¡hola papi!

‘I Wish I Could Start Over With My Ex’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

¡Hola, Papi!

I’m here for some post-breakup advice.

My ex and I were together just shy of three years. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, per se. We both know where we fell short and what we did wrong. Her point, which I agree with, is that despite how good things can be, we both have a lot of things we need to heal from and grow from before anything could happen in a healthy way.

Two hiccups with this: one entirely in my control, and another that feels totally outside of it.

The first is that during our last meetup, which involved a lot of fighting and not hearing each other before reaching a place of understanding, we made an agreement. We decided that instead of hashing out every detail that wouldn’t matter a year from now, we would hit reset and try to have one really good night together that we can end this on. 

And we did just that! 

We spent the next seven hours together talking, laughing, eating, drinking, and enjoying each other’s company. She even tried clams for the first time and loved them. There were a lot of tears, I’m sorry’s, and thank you’s sprinkled in throughout, but we kept it lighthearted until the goodbye.

My hiccup with this is that throughout the night, we both kept talking about what would be next for us, and every time it came to “hopefully, in some time, we can regroup and try again when we’re both in better places.” I never thought we’d reach that sort of place, and it hit me pretty hard when she first suggested it, but I’m trying to figure out balancing that hope with the fact that I do need to move forward and live my life, regardless of what doors are or aren’t open.

I’m planning to move back to my hometown and rekindle old friendships and make new ones, but none of that will change the way my heart feels. I’m not sure where that balance between hope and reality lies.

My second hiccup is that, no matter what, she’s going to be on my mind for a long time. We were in a severe car accident together (another driver ran a stop sign and t-boned us) back in November, and it injured my back to the point of making even a walk to the kitchen a tear-inducing endeavor of pain and embarrassment. As a result, my ex ended up taking on many more responsibilities than she’d been used to, and honestly more than should be put on one person. 

In the midst of this breakup, I’m really not sure how to move on from the guilt of having put that much on her. We plan on staying in touch and being friends at some point when we’re doing better, but I don’t know how to forgive myself for the burden she had to carry for so many months.

I feel like this ghost is looming over me. When we were together, it felt like we could overcome that, but now I’m going it alone. Is there a way to start all over again? Or is the best we can hope for like our last night together, where, for a while, we just didn’t think about it? 

Sincerely,
Not a Ghostbuster

Hey there, NG!

Oh goodness, you’ve been through it, haven’t you?

I understand how complicated things can get with another person, how it can get to a point where there’s love and contempt and shame and desire all tangled up in one knot. And I can also understand how, given that degree of complexity, the notion of starting all over is hugely appealing. I think that’s what Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about. But I haven’t seen it since that one film class I took in college.

Between your ex and the looming specter of your accident (as well as its fallout), I get that sense of craving simplicity, of wanting to go back to factory settings, as it were, and do things differently this time. It’s a sort of desire for cleanness — wash it all off, begin again. I go through this all the time, when I clean my apartment. You may think that’s a frivolous comparison, but you haven’t seen my apartment. We’re not so different, you and I.

In any case, you know well things don’t work this way. Even if somehow you could shake the Etch A Sketch and start anew, life would creep back in. And life isn’t a clean thing. Life thrives on the mess; life fans out in inscrutable patterns and makes a home for itself in every last nook and cranny, changing and rearranging the world around it until it’s a different world altogether.

In the face of such resilience, your blank slate doesn’t stand a chance.

However, this isn’t all bad news. Indeed, NG, I think it’s good news. Experiences don’t come to us all sterile and new. They are additive, mingling with our previous experiences and building in layers over the scheme of our lives to comprise the bigger picture.

Take your last, lovely evening with your ex where she tried clams for the first time. You say you hit reset that night. But I don’t think you did. The fact that her trying clams for the first time struck you was because this was a person you knew well, so well that you were aware of the foods she did and didn’t like, had and hadn’t tried, and the fact that she branched out that evening resonated because it was something new from a person you were so familiar with.

Without that familiarity and all the baggage that comes with it, that small moment wouldn’t have stood out as it did, wouldn’t have mattered so much at all. But it did, and it does, because of the context and the texture of a relationship, one with highs and lows and joys and regrets. There is no reset. There is only deciding: Let’s try something new.

And just like this is possible between two people with a complicated history, NG, it is possible with yourself. You don’t have to forget this person. You don’t have to wipe away the accident or the events that followed. You only have to decide: I want to keep going. I want to move forward.

I don’t suggest you wait around for this person. It’s not healthy to sit around hoping someone will come back, or that what you once had will return. If I haven’t made my personal philosophy on the matter abundantly clear, I don’t think returning is possible at all. Even in the terms you both laid out, if you did reconnect, it would be as different people, and you can’t become a different person while living in the past.

I want you, NG, to try something new. Try kindness and patience with yourself. Try acceptance of all the support your ex showed you when you needed it, and acceptance of the fact that things have changed since then. Try not to idle too long waiting for that one door to open, the one that leads back to this person, and instead seek out other doors.

Life is an odd and circuitous thing. You never know where you might end up, when you’ve determined to keep moving.

I’m going to clean my room!

Con mucho amor,
Papi

Originally published on July 5, 2022.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I Wish I Could Start Over With My Ex’