There is an hour of the night that you shouldn't be awake unless you have a newborn or a lover. I had one of the two, though they don't seem so different in a bedroom this late, or this early. It's the same dependency, the same hushed howling of need. I had to be up for work in 4 hours. Still, I curled in wide-eyed and vigilant, master of an art that I never meant to master: keeper of a long-term ex.
"Want to know something?" I whispered against the pillow and the crease of his dark beard.
"It's my 26th birthday. You were at my 16th birthday party...we started dating 10 years ago."
I wasn't quite sure if I was congratulating us or not.
We lay both near and far off just then, suspended in a kaleidoscope of old and new feelings. I remembered my sweet 16 well. I had curled my long blonde hair for the occasion and taken extra care with my makeup to impress him. I can still feel the knot in my stomach as his black SUV pulled outside the lamplight of my parent's house.
He squeezed my hand and smiled. He murmured something in the direction of accolade. By now, we were comparable to weathered jigsaw pieces that had begun to bend and curl at the edges. But we were still here.
Much has been made of twenty something's seemingly uncharted and lackluster feelings towards commitment. We can't commit to our jobs. We can't commit to a geographical home, let alone think about buying one. And we obviously can't commit to each other, thanks to our incredible levels of self-absorption and centrifuge of neurosis.
It's pointed observation (or is it a critique?). Commitment is a concept at once incredibly familiar and alien for those of us that have grown up with it in some capacity, only to be disillusioned when it falls short.
But so much has been sketched of our lack of desire for it, and so little of how accidentally committed we actually are: to people, and to times long vanished.
We are the first generation with a digital past. That makes all the difference when it comes to love.
The digital past (or love with Wi-Fi turned on) is like the clamor of cans tied to the back of a Cadillac just after a wedding. It becomes very difficult to scope out the possibilities in the present when you can hear the omnipresent rattle of the past trailing behind--or in other words, anyone you've ever locked eyes with, swiped right on, or, more damningly, fallen madly in love with. The digital past is a conduit that binds people that might have otherwise dipped off our radar as we floated through life, perhaps not without some remorse or longing.
When your past follows you (or more pointedly, you follow each other's lives online), the distinction between what was and what is ceases to exist.
I remember the first time I used the phrase 'long-term ex-boyfriend' out for lunch with a friend, when he asked if I had met anyone yet since moving to New York.
"Is that a thing?" he laughed incredulously. "Isn't that an oxymoron?"
"It's going to be the name of my new indie band." When in doubt, mock what you fear the most.
The oxymoron reference didn't seem far off. A long-term relationship is easy enough to conceptualize. But how can it be possible to commit to a non-commitment?
"Don't you think you're holding yourself back?" he asked, clearly perplexed. "You're an attractive, smart girl and there's tons of people here in New York for you."
"How do I begin to answer that?" When in doubt, also philosophize your own shortcomings until they seem funny, far too funny to be part of the life you've built for yourself.
"Long-term ex-boyfriend" might not be the name of my band, but the person who sparked the reference, who was at both my 16th and 26th birthdays, is in one. We met as sophomores when he transferred to my Catholic high school. We were physical and figurative opposites, as it so often plays out. He played drums, had a mop of jet black hair and dark, soulful eyes. I was blonde, sunny and far quicker to bare my soul. We were like magnets.
That was 10 years ago. Since then, we've broken up, respectively held serious relationships (he was briefly engaged, a disclosure that wrapped around my gut), moved to opposite coasts, and have managed to keep a gentle stranglehold over one another's prospective dating lives. We see each other once every couple months at best, or in other words, just often enough to sustain feelings. And for the rest of the time, there's the digital past to punish us, draw us back in, and pull us apart.
But we have no title. Other than the one I made up: my long-term ex-boyfriend.
For someone that I am theoretically not committed to, we've certainly shown some bandwidth--and a lot of it has been facilitated by the internet.
When he wasn't sure how to find me again after years apart, he scoured the web, and ended up on LinkedIn of all places. I was in a relationship at the time, but just like that, a simple iPhone push notification of my past in my present sent me into a tailspin. He was one of the first people to follow me on Instagram, and vice versa. He generally knows when I publish something, where I travel, or what my weekend plans are, depending on how much I'm sharing online. And I know what musicians he's rubbing elbows with, what venues he's sold out, and what he's doing on his days off tour. In other words, we have tabs on each other in a way that wouldn't have been possible 50 years ago. That makes it very difficult to move on and date other people.
This is a person with whom the words 'soul mates' have slipped into cracks of 4 AM conversations. Whom I've played hooky from work for and flown across the country on red eyes just to spend forty-eight hours together. But what that means if you never actively set terms is beyond me. Is that still 'till death do us part'? Or until you find someone else and unfollow me on Instagram?
At this point, we're likely beyond the point of recognizing what we have or don't have. Had we met in our grandparent's time, I suppose we would have been forced to make up our minds on one another, or at least to take a leap of faith on a hunch beyond "it's complicated." We would have gotten married. Or we wouldn't have, and that would have been that. But we would have made a decision. One that came with boundaries that would shape every kiss, every laugh, every disagreement, every late night in bed. We would have made a commitment, or not, together.
Instead, we ghost in and out of one another's' lives, held together by a past and present that wash in and out like the tide, only ever semi-transparent with our intentions.
The premise of a digital past is simple, but its consequences for a generation aren't. That's how you end up in decades long relationships--which, by the way, is longer than plenty of marriages--with no rules, no exit strategy. You collect enough of these in a lifetime (actually, just one will screw you up) and it starts to feel like you hand your identity out as if it was a spool of yarn, and try to walk away and not get tangled in the strings.
My long-term ex-boyfriend stood in the doorframe of my Brooklyn apartment. I couldn't help but be reminded of all the nights he stood in my doorframe as a teenager pushing his curfew, or all the times we've stood in airport terminals stalling impending flights, or random parking lots while he's on tour, suspended in unclear goodbyes. I was stung by equal impulses to latch my arms around his neck and beg him not to go--and to chillily expose no weakness.
"I'll see you soon?" he asked.
His words were almost buoyant. I wondered what anchor they were tied to.
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