We need our exes like we need our brothers and sisters and favourite cousins to remember who we were
By Anna Kini
Illustrations: Debasmita Das
I told a friend recently that I tell all men I meet nowadays that I love them. My friend scoffed, social service? Which is funny but it is not that I tell all the men I meet that I love them, literally. It’s just that I feel kindly towards the world lately.
I feel particularly kind towards my exes. This is a strange feeling. Usually, I try not to think about the things they did to me, the things I did to them, the things we did to ourselves when we were together. All these years it has given me that feeling of wanting to change the channel when someone on TV is doing something embarrassing. Until, as I said, recently. I have had some years of being loved expansively – and continue to be loved expansively – by a kind man, and I suppose I am passing the parcel.
Years ago my friend B, five years older and hugely tolerant, witnessed for months my tears about breaking up with the boyfriend of the time. Underneath all the crying, the rationalising, the arguing back and forth was the feeling that this was meant to be. We were meant to be together, my boyfriend and I, sharp and funny and hot-pink wearing, lean and curvaceous, mean and obsessive, we were meant to be together. But B just listened. I didn’t know he was listening to a similar stream of tears from his sister at the time. The sister’s lover had been horrifically abusive. After some months he told me about his sister. B said to me, “Once in a while she will say she remembers how long and beautiful his torso was and I have to nod along.” He was grimacing and laughing as he said it. I laughed along. Because that man I couldn’t believe had left me had a long, perfect torso too. Us short girls and boys who were left behind have to think lovingly of those long torsos and laugh. Because when you lose ridiculous beauty you have to embrace the ridiculousness, the beauty and the loss all at once. Anything else is a way to bitterness, and who wants that when you could just run your hands up and down yourself and feel that body again.
Fifteen years after we last met, the memory of his toothy grin, his near-edible lower lip, jolts me with a shot of pleasure. Because I bit that lip on the way to a gathering of Very Important People from our world. Because we never made it to that gathering. We did what we could in that car since I had a boyfriend and he had failed to mention he had a girl waiting for him at home (you can see where this was going).
When I am old, I will remember skipping dinner with the Important personages and the stop-start-stop make out in the car. I will remember his attempting to nip at my butt in a meadow full of tall grass some months later, stumped not by my squealing but by the tourist bus that stopped next to the meadow right then. I will remember showering in a little box of a bathroom with the door open because we couldn’t bear to close the door on the wide open valley, because we were vain babies and because in the lines and curves of our vain bodies we had made what seemed an invincible private world on a mountain top. I will remember. And perhaps he will remember and no one else will. No one else will know that wood nymph phase of ours.
We need our exes like we need our brothers and sisters and favourite cousins to remember who we were. They know that the scar on your inner thigh is from jumping badly over a barbed wire fence, how you became the person who would rather die than go to dentists, the person who wishes they were tolerant towards people who don’t get jokes but isn’t. How did we become who we are, miserable and cranky and joyous in this particular way that we are? Only the Shadow knows. And that cousin. And that ex.
I live a quiet life now in a 9-to-5-ish job. I have mutual funds. In the memories of my exes lie a feckless woman who travelled across the country following her nose, following the tingle in her pussy, following a sexual shudder. Now this makes me sound like that woman Robert Palmer sings about:
She’s unavoidable, I’m backed against the wall
She gives me feelings like I never felt before
I’m breaking promises, she’s breaking every law
She used to look good to me, but now I find her
And I wasn’t. I was dweeby and badly dressed and greasy. But I also posed languidly, nakedly on a sofa while talking on the phone, while behaving as if I didn’t know that my boyfriend was taking photos with an ancient SLR. Somewhere in the world is a crumbling film roll with my breasts at 25, my toes at 25, my nose at 25 and a pussy simultaneously hesitant, simultaneously filled with bravado. Us un-pretty girls can’t sit neatly waiting like jasmine in a string. We have to fly out like crows, loud and incorrigible and hopeful that someone will see our sleek, black wings and fly with us.
So rapid is us girls’ progress into obsolescence, pretty or unpretty, that at 28 I felt cynical and sad and convinced that it was all over. Enter the ex that every one deserves. Kind, charming, energetic. Staying just long enough to remind you of the starburst that is romance. Staying just long enough so that you don’t mistake mutual fun for mutual funds. He was younger. Five years younger. Wooh, it felt a bit precarious but not really since it happened in the manner of a high-wire trapeze act and there was no time to think.
I arrived in Bombay on work. He had pinged me a few months ago on a dating site and I had been friendly, not imagining that he and I had any thing in common. On the day I arrived in Bombay he called to say why don’t we meet for a drink. Outside my friend’s house I hopped into his taxi and he said something and I said something and we didn’t stop talking for the next five days. But there was no indication in that taxi right then moving slowly through the furthest suburbs that we were going to engage in a week of activities that would warm me a whole decade later. We went to a club and in half an hour we were tearing at each other on the dance floor in ways that in my experience happened only in the movies. You know that scene when the door slams open and the couple explodes into the apartment pulling at each other’s clothes, banging into walls, all the while lips attached to each other for air, oh god, air, aren’t we kissing so we can keep breathing? We hurtled out of the club, wild-eyed. I was covered in hickies and sticky with sweat and determined to find a horizontal surface right then. We returned to my friend’s home and comically had sex standing up. Also that night, in another event that I had assumed was a stupid creation of stupid movies, he fucked me very hard and I enjoyed it. But the force of each of his er… thrusts made me slide away from him on the cold floor of my friend’s living room. He’d pull me back under him, thrust again, and I would slide away again. He told me afterwards that he enjoyed what he assumed was my obvious playacting at reluctance. I didn’t correct him not because I was protecting his feelings or because I wanted to maintain the sexiness of that fuck, but his participating in what he thought was silent role-play turned me on like an electric shock.
In the week that followed we made out in the ferries out of the Gateway of India, we made out in the trains, we made out in the courtyards of restaurants, on the warm hoods of cars in residential lanes, on the pokey sharp rocks of Bandstand, joining the spread of lovers like another penguin couple in Patagonia. A hijra warned me that chikne kanjoos hotein hai and gave my boy what we now call side-eye. He, I realise now, was just as used to thinking of himself as a crow and not a jasmine bud, chikna that he might have been. One afternoon that week he reached for me with audacity that makes me squirm right now as if I was still in the backseat of that taxi. He slid up my skirt and pulled down my underwear and thrust his thick fingers into me. The inside of the taxi flooded with my dirty sea, dirty Bombay, dirty sex smell. The taxi driver raised his nose and our eyes met in the rear-view mirror. I tried to close my legs and my boy barked at me, “wider”. I looked out of the window, the city passed by sedately and I came, bucking, gasping, speechless. That ‘wider’ was the only word we said to each other from Churchgate to Bandra.
My younger boy is an older boy now. On social media I see that his rough edges have all been polished away in some process that is mysterious to me since we have never really met after that week. I tried to stay in touch but we had nothing in common and he knew that. It made me morose then, but it was just greed. Now I see his DP in suits and that familiar, sweet, snarly, indie dog smile and I feel flooded with goodwill every single time.
Now this too sounds like I am one of those ladies who believe that the universe takes care of you and the universe has a reason and let’s drink green tea. Not at all. Sometimes when I broke up with each of these men or when they broke up with me or when we drifted dead-eyed and slack-mouthed away from each other, I was sad and angry and bereft and worried that I had somehow tried to eat those men with my crow maw and they had gotten away. But when one kind accountant (not an actual accountant – just the equivalent in the dating world) indicated with greater frequency that he was thinking of me in a permanent way, I could only think of getting away. He was faultlessly generous and cooked and drove and laughed with crinkling eyes at my jokes. I had seduced him effortlessly and with equal ease persuaded him that it was okay if our fluids leaked onto his sheets, we didn’t need towels. I ran when I got a whiff that he was attempting a bloodless marital coup. When I heard of his prompt marriage to a suitable bride I rolled my eyes. All the afternoons I had rolled my eyes behind a book when he read out random things from the newspaper and I worried about my sliding into marriage with a Victorian Daddy-Knows-Best? Escaped!
When I bumped into him many years later I almost didn’t recognise him. For one whole minute. Then I felt so instantly fond of him, of his pastel shirt, his daughter in a bouffant frock and his crinkling eyes. And all I could remember was the afternoon he did turn up at my doorstep from another city because he had heard in my voice a bleak sadness.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a re-run with our exes? To have an afternoon, an evening, a night with fingers entwined and knees touching each other and heads on the same pillow. To smile and smile and smile at each other and the men and women we used to be. Loving our exes is a second chance at loving our past unwieldy selves. Once more, in the words of Robert Palmer:
She deserves the applause, I surrender because
She used to look good to me, but now I find her
Simply irresistible, Simply irresistible
When I think of exes, I don’t think of just my pastel-shirted accountant who wanted to marry me. I also think of the boy who I thought was an accountant – equivalent and hence without danger. We went out on just three evenings, but he held my hand every evening and ate grapes from my cupped courtesan palms while we hung out at a bus stop.
I also think of the boys who didn’t really want me, who thought of me as a safe, uninteresting accountant-equivalent on stray days out of boredom or loneliness. Once there was a man who was handsome in a way that made young women and old women sit up and smile fondly at him. I had the hots for him in fits and bursts. Between the fits and bursts I looked at him and saw him for the strange uncle-ji he was. But in the fits and bursts he made watermelon juice in my tiny kitchen and took me for long motorcycle rides and swam in the sea. In the fits and bursts he threw a party and looked on as all the younger men of his entourage flirted with me. I wore a long midnight blue dress spangled in silver and was more moon than crow that evening on his roof. The other boys laughed at my jokes and leaned in and my handsome pack leader looked on. In the reflection of their warm eyes he warmed to me and put his arm around me. I found him dog-in-the-manger and also human and sighed for both of us. After another party, this time at my house, I led him by the hand to my tiny bedroom. The house was bursting with people but I was sure that we had a bubble to fuck in. Except Akela the wolf pack leader, sans audience, he didn’t want to fuck me. Perhaps he didn’t want to fuck at all generally, but then I could only think he doesn’t want me he doesn’t want me he doesn’t want me. But crows don’t give up that quickly. I worked a smile out of my dejection and unzipped him and sucked his cock. I was astonished at how even his penis was handsome and glossy and fine-smelling like something in a very expensive bakery. He enjoyed it a little but wanted me to stop. I wanted to cry, I remember, but I was the girl with the party house and us girls with the party houses don’t cry. And uncle-jis are kind in their own way. He held me to his handsome, glossy, fine-smelling chest and we fell asleep. I woke up still in that warm embrace. We never kissed ever in those months of his trying to decide what to do with me. But waking up that morning, I smiled and was ready to say goodbye.
Again, not being a green tea drinker, I like to tell the truth. Like many women I have had one or two truly terrible exes. One of them stopped a hair short of hitting me, but perhaps if he had hit me it would have helped me leave quicker. I remember his truly excellent multilingual jokes and Tamil songs he sang on cold winter nights in our car and his tears every time he thought of my leaving in the abstract. (My leaving in reality or all the horrible things he did that made people run away didn’t make him cry). He was a terrible human being and he broke my heart every time I looked at him. He was an ugly, bitey, snappy dog that no one else would feed but which bit me anyway. His sheer unlovableness kept us together. We had violent sex and violent role play and I felt dirty and unlovable too. When I left him I threw myself into being a high roller in the boy casino. I threw the dice, I played blackjack, I embraced the slot machines. On the phone, on chat, in bars and buses, drunk and sober, at night or during the day I was ready to roll. I kissed boys and groped others and held hands and danced to songs one other fellow made me listen to long-distance on the phone. It took six months and a dozen men to feel clean and springy again.
This year I bumped into a boy I had loved sincerely and disproportionately a decade ago. He doesn’t fall into a category that I have a name for. He is not an ex. We played magnet-magnet attraction for years without ever doing anything. On a doomed day I told him that I was in love with him and he laughed like I was telling him a funny story. I did cry that day. Desperate to leave my lonely life I latched on to the man who would later turn into my violent ex. I tried to say goodbye to the magnet and he did just enough of dog in the manger, showed just enough contempt for my pursuit of romance, that I swore off him for many years. But in the last few years when we have met in short, passing encounters, I feel pure, undiluted love and swear that I feel the same back. Saying goodbye the last time we met I kissed the side of his neck as I hugged him. All the times I felt I could have just turned my head and kissed him that evening, I was grateful for the people around us, grateful for the unforced calm swirl of love inside me despite a familiar tingle in the pussy (bad pussy, bad. I’ve missed you so).
On the way home, I had an ignominious thought. Did he know that the tingle has never gone away? His touching, his stroking, his side-hugging, what was it in aid of? Was my neediness still transparent?
But the truth is that I am no longer the nervous job applicant waiting to be picked after interview and group discussion. Back when I hung about waiting for him to ‘pick me, choose me, love me’ nothing from my strange life entered our bubble of erotic tension. I was careful to keep it that way. But now as I told dirty anecdotes from my life I could hear the scales re-aligning.
I was no longer the sweet handmaiden (or the best imitation of handmaiden I could do). We could both be Ulysses back home after many years with dirty sailors and raunchy sirens. We could both be Penelope left behind with the tapestry and the suitors. And each time he touched me, I remembered the impulsive pussy rioter I once was.
My need, past or present, transparent or opaque, didn’t feel as shameful. If I hadn’t loved him desperately as I did then who would I be now? To badly mangle the words of another song “God blessed the broken road that led me far, far away from you”
My magnetic attraction may strictly not be an ex but he is definitely an erotic time machine. One of those east Europeans said, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.” I think the most painful state is wishing that my particular Ulysses and I had a taxi cab ride in the past. That would have made the future infinitely more tolerable and sparkling, even though the present gleams like the wine-dark sea.
Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit, said one of those Latin speaking dudes. Meaning, perhaps someday it will bring pleasure to remember even these things. And it has and it will.
Anna Kini loves Hyderabad but doesn’t live there, loves women but doesn’t sleep with them and is not called Anna Kini.