I’m here to praise ex-boyfriends.
To continue the ironic analogy to the title of James Agee’s book about Depression-era tenant farmers, my exes never became famous—and only infamous as far as my heart’s concerned.
Yet, whereas Agee’s humble and hard-working farmers eventually became icons of injustice and humility during the Depression, my former beaus, in spite of their vaulty aspirations, defaulted to convention, marrying in all cases, some having children. In a common phrase, they didn’t realize their potential as far as I or the world was concerned, given how much I saw (or imagined I saw) in them.
So why praise them? As I grow older, I realize how determinate a role they played in my life, influencing some of the major decisions I made and events that changed me. But that’s for another blog.
For now, though, as you might know from having read my poems and essays posted herein, writing about my former boyfriends has allowed me to selectively edit my past and transcend any lingering what-if moments.
I wrote about one boyfriend who had a penchant for appearing on quiz shows. Besides my heart, he won over $10,000 and tons of unwanted press-on fingernails. I also wrote about meeting up with my high school sweetheart at a class reunion, which re-affirmed my decision to break up with him years earlier.
In my essays, I’m in control. That’s my prerogative as a writer. Even in the aftermath of a broken love affair, I’m the sadder but wiser narrator, triumphal over the heart’s bruises and long nights of floor-pacing anguish.
But what if they decided to turn tables and write about me? How did these men remember me? I’ve written of their curling photographs and crumbling letters, but would they have done so about me? Would I have proven memory-worthy to prompt an essay or a poem or a short story?
So far, I guess not. The rock ‘n’ roll aspirant wrote a song about me, but neither he nor the song went anywhere, worldwise. Because I wrote about them, am I the one who felt the most in these relationships, who saw in them perhaps more than was there, at the very least in my hope that they would fulfill the dreams with which they regaled me?
The quiz-show winner might write that I lingered too long, that our age difference (I was eight years older) ultimately broke the deal. Yes, he still wanted to be friends because I was smart and funny and a trivia ace, but I was never “The One” — even at the outset.
I should have read the signs. We went to a Los Angeles Dodgers game once and walked onto the field after it was over.
“I’d love for my son to see this one day,” he said. At the time, I noticed his use of the possessive pronoun “my,” not “our.” He had never envisioned being with me in the long run.
But, yes, he would have liked to be friends, to continue to laugh at my impersonations of various singers — and his sister’s big laugh — and enjoy the way I could harmonize with any song. But I couldn’t do it. In fact, right before he got married, he gave me a card with the lyrics from “I Will Always Love You” clumsily printed in them, the lyrics Dolly Parton wrote to Porter Wagoner when she wanted to break free, the old “I’m only holding you back should I stay, so I’m letting you go.”
That, by the way, is a cop out, making dumping someone seem like a selfless act.
As for the high school sweetheart, perhaps he wouldn’t have been concerned that I wrote in an essay that he wasn’t ever the one. Had he written about our meet-up years later in L.A., I think he might have said he reconnected with an old flame, but she, too, was never right for him in the long run. She was too complicated. A practical man, he might have written that no one can recapture the passion and impulsivity of youth or those heated nights at the drive-in with our colognes — Aramis and Azuree — mixing with sweat and those ardent kisses. Those things belonged to youth, to the past.
So what. It doesn’t matter what they’ve distilled from old relationships. But I write, so even if these guys went off to other lives, I remember them, because Hemingway said to write what you know, so I remember their blissfully wonderful qualities that made me fall in love with them, qualities I find myself missing when I hear a snippet of an old song on the radio or go through some old photos.
Momentarily miss them, that is. Their stories make for good poetic fodder. To think otherwise is to remember they are museum coins: lovely to look at; lousy as currency.
In the magnificent poem “Ex-Boyfriends in Heaven,” Gwen Hart reminds us that before we let memories take over, before “you let one polished / Oxford loafer through your door, / remember that as soon as they cross / the threshold, the truth will slip/ in behind them: ex-boyfriends only / exist this way in heaven, or /whatever you want to call it, / their new lives without you. “
Or as Kim Addonizio writes in “Ex Boyfriends,” another telling poem on this subject,
“They were your loves, your victims, your good dogs or bad boys, and they’re over you now.”
Perhaps it fell to me to tell the stories, to make them more than memories, to make of them something more than what they may have been or become. In my work, they will continue to move through time, though the passion has long been stilled. In my poems and essays, my just-completed manuscript, I have memorialized “the springtime itch of them,” as Sarah Holland-Batt wrote in the ethereal poem “Epithalamium.”
Ultimately, though, I opted not to stay in touch with my exes. In the beautiful and haunting poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox titled “Friendship After Love,” she writes, “We do not wish the pain back, or the heat; / And yet, and yet, these days are incomplete.”
There’s some truth in that. But that’s life, innit?
Ex-Boyfriends in Heaven by Gwen Hart
Ex Boyfriends by Kim Addonizio
Epithalamium by Sarah Hollan-Batt