“Why didn’t any of the guys you dated love you as much as I do?” my boyfriend asked.
The question hung in the air like foggy breath steaming up a cold windshield. It’s one of his favorite questions to ask. To him, it’s a mystery why other guys passed me over. It’s a riddle I love him for wanting to solve.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
“Me neither,” I shrugged.
These are the kinds of conversations you have four hours into a five-hour road trip, after you’ve listened to a Lorrie Moore short story on The New Yorker Fiction podcast and gossiped about people you know and stopped at an abandoned McDonald’s with one, lone carousel pony on display in the dining area. The pony looked out of place — like it was in search of its missing carousel.
“Why did that guy break up with you?” he asked, getting preemptively defensive of my honor. He likes to protect me.
“I have to pee,” I replied.
“I’ll stand guard while you pee,” he said. “Just in case.”
He was trying to make me laugh. He loves to make me laugh. But, he meant it. The unlikely prince waiting to carry us away on his carousel pony. We galloped back out to the car with our Quarter Pounder and fries.
“It must be hard to have a special needs child,” I said, shoving a French Fry into my mouth. “There was a character with an autistic child in the book I just finished and he admitted to not being sure if he actually loved his son.”
“Did he break up with you or you with him?” he asked, still stuck on it.
“Oh, I don’t know. He was too preoccupied to love me, so I broke up with him, I think.”
My boyfriend looked over at me, wounded at my wounding, and squeezed my leg. It was meant to be a gesture of comfort. But I didn’t need comfort. Sitting there in the passenger seat, looking out at the pitch-black highway ahead of us, I could barely remember that guy’s name. Had I cried over the breakup? Probably? I don’t know. I’m sure I did. All the breakups that came before this relationship accumulated until they were an entire ocean of rejection. It was hard to separate them. They were one body of water now. This feeling of being unlovable, which once felt so big, had receded from my consciousness. I don’t think love ever makes pain disappear. But without me realizing it, the pain had simply … dried up.
“This is the only thing you need to know,” I told him. “The others were like grains of sand and you are like the whole beach.”
He looked at me, swelling. That came out more poetically than I meant for it to. But it was 100 percent true. It’s hard to make him understand this because he has one important ex, and I have thousands of not-so-important ones (with a few significant ones here and there). Well, not thousands, but lots.
Before the boyfriend, I would hear from the exes regularly; like clockwork, one of them would pop up every few months on the street, on Gchat, on Facebook, via text. Even if I was dating someone, exes would swim to the surface of my life like whack-a-moles, like they instinctively knew I was still looking for something. I thought they would rear their heads in the same way once I was in love and I’d finally have the satisfaction of bopping them on the head like I fucking meant it. Go away! I don’t need you. Strangely, since the day my boyfriend and I met nearly eight months ago, not one ex has slunk around. They all seem to have received the psychic message that I am no longer interested. For real.
The day after the road trip, the first, not-so-important ex resurfaced. He IM’d me to say, of all things, “Hello.”
“Hey,” I replied distantly, trying not to assume he only wanted to talk to me for romantic purposes. Maybe he just wanted to say hi?
His questions rolled on and within moments, he was asking me to give him life updates over coffee. I knew I had to whack him, but when mallet-came-to-mole, I retreated. Nobody would forbid me, per se, from having a cup of coffee with him. But at the same time, I couldn’t think of single reason I should. In the past, I would have found a reason. Any reason.
“You haven’t heard from me in a while because I have a serious BF,” I wrote.
He responded simply with a smiley face emoticon.
“I am happy,” I replied.
That’s about as hard-hitting as I get, apparently. The whacking moment was nowhere near as satisfying as I imagined. It was emotionally uneventful.
As I closed his chat box, I tossed around the idea of sitting across from him with a latte. There was a time when I would have lept at the chance. Now, it just seemed silly, like one of those nonsensical stories you write in grade school. The Missing Carousel Pony by Ami Angelowicz.
What would I say to him?
Suddenly, I knew what I would say. It was the answer to the riddle my boyfriend was searching for — an answer that was revealed to me only once I felt deeply enough for someone to understand it. All those years, I fooled myself into thinking that I was the rejected one — that nobody ever loved me as much as I loved them. Really, it was the opposite.
“I never really cared about you all that much,” I would tell the ex flippantly, taking a sip from my mug.
But I would never hit that hard in real life. I’m more concerned with scheming up funny ways to tell my boyfriend about the ex chatting me up. I love to make him laugh.
[Photo from Shutterstock]