Old Boyfriends Rule

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, April 27, 2008

WHEN YOU GET MARRIED, you shouldn't talk to old boyfriends. That's just a rule I came up with. Even if the old boyfriend represents nothing beyond innocent friendship, any chance of hurting the husband isn't worth it. Even if you have a reasonably secure husband who does not tend toward jealousy, stepping into old love stories is entering dangerous terrain that will do nothing, absolutely nothing, to strengthen your marriage. So, don't go there.

Years ago, the Russian called. Of all the old boyfriends, he might have represented the most dangerous territory. He was high drama. We met in Moscow while we were both working there. He was bilingual, and I was not, so everything I learned about the collapsing Soviet Union was filtered through him. We got into the middle of a riot once -- people in Sverdlovsk stampeding over vodka -- and he grabbed me tight and dragged me behind a warehouse door, where we breathed the exhausted, exhilarating air of escaped prisoners.

He was recently divorced, sad. I was unattached and free and used to falling in love in foreign countries. It's what I did. It took years of melodramatic heartache to finally recognize the pattern: Foreign land plus man with thick accent with whom I had absolutely nothing in common -- really, the less the better -- equaled new love story set in a mysterious geography, where romantic adventures belonged. Then: tearful, tragic goodbye in airport, flurry of scratchy long-distance midnight calls, heartache of the highest order. He lives on the other side of the world!!!

It wasn't all that crazy. Plenty of people in their 20s are thrill-seekers. Anyone with a fear of commitment but a tremendous need for love will find a way to exercise the heart while keeping it closed. No one gets in, not for long, not if there are whole oceans to isolate you. But with the Russian, it wasn't so simple. He ended up coming over here. I ended up going back there. Back and forth, all those airports, all those tears -- and then his ex-wife reentered the picture, and he remarried her.

Back then, the man who would eventually become my husband was just a friend. My best friend. So he knew about the Russian and all my emotional hiding tricks. He would shake his head and try to help. What I didn't know, of course, was that he was waiting for a long time, just waiting for me to grow up.

Who knows how it happens? You're lucky enough to have someone like that waiting. Lucky enough not to get yourself killed while getting adventure out of your system, which you never really do. Real love, the kind a husband has to offer, becomes the new adventure, infinitely richer.

So when the Russian called, years ago, I was newly married. He called to say a business trip was bringing him to town. I'm sure he meant it when he said our visit would just be as old friends. But what if he gave me a look? What if I gave him a look? The risk felt foolish and uninteresting. If there was a chance, even a slim one, of hurting the husband, I had to say no. So, that's what I did.

"You know, I never forgot you," the Russian said. I could have truthfully said the same. But I didn't. Was that cruel?

His most recent attempt to reconnect was in an e-mail. Or maybe it was a voice mail. It was 2005. I remember because by then I was the mother of two. He wanted to know how I was doing, said he really wanted to talk. I should have explained: Look, when you get married, you shouldn't talk to old boyfriends. That's just a rule I came up with. But I didn't. I responded with silence. I was a wife and a mother, and that was the right thing to do.

Yesterday, I got to thinking about him. Yesterday, I got to missing him in a gentle, funny way. I had just returned from a foreign country, where I didn't fall in love, and I was noticing how far removed I am from that old pattern. Hey, I am cured! I can cross the U.S. border without falling in love with a stranger! Somehow, I was ready to exhale. Ready to reconnect with a person I genuinely once loved, if only to smile at innocence and the earnestness of youth.

So, this morning I Googled his name. And the first thing that came up was an obituary. And even as I read it and everything added up, I swore it wasn't him, swore it was just a weird coincidence. As I kept reading, I felt bullets, small fierce explosions, in my stomach. I scanned, hoping the cause was a car accident or any crazy, short burst of violence that hit him before he knew it. But no, he battled cancer, died in 2006, some months after the call I never answered.

He is survived by his wife and two children, and all I can do is sit here in blank, brutal regret. Drowning in remorse over all I never said. When the husband gets home, I'll tell him. He'll probably say he's sorry that he didn't know I had that stupid rule about old boyfriends, because he would have tried to talk me out of it.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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