Friday, June 4, 2010


"She is a ghost to me now."
-- Sean Penn on his ex-wife, Robin Wright Penn, to Vanity Fair

My first impression when I read the above quote was disbelief. "No he didn't," I thought to myself. "He did not just call the mother of his children a 'ghost.'" Then I carefully reconsidered his words, and I began to realize where he was coming from.

In fact, just this morning, I was loitering near the same mental space. I was thinking about my exes -- well, two, in particular -- and how it's almost like they no longer exist, or never did at all. In some ways, they're dead to me, and when they pop into my mind, as they occasionally do, they're like ghosts from my past lives.

When I was younger, I was much better about hanging on to mementos from old relationships -- photos, gifts, letters (back when people still wrote letters), cards, and various other assorted trinkets. But at some point during the last 10 years, as the minimalist in me took over, all that changed. Now moments after the break-up email is sent (sadly, that's exactly how my last few relationships have ended), I begin the task of erasing all physical memories of the ex from my life. As a result of my obsessive-compulsive emotional house-cleaning through the methodical removal of physical evidence of unwanted emotions, the only thing I have left of my relationships since I turned 30 are one or two photos that I didn't toss out, a pair of tennis shoes given as a birthday gift, and memories.

And once the latter begin to fade -- and eventually, they always do and already have --- what is left? Sometimes I wonder if my last few boyfriends actually existed or if I just dreamed them up. It's not like we had children together, or shared real estate. Those at least would be constant reminders that they weren't just some vaguely remembered dream. There are, for the most part, no photos, no emails, no gifts. Nothing.

Just fading memories. And are their memories of me fading, too? Do they remember the times we shared, the places we went, the things we said? I do, if I concentrate hard enough. But these memories are no longer easily retrieved. Remembering now takes a little bit of mental effort. If I saw these exes on the street, and they pretended not to see me, or know me, would they really be pretending. Perhaps I'm as much of a ghost for them as they are for me.

I would like to think I make a bigger impression on people than that, but sometimes I wonder. In the end, maybe it's a good thing, these ghosts of boyfriends past. Though I retain the lessons learned from my previous relationships, and the ones I had in my twenties, my first three, remain more or less vividly implanted in my memory, I don't walk around with a lot of baggage, perhaps just a small carry-on full of emotions. The memories would be heavy enough. They can be emotional burdens that break both your spirit and your back. The physical evidence of them could do similar damage -- financially and interior design-wise. (Thank God, I got rid of that storage space in Brooklyn -- and the romantic mementos I was keeping there, too.)

All I've got are my ghosts, which I wouldn't give up for the world. They may be disturbing and scary sometimes, but they're completely weightless, conducive to light travelling. Thank God, they only haunt me once in a while.

Kristen Hersh "Your Ghost"
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