My first instinct when I run into an ex-boyfriend is to hide. If there’s an easy exit, a bathroom, a closet, an unlocked car—I’m gone. But no matter how crafty you are, sometimes you just can’t avoid an ex. I once ran into one at a movie theater. After we’d talked for a few minutes about how annoying the parking lot can be, he told me he was on his way out. But his full bucket of popcorn betrayed the truth. Then there was the Halloween party where I ran into an ex dressed in normal attire while I was in a head-to-toe furry zip-up bunny costume (at least he couldn’t tell I’d gained 10 pounds). We talked about how packed the party was and then went our separate ways (my way was straight to the bar). Another time, I ran into an ex on the street. He was wearing Tevas, so I’d already won. Then he told me, “You were right. I am gay!” That encounter was pretty satisfying, but it gets to the root of what’s so awful about running into exes.
A few years ago I ran into an ex at a small-plates restaurant. He’d broken up with me. He was waiting for a date, which was a little awkward, kind of like “I’m still looking for the one, but I sure as hell know it isn’t you.” The previous time I’d seen him we’d already broken up but he’d called me late at night to “hang out.” I assumed he was racked with guilt for throwing away the best thing that had ever happened to him. Because the way you handle that is to instant-message the perfect girl at midnight in the middle of the week and beg her to come over “with snacks.” That’s the modern equivalent of Richard Gere showing up in a limo outside a Beverly Hills hotel, right? Right. I think you see where this is going. We had what I thought was makeup sex but was really just nope-we’re-still-broken-up sex. The next morning I woke up a little early. He did too. I stared into his eyes. He stared back. We were both silent. I thought he was planning a future for us, but instead he took my hand in his and said, “Are you leaving for work soon? Because I need to take a shit, and I can’t do it with you in the apartment.” My Prince Charming! I mean, the fact that he didn’t even try to lie was insulting. I thought he’d realized he’d made a mistake breaking up with me, but alas, the only mistake he’d made was being a shy pooper. He also told me before I left that I should add more ball play into my routine. So when I ran into Mr. Romance at the small-plates restaurant, we hugged, we talked about how cute the place was, where he was living, etc. Sounds harmless, right? Wrong. It was torture. The thing that makes running into exes so bad is small talk. I was making small talk with a guy who at one point had been comfortable enough with me to confide that he needed to take a shit (but not comfortable enough to have me stay). I didn’t want small talk; I wanted honesty. I wanted him to say he needed all the restaurant patrons to leave so he could take a shit on a small plate.
When I was living on the East Coast I ran into an ex on the subway. I was safely inside the train car with no exes when the doors started to close and in jumped a long-haired ex (probably on his way to a drum circle). He landed with a thud right in front of me. Using the only exit would have caused an alarm to go off and the entire train packed with commuters to be delayed. In retrospect, it would have been worth it. We talked about the weather. “Rain! Can you believe it?” “We needed it.” “I do like rain.” “Not when you’re walking!” Polite laughter. And the whole time I was thinking, I’ve seen this guy naked. This guy has seen me naked. He’s seen me naked and happy. Naked and sad. Naked and mad. And now we’re fully clothed talking about the fucking rain.
Small talk is a betrayal of the intimacy you once shared with someone. When they were the only person whose call you would actually answer. They were your number one, and you were theirs. The person you’d call with bad news (“I got fired”) and good news (“I got fired”) and neither was real until they’d heard it. There should be a special kind of talk for exes. Let’s stop pretending we’re two people who don’t know each other on a train. We’re two people who really really know each other on a train. Instead of small talk it should be ginormous talk. Skip the weather and go straight to “So did you add more ball play to your routine?” Next time I run into an ex I’m going to try ginormous talk. And you should too. “Hey, have you dealt with your paralyzing fear of commitment yet?” “Have you stopped watching movies in bed…with your mom?” “Do you still want to cryogenically freeze yourself so your head can be attached to a robot body for eternity?” Maybe it’ll be good. Or maybe it will just make everyone horribly uncomfortable. At least then when you’re in proximity to an ex they might do a better job finding somewhere to hide.