. While it is hard not to hope that your snowflake was at least cut from the unique craft scissors, I most feared cliché not because it robbed me of this fantasy, but because it made everything excusable. He gave himself the luxury of believing I was a caricature, and even my credible elucidations were quite easy to ignore. No situation felt singular—our fights and foibles merely repetitions of foremothers and forefathers and bad TV.