Register Tuesday | November 30 | 2021

It's Not You, It's Me

Confessions of a perennial ex-boyfriend

Briar was the first. I was eleven; all I remember is a lock-and-hold kiss in the park near my dad’s house, my sister spying on us from the bushes, and then, a stern parental lecture that evening about being “too young for that sort of thing.”

After Briar were Shannon, Aimée, and Stacy, all two-week girlfriends—relationships that began with messages relayed from one side of the playground to the other before we were herded behind the portables to smooch. Then, in grade eight, came Roxanne. “I loved her with an intensity”—Graham Greene is here recalling a childhood crush—“I have never felt since, I believe, for anyone.” I thinkthat might have been true of my feelings at the time, although I’m relying on my family’s recollections of me traipsing around the house with a glazed look of bliss and wonder on my face. Now, though, I only remember Roxanne as the semi-willing participant in make-out sessions at house parties. I recall touching boobs and a whole lot of dry-humping.

Lately, I’ve been realizing that there’s something disingenuous about how I remember things. I am not a completely heartless person; I would probably admit, if pressed, to having been in love a couple of times. Why is my memory so selective? This was bugging me enough that I sat down at my computer and started, as my friend Sam calls it, “googling the past.” I tracked down several ex-girlfriends, and at the risk of coming across like a stalker/weirdo, contacted them “for an article.” To those who responded—Lindsay, Tara and Mélina—I posed three questions: When did we meet? How long did we date? Why did we break up?

Lindsay was my girlfriend in grade ten. “Since neither of us had our driver’s licence at that point,” she wrote, “we didn’t really do a lot together.” Lindsay’s memories of our relationship are decidedly less sexual than my own: while she recalls mixed tapes and basketball games, all I can remember is premature ejaculation after premature ejaculation. To my final question, Lindsay, who was a synchronized swimmer, responded: “I remember us breaking up at my locker after school and then going over to the pool for practice, all sad and teary. I was sad for days; I remember that.”

Of course, when it comes to my breakups, I don’t want to think I’ve ever been reduced to sobbing and hand-wringing. And, later, if I can remember anything intimate, it is invariably related to sex. It’s gotten to the point where this doesn’t even feel problematic: any other sensation is so consistently non-existent that I’ve convinced myself that this is how I’ve always felt. Or didn’t feel, rather.

Take Tara, for instance. We were together for a few months in grade twelve, and she remembers often wondering, “Will he call? It’s been two days—he must not like me anymore. Should I call him or should I wait?” Most of Tara’s memories seem to be based on the fact that, as she admits, she “was a little insecure back then, and pretty happy to be dating anything.” Me? I recall fooling around in her basement, terrified that we would be discovered by her hulking German father. Unlike Lindsay, Tara claims not to recall any sadness over our parting, though I remember quite clearly why we broke up: I had cheated on her the preceding weekend, and, out of fear of her dad, confessed right away.

For whatever reason, no one I dated in university expressed any interest in responding to my emails—including, oddly enough, the young woman who egged my house only days after we split. So, fast-forward eight years to the end of a live-in, three-year, “adult” relationship with Mélina. I remember this ending sloppily, her out on dates and then coming home to sleep on our couch; some residual fooling around, while we attempted to extricate ourselves from one another’s lives. At any rate, Mélina recalls that she did the breaking-up because, being a few years younger than me, she felt I had “a very ‘rich’ background with a lot of different experiences, and that was a part that was missing [from her life].” Meanwhile, I’d convinced myself that the only reason we called it quits was because—you guessed it—sex with me had become boring, and she had turned elsewhere.

Maybe what this remembrance of things past boils down to is resisting cliché. Anyone who has gone through the ritual of a relationship knows that it tends to feel, in retrospect, like something familiar, a pre-written story whose unfolding was known to you before it even began. The script for breakups seems particularly inescapable: the time comes for “the talk,” and you find yourself saying things you later can’t believe were spoken by a free-thinking human being. After once asking Mélina, “Is there someone else?” I half-expected the scene to cut to a commercial and some frenetic assistant to appear, hollering into a headset while blotting the sweat from my temples.

But, as I’ve said, I’d rather not remember those moments as melodramatic. So instead, emotional distance replaces cliché. I’m essentially a victim of a sort of anticipatory nostalgia; like the writer Annie Dillard, I constantly see myself as a “figure in [my] own future memories.” My earliest experience with breakups happened at the age of ten, when my parents split up. When people ask me if coming from a “broken home” was difficult, I tell them that, even as a kid, I was able to look at the situation with disconnect. I recall sitting at the kitchen table. My parents are speaking in hushed voices. They say “divorce” and they are crying. My sisters are crying. I shrug, say, “Is that it?” and head out to the garage to fire slapshots into an empty street-hockey net.

At least that’s what my younger self has handed to my older self as a final memory. In the same way, I treat my relationships as though they were pieces of fiction, with the completed text of the memory looming ahead, revised and perfect. In the here and now, though, I’m faced with something unwieldy and unpredictable.

One way I’ve managed the messy present is with irony: Tara remembers me being “against the idea of a traditional Valentine’s Day” and buying her “some crappy fake roses with the dewdrops made of glue.” What I recall, and she doesn’t, is that I also bought her the Eric’s Trip album Love Tara, under some feeble pretense of it being a gag. Still, though, the resistance to being “traditional” was there; even in the mo-ment, I was avoiding creating a memory that would later make me squirm.

The other way opens with the inevitable mixed tape (Lindsay, Tara and Mélina were all recipients of these) and progresses to other enthusiasms, like books and movies. What is this about, this courtship ritual of pushing the stuff we like onto girls? It’s not an attempt at finding common ground—it’s too aggressive—but, rather, at finding safe alternatives for emotion. A cleverly constructed mixed tape is a sequence of subtly rendered messages “expressing” our feelings; lending out a battered VHS copy of Harold and Maude says, “Look, I’m sensitive.”

Recent studies reveal that women tend to remember feeling-provoking episodes, while men have a tendency for fact-based, “explicit memories.” Women, in other words, are more capable of engaging with their past feelings and have much greater access to moments that prompted an emotional response. So, maybe my resistance to getting misty-eyed about my past isn’t just me striving for autobiographical originality: I’m physiologically incapable of emotional memory.

I am rarely one to go for fast and loose statements about gender, regardless of their scientific grounding. As a child, I arrived once at an acting class where it was discovered that I was, in fact, a boy, and not the girl I had been mistaken for at registration. The instructor privately took me aside and requested that I “pretend, just for today,” so that everything could proceed as planned, with the appropriate boy-girl ratio. Gender, for me, has a history of indistinct boundaries and definitions. Just last year, I was included in an online anthology of women writers—a publication credit I graciously accepted but did not necessarily share with many friends.

Still, there seems to be some truth to this notion of gendered memory. In contrast to the largely “explicit” nature of my own, it’s impossible to deny the emotional tone of Lindsay, Tara and Mélina’s remembrances. Me, I don’t want the details to seem too intimate. Why buy real roses when fake ones won’t wilt and can later be tossed off as a joke? I’d rather remember only the moments that were devoid of sentimentality. And is there anything less sentimental than the sloppy, primal act of a teenage boy blasting onto his startled girlfriend’s tummy?

I guess the question, really, is whether love is possible without people performing a script of some kind. My resistance to “traditional” expressions of love is rooted in my unwillingness to play the part, whatever the details of the emotional experience being acted out. The end of Mélina’s reply to me read, “Nobody can change the past,” which is a cliché that seems backlit with flame. It’s a statement that sees the “past” in terms of what it could have been: a sunset walk on the beach or a fire roaring while you writhed around on the bearskin rug.

Everyone internalizes these stereotypes, and while some people like Mélina embrace them, others like me dig their heels in. Lindsay may feel “queasy” when she remembers “cutting off a curl of hair and giving it to [me],” but I would have never put myself in a position for such a memory to even be possible in the first place. At least, I don’t think so. And as long as I don’t remember, that’s just fine with me.