A Reflection On Eighteen Years And The Ex-Boyfriend Paradox

tomo tang
tomo tang

I turned 18 today in the most beautiful city in the world: Paris. I’ve been lucky enough to spend my past three birthdays abroad with my mom; 16 and 17 were celebrated in New York City, and today we are curled up in Paris on a winter night. I have been waiting for this day for the longest time; I think I craved the weight of being able to say “I’m 18” – a number with connotations of legality, maturity, adulthood and the real world. I felt like I had outgrown 17 a while ago and spent the latter half of being seventeen ready to move forward, but I woke up this morning and didn’t feel like much had changed. I was 17 yesterday, I am 18 today. 18 years ago on this date, I exited the womb. It seems like a strange thing to celebrate: congratulations, your parents had sex, conceived you, you floated around as a fetus for three quarters of a year, then popped out, and now you’ve been alive and breathing for eighteen years. At once, that seems like a laughably mundane cause for celebration as well as a joyous commemoration of the greatest gift of all: life itself.

I may have woken up feeling the same as I did yesterday, but looking back to this time last year when I blew out seventeen candles in the Big Apple, I feel like a completely different person now. Like many other aspects of life, love has a lot to do with it.

While most of my friends posted birthday wishes on my Facebook wall today, my two most recent ex-boyfriends both chose to private message me a birthday wish. The one whom I speak openly and cordially (but not regularly) with wished me “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!” and expressed how proud he was of me when I told him I got into university this week. I broke up with him almost three years ago, so wounds have sealed up entirely. The other ex was more recent and arguably a more serious relationship of almost two years – he broke up with me a few months ago, and although I feel reasonably healed from that experience, he was able to afford me a polite “Hey! I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday and congratulate you on legality :) Hope you’ve been well.” I couldn’t help but giggle at how forced this sounded; my mom is convinced that his inherently awkward personality gets the better of him more often than not. Part of me wants to think these private messages from “ex-lovers” are peace offerings and are done privately for the sake of sentimentality that lives on past the expiration date of a relationship, but maybe it’s the social paralysis and fear of superficial ridicule or public display that prevents them from expressing the standardized greeting of “happy birthday” on a Facebook wall. Who knows.

I’m seeing someone right now, and the magic and excitement of new romance will forever be a novelty as long as it’s shared with the right person. As usual, I never want to imagine him as an ex because he’s far too genuine and deeply wonderful for me to ever think ill of him. He’s harmless, but maybe he contains the power to shatter me with blameless kindness and a loveliness impossible to ever accuse. Being hurt by nice guys is the hardest because there’s nothing you can do to make yourself hate them, and that has never been more true than it is in my current relationship. My mom says he’s the best guy I’ve been with so far, even though we aren’t officially dating yet. But like virtually every other relationship, I’m scared he’s another heartbreak waiting to happen.

I think ex-boyfriends are the weirdest creatures. Ironically, it’s this disjointed, incoherent string of people who provide a pretty darn honest and accurate reflection of yourself. As I mentally look back down the line of boys who’ve hurt me and boys I’ve hurt, boys who I swore I wanted to marry one day and boys who cheated on me, I’m uncomfortably comfortable. Uncomfortable because, as a social rule of sorts, you are not supposed to associate these separate components of your life with each other until perhaps you are far enough away from them that they appear on the same vague wavelength. When you’re with a guy, you usually don’t talk about your exes, let alone mentally compare and contrast them. “Ah yes, this lovely guy I’m seeing right now – what if he’s a little like X was? I wonder if they have the same habit of doing Y. Ha, wouldn’t it be weird if he ended up cheating on me and dumping me too?” That is not, by any stretch, a pleasant thought.

But reflecting on people who have shaped me over these formative years feels comfortable too. How curious it is to think that within all my relationships, these individuals were my utmost priorities, my worlds, my comfort zones, my safe places. It’s comfortable to look back on a group of people who once understood you like no one else; who once were your source of comfort. How strange it is that although these guys may not know each other, should they ever cross paths, there will always be a tiny unspoken sliver of awkwardness or discomfort between them because they’ve all been “through” me at a point. I am a person, but in the context of my exes I am a common ground, a taste in women, a “been there done that” experience, a mystery, a lesson, a disappointment, a cherished memory, a failure, an unshakeable nostalgic haze.

I read somewhere of a hypothetical instance that violently nauseates me as a human but titillates me to no end as a writer: imagine if everyone you ever loved was gathered in a room talking to one another. Imagine you were roaming around the room too; an invisible ghost, or peering through a concealed one-way window like in psychology lab experiments. What would they say? Would my middle school fling have his hands in his pockets and utter a few words? Would one of them be so weighed down by painful memories and keep his lips clamped? Would one speak in impersonal platitudes about how much of a “great girl” I am? Would one have intimate scenes playing in his head? What would the mixture of their colognes smell like when mingling in the air? Would it make me want to stay? If I was drunk, who’s arms would I run into? What a wealth of material I’d have to write about.

Ex-boyfriends are a paradox. The people who aren’t in your life anymore comprise so much of who you are. The people who you hardly think of now once brought you immeasurable happiness. You knew that, perhaps at the end of your life, you would probably amount a small handful of lovers and could-have-beens, but when you were actually in a relationship with each of these people, the very thought of someone new coming along after them and replacing them was an idea you tried to fight. The people who you could never associate with each other are now in peaceful harmony, united by your own maturity, acceptance and ability to move on while appreciating what once was. The most unlikely group of people collectively, awkward and fumbling with the elephant in the room that ties them together. Individually, though, each one felt seamless and perfect in its own way. Nothing makes me feel more alone than thinking about everyone I’ve ever loved, but alone isn’t the same as lonely. I mean “alone” in the independent, standing-on-your-own-two-feet sense of the word. Each of these people was an adventure I embarked on alone, fueled by my own courage and eagerness of heart despite being wounded before.

Ex-boyfriends are separate entities who all carry fragments of you, so I wonder: if they came together, would you see a perfectly whole reflection of yourself? TC mark

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