Solving for ex

Realizations from a ghostly figment of my imagination

I was standing alone up on crew deck, gazing at the quiet nighttime city sparkling across the harbor and watching the guests on the decks below. They have no idea we can see them; I think they forget we’re there, which is good since we’re supposed to fade into the background anyway. I like it in the background.

Then I saw something that stirred up all sorts of weird emotions — mostly shock, confusion and sorrow. There was a couple facing away from me, and the way they were standing and the way they were dressed made me think it was the way my ex-boyfriend and I would look if we had grown old together.

I wonder if they even looked that way in reality, or if that’s just what I saw.


Here onboard I find myself apologizing to pictures a lot. Sometimes things happen that upset me deeply, and it makes me really wish I could talk to my friends, tell them what’s going on and get their advice. Sometimes holidays happen while I’m away, and I know exactly how my family is spending that time together — carrying on family traditions, but without me. Times like those are when I grab my stack of photographs and give tearful apologies to the smiling faces of my loved ones.

I apologize for not being there for them. I apologize for not spending more time with them when I had the chance. I tell them how much I miss them, especially the ones who are no longer alive. I ask them if they’re still proud of me. I hope they understand why I left, and why I keep leaving. I hope someday I understand too. I hope they know that I’m still there in spirit even if I can’t be there physically or emotionally — no matter where I go, part of my heart lies with them. I hope they know that I still care and that I love them, and that I think about them every day.


Upon seeing this shadow of a couple I could have been part of, it made me want to apologize to my ex. I no longer have photographs of him, but I know his face so well that I don’t need a photo. So instead, I found myself apologizing to his ghost from my memory, standing right there next to me. This apparition haunts me lately, and I don’t know why.

I’m sorry that our story didn’t have a happy ending. I’m sorry that it ended completely. I’m sorry that I let us live in purgatory for so long — that place where we weren’t quite sad but weren’t quite happy either. I’m sorry I ever let us get there. You deserved better, and I hope you found it.

I’m sorry for everything you gave up to be with me. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you weren’t good enough. You were and are an amazing soul, and the world deserves for you to make your mark on it. I’m sorry that so many times I caused that sad smile — the one that’s really a mask for something that hurts you inside, the one that’s just with your lips but not with your eyes. I’m sorry that you would be smiling that way now if you were to hear me say all these things.

I’m sorry for the future that I took away from us.

Where would we be today if we were still together? It would have been just more than six years. Would we be happy? Or would we still be in purgatory?

Above all, I am sorry that breaking up with you ultimately cost us our friendship. I mourn this the most.

I really wish I could get your advice about the problems I am now facing in my life. I wish I could hear about yours, and help you through them.

I still worry about you every single time you cross my mind. I still hope you find happiness someday, and the reason I worry about you is that I am afraid that you won’t find it. I am sorry that we couldn’t find it together. Actually … We did have it for awhile. I am sorry that we lost it, and that we became complacent without it.

What we never lost was our love. I think we relied on the strength of our love to solve all our problems, rather than actually trying to figure out how to solve them ourselves. I should have already learned from my first relationship that love is not enough; there is much more to a successful relationship than just that one element.

I can picture you right here next to me, even down to what clothes you would wear — your navy blue pants, brown dress shoes, and a light blue polo shirt. You’d wear a belt, too, obviously, but it saddens me that I can’t remember what it looks like. (Does that outfit even go together or am I just imagining it in my head? Would you hiss at me for suggesting it? You would definitely take forever to decide upon it, and to make sure your hair was perfect before leaving the room, and you would definitely ask me if it looked okay and I would say yes but you wouldn’t believe me. And then I would drag you out of the door before you could change clothes and start the whole process over.)

Nevertheless, I can picture you standing there in that outfit, listening to my every word intently, looking me right in the eyes and probably poking me somewhere while I spoke, just because you wanted to mess with me and make me that “adorable” level of angry. I know exactly the expressions and laughs you would make. That’s one of the things I loved most about you, you know: The fact that we could laugh about the stupidest, silliest things together, yet we could also get lost in deep conversations about anything and everything. You have set the bar as far as that is concerned, and because of you I always measure potential suitors against their ability to make me laugh just as well as they make me think.

I can picture you taking a few moments to thoughtfully compose an answer once I reached the end of my story. I imagine you’d be touching your lips, as you do when you’re deep in thought and searching for an answer to something. You would probably then give me a hard time for how long and drawn out my story was, but you know that’s what I do, and you love that about me. You love that I think every detail is important.

I can picture you opening your mouth to respond with the wisdom I seek so desperately, and then —

Nothing.

That’s where my imagination stops. I have absolutely no idea what you would say.

What would you say? What would you say?! How is it that I have no idea? I cannot let this go. I must figure out what you’d say.

(Maybe this is part of the reason things didn’t work between us — I decided a lot of things for you rather than with you.)

At one time I thought we knew each other better than anyone else in the world could ever know us. We could find the answers to so many of life’s questions simply by looking into each other’s eyes. You’d think that I could formulate some kind of imaginary advice from you, based on what I know about who you are and the way you think.

You know I still can remember your voice, by the way. I just can’t tell what you’d say with it.

Somehow this weird voiceless specter of you proves to me that we really are over — not as a couple, but as friends. I haven’t seen you in nearly two years. I haven’t spoken to you in almost one year, unless you count the text from a couple months ago when you said you didn’t want to meet up while I was in town. I cried when I received that message, the one that said we weren’t going to be part of each others’ lives anymore. I thought we would always be friends on some level. That’s something I really wanted. You were my best friend, and at one point you were my entire world. I know you felt the same about me too. Even after the breakup we were still trusted and treasured friends for awhile. No one has ever made me laugh the way you could.

Now we are nothing but memories to each other, and I still struggle with that. I think I always will. I hope I am a good memory rather than a painful one.

I am reminded of something an art professor once asked of my class in college. “How do you know when your art is finished?” The whole class was stumped, and we anxiously awaited the answer. “It’s finished when you can’t figure out how to improve it.”

I think that’s how I knew we were finished. Neither of us could figure out how to make things any better. And it would be comforting to know that we at least gave it our best shot, but I honestly don’t know if I did. And that absolutely eats me up inside, because you certainly deserved the best. I think I could have tried harder, and I am so sorry that I didn’t.

But I want you to know that other than these sad realizations, I look back on our relationship fondly. I adored spending time with you in minutes and in years. I enjoyed hearing about your take on things. I would have loved to hear how your life story is unfolding. I know that our last conversation was mostly full of things unsaid, so I suppose if that’s all we were ever going to have again, better not to have those conversations at all. The silence between sentences was somehow full of questions we didn’t want to ask, that had answers we didn’t want to hear.

I had mourned the loss of you as a romantic partner, I had moved on from the thought of us ever being together again, but now I am working through the official breakup of our friendship.

In my case, it seems that breaking up is an earthquake with aftershocks felt years later.

I guess this is what breaking up truly is. It involves more than two people — it’s saying goodbye to your romantic partner, and your best friend, and their family, and their friends, and a past and a future version of yourself. In some cases you miss that former version of yourself just as much as you miss that former partner. In some cases you don’t miss either of them.

I know now that relationships are about discussing the future versions of yourselves despite how scary those conversations can be, rather than continually brushing it under the rug like we did so many times. And look where that got us — we brushed our future away until there was nothing left. Even our future is now in the past.

If only we had talked about those people more — those future versions of ourselves — maybe we would have discovered sooner that their paths were headed different directions. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as hard to say goodbye.

If we learned from that, then that’s what matters. I know I won’t make that mistake with anyone else again, and I hope you don’t either.

But breaking up isn’t just about saying goodbye to the big things, like yourselves and your families, special places, special days, the apartment, the daily and weekly routines, the annual traditions … It means losing the little things too. Sometimes it feels like those are even more important. Relationships are just as much about making each other laugh when you’re going to the grocery store or doing laundry together, as they are about admitting how scared and uncertain you are when you’re discussing your future together. Relationships are about getting lost in conversations on movie plot holes, and laughing at weird inside jokes, and sharing the mundane details of each other’s day — and actually finding that interesting. They’re about arguing over stupid petty things like when I left dishes on the stove or why your stuff didn’t actually belong anywhere and was perpetually in bags and boxes along the side wall. It’s almost as if we both somehow knew I couldn’t seem to make enough room for you in my life.

Breaking up is about putting all of that in the past, and moving on. Pack it all up in a mental box, and tuck it away into the recesses of your mind. (Or burn it, as I have done once before with someone else.)

Part of my heart will always belong to you — and I don’t want it back. It’s yours. I just hope that you take it out of the box from time to time, dust it off, look at it and smile. I hope you don’t keep it hidden away in an attic and forget that it exists at all — but then, it’s not my business what you do with it anymore. I do like to think that it is worth more than that, though.

I hope it brings back memories of the times we laughed and smiled together more than the times we hurt each other or cried together. I hope it doesn’t make you shake your head in anger or cry tears of sadness, but maybe just shed one little tear of happiness for what we did share. We had such fun together, didn’t we?

I still have the piece of your heart that you gave to me. I know it’s broken, but I still treat it with care and I try to keep all the pieces together. I keep it very safe, but for me it’s in a suitcase rather than a box. And it doesn’t matter how much room I have left or if someone else’s heart ends up in there too someday. Your heart will never lose its spot. You know that, right? I keep it wrapped up and protected very well. Sometimes it falls out when I least expect it, like it did the other night. Sometimes I take it out on purpose, to remember that I was worthy of such a gift.

Sometimes I think about where the rest of it is now. I will always hope that it’s okay. And I will always ponder what conversations we left unspoken.

It’s a problem I feel I must solve, yet in reality I think I’m looking at the problem from the wrong angle. My first failed relationship — okay, marriage — taught me how to say goodbye, and to never let “good enough” be good enough. And I think what you’re telling me (by not saying anything) is that now I need to learn how to let go. Otherwise this lesson is going to keep presenting itself to me until I finally learn it.

Letting go is something that I’ve always been terrible at, and still have issues with to this day. You know I am obstinate. I also can’t stop thinking about a problem until I have solved it. And I am super sentimental. For goodness sake, I’m currently struggling with whether or not to throw out an empty tube of chapstick simply because I bought it back when I lived in Chicago. To me it’s like losing one more tangible tie to a former life, a version of myself who I miss from time to time. I have fewer and fewer things in my possession to help me remember where I came from. (By the way, everybody, I’m not a hoarder.)

I don’t want to always have this problem! I want to figure out how to be free from this! Oh, the absolute irony that I am dwelling on figuring out how to let things go.

See, even now that you’re long gone you’re still teaching me how to be a better version of myself. How incredibly lucky I was to be a part of something so special, that can reach out to me over the years even well after it’s over. It seems the only lessons we had left to teach each other were the ones you can only learn by breaking up.

Maybe this is the only way we could become the people we are meant to be. Maybe the only way we could grow, was to grow apart.

Thank you for everything. Thank you for showing me that I’m someone who deserves to be loved, cherished and adored. Thank you for respecting me in every way. Thank you for always opening the car door for me. Thank you for never getting me anything for Valentine’s Day because you know I think that “holiday” is an insult to love. Thank you for splitting the bill almost everywhere we ever ate, and thank you for the times you insisted upon paying for me. Thank you for teaching me so many things, like what the word “gratuitous” means, and about the intricacies of the Star Wars universe, and what makes a script good or poor.

Thank you for teaching me how to be a better partner in the future. I’m sorry that I learned it from you rather than with you. I’m sorry that all those lessons will be brought into my future relationships instead of being part of ours.

Thank you for teaching me how to let go.

I know I need to stop taking out your heart and looking at it. I guess I need to keep the suitcase locked up tighter … but I’ll always carry it with me.

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