Picture this: I’m about to see my college boyfriend for the first time in 15 years. I’m flying into his town for a book talk and will be staying at his house. That’s right. With his wife and kids. He’s picking me up at the airport now and we’re triangulating where to meet via cell phone.
Background: This isn’t some prom date kind of boyfriend. This was my first serious college relationship, my first adult love, the kind of solid, healthy relationship I’d wish for all of my daughters.
Disclosure: We’ve remained in touch for years, and my husband loves him. I love his wife. The four of us lived in Northern California back when they first met and before we had kids. So, if you imagined me starving myself for two months to get down to some kind of skinny jeans fighting weight, it’s not like that. This is a guy who lovingly cleaned my meatloaf splattered vomit off his record collection (and my face) after my 20th birthday celebration. This is a good guy, the kind of guy that has prompted my husband to regularly remark “You had good taste.” I’d like to think I still do.
Regardless, 15 years without seeing someone and you might be hankering to put your best foot— or face—forward. But here was the thing. A few days earlier I had booked a facial laser treatment, to scrub off all those pre-cancerous sun spots and hope for some new collagen and a more youthful visage. Clearly, I had not thought through the timing of the recovery.
So, sit back for a moment and imagine meeting your old love. Now imagine your face, red and puffy like a broiled tomato, two small, hard, raisin eyes. If the swelling and the irritation weren’t bad enough, somewhere on the flight across the country my immune system had begun to respond to the procedure the way it does to an extreme sun burn, by forming a fever blister. Except that my face thought this was Armageddon.
This was no one little boo boo. This was a blooming beard of blisters, a veritable Fu Manchu of herpes tattooed around my lips like a ring of fire. Have I traumatized you enough yet? Because let me just lay on the last visual. The top layer of my skin had begun to peel, which was the desired result of the treatment. But don’t picture tiny little flakes off the bridge of a nose. I want you to imagine a full Komodo dragon molting, big patches of dry skin hitting the ground with leper colony speed. Yes, you are probably thinking, these are not optimal conditions under which to see your old boyfriend? All that was missing was a dowager’s hump and a black tooth.
Naturally, I was quick to explain. Luckily, he is a doctor. So he was somewhat sympathetic to my plight. At the very least he understood the human body. I did tell him that I’d been considering an eyelid lift for some time and if he knew anyone in Denver maybe we could book it right now and I could get all the ugly healing drama over with at once. Adding insult to injury, envision how desperate you have to be to ask your old boyfriend to write you a prescription for cold sore meds. Did I mention the swollen, burned face and oozing blisters were uncomfortable? Did I mention it was actually his wife who kindly called it in and drove me to the pharmacy to pick it up? Did I also mention how much I like her?
All of the above either takes a giant pair of stones or a total lack of vanity, neither of which are particularly desirable qualities in a woman. So I’m not quite sure what this story really says about me. The visual alone is unsettling.
If it seems odd to be in that kind of touch with an old boyfriend, I’m in the camp who believes it’s a gift to know people from your past. Yes, yes, if your ex turned out to be a serial rapist or an Internet porn king, you might want to cut ties. But I’ve actually kept up with a number of old boyfriends. There was a solid reason I was attracted to them in the first place and in most cases those reasons are still valid.
Listen, I get it. I understand why people don’t keep in touch. I know there are sickos and stalkers and people who change dramatically or never get past high school. I’ve seen those movies. Lord knows I dated a few ratfinks. But for the most part, I’m happy to have kept in contact with the good eggs.
We move on, we grow up; we begin to define ourselves and figure out what we want and need in a partner. And all of the people we meet along the way are part of that process of discovery. There is a sweet nostalgia in connecting with the people we used to be, that freer, younger, less encumbered version of our present selves. People from our past help us to do that, in admittedly both positive and sometimes negative ways. Old loves helped to bring us to the place we are now. My sister calls past boyfriends “the first pancake” – the one you cook and then throw out, the one you use to temper the skillet for the real breakfast.
Still, I have a hard time understanding people who are jealous of their spouse’s past relationships, especially the people who predated them. I am grateful for my husband’s former experiences, his old loves. He got some great practice time in the field. The way I think of it is – I won the prize. I got the ring. Relax; I want to say to the haters. But I guess I’m not a very jealous person by nature and neither is he.
Recently, I was reminded that my kumbaya approach to the past is not shared by all. I agreed to meet an old high school and family friend (note= not a boyfriend) for a quick drink during his business trip to New York. My husband knew where I was, but it was obvious the next morning that he and his wife didn’t share the same level of open communication.
I woke up to a series of psycho emails, the Internet equivalent of a jealous woman scrawling lipstick threats on your mirror. She had clearly been reading his email and monitoring our back and forth as we chose a restaurant location and bantered around some stupid inside jokes from high school. As I opened each email I read with growing dread the comments she had edited into our correspondence, phrases like “don’t you know he’s married?” or “isn’t this cute that you are meeting.” Cue the Hitchcock soundtrack.
The level of crazy was so preposterous for a harmless 45-minute beer that at first I was convinced my friend was playing a joke on me. And then I realized this was dead serious. Radio silence from my friend. He may still be tied up in a basement bomb shelter somewhere with a pillowcase over his head. Suffice it to say that kind of behavior was a good reason to cut ties with the past.
After I returned from the Denver trip, still slightly swollen but with the fever blisters medicated down to milk moustache size, my friend’s wife sent a copy of what their youngest daughter had written as an exercise in school that next day. “…then I swimmed at the pools and ate S’mores and then we had to go home and see my Dad’s girlfriend Lee.”
I can still picture it now, the look of astonishment on his daughters’ sweet faces as I walked in their house, hot sauce-red face, squinting like Popeye minus the corn cob pipe. I could see their young brains processing how in the world their beloved father had ever given this raggedy assed woman a second look, let alone dated her for two years. Perhaps it was an act of grace, his eldest daughter must have concluded. Like a “Make a Wish” foundation experience.