Words with Exes


I was playing Scrabble one evening with Tom, my Great-Grand-Ex (two exes before my ex-husband). I placed an S tile on the end of “ignite,” and headed south with a U and R.

“Wait,” Tom said. “Sur is Spanish. You can’t use that.”

“I’m not.” My hand hovering, I placed an F on a triple square for “surf.” Twenty-four points!

Tom shook his head sadly; I was winning. “Big Sur,” he murmured, and broke out into a boyish smile. He turned to Peter, my current partner. “I spent an amazing weekend in Big Sur once with a friend of my brother’s,” he said. “She was breaking up with her husband and needed comfort. Kind of a fling.” He tallied my score in his tiny, crabbed handwriting.

Peter nodded vaguely, concentrating on his letters. I got up and left the room. I couldn’t believe what Tom had just said.

Tom had that fling in Big Sur while he was dating me, twenty-five years ago. But it wasn’t the fact that he brought up the event that destroyed our relationship that bothered me. It was that he didn’t even remember I was there.

I met Tom in the late ‘80s, in the same San Francisco Victorian apartment building where I live now. He had a room in the flat upstairs, with a massive record collection. I liked his music, and he offered to make some mixed tapes in exchange for meals. He’d come down for Brunch with Bob (Dylan), or Patti (Smith), branching out, as the weeks went by, to Townes Van Zandt, Alex Chilton, Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe, and Rickie Lee Jones. He moved out, and once when I went to make a mixed tape in his new apartment (the Kinks), we ended up kissing.

For two years, we went to rock shows he photographed, wrangled backstage passes, drove my VW bug to Esalen and Yosemite, and planned photo safaris around town. We were so broke that an afternoon adventure might include picking up bottles on the beach and earning enough from the deposits to buy a couple of beers. He had an artist’s perspective, always looking at things a bit askew, analyzing and documenting what he saw, finding the humor, tossing in terms that only a newly minted semiotics major might use. We played chess, but after he beat me a dozen times in a row, I quit — Tom’s brain was too quick, too strategic, and I’d never win. I was smitten with his intelligence, his wit, and his puppy heart.

When he left for that weekend with his brother’s friend, I chided myself for feeling possessive. When he came home and made love to me with entirely new moves, I knew I hadn’t been paranoid. It was the first time a man had cheated on me, and I was shocked that it could happen, and fascinated that I could tell. Confronted, Tom didn’t see why his fling had anything to do with the warmth he still felt for me. But I knew we weren’t quite in love anyway, and that proved it. We broke up.

We stayed friends, because Tom is friends with everyone. I made the mistake (brides-to-be, take note) of hiring him to shoot my wedding, since of all the candid portraits he shot of my beautiful girlfriends, there was only one of me, the bride, in the background. But our friendship outlasted my marriage anyway.

A few years later, Tom began living with Monica, a musician, and I became friends with her, too. When Monica got dot-commed out of her apartment around 1998, when rents doubled during the first San Francisco tech bubble, she moved in with me as a roommate. Soon, Tom moved in, too. It was supposed to be temporary, but as artists, they couldn’t find another place to live in town. It was all very San Francisco — a Haight-Ashbury flat with my ex and his girlfriend — but there was a lot of music in the house, and stir-fried vegetables, and we got along fine. When the next-door neighbors moved out, Tom and Monica sublet illegally for a few years; it was Tom’s third flat in the building, the only one he remembers living in.

One day Tom, in his late 40s, mentioned that he was having some balance issues, and troubles feeling his fingers and toes. He was walking wobbly. Always more practical, I suggested he get health insurance before a diagnosis, and he took my advice. When he finally saw a doctor, he was told he had multiple sclerosis.

Over the next couple years, it became increasingly difficult for him to negotiate the steep stairs up to the second floor, and to carry his camera equipment on shoots. He went through a stage of being angry toward everyone, and lost a lot of friends. Monica stayed with him, and, evicted from the sublet, they moved to Oakland, like most of the other artists in San Francisco.

Monica went from being his girlfriend to a caretaker. Tom deteriorated to the point where, one evening after taking him to an event in Oakland, he couldn’t tell me which house on the block was his. He began to obsess about losing records and books, and repeat phrases over and over, each time as if the thought had just occurred to him.

I never knew that MS could affect cognition like that, but his neural synapses were becoming as tattered as the old man’s jacket he habitually wore. Yet if you didn’t engage him in something that required thinking about the past or future, just the present, his brain seemed almost normal.

That’s when I got out the Scrabble board. We played, and as long as he was focusing on creating words and counting points, his mind was sharp. I won easily at first (Peter and Tom declared a victory if their combined scores beat mine), but gradually he improved. Tom memorized two-letter words, saved his S tiles for bigger impact, and began playing for the biggest points rather than the longest word (though he never resists the temptation to play a word like “vomitory” or “canoodle”). I never let him win, so when he beat me, it was a big moment.

Tom lives by himself now in a small studio, with caretakers who come in daily, which Monica, who needed her life back, arranged. He goes to adult day care. He can no longer take photographs or take care of himself. Yet he somehow stays cheerful. He plays two or three Scrabble games a day, and in the midst of so much deteriorating, he’s becoming a wicked good player.

In the flat, Tom called me back to the table. It was my turn. My Great-grand-ex, the guy who cheated on me, my roommate, my neighbor; our relationship has endured. He drew a bad rack of letters in life. I ended up with the rent-controlled apartment, the sweet boyfriend, and a brain that, for now, can still press rewind and fast-forward. So I play Scrabble with him, once a week.

L-U-V. Yes, it’s a word, go ahead and look it up.


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