It started when I spotted an ex-boyfriend barreling toward us down the street. My pulse jolted, and I grabbed my current-boyfriend’s elbow and tugged him across the road, darting yellow taxis as we fled.
“Ugh,” I laughed, tossing a surreptitious glance over my shoulder. “I dated him years back.”
“Who?” Jared’s gaze followed mine, though his laugh did not.
“That guy back there. Forget it. He’s no one,” I said, and pressed the incident from my mind as quickly as it arose. After all, this was New York, and the streets were teeming with acquaintances with whom I no longer wanted to engage. Crossing the street was as sure a remedy as I knew to move on. But later that night, after we’d ordered burritos and made stilted small talk, Jared was mired in sourness, and eventually, after much prodding, he admitted the reason for his funk.
“I don’t like the fact that you’ve slept with other guys.” He said, pouting, reminding me of a five-year old stripped of his favorite toy car.
I laughed, disbelieving. “But I’m 25. Of course I’ve slept with other guys.”
“Well, I still don’t like it.” He rose to relieve himself in the tiny bathroom off the walk-in closet in my studio apartment. And that was the end of that.
Until it wasn’t. One night, months after he’d relocated to Chicago, I was fresh off a plane to visit him—the residue of spicy peanuts and stale plane air still clinging to me—when he brought it up again.
“I don’t know if I can get over it.” He said. “It” being my sexual past. “Women are always scarred by sex,” he said plainly, simply, shrugging his shoulders, like he was stating that the world was round, like this was a mere life truth that I’d somehow missed in my years of absorbing the world’s knowledge. “And when you’re a woman’s first,” he continued, “She’s indebted to you for life.”
My eyes grew wide, and my breath quickened, red flags waving on all sides of my subconscious. I picked invisible lint off of his plaid comforter, and fought the urge to scour underneath the bed for a corset and hoop skirt. Had I somehow traveled back in time to the Victorian era? Worse, had I somehow fallen in love with a lunatic? It was the 21st century! Who really believed this? That I’d be scarred? Indebted? But Jared very seriously believed what he said, having been raised on these ideals from childhood.
It’s not as if my list was one to be ashamed of. It’s not like it was dotted with drunken orgy sex. In fact, it wasn’t even that long. I supposed that a women’s magazine would call it roundly average: enough to know my away around a man’s anatomy, not so many that I’d become blasé toward encountering said anatomy in the flesh. I’d been among the last of my high school friends to abandon my virginity, and when I did, it was with my longtime sweetheart. From there, I was happily involved in a series of long-term monogamous relationships: each teaching me something sexually, sure, but more importantly, each teaching me something about myself, about who I wanted to be, how I’d like to be treated and treat someone in return. My college boyfriend taught me the confidence that comes with loving my body. My post-college boyfriend taught me that you don’t always have to be sexually compatible to fall in love. And that when he fell out of that same love, I could find a way to dig myself out of the seemingly endless black hole of despair, even when it felt like I couldn’t.
I could still remember all of their first names, and their last names too. I could still remember the circumstances that led to both the sexual encounters and the relationships. I could still remember why I loved many, though not all, of them. Didn’t that count for something? I thought. But apparently, it didn’t count for a whole lot. My scars must be hidden somewhere, my boyrfriend contended, even if they weren’t evident to either of us.
I told my best friend, who laughed harder than she had in months. I told my fairly-conservative mother (yes, really), who declared that perhaps he should start searching the nearest junior high if a virgin was what he wanted these days. I told my brother who mostly wanted to punch my boyfriend’s lights out. All of them told me to walk away, but instead, I chose to attempt to instill some reason in Jared by arguing with him.
“Look, HERE I AM, clear as day, no sexual pox marks, no hidden angst from having slept with someone else!” I’d shout repeatedly, using different words each time but echoing the same sentiment: that the men he thought had ruined me had, in fact, formed me. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the sum of my relationships,” I said over and again. And it was true. I valued these men, even though our relationships were nothing more than emotional carcasses. I cherished them for informing me, growing with me, sculpting me, even when I was occasionally gutted by them. My boyfriend didn’t dispute me here, but he didn’t agree either. Mostly, we argued in circles, sometimes winding into deranged territory (that argument over when our teenaged daughter would be “allowed” to lose her virginity – me: at 16 or 17; him: never – as if this is the sort of thing you can “allow” for anyway), almost always winding up back where we started.
We were both left stymied. He’d been raised to believe that women, in some way, were a prize to be won, and I’d been raised to know that I was no one’s trophy. And yet, I loved him anyway. And though he was too scared to say it because it meant that everything he’d been taught was untrue, he loved me anyway, too. Or parts of me. Maybe it was just parts of me. Maybe the sum of those parts was too much for him to love in entirety.
I tried to change him: he wasn’t a religious zealot. He was a logical, rational, very smart guy. And he sure as hell wasn’t a virgin before we met. I could change him, I reassured myself. I was living proof that the theories he’d been drilled with were false. He would see this soon enough, I was sure.
But then something slippery happened. Instead of changing him, I began to change myself. In small ways, at first. I’d dress for a night out, and I’d wonder if maybe my leopard print skirt wasn’t a bit too slutty or my heels a little bit too high. Or my high school boyfriend, who was now like a brother to me, would call, and I’d whisper hurriedly that I had to get off the phone. I stopped swearing, which I knew he thought was unbecoming, and I tried, as best I could, to carry myself in a more ladylike fashion—whatever that meant these days.
Eventually though, it began to snowball, and those tiny, niggly changes manifested themselves in a much graver way:
Soon, I’d think of exes, whom I’d once recalled with joy, and I’d feel shameful. What if I’d made different choices? The thought taunted me, haunted me, even if I knew that, at the time, those choices were organic to me and my life, and that, without my boyfriend’s judgments echoing in my ear, I’d still make the same choices all over again.
After a few months, I’d made myself over so that I barely recognized myself. My boyfriend would comment about my previous proclivities, and rather than argue with him, I’d shrug and say, “Well, I can’t erase the past,” while wishing full-heartedly that I could. Because maybe then, he would love me? The sum of me? All the parts, not just the few. Maybe then he would reciprocate the unconditional acceptance that I had for him. So I tried to pretend that my past didn’t exist, and I tried to pretend that my boyfriend could do the same. Mostly, I tried to pretend that there wasn’t something cataclysmically wrong with this premise to begin with.
I figured that this might be enough: to change myself as much as I could without hopping a time-machine to undo all of my previous behaviors. My boyfriend and I, other than my aforementioned sexual history, had a wonderful relationship. We did. Really. We enjoyed each others’ company, we shared the same interests, we laughed at the same jokes, we kept each other intellectually engaged, and yes, we even had a fantastic sex life. Shouldn’t this be enough? I’d think, while we were camped on his bed and he was playing his guitar for me and I sat behind him scratching his back. Can’t we leave the past where it belongs? Can’t we pretend that it won’t always shadow us forever?
For my boyfriend, no, it wasn’t enough. Soon, he declared that he “needed to marry a virgin,” And since there was no hiding that I certainly didn’t meet his criteria, we split. Only we didn’t really split. Ours was a messy break-up, with sputters and stops and starts and damage to be done long after our official goodbye. We never slept together again though. I moved to a new city, and he would visit, and one thing would lead to another but he always drew the line at sex. As if cradling each other in the bath or falling asleep with our limbs intertwined wasn’t as intimate, or more so, than the deed itself.
Eventually, as I pulled farther away from him — not even deliberately, but because as time moves forward, you can actually recover an earlier and more authentic self — I realized what I’d done: compromised myself, doubted myself, gave away so much of myself that I wished that I hadn’t. And I realized the irony of my boyfriend’s words and decisions: that, of all the men I’d loved and let into my bed, he was the only one who left any sort of scar.
A year or so later, we found ourselves living again in the same city and met for lunch. It was one of those anxiety-filled reunions: my hands clammy; fear that I was sweating through my shirt. I noticed he still wore the watch I’d given him for his birthday years back, and my heart splinted just a little. And he noticed my engagement ring and tried to offer a genuine smile. Then he told me that he realized “maybe he was going to have to settle,” and that maybe that dream gal wasn’t out there after all.
My heart sewed itself right back up. I sucked on my straw and took a swallow of Diet Coke and felt a rush of gratitude. That he broke it off before I was the one he had to “settle” for, and I found the dignity within me to finally realize that I might have been the one settling all along.
Now, when I think of him, which I do occasionally, though not often, it is with no rancor, no regret, and only fondness for the time we spent together and the lessons we learned. Our relationship, in fact, only proved the point that there is value in every former relationship for those that come after. Like it or not, we are the sum of our past. I choose to like it. What other choice is there, after all?