Dating in Your 30s With the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Love and Sex

Dating in Your 30s With the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Table for two? No, sir, four for the ghosts of our past.

As we sit across the bar, arms nudging, our feet entangle, and the warm feeling takes over. The ambience is perfect; we have eyes only for each other. A friends-turning-into-more-than-friends scenario, perhaps.

And then they play some song, that takes you back… back to the person before the one you’re sitting with. That feeling, that emotion, that memory triggered, one that is annoying by the very fact that it should even resurface after so long. And you slip back into the same melancholy mode, thinking of time passed and feelings that will never return.

You approximate a feeling of melancholy that the Portuguese call “saudade”, or the “presence of absence”. As this Huffington Post piece puts it, the almost untranslatable word is a “a longing for someone or something that you remember fondly but know you can never experience again. Saudade is not nostalgia where you reminisce about happy and sad emotions. You remember the happiness but feel the sadness knowing you can’t recapture the feeling.”

And then you pause and wonder, is the person you are sitting with doing the same too?

Are they also looking at the bar, remembering the moment with another person in another time, maybe even in the same bar? It makes you think whether we are both entirely with each other? Or somewhere are we still carrying along the ghosts of the past? Turning a date for two into a ménage à trois or perhaps even a ghostly foursome? And sometimes there is more than one ghost of the past. And you wonder just how many of them are on the dance floor, along with the two of you?

In a brilliant sequence in the Charlie Puth-Selena Gomez number “We Don’t Talk Anymore” past lovers are shown kissing present ones in adjacent frames. A clever visual trick obliterates the present partners, so it appears as if Puth and Gomez are kissing each other.

Perhaps, deep down somewhere, we are all still kissing our previous partners.

I don’t know what sucks more: Being the new guy (blissfully unaware or painfully aware of the fact) or being the person who just can’t take in a new partner whole. Because your emotional hard drive still has some inaccessible bad sectors from the past.

It’s a frightening prospect. If the ghosts of my past were to manifest as apparitions, they would probably float past my current muse to pass snide remarks. “So, he still checks himself out in the mirror huh LOL,” the ghost might ask. (And true to its past form, this ghost won’t even laugh… it might actually say LOL just to irritate the fuck out of me). And my partner might say, “OMG like totally and that stupid expression he makes!”

Sobering also is the realisation that in another corner of the world, you are the ghost for someone out there. My ghostly apparition probably floats about making sarcastic jibes like, “Thanks babe! Now I’m dead both on the inside and outside.” Not to mention the fear that today’s muse could well become tomorrow’s ghost as you go about accumulating so many of them even the Ghostbusters vault seems insufficient to hold them where they can do no harm.

So, a sense of fatigue, an inability to create pure, new experiences sort of creeps in. Somewhat like how it didn’t feel like a party back in college until you were spinning around on your back like an upturned turtle. But now anything more than a slightly tipsy feeling after two drinks feels like a bit too much.

Does that mean, we’re resigned to never once more experience the romantic equivalent of unabashed alcoholism? Well, unless your romantic liver is made of steel, maybe not.

But here’s the bright side. Just like your relationship with alcohol changes, so does your relationship with romance. From the heady days of brazen, emotionally intense waves of love to perhaps simply settling in for a quiet day with a person where it doesn’t feel like noise when they talk. To an acceptance that your combined ghosts will linger on for a while.

Yet, at some point they will get buried into the sands of time, as new memories take their place.

Some might recall that episode from the show How I Met Your Mother, where the baggage Ted has been carrying from the past continues to haunt his current relationship. But his acceptance of it at the end of the episode finally helps him move on.

Because not all the conversations of the ghosts are haunting ones. If they could talk to each other, perhaps they’d say things like “He’s an idiot but he has a nice heart.” Or, “Yes, he’s frustrating but I got to admit, it’s never been boring right?” Or even, “Just when you want to strangle him, he does something caring, doesn’t he… the asshole.”

For all the bitterness, if a medium ever put us in touch, I would probably say things like “Hey Ghost(s), thank you for all the wonderful times. For the way you boosted my self-esteem. How you convinced me that you also found me attractive for the way I look, and not despite it, as I have always believed. For the tenderness, for turning passion into intimacy, and a kiss into a conversation. For lifting this troubled electron to a higher orbit. I hope we when we meet years later, we will look at each other and smile like the final scene in La La Land where Mia and Sebastian communicate so much in one glance. It’s ok that we couldn’t make it with each other, but we still made it. I’m happy for you – and I hope you’re happy for me too.”

You wish all relationships, if they had to end, could end this way.

As for me, I find my hope in the TV series Scrubs, to Carla’s wedding vows when she turns to her future husband Turk and says. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but you’ve managed to erase them all. Because each and every one of them has led me to you.”