I recognized her immediately: the soft, brown golden retriever-like eyes that turned down at the corners, the blonde, slightly over-processed hair and tan skin with a smattering of freckles that betrayed her Southern sorority girl roots despite her New York fashion girl get-up.
It was 2010 and I was working behind the cheese counter at a shop in the Chelsea Market. And she was … well, obviously doing well enough to spend $30 a pound on farmstead cheese. As I stumbled to weigh out her dainty wedge of artisan sheep’s milk, flustered and flushed, I felt a strange surge of vindication that twisted and wrapped around a twin, slightly nauseating feeling of anxious jealousy like some cruel double helix.
We had never met in person but I could have spotted her a mile away. And here she was, smiling obliviously at me across the refrigerated case as I swaddled her Manchego in butcher paper. Her credit card confirmed the name I had come to know and agonize over for months upon months of my life. She was The Ex.
No matter that I’d broken up with the man we’d had in common more than a year prior. In that time, I’d continued to check her Facebook profile regularly and pore over her personal blog, which I’d unearthed triumphantly from the deep recesses of the Internet after many hours of dedicated “research.” (Turns out she was funny and thoughtful, not at all the dim, superficial nitwit the then-boyfriend had made her out to be, perhaps in some misguided attempt to reassure me of my intellectual superiority.) Checking up on her became a ritual, and as my breakup receded further into the past, I found myself more interested in keeping tabs on her than on him.
She started taking Strip Tease aerobics! She watched a Sopranos marathon last weekend and made meatballs! She went to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New Jersey! She had a complicated relationship with her mother!
During my volatile six-month relationship with the man in question, she had been a constant, shadowy presence that loomed over me, daring me to compare each and every component part of myself with her. Of course, it didn’t help that I’d caught him cheating with her early in our relationship. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Like the painful thrill of a tattoo needle, I always sought out the Ex, torturing myself with all the ways in which I perceived that she was better than me – thinner, sexier, more exotic, more adventurous, more into football or pool, better at baking or photography or freestyle rapping or aerial yoga.
Sometimes these suspicions were loosely based on reality (or whatever “reality” I was able to piece together from combing these highly curated social media profiles and pitching myself down the rabbit hole of Google search). More often, they were simply projections of the things I was most insecure about.
The Ex probably made her bed every day. She probably had matching sets of expensive lingerie and applied lotion religiously after she showered and actually totally enjoyed running because it was so great for clearing her mind and was generally totally put together in ways that I could only dream of being. The Ex became a symbol of all the ways in which I was deficient, a sick game I played with myself when I was bored or feeling low.
I played some version of this game as far back as high school. During a brief separation, my longtime boyfriend had dated another girl. After he and I reunited, I became obsessed with finding out all I could about this interim girl. In the era before Facebook, this required significantly more sleuthing, and like a detective I extracted what I could from friends who attended her high school, mutual acquaintances, yearbook pictures and one elaborately constructed in-person encounter at a party. (By encounter I mean I stole nervous, tentative glances at her over the rim of my red Solo cup of beer and left without speaking a word to her, feeling sick and desperate and not a little pathetic.)
From these disparate research projects, I learned a few vital pieces of information: She had a brother, knew how to skateboard and had a flatter stomach than me. I clung desperately to these facts, trotting them out any time I felt particularly insecure, languishing in the knowledge that I could never truly be loved or wholly desired unless I learned to kick-flip and shed an inch from my waist.
Three years later, I found myself hoarding every casual anecdote my college boyfriend told about his most significant ex, piecing together a composite that I attempted to corroborate with his friends and family members at every opportunity—subtly, of course. After I found out she had dark hair, I made the executive decision to dye my red bob a blackish brown, convinced that this way I’d be more “his type.”
I couldn’t conceive that my boyfriend might have more than one “type,” that perhaps my ginger hair and the timbre of my laugh and all the idiosyncrasies and flaws that make up a human being — made me who I was, am — were compelling in their own right.
Of course, with the advent of Facebook, all these borderline stalker-ish, self-destructive impulses have become that much easier to indulge. Since breaking up with my most recent boyfriend a year ago, I’ve noted with a combination of relish and searing jealously that his ex (well, the one before me anyway)—the Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose doe-eyes haunted me for the two and a half years he and I were together—got married and had a baby. No longer an imminent or imagined threat to my now dead relationship, she nonetheless remains in active rotation, one in the pantheon of ex-girlfriends I check on, a still-maddening specter in my life, pointing out to me all the ways I don’t measure up.
This twisted exercise in note-comparison has taken on an even deeper resonance as I’ve gotten older and felt the inevitable pressure to settle down. Not only do I not know how to use Pinterest, nor have I have ever baked a vegan lemon blueberry cake, I am nowhere close to being married or having a child.
In the rom-com version of my life, after some perspective and possibly a stint in an Ashram in India, I ultimately find comfort in the common bond I have with this ragtag assemblage of women, sort of like a less vengeful, less dated, less plastic surgery-enhanced version of The First Wives Club. After all, on some (admittedly deluded) level, I feel I know them, or at least I know the version of them they have painstakingly constructed on various social media platforms.
By way of the pictures they post, the status updates they author, the books and movies and TV shows they claim as their favorites, I’ve fabricated living, breathing personalities, sewn together with the ever-tenuous thread of remembered stories from people who actual know them. And those people – the men we have in common – have become secondary to these more profound, if imaginary relationships. In an alternate universe, one where sexual jealousy and female insecurity is not at issue, these women and I could very well be friends.
In my Hollywood-ized fantasy, I email one or two or all of them, opening with some airy, effortless line that makes me sound breezy and self-assured, not like Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Single White Female.” We get together over brunch on some impossibly sunny day and trade war stories like weathered ‘Nam vets and cackle and make jokes about penises and drink martinis.
In reality, there has thus far been little redemption or compensation for all the time and energy I have spent agonizing over these women. There have been fleeting moments where I felt a sort of common-bond magnanimity towards this or that one –- usually when I was still in the throes of a relationship and particularly exasperated with my boyfriend at the time, and felt that only someone who had dated him could understand and commiserate appropriately.
Unfortunately, a more tangible sense of female kinship that I hoped would magically sprout from the hours, nay years of misplaced energy I poured into getting to “know” these women, has not materialized. Rather, it’s made me keenly aware of my insecurities, and of my sadistic need to craft a wax effigy primped and painted with all the Better-Than attributes I can dream up. It’s made me dread the inevitable point in a fledgling relationship when my overblown notions of myself as the prettiest, awesomest, most fascinating woman this guy has ever met are dashed by the unwelcome emergence of the Ex, who is certainly better than me in most ways and, were she to show up at the door this minute, would surely seduce my fella back into her grip with an expert bat of the lash or wrinkle of the nose.
I suppose the only real consolation I can distill from all this pointless obsessing is the knowledge that I, too, am an Ex, and perhaps somewhere out there, some poor girl has scoured my Facebook profile and Googled me ceaselessly and concluded that I am really quite amazing. Maybe it tortures her and makes her feel worthless and defeated.
Or maybe—just maybe—it empowers her to know that she’s in really good company, that her boyfriend is a man of discerning taste, and that, worst case scenario, in a few years’ time, she’ll gain entrance into an elite club full of diverse, fascinating and incredibly photogenic women.