The Ex-Files

A personal essay about that first time you see an ex after a breakup, by Kathleen French /

When C. came over she hugged me for too long, not that it registered that way. The people you must keep around, always, are the ones that insist on hugging you for too long when the time calls for it. Then she looked me up and down and wordlessly set her things on my desk, queuing up a 1930s bluegrass station through some app on her phone. I hated that damn music, but she wasn’t asking and I wasn’t saying.

“I’m coming over.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Not in a good way to talk tonight. I promise we’ll do something tomorrow.”
“Already in a cab. I’m coming.”

C. emerged from the bathroom. I was still seated on that one corner of the couch. The one I’d not really dared leave for two days. I had been sitting here when she left the apartment for the last time when we were an ‘us.’

“Did you vomit?”
“What? No. I have a phobia of that.”
“Weird colored water in the toilet bowl.”
“I cleaned it with the brush.”

That was one of the first things I did. Not shower or brush my teeth or change clothes. I cleaned the toilet with a scrubbing brush.

“You need to snap out of it,” C. said. “You’ve got a world of hurt waiting for you. This is nothing.”

We agreed to meet for drinks close to my apartment. It had been nearly a year since I had seen her last, the all-too-familiar swirl of her brown hair quickly disappearing in the shrinking gap of a closing door. I hadn’t chased after her. I had already begged too long for her to stay. Perhaps, even then, I knew it was for the best that I remain still.

I approached the meeting with an ambivalence that unnerved me. Am I a sociopath? I messaged F. If you are then so am I, she said.

For two and a half years, I walked into restaurants or events or parties and could spot her immediately. In this tiny, low-lit place, I didn’t recognize her sitting center-view at the end of the bar. I hugged her, sat, fumbled to hang up my coat. I said something about failing to see her.

C. sat on the rug staring at me, that tinny music clanking in the background. I stared at my bare toes on the edge of the couch, knees keeping my head upright, afloat, though it felt heavy as lead.

“This is a good thing.”
“I can’t see it that way.”
“Not now, but you will.”
“What am I supposed to do.”

It wasn’t a question. People want answers to questions. In my mind, she was on her way back because of course—she had to be. These histrionics were temporary. But I’m terribly good at denying realities.

“Well, that’s the hard part. You’re in for it. Losing someone shreds you up and throws what you believed to be true into every corner of your life.”

C. said something about getting older. Something about refusing to dwell. Something about cleaning. You have to start over. Where are your cleaning supplies? We’re cleaning all of this. 

“Right now?”
“Right fucking now.”
At least I had already scrubbed the toilet.

I will admit I had made plans. She had too. We had talked of futures together that now seem like the low droning hum of a different life. That’s what it was; that’s what those years are to me now. That’s what every excruciating end and every excruciating beginning demand. If cats have nine lives, then we humans aren’t giving ourselves enough credit.

“Are you happy?” I asked her, and I meant it.
“I am. Are you?”
It wasn’t a time to say that’s a difficult question for me to ever answer.
“I am.”

We tried each other’s craft cocktails. She stole some of the toasts from my small plate. I looked at this person I once surely would have laid down my life for with a foreignness suggestive of amnesia, some traumatic brain injury.

Is that all we become to one another? Shells of what we once loved? Shells we treasure like children, the memories bound up in ornate boxes.

Seeing each other again after so long had traces of the uncanny. This was a planned uncanniness, though, it’s the unexpected that we can’t help but eroticize. The couple that parted ways who happen to run into each other years later in a book shop, a coffee shop, always a damn shop. They See each other for Real this time. It’s all a crock of shit, of course, but we invent these possibilities, believe in them viscerally, to go on. That is, until one day we stop.

How much love do we invent for ourselves? That’s what I kept wondering as I walked to meet her, as I walked home at the end of the evening.

“I don’t know how to do this. I’m not OK.”
“But you will be.”

“I don’t think so.”

C. stood and sighed. Said something about the few years she had on me. Something about the people that let the dissolution of love destroy them. Something about how if I was so goddamn miserable why didn’t I just End It now, to which she quickly knelt and locked eyes with me in that way you remember always, like a bee sting or a cold slap. 

“But you? I don’t worry about you, kid. You don’t want nothingness.”

I saw an ex of over a year once at a football tailgate, of all places, months after we’d parted ways. I had no idea she would be there. I turned around and this person who I truly didn’t even know was in the godforsaken country greeted me with a wide smile and a stiff hug. It was one of the most abjectly terrifying moments of my life thus far. If there’s any moral to all of this it’s to make plans when it comes to seeing your ghosts.

Time, time, time. That’s what everyone says about breaking up and it’s infuriating because it’s true. And beyond time, they all say you must hide away every remnant of that person, cut them out of sight. Some advise to destroy every relic, but I couldn’t; I never could. Still haven’t. I see little virtue in erasure.

She toiled with the thin black straw in her drink. There was no awkwardness between us, just this mutual understanding, but of what? Not civility, not decorum. This wasn’t forced. A tacit acceptance, perhaps, of the reasons we failed to articulate or understand in the Why of leaving. To see each other be OK; a confirmation that maybe only seeing someone in the flesh can commit to certainty—that all that pain wasn’t for naught.

I squeezed her hand hard before she got in a cab. Said it had been so great to see her, and it was—it truly had been—this different person I still love in the way only an Everest of history can allow for them another chance, because in the end no one wronged anyone else, misery notwithstanding. Neither of us would wish a hurt of that magnitude on the other. It could have just been a glint of light off a street lamp, but her eyes seemed strained with the restraint of disavowing tears; I know because I was doing the same. And I watched her leave this time with a wave, and I probably wiped at my eyes, and I walked inside.

Once, she said to me: “You have to promise if things ever go south between us that we treat each other with kindness.” And I had agreed, dismissively; found even the mere notion of separation laughable and, deep down, utterly gut wrenching, but I didn’t see it as a portent of what was to come. I still don’t. And there’s such great relief in landing on the strength of that promise after you’re forced to rebuild, atom by atom. When all you have or want to offer someone you have loved and hated more than anything in the world is kindness.

The apartment, that night after C. came over, was the cleanest it’s ever been.

Kathleen French is a writer living in New York / photograph by Santa Katkute 


Sorry I haven’t been posting very much recently, I’ve been busy being out of control. A life update: my boyfriend and I broke up which means I’m now ~single~. A side effect of that means my blog will probably be more exciting in the coming months, because I’ll no doubt be getting up to more ridiculous/tragic sex stuff now that I live a life without rules. It’s weird–we broke up right around the time I quit my restaurant job, so I suddenly feel very “free.” That sounds cheesy, but it does feel significant that for the first time in my life I don’t have a boss, I have no obligation to be anywhere at any specific time, I don’t have to tell anyone what I’m doing or where I’m going, and I don’t feel tied to anyone or anything. Everyday I wake up and think, “I can do whatever I want.” It’s sort of cool, except recently the “whatever I want” has been getting drunk on vodka martinis and having accidental group sex, which is not very productive, I know, but I just got out of a 2.5 year relationship so give me a break.

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I have lots of things to tell you (and by “you” I mean a group of random internet people I don’t know–blogging is weird), but I’ll limit this blog post to two stories. Story 1: I was recently set up on a blind double date by a friend of mine–I’ll call her “Kate.” Kate is dating this older rich guy who she really likes, and she asked if she could set me up with his friend–a funny, handsome, divorced entrepreneur. She said, “He’s fifty but he doesn’t seem fifty. He seems, like, young.” I said a young-seeming fifty year old sounded fabulous, and that as long as there would be martinis (low carb) I was down. Plans were then made for a Monday night double-date at a restaurant in the West Village. Unexpectedly, the night before our dinner I got a text from my blind date saying, “What’s your address? I will be sending my driver to pick you up,” which was an early positive sign. I couldn’t help but think of Big from Sex and The City, who (embarrassingly?) was my only mental reference for a person with a personal chauffeur.

When I got to the restaurant I was sort of nervous because I’d never been on a blind date before, but the guy was totally hot–tall, dark haired, Jewish (my fave)–and I immediately thought, thank fuck. So we were drinking at the bar and the three of them were sort of drunk already, and I was like, “How did you guys get drunk so fast?” and my guys says, “We took Quaaludes, you want one?” So obviously I said, “Uhh… I thought those stopped existing in the 80s” and he responded, “They did, but I have my own chemist who makes me whatever I want.” At this point I thought, score.

So we ate dinner and drank more, and by the end of the meal things were sort of fuzzy in a good way. Then suddenly Kate’s boyfriend suggested we get a penthouse suite at the St. Regis hotel to “hang out” in. I thought that was sort of weird, since both guys have apartments in Manhattan, but I was like whatever. So we get to the hotel and they ask for the penthouse and the hotel guy says, “That will be $5,500” and they pay for it like no big deal. Meanwhile I’m standing in the lobby drunk and barefoot, holding my high heels, with my eyes 75% closed because of all the downers.

In the room suddenly more pills and champagne appeared, along with casual stuff like chocolate covered strawberries and silver platters covered in miniature cakes. And then we got more wasted and had an orgy (duh) which at one point involved me getting fucked and sucking dick at the same time (life goal achieved), and I don’t know… a bunch of other stuff happened that I can’t really remember, but I know it was fun. And then in the morning Kate and I woke up alone because the guys had both gone to work, but since we both don’t have “real jobs” we just laid in bed all day and ordered room service. At one point Kate said, “God, isn’t it so much better dating guys who aren’t indie?,” and I laughed and agreed and then we high-fived in slow motion.

But moving on, story 2: I have also been dating a girl. (OH MY GOD I’M GREY AREA.) I suppose it’s not that weird, as I’ve been sleeping with women casually for years, but this is different because it’s not just a one-off sex thing–it’s been going on for months, and there are “feelings” (eww) involved. Seriously though, I never thought I would actually date a girl. I just couldn’t imagine myself being into the dynamic, because both in sex and in sexual relationships I tend to be ultra submissive and crave male dominant energy. However, this girl looks and acts like a boy, so it works out! (Actually she sort of looks like my ex–awkward.) What’s cool is that she has all the qualities I look for in guys (dominant, tall, in control, wants to bend me over stuff and spank me, etc.), except she has the sensitivity of a woman (good), and is just generally less of an arrogant dickhead than most men (also good).

For real though, she does make me feel “confused.” Like for the first couple weeks, every time we would hang out or have sex, I couldn’t get rid of this constant voice in my head going, “I’m dating a girl, I’m dating a girl, I’m dating a girl.” It was like I was too hyper-aware of what was going on to be fully present in the moment. But I got over that and now all I think is OH MY FUCKING GOD THE SEX IS SO GOOD. Seriously, having sex with a girl makes sex with men seem so dumb. It’s like duh, obviously girls are going to be better at making girls cum, because they know what they’re working with. I cum every time we have sex, usually multiple times. That’s craaaazy to me. (Sex and orgasms TOGETHER–what the!?) Like I bought a strap-on because I was like, “This is what lesbians do, right?” but we barely even use it because I legit don’t miss dicks when we fuck. And if I really missed what it felt like to be fucked by a dick, I could always just go to the bathroom and insert a tampon :)