Seven years ago I received a Facebook message from a woman I’d never met. I’m Maggie*, she said, Leo’s girlfriend. I found some of your old things in the back of our closet. Photos, some poems you’d written. Seems like stuff you might want. I can mail it to you if you like. Leo wouldn’t know.
Leo wasn’t just my ex; he was The Ex. The one I had to explain to friends and therapists. People made horrified faces when I told them about Leo. I hadn’t spoken with him since the day I’d left, several years before.
That summer, my husband and I had temporarily forsaken a US address and were house sitting in Mexico, snorkeling every day, biking everywhere, eating fresh fruit and hot salsa. If I hadn’t felt the protection of that happy place and that distance, I’m not sure I would have responded to Maggie’s message. Leo was someone from whom I’d fled.
I don’t have a US address right now, I told her. Besides, I’m no great keeper of memorabilia. I did not tell her that I didn’t especially want to remember that time.
But she must have intuited it; she wrote back, tentatively expressing curiosity. About me. About what had really happened between Leo and I. He says you never loved him, she told me. But I don’t believe that.
My disappointment at this information bordered on fury. I’d given Leo my late teens and mid-twenties. I’d dropped out of school and moved to Los Angeles with him. But what I’d sacrificed for him in terms of emotional and spiritual well-being was incalculable. At his side, my sense of self worth had become porous as a sponge; I’d lived to please him, to avoid his anger. When I left him, I’d hoped he would do a little self reflection and maybe eventually become a Buddhist or something but it was business as usual in Leo-land.
I told Maggie all of this. Of course I loved him, I wrote. Although at the end—I did kind of hate him. I hated what I’d become over those nine years. Not leaving was no longer an option; I got out of that relationship the way people jump out of a burning building. I was saving my own life, I explained. I was hesitant to say more; she was after all, his girlfriend.
But she wrote back, intimating that she understood perfectly. And suddenly we were writing to one another almost daily, pen pals of a sort. Over the next few weeks, as we earned one another’s trust, we exchanged more details, things we were loathe to share with others. Things about Leo’s disturbing sexual predilections, the way we’d caved to his desires because we were starved for intimate contact. The way we felt about ourselves afterwards: ashamed. Aching. You’re the only one who really knows what it’s like, she wrote. You describe my own life, an ever-narrowing tunnel.
Seven years later, I would meet her over a clandestine coffee. It felt in some way like a bizarre infidelity, and that’s what was so perverse. We were just two women sharing a hot beverage, but the stakes were always high where Leo was concerned. He was a man I’d long thought capable of anything, including killing me — or her. At the same time, it was a kind of betrayal. A secret. I was his ex, and seven years on, she was still his girlfriend, despite her efforts to leave him.
(To be continued)
*names have been changed.