Letter to My Ex: My Litmus Test

By Tara Mandarano

I.

You land in my inbox like a virus, casually asking if I’ve caught the latest episode of Lost. After twelve years of radio silence, the invasion is shocking. It’s also incredibly flattering—and earth-tilting. Like a long-lost pathogen, your words are insidious and oh-so-contagious. They demand to be read, to spread across my consciousness.

My heart, it turns out, is a surprisingly willing host. I don’t know why I don’t delete you on the spot, or throw your thoughts in the trash. I decide to grant you electronic admission, even though I’m not sure any good can come from this resurrection of old feelings.

With every life update my eyes take in, I want more. I’m blindly shutting off my protective software and crossing my fingers, even though I have no idea what’s in store.

I remember the way you stomped on my tender heart with your big, boot-clad feet. How you carelessly relegated first love to the landfill, as if it was something disposable and already starting to decay.

With no glances or poems passed between us in over a decade, you are curious. You are also feeling terrible about the way you treated me, even though it happened forever ago, on a different planet no longer in our orbit.

We’ve long since buried the broken pieces of us in the backyards of our new lives. They’re usually well-behaved, these relationship remnants. They can lie dormant for years, barely breaking the surface of our long-term memories.

But now the sharp edges of first love are suddenly sticking up out of the earth. You tell me you find yourself tripping over artifacts as you mow the lawn and water the plants. Recollections and regrets constantly weave and wind between your legs, just like your cats.

In the midst of your current relationship crisis, you feel the need to reach out, to make a confession across the electronic expanse that didn’t used to exist between us. You say you just want to make things right, at long last.

You’re craving some sort of closure. It’s more than a decade overdue, but I am open to it.

II.

We reunite at a Starbucks. The coffee chain wasn’t around in my hometown in that other life, when we were a couple, a cohesive unit. A lot of things weren’t. Cell phones, email, the internet and text messages all didn’t exist when we were Us. Without all these digital distractions, the tech-free era we spent together seems as if it’s been stuffed inside a rose-tinted time capsule. Up until now, hermetically sealed.

As I approach this new version of you with my white mocha latte, I notice the cute and creative paper name tags you’ve folded and carefully arranged on the table. Did you think we wouldn’t be able to recognize each other as our first loves after all this time?

I sense your nerves, the seismic undercurrents under the caffeine. Lovers turned strangers, we know everything—and nothing—about each other now.

You look pretty good for someone who’s unexpectedly come back from the dead. Always tall and lanky, your hair is short now, styled in a trendy way. It makes you look more grown-up. I’m not sure I like it. You still have no butt to speak of.

I’m wearing a turquoise fitted top and blue jeans, colours that bring out my eyes and show me off to my best advantage. I want to show you what you’ve been missing, what you deemed not good enough way back when.

Afterwards, you admit over email that you had completely forgotten about the little freckles on my lips.

I taste victory.

III.

You officially break up with me in the elementary school parking lot across the street from my childhood home. It’s a cold winter’s day, a Sunday. I can’t process the avalanche fully, even as it comes barreling out of your mouth and lands on me.

All I can see is the way you’d once written our names together in the snow. The letters huge in the field beside the main road. I remember blushing when neighbors commented on it, secretly thrilled. It must have taken you a long time and a big shovel to make our love so visible from a distance. It remains one of the most romantic gestures of my life, even though it wasn’t permanent.

First love is a hot balloon ride you take together, holding hands so high up in the sky you almost brush heaven. This brand of exquisite exhilaration and anticipation never comes again. I know that now. It’s also an introduction to future relationships, a premonition and imprint of what you want to come next.

After first love is over and you plummet back to earth, the mourning is soul-destroying because you’ve never gone through it before, and think you’ll never recover from the grief. But you do. It’s essential to growing your emotional armor. There’s no way to build it up without getting it banged around a bit in battle. Now that your heart has been beaten up, it has become stronger for your next encounter with love.

Over time, your ticker develops enough scar tissue to cover the worst of the damage. And you manage. One day a tiny unused crawl space will reveal itself as the perfect place, a space you can store all the memories, letters and ashes of what remains.

We were sitting together in study hall, writing funny notes back and forth to each other to pass the time. At one point, I looked up and caught you staring at me while I was busy scribbling. It made me think I was taking too long. I remember teasing you for being impatient, making light of your intense gaze and the weird and wonderful feelings it was provoking in me. When the bell rang, you simply handed me a tiny folded note of your own: ‘It wasn’t a question of patience, but of beauty.’

You and I used to be major characters in each other’s stories. Now we are first-love footnotes in a shared narrative. Life moves on, but the past is always unfurling in the background. When it shows up unannounced, I find I can’t look away, even though it hurts me to stare directly at it.

You say you are examining everything these days, turning over every stone in your quest to get to the bottom of your pain. I am just another jumping-off point on your path to perception, a nerve you need to poke to get at the truth.

It’s tempting to think that if enough time goes by, first love simply evaporates, but it doesn’t. You stuff it away in shoeboxes in the backs of closets and rarely pull the memories out to look, but they’re always there. They’re just lying in wait.

When you drop the wife-bomb in your out-of-nowhere electronic letter, I want to crawl back into my emotional bomb shelter beneath the ground and keep pretending you’re dead. I miss the blissful ignorance of not knowing what happens next.

There should be a word in the English language—something short and sharp-sounding—that captures the particular stab to the heart that comes with finding out your first love has married someone else.

You never gave me a good explanation as to why we broke up. I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that I had done wrong. There were no flying plates or let’s-take-a-break talks or other people involved (that I knew of).

Was it simply that we were on two different paths, kindred spirits headed in opposite directions? A feeling that we were just too young to be ‘the one’ for each other?

In your email, you tell me that you told your friends at university you would probably still be with your soulmate from high school if it had been medieval times, or even the 1950s. No one did that kind of thing in the 90s, though.

It’s hard to swallow, that somehow true love could have been ours if only it had happened four decades ago.

Now I know that you were simply scared, frightened of settling down too soon. You thought my hinting about having children and moving in together would prevent you from exploring all life had to offer.

You wanted me, but you wanted the lure of the unknown more.

I read about your secret separation and feel a deep, dark pleasure that your marriage isn’t working out. I know I should feel some sort of guilt, but I don’t. I just resent the fact that it all seems so mutual and respectful.

There was nothing civilized or clean about our uncoupling. It felt as if you’d pushed me out of our hot air balloon without any kind of warning, or parachute.

I had to stay home from work the day after it happened because I just wasn’t up to facing the world. I would lie in my bed all day and rage at fate. I remember my mother feeding me valium to take the hysterical edge off my pain. Eventually my parents had to set up an appointment for me to see a counsellor. I think that’s when I began seeing myself as a mental patient.

I remember you taking the time to lace up your boots, how precise you were in your movements while I sat on the floor and fumed, dying inside. I remember feeling like an official stalker that second year of university, the time I showed up outside your class uninvited after we broke up.

I remember throwing the phone across the dorm room when you told me I had to call my dad to come pick me up. How you calmly dialed the numbers when I wouldn’t. The bone-deep humiliation of waiting for my father to come and collect me. The way we didn’t talk about my descent on the way home.

As our revived correspondence continues, the odd-but-endearing gestures start up again. It’s hard to know what they mean. Are you falling for me again?

When you invite me out to a poetry slam, I accept. You’ve always known that words are my weakness. It almost feels like a date, even though I’m in a long-distance relationship with someone else, and you’re still not divorced.

When we arrive at the event, we drink to forget and reminisce. Unexpectedly, I get to be a judge. I get to say who wins.

VII.  

First love should be sweet and innocent and full of promise, even if that promise never comes to pass. It should make you feel like the most special person in the world to someone. When that same someone eventually informs you that they now want something else, it will hurt like hell, but it’s supposed to. There’s no getting around the agony, the cut, the knife to the chest. That’s how we get our experience.

It’s been twelve years apart, and we’ve been investigating who we are individually. We’ve been travelling. We’ve been busy making new memories. We tell each other we are mostly happy, content with where we’ve landed on life’s map.

We both know there hasn’t been as much poetry in the world, though.

When I knew you best, you had a childhood chest in your bedroom full of drawings, photos and writing books. Now you tell me you are re-reading everything you wrote then. You say it’s eye-opening. Enlightening, even. You say that within that chest there is a smaller, hidden box full of all my old letters. To know that you’ve kept them all this time, safe and hidden. To know that you’ve recently been poring over them. It’s healing.

Three important things I know now, that I didn’t know then:

  1. The day you ended life as we knew it was one of the worst days of your life, too.
  2. Watching me cry like that tore you up inside, because you knew you had just lost the right to hold me or offer me any comfort.
  3. It grieved you to turn my Irish Claddagh ring back around, at my request, to signify my newly single status.

The heavy silence of the last decade has been like a curtain between us, separating us. Getting back in touch with your ghost has been surreal, but worth it. Hearing your ancient apology has been a revelation for me. Old hurts still throb a bit, but I can finally feel them turning pink.

Who knew it would take so long to recover from first love?

It’s nice to know that we’re no longer just a bad breakup, or a footnote. And the truth is, for me, you have also had lasting resonance.

Want to know a secret?

You have always been my litmus test.

 

 

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