My daughter was asleep in her room down the hall, and my husband and I gathered our bowls of popcorn and settled on the couch. I had my feet up on the coffee table, was comfortable in my sweatpants, and I relaxed into the cushions as my husband hit “play” on the newest episode of one of the most popular series on TV in recent years.
And just a few minutes into it, who should appear on screen but my ex-flame?
Let’s call him Mike. He always shows up when I least expect it ― and I really should expect it by now.
Every time it happens, I groan and ask my husband, “Is that Mike?” even though I already know it is.
“Yep,” he answers. He’s never as surprised as I am.
It all started with a commercial over a decade ago. I was watching the Detroit Red Wings back when they were good, and when the second period ended, there was Mike, laughing with some stranger on a couch. I don’t even remember what the ad was for because I was so shocked to see that familiar face staring back at me from my TV screen.
That was the first time I asked my husband, “Wait, is that Mike?”
They don’t know each other personally, but he’s known of Mike since he met me 15 years ago, when we used to go to my brother’s comedy shows and Mike was also onstage. My husband has always thought Mike is hilarious ― and he is, but still, it’s weird.
Then one night, we decided to watch a popular comedy, and there was Mike, only for a minute — but he was there, nonetheless. I’d know those rolling eyes and that crinkled forehead anywhere. I still asked, “Is that Mike?” I just couldn’t believe he had made it to Hollywood.
A few years later, while watching a highly anticipated remake of a popular movie from decades ago, guess who showed up in a pivotal scene, and guess who thought she might be seeing things? “Wow, he’s really made the big time,” I said out loud, astonished, more to myself than my husband.
Little did I know he was just getting started.
“Mike keeps popping up in my life in the most unexpected ways. I guess I should be used to it by now, but every time it happens, it feels like the first time.”
I have kissed many men. Most of them I haven’t seen in years. I know the possibility of running into them on the street is highly unlikely. And even if I did, there would be some I wouldn’t recognize or even remember. But Mike keeps popping up in my life in the most unexpected ways. I guess I should be used to it by now, but every time it happens, it feels like the first time.
I met Mike on spring break during my senior year of high school. I was with three of my girlfriends, and he was staying at the same hotel just down the hall from us with three of his guy friends. When we all bumped into each other, we learned that we all lived in the same state less than an hour away from each other.
We hung out with them the entire week, and by the end of the first day, I was already in love with Mike. He was funny and handsome. He had a suaveness to him. He was as smooth as the lines he used.
I felt like I was Sandy from “Grease” and Mike was my Danny. We played in the waves, kissed near the rocks, and I refused to believe that our romance would soon be over. Our brief affair felt more like a dream than reality and I didn’t want to return home, where I knew it would be difficult for things to continue. I may have been smitten but I wasn’t a fool ― we were 18, living an hour apart, committed to attending colleges on the opposite side of our state ― and I knew there was no real future there.
But, to my surprise, I later found out he was taking acting classes with my brother. What were the chances? So, after every show, we’d end up reconnecting. Ultimately, we couldn’t get past the distance, and eventually, he moved even further away to pursue his acting career.
There was a time when Mike and I weren’t all the different. We both liked acting and singing. We both liked “Rent” and the Barenaked Ladies. We both had big dreams for the future.
The day after Mike appeared at a major award show and I saw him onstage with so many other actors I greatly admire, I drove to my local community college campus and half-boasted, half-lamented to my composition students that someone I used to make out with had won.
There I was, making peanuts teaching 19-year-olds how to properly use a comma. It was hard not to compare myself to Mike — and easy to feel jealous of his fame and success — but then again, teaching college had been my big dream for the future. So why, when I saw him on that stage, did I feel so unsatisfied?
I had never really wanted fame ― not since I was in middle school, anyhow. And even then, I’m not sure I really wanted it. I mean, what 12-year-old doesn’t think they want to be famous? What I really wanted was to teach and write. I didn’t have dreams of moving to LA or New York. I loved the state where I grew up. And in addition to wanting a husband who was sweet and funny and kind, I also wanted one who was grounded, loyal and dependable ― things Mike could never really be while chasing an acting career. I wanted a family. I wanted stability.
And I’m happy to say I was lucky ― I got all of that. My life is much like many other middle-class Midwesterners: I have a job I care about, a modest home we’ve almost paid off, a wonderful, devoted husband, and a sweet kid I’m crazy about. Sometimes I write things that some people read, but for the most part, my life is quiet. And it’s exactly how I always wanted it to be.
After I wrote this essay, I ran to the grocery store and bought my daughter a new toothbrush. I couldn’t help thinking about Mike and how he doesn’t have to do his own grocery shopping anymore. He can probably pay people to do that. And I felt a twinge of jealousy again.
“There I was, making peanuts teaching 19-year-olds how to properly use a comma. It was hard not to compare myself to Mike — and easy to feel jealous of his fame and success.”
Mike’s life is filled with red carpets, designer suits and appearances on late-night talk shows — the exact opposite of quiet. The exact opposite of my life ― a life I love. So what’s the problem?
I guess it’s that these days ― maybe more than ever before ― we’re always comparing our lives to everyone else’s lives. And social media has made it even easier to measure how we’re doing against how someone else is doing ― or at least how they appear to be doing. We scroll through Instagram and see our friends ― or complete strangers ― boasting about their exotic vacations or fabulous home remodels or the good grades their children are getting, and we do our own boasting. We look at Twitter and see someone got a promotion or a book deal or a new car, and we share our own successes. But we all know that social media doesn’t always show the reality of someone’s life, and even if and when it does, should that make us feel any less worthy or that our lives are any less worthwhile? Of course not.
What we need to do ― what I’ve needed to do ― is remind ourselves that the grass is often greener and that we have our own blessings to count. There are always going to be people who have more, who have done more, who know more, but if we get and stay wrapped up in that game, we’ll never win ― or we’ll be too busy to realize that we’re already winning.
I followed Mike’s Instagram for a while. And I ooohed and ahhhed at some of his posts, but I also wondered if he would ooooh and ahhhh at any of mine if he were to see them. Maybe catching a glimpse of my adorable daughter or the family gatherings I cherish might make him a little jealous of my life. Who knows? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Jealousy isn’t the point.
Even though I’m not (yet!) the bestselling author I hope to be one day and even though I’m not the Broadway star I dreamt of being when I was a kid, I’m happy, and that’s an incredible thing to be able to say.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that when the famous guy I once dated pops up on my TV, but hopefully, from here on out, whenever I see his face, I’ll be reminded that dreams come true ― both his and mine.
Jennifer Furner has essays in the anthologies “Art in the Time of Covid-19” and “A Teenager’s Guide to Feminism.” She has been published in Motherwell, Folks, Santa Fe Lit Review, Belmont Story Review, and others. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and daughter. For more of her writing, visit her website, jenniferfurner.com.