Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Breaking up is hard to remember

Last night, on my way to meet Pele for another exciting round of pub trivia (lord, did we suck), I called Tom (aka vip-ex, grad school boyfriend, etc.).

Tom was on my mind because I've been writing about him and thinking about writing about him. Have I been writing about him because I've been thinking about him?

He was, as always, surprised and happy to hear from me. I said, "I'm just calling to say hi. I don't have an agenda."

He said, "Ok." We proceeded to have our usual wide-ranging, fun and interesting conversation.

I love talking to Tom. I'm a big talker (who knew?) and most of my friendships are grounded in good conversation. My rapport with Tom is fantastic. From our first meeting, we could chat easily for hours. Very early on, I got in the habit of talking to him about everything. He was my sounding board for many the emotional crisis and complaints about Mom. He was one of the first people to say to me, "You really had a hard time as a kid." I denied that because I thought Tom had a much harder time, but he would say, "We all had a hard time, but it was really tough on you."

He could see behind my bluster and self-assurance. Maybe because he recognized it—Tom is one of the most blustery, bombastic people I know. But I've always loved a clown and Tom sure could perform—which meant I could relax. As my "friend in Iowa" and I have discussed, Tom is the kind of person who takes up a lot of space. It's not because he's physically imposing (he's moderately imposing), it's more because he has a huge personality and it fills up a room.

I also had some of the great intellectual debates of my graduate school career with Tom. I learned things from talking to him—and maybe he learned things from me too, though he'd be loathe to admit it. Once he told me that he thought I was smarter than him, but he took it back after we had a big fight. I always thought we were about on par.

When I called him last night, I didn't have an agenda, even though I usually do. I usually want some kind of reassuring something from him. And maybe I sort of wanted that last night, but I'm finally in touch with the fact that I won't get it.

I just wanted to have great conversation. And we did. It went on for about an hour, about twice as long as I'd planned. We could have talked for much longer.

He asked what I was doing and I told him about pub trivia. He'd recently played and won. He said I would probably be good at it. I said I was the star of my team (too bad it's mixed in with a lethal dose of grumpiness). I told him that the first time I played, "…one of the questions was, who wrote 'My Funny Valentine'?"

Tom said, "Rodgers and Hart."

I said, "Exactly right!" And I thought, no wonder I like him.

We discussed my trip to Israel, but not for long. He told me about his trip Israel in '91 and we both thought it was strange that he'd never mentioned it before. He'd gone to visit the girlfriend before me, the one he was in the open relationship with, so we figured that's why he hadn't told me about it. I said, "After all these years, I thought I knew everything and you're still keeping secrets."

"It wasn't a secret, there just wasn't any reason to tell you."

"I suppose not."

He asked about my last ex (Tim, the separated-but-not-divorced guy). We actually spent a lot of time talking about Tim, much more than I'd anticipated. (Yes, I know I made a fatal error by having a "Tim" and a "Tom." Dammit. Their real life names don't sound anything alike.) This lead to a discussion of how it's good to take time off from dating after breaking up with someone.

I said, "Oh, I think you're right, but not taking a break worked out ok for you."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that you started dating the woman you are now married to before we broke up."

[Note: Tom and I broke up about a month after he moved to New York, NY. He transferred to a graduate school in NY because his advisor took a job there.]

Tom said, "We were broken up."

"No, absolutely not. We broke up because you started dating her." I said.


"Yes. Don't you remember that visit to Chapel Hill…"

"Yes, we were broken up. And you came to New York first." Tom said.

"No, there were three visits. You came to Chapel Hill in September or something and then I went to New York in October, after we broke up, and then you came to Chapel Hill a third time, in January."

"Oh. I don't remember the details."

"On that first visit, in September, I asked you if you'd been out on any dates. And you were like, 'well, a couple.' And I said, 'Ok, we're broken up now. Dating other people is against the rules.' And you said, 'Oh, so should I go stay at Paul's?' And I was like, 'What, are you crazy?'"

"Really? You were saucy."

"Saucy? I guess. Saucy. Heh."

Tom said, "But I thought we broke up in August, before the conference [our professional conference was in NY that year, where we reunited after a summer apart]."

"No!! No, no, no. We did NOT break up then. We almost broke up then, but I said no. Don't you remember how I helped you move and pack and we went to all those beginning of the year parties together in Chapel Hill?"

"I do remember, but I thought that was just you being especially gracious."

"No. Not especially. Don't you remember all that fighting we did when I was on the way to New York in August? We were fighting while I was in transit. I was calling you from airport payphones. I wanted you to pick me up at the airport."

"Pick you up? I didn't have a car."

"You could have borrowed a car."

Tom said, "And you were staying at your brother's. Why did I need to give you a ride?"

"Look, it was symbolic. But that's what we were fighting about and we almost broke up."


"Really. And you said, 'I'll meet you in Grand Central Station.' And I said, 'maybe I'll be there,' but of course I was. I was late, on purpose, but you were there. And we walked into Central Park and we sat on a bench and I said, 'So you're really moving here?' And you said, 'Yes, are we going to break up?' And I said, 'No, we are not breaking up, that's not what I want.' So we didn't break up. Not then."

He said, "I don't remember all that fighting and bad stuff."

"How nice for you."

And somewhere in there, these words came out of my mouth, "You know what I wish? That you hadn't started dating someone so that we had to break up."

Um, did I just tell Tom that I wish we were still together? What is wrong with me?

Despite that little nightmare summary I gave of our past the other day, I still like Tom. Since I stopped expecting anything from him, I find that I enjoy talking to him three or four times a year. And seeing him maybe once a year, when I'm in Seattle. Our interactions leave me feeling more happy than sad.

But, would I want to be with him? No. It's easy to say that because the issue is moot. He's happily married and the last thing in the world I want is to get in the middle of that. And all those problems we had? I have no reason to think we wouldn't have them again. He says he's changed. Anything is possible. But we were always better as friends, which is why interactions with him are more satisfying when friendship is the only option.

I'm not stupid. I know that if we were around each other, and both single, and that feeling flared up then...something would probably happen. I think that if I were to move back to Seattle, I'd have rather less contact with him than I do now. An ongoing flirtatious relationship with Tom while he is married to someone else has zero appeal. I will never, ever do that again.

Still, I know he has regrets about his behavior. He's actually apologized a few times and reminisced about our happier times. Clearly, he's forgotten a lot and perhaps he has a rosier memory of the past than is warranted. But what he does remember is that we had something special, something unusual, something that doesn't come along very often. He can remember fondly what we had and what, in fact, we will always have. While deciding to never act on it again.

I hope he knows that I was just expressing regret at how things ended and how, even though I've long reconciled myself to the end of our relationship, there is still a part of me that wishes that we could have seen it through. That our ambition, competitiveness and fighting hadn't gotten the best of us.

So that's why I was late to trivia. Sorry.

Grateful for: good recall.

P.S. I think I could write a book about this guy. In fact, a friend of mine suggested just that recently. Maybe it would be one of those books that would gently lull people to sleep, in the way my very long and rambling stories are wont to do.

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