It was early one Saturday, not long ago, that I found myself conducting some light surveillance outside the house of my ex-boyfriend Ryan. That might seem creepy to the untrained eye, though I can assure you, it wasn’t. After all, I was sober, clean-shaven, unarmed, and driving a Volvo. With a backdrop of cool Potomac fog as I sipped my soy latte and zipped up my North Face, it was all very poignant and poetic and upscale. All exes should be so lucky. Had the police come by and pressed the matter, I’m confident they would’ve appreciated my special brand of whimsical angst—an admirably composed crestfallen with subtle undertones of “gay Bridget Jones”—and I’ve no doubt they would’ve taken pity. Plus, I was just a guy in a car. I’d just made a wrong turn down a cul-de-sac and paused for a long-ish moment to get my bearings. You’d be hard pressed to find any crime in that. It’s not like I was prowling about any buildings. It’s not like I was hiding in any bushes—particularly as they’d been recently planted and wouldn’t have provided adequate cover.
Perhaps that sounds a touch pathetic to you. Perhaps you’re a touch right. I’ll admit that the really embarrassing part—and what ultimately may have hurt the most—was that I’d actually not even dated him for that long. A few months, tops. Certainly not long enough to warrant becoming the proper mess that I did, but I’ve never claimed to deal in logic. So, no, when I consider my rich collection of less-than-stellar life choices—including but not limited to possibly having fucked my doctor mostly to get a free ball exam afterwards in his shower—I couldn’t exactly exempt some casual stakeouts from the bunch.
But the act of “missing” makes one do strange things. There’s a certain durability to the past that’s just a real bitch to shake, thanks in part to the power of the human mind. For all of history, we’ve been both blessed and cursed with the ability to call up our memories, be they good or bad, and run through them, again and again, like songs on a player piano. And we don’t help ourselves by keeping reminders—old letters, old photos, old t-shirts, old restraining orders, and the like—that are quick to conjure rosier, bygone moments. We usually indulge in these reminders when we’ve housed a bottle of drugstore chardonnay, alone, in a dark, under-furnished living room, in our underwear, harmonizing sloppily to Jewel’s entire catalogue (but hitting “Repeat” on Foolish Games a couple of times. Or more than a couple.) But the mind, likely by design, has always had to contend with the counterweight of time. With all that it’s asked to do in even just five minutes on an average day, the normal brain can’t help but let the past drop into the background as it sweeps a clean space to face what’s coming next. So, if time itself doesn’t exactly “heal,” at least its constant advance forces the old and the new to compete for our attention.
It’s only been through developments in the last few hundred years that we’ve significantly rebalanced this equation of memory, and with it, the relative ease of forgetting. Postal mail, slow as it was, liberated communication from the bounds of proximity. Letters between lovers separated by oceans and wars strung long, delicate threads of consciousness and possibility across the globe. Photography, maybe the most haunting invention of all, allowed place and life to be preserved in near perpetuity. It let the observer revisit a glimpse of his past or indulge in a moment he’d never even lived. Film then came to mate motion and sound and created a living, alternate reality, and the telephone made conversations over long distances vivid and instant.
And yet, with all of that, we could still forget. With all of that, as an awkward teenager first attempting to date a girl (don’t get me started), I could nervously dial up her digits one by one but, without pressing that last button and her picking up at the other end, her world at that exact moment was an utter mystery to me. There were no status updates or tweets to give any atmosphere or context. I couldn’t have told you if she was having dinner with her family, or fighting with her sister, or—just thinking in abstracts here—filming an awkward, poorly staged and edited sex tape with one of my best friends that didn’t find its way onto the fledgling internet by God’s provenance and the technical boundaries of dial-up modem speeds in the American Midwest of the mid-1990s. And then text messaging came along and we actually as a society regressed, so to speak, in terms of our communication. No longer were we welcome to just pick up the receiver and ring someone. Talking suddenly became a vocal intercourse of sorts, and a phone call evolved into an intimate act, initiated only in close friendships and with trusted partners.
All of these advancements, however, were really just preludes. The ultimate plunge didn’t arrive until social networking, and with it, the end of the past. I realized this as I was sitting there in my car that morning by Ryan’s house, humming along to the radio while taking down his slut boyfriend Jason’s plate so that I could key the car if I saw it out in town, and otherwise daydreaming about the dramatic ways in which I might publicly ruin them.
With my eyes watery and my voice hoarse from belting out a show-stopping-if-I-do-say-so-myself rendition of Bonnie’s Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” on the drive over (think a throaty Tracy Chapman-esque lesbian chanteuse, except less pedantic), I considered what a luxury it used to be to forget. While in an older time the end of a love or a friendship more or less meant the end, with our lives now cyber-documented play-by-play, there increasingly has become no forgetting, and no yesterday. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have largely tossed “forgetting” into the trash heap of obsolescence. The constant, vapid onslaught of newsfeeds and “Likes” scream “Look at me!,” churning up our yesterdays and shoving them into the spotlight. (Other vapid things that scream “Look at me!” and shove themselves into the spotlight include Jason.)
Indeed, for some of us “transitional Gen-Xers”—the children of the early ‘80s with adolescences that straddled the pre- and post-internet eras—this social change has been extraordinarily stark. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we presided over the waning days of an old world order. We made it through high school, and largely through college, cloaked in the relative anonymity afforded by our technological barbarism. Former loves were erased, former friends faded into the background, and embarrassing prom photos could only be searched for in scrapbooks warehoused in parents’ musty basements. It was a life that existed before the syndication of human events.
Perhaps the most striking example of this bygone time is that of a woman with whom I worked a few of years ago. In the late-1980s, at age 25, she abruptly split up with her college boyfriend of six years, never to speak to him again. Twenty years later, out of nowhere, he called the old number he had for her parents’ house to see if they still lived there, and asked if he might be able to get in touch with her. She was uneasy about the whole thing, but at my urging, she agreed to meet him for dinner. Five months later they moved in together, and a year later they were married. The notion of such a story nowadays would be absurd—surely there’d be Facebook, surely there’d be email, surely 20 years couldn’t pass without bumping into each other somewhere out there in the ether?! Today it feels like we couldn’t avoid someone for that long even if we wanted to, and increasingly we simply can’t. I boot up the internet now and a living scrapbook of former loves and sexual transgressions unfolds before me, bold and relentless, with an almost Kardashian-like omnipresence.
I know what you want to say to all this. “Just de-friend them.” De-friend, de-follow, de-link, delete, detach, deemphasize, detox and get on with your life. It seems easy enough, and it’s something that all these self-important self-help gurus get ever richer off of by spitting back to us on talk shows. Yes, we do have the option to erase them—but we don’t do it. We don’t do it because at the end of the day, a part of us is too weak to do it. Our social networks let us keep the past on life support, and if we were being honest, we’d admit to ourselves that we hang on in part to avoid accepting what’s gone.
Masochistic as it may be, it’s oddly easier to know what we’re missing out on than to pull the plug—or to have the plug pulled on us—and always wonder. Because we know that the answer does, in fact, exist out there on some page or app or at some web address, we feel entitled to have it, and we’re reluctant to give up the voyeur’s lens.
I’ve always been of the opinion that forgiving and forgetting is for the weak, because it means you’re giving up and letting someone off the hook for his or her callousness and arrogance. It’s also because my two favorite hobbies in this world are judgment and blame. Like Shirley MacLaine says in The Evening Star, “It’s important to have enemies. They keep you strong.” Truthfully, I guess I’ve come to tepidly embrace this not-letting-go thing, because it in a way it does keep me strong. They always tell us that history repeats itself and that we need to learn from the past, and so that’s what I’ve tried to harness social networking to do—to help me go on learning from my past while stopping short of living in it. It might hurt—and sometimes more than a little—to go on seeing those ones who got away (either with or without a court order), but those awkward chance encounters in the cyber-world help remind me of why it didn’t work out; sometimes it was my mistake and my loss, and I’ll know what to do better next time, and sometimes it was his or her fault, and I was left ultimately better off in the end (and therefore get to be a triumphant, self-righteous bitch).
So while I’m less than proud of generally wanting to slam my car into Ryan’s house not unlike Meredith Baxter-Birney in the 1992 USA Network TV movie A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story every time I see his vacuous slut boyfriend make a cutesy status update, I’ve come to realize that there’s value to be gleaned from the way that he continues to make me feel. I remember how I screwed up and how it’s important to me not to let history repeat itself. I also remember to bring my binoculars next time.