10 Things Ex-Boyfriends Are Good For

A piece by Michelle Herman

I spent my youth — and plenty of my no-longer-youthful years, and a few years beyond that — with a series of boyfriends. Too many boyfriends, I used to think when I looked back (and even when I was in the thick of it: every time I geared up for the start of a new romance, exhausted in advance by the prospect of cranking up all that machinery again — trading childhood memories and hopes and dreams, et cetera). But I’ve been married now for more than two decades. I have Perspective. (That’s capitalized because it always seemed to me a place — like, literally, a place — I’d never get to. It’s another country.)

Thus, I write this from the land of Perspective: an annotated list of 10 things I have because of one or another ex-boyfriend. So if you’re single and feeling grim about the pileup of failed (or, anyway, finished) relationships — and cynical about the start of yet another — and wondering what it’s all for, take heart. It’s for something. Maybe even 10 things.

1. A driver’s license.

I was 30 (16 years of dating behind me) and I didn’t know how to drive. I hadn’t ever needed to: I’d lived in New York City all my life. But in August of 1984 I’d left Manhattan for grad school, which happened to be in Iowa, and although I didn’t mind riding my 12-year-old Peugeot Unisex bicycle around Iowa City (not even in snow or rain or heat or gloom of night), José — not yet my boyfriend, but a student in a fiction-writing class I was teaching that spring at the medical school — was appalled to learn that I didn’t have a driver’s license. He offered me — insisted on giving me — driving lessons as a thirtieth birthday present.

We started dating before my first lesson. Miraculously, our relationship survived the lessons (and going on 30 years later, I can still hear his voice in my head when I’m parallel parking — and I am a master parallel parker; it’s actually the part of driving I am best at). It even survived my totaling his car while I was still learning to drive it. (It was a freak accident, okay? There was a tree limb on a country road, buried under freshly laid gravel, and I drove right over/into it and the steering seized up. We rolled into a ditch I don’t know how many times.) Once we realized that we were alive, he said, over and over again — at least as many times as we had rolled — “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a thing.” And a couple of hours later, he stood outside the rental car we’d picked up and folded his arms and calmly told me we weren’t going anywhere unless I drove us there. And so I got behind the wheel again. And soon after that, I passed my driver’s test.

2. A great recipe for Cuban black beans.

Also José (who is responsible for a lot of other great things about my life — including my quitting a three-pack-a-day smoking habit after 15 years, and my learning that I wanted to be, and could be, responsible for taking care of anyone beside myself someday — but I’m limiting myself to just these two: transportation and sustenance).

Here it is.

Cuban Black Beans

Ingredients:

  • Six cans (or 1 bag of dried) black beans (if you use dried, cook them well before you start this recipe; the principal advantage of dried is that they’re cheaper than canned)
  • One large green bell pepper, chopped
  • One large onion, chopped
  • A lot of garlic (say, two elephant cloves — or 10-12 regular ones — at minimum), chopped
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Red wine (it doesn’t have to be good wine; Two Buck Chuck Cab is plenty good enough)
  • Green olives without pits (pimento-stuffed is okay) —optional
  • Good white rice for serving (unless you want to eat this as soup, which works too)
  • Sour cream or plain Greek yogurt for garnish

What to do:

  1. Use a Dutch oven, preferably a cast iron one. Cover the bottom with olive oil. Add the chopped garlic and turn on the heat. Cook until the garlic is VERY crispy and brown (totally different than making garlic for, say, tomato sauce, where you just want the garlic to start to sizzle before you add the tomatoes; for black beans you want the garlic to be crunchy).
  2. Pour the olive oil and crunchy garlic mixture into a bowl and set it aside. Put more olive oil in the Dutch oven (you don’t need to clean it first). Heat the oil this time before adding anything. Then add chopped onion and green pepper. Stir. Cook until soft with the flame on medium-low (the onion will start to look a little transparent). Once this mixture is nicely cooked, put the garlic/olive oil back in the pot with it.
  3. Add all the cans of beans (or the cooked dried beans) along with their liquid, and turn the heat up. Add about half a bottle of red wine. Add the olives if you’re using them (when I use them, I put in about a dozen). And fresh ground pepper — plenty of it. And add salt. This is important: this is the trickiest of recipes for just one reason: you will need to put in way more salt than you think you should. It needs A LOT OF SALT. Don’t trust your instincts. Trust me. (This is good advice in general.) (That was a joke. All right?) Fill your hand with salt and drop it in. You can add more later if you need it, but if you use too little, the beans will taste terrible, I promise. If you use enough, they will be sublime.
  4. Cook the beans for as long as you have time to cook them. I like to simmer for at least an hour, but once you turn the flame down very low (which you must do as soon as the beans start to bubble), you can keep simmering for two, even three hours, and these beans just get better. But an hour will do it if you’re in a hurry. (You’ll be reheating for leftovers anyway, unless you’re taking this to a pot luck, right?)
  5. Make the rice according to package directions. Serve a mound of rice and ladle the beans on top. Or just put the beans in a soup bowl, without rice. Either way, top with a big spoonful of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt.
  6. Say a little thank you to José.

3. A dishwasher.

It was August 1989. I had no plans for a dishwasher. And I had plans. Actual plans, drawn out on paper. When I bought the hundred-year-old house I’ve lived in now for 25 years (and in which I raised my daughter, and had countless parties, big and small), it didn’t have much of a kitchen — it was really just a big almost-empty room. There was a freestanding sink, the kind on a pedestal, without a cabinet around it. And there was just one built-in cabinet, original to the house. There were no countertops at all (there’d been a butcher block in the center of the room when I’d looked at the house and made an offer on it, but the previous owners took it with them). The stove was electric (which I hated; New Yorkers don’t cook on electric stoves) and also filthy. The refrigerator was on its last legs.

So I drew up those plans for a new, improved kitchen (on a budget, because I was a year into my first real job, at a salary of $27,000 — which seemed like a lot, but everyone kept telling me it wasn’t and warned me that I had to have a budget).

I didn’t consult an architect or a designer or even a real contractor. I just went to Central Hardware, a store (now long defunct) in a strip mall in Columbus, Ohio, where my new job and my new (old) house were, and said I needed appliances, cabinets, and countertops for an old kitchen. I was dating Clifford then, and one of Clifford’s hallmarks was that he thought he knew everything. Mostly, somehow, I found this endearing . . . and mostly I had learned to ignore him. That is, I’d learned to ignore his telling me this or that thing I had to do/understand/appreciate/talk about in a particular way/pronounce as he did (have salad after the main course, recognize that books that bored me to tears were “genius,” Van Gogh was Van Goch, wine had legs). But when I drew up the plans to redo the kitchen, using the template provided by the friendly old guy at Central Hardware, Clifford looked over my shoulder and said, “Are you out of your mind? You’re not going to put in a dishwasher?”

I told him I didn’t need one. “No one needs one,” I said. “They’re expensive. I have two good hands. And I have a minuscule budget that everybody insists on and I’m already overextended. Besides, I’ve never had a dishwasher. I can do without one.”

“Listen,” he said. “You are going to want a dishwasher. You are going to live in this house for a long time and you are going to need a dishwasher. Put in a goddamn dishwasher.”

I’m not sure why, just this once, I listened — I’m not sure why I didn’t roll my eyes the way I did when he corrected my pronunciation of Van Gogh or tempura — but I did.

He didn’t stick around even six months more. I’ve had a dishwasher 50 times as long as I had him. And he was right: I needed that dishwasher.

4. Much of what I know about literature, and about writing.

My first boyfriend post-college, whom I met when I was 22, was Michael. We’re still close — we stayed close — and he is my daughter’s godfather, my husband’s friend (he’s one of just three friends who was by my side at my father’s funeral just this past May). When we met, I was living in my first apartment, working at my first real job, trying to write short stories. I didn’t know anything. And Michael introduced me to the novels of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud (among hundreds of others), literary magazines (which I’d never heard of), the complexities of point of view in fiction-writing, and the very idea that I could and should take myself seriously as a writer. I like to thank Michael for this every chance I get.

5. Table manners.

And thank you too, Michael, for introducing into my life the notion of manners. On our first date, in June 1977, at a now-long-defunct restaurant in Greenwich Village (where we both lived) called The Captain’s Table, he gently taught me to put my napkin across my lap. No one had ever mentioned this before.

6. An appreciation of jazz, funk, and Brazilian music.

Ah, this was Norbert, my most-of-college boyfriend. (Calling him a “boyfriend” might not even be accurate. Even after all these years, I’m still not sure — which may tell you everything you need to know about that relationship.) We kept seeing each other after college too, but things were rocky from the start, and they ended when he abruptly married someone else. But we listened to a lot of music together over five years of on and off (or sort of on and off). He was — he still is (yes, I am in touch with him; I am in touch with almost all of them) — a musician. If not for him, there’d be a whole world of music I wouldn’t listen to today.

7. An appreciation of country music.

But that world was missing country music, which it never even crossed my mind to listen to (indeed, I disdained it). Very likely, I still would, if not for Kurt, in 1990.

When he and I were first seeing each other, when everything between us was romantic and impossible — the combination that I craved most in those days — he made me a set of mix tapes. I thought the gift was clever, sweet, and thoughtful. (I was easy.)

But they were really good mix tapes. And one of them introduced me to Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis, George Jones, and a lot of other musicians I’d dismissed without ever once listening to them. Which I recognized then as not only incredibly stupid but also a reminder that writing off an entire genre without listening closely to any of its music was always going to be a stupid thing to do. And so I credit Kurt for my openheartedness to hip hop and electronica — just for example — which too many people my age assume they’ll hate, the way I’d once assumed I had no use for country music. I’ve got to give him that, even though he broke my heart.

8. John Ashbery’s poetry. (And poetry itself, in fact.)

It’s not that I ever wrote off poetry — not the way I wrote off country music. I half-pretended that I liked it (I knew I was supposed to). I just wasn’t much interested. But then there was Nick, in 1982. He was a poet himself (as far as I know he still is, but we aren’t in touch — the rare exception to my rule, and one of only three that I can think of). An Ashbery acolyte, he taught me to appreciate the music in the language of those poems. And it wasn’t very far from appreciation to love (which was a lesson too, but I didn’t absorb that one at the time). And then it wasn’t far from loving poems by Ashbery to loving poems by others.

Nick taught me how to read poetry. That’s a damn good gift. (And considering the life I ended up having — a life in which I am surrounded by poets and poetry — it was at least as important as a dishwasher turned out to be.)

9. A whole lot of killer-good stories I can pull out of my hat to tell when I need a good story to tell.

Just for example: Nick once pulled a small tree out of the ground in a jealous rage (and that’s a story I’ve not only told, but written). Richard, who left me with nothing else (and who was never really a “boyfriend,” just a boy I should never have let into my life, much less my bed), did leave me with a seriously great story, which is in my next book (you’ll have to read it if you want to know). Kurt’s behavior has been fictionalized in more than one story I’ve written, including “Hope Among Men” (which also tells a fictionalized version of Clifford’s, so two for one!), which is in my novella collection A New and Glorious Life. Mark — like Richard, really not an ex-boyfriend; but unlike Richard, a real friend, and definitely an ex-something — was an actor: I saw him in a movie before I met him, and I fell in love with the brooding character he played (his final scene involved chopping a lot of wood in a mute rage). Then I met him in real life just a few weeks later. That was a good story. One day, I’m going to write it.

10. Martini glasses.

Clifford again (I know: for an ex who was such a jerk, he’s taking up a lot of space — but I thought he was the great love of my life back then . . . and looking back, I can remember clearly what that felt like).

He thought we should have martini glasses. “Everybody should,” he said. He said it firmly, the way he said everything. But this was an easy one: I didn’t care one way or the other. So I bought martini glasses.

We never used them, and I never used them afterwards either. That is, not until a month ago — 25 years after I brought them home. My newly 21-year-old daughter was about to leave for a summer in Japan and we decided to have cocktails together.

A whiskey sour was my first drink, over 40 years ago — it seemed a fitting first cocktail for us to share — and Grace had seen whiskey sours served in martini glasses in a photograph online. “That would be cool,” she said wistfully. “But we don’t have martini glasses, do we?”

We did.

And it was cool.

Grace and Mama’s Whiskey Sours
(Makes two cocktails if you pour into rocks glasses, but it takes two pours from the shaker if you use martini glasses — so it’s like two rounds of drinks for the price of one.)

Ingredients:

  • Four ounces Jack Daniels
  • Juice of three large lemons
  • Juice of one small lime
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 2-4 maraschino cherries (use Merry brand — it makes a big difference)
  • slice of lemon, lime, or orange
  • ice

What to do:

  1. Add Jack, fresh-squeezed lemons and lime, sugar, and ice to cocktail shaker; shake
  2. Prepare martini glasses with ice, cherries, citrus slice
  3. Pour

Clink glasses. Toast to your relationship. And to all the relationships that made this relationship — and this life — possible. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Eric Gelinas

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