It was more than the haircut and the clothes: It was the whole ensemble of me at 23.
In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
I joked about our age difference the first time we hung out. When Kurt Cobain died, I was in a pub in Germany. She was in the second grade. I made some crack about watching MTV News and feeling old. She was pretty cocky about not knowing who Kurt Loder was.
She was 23, opinionated, and emotional, with lots of orange hair on top. “Fiery” is the word I think I assigned the overall package. I liked arguing with her. She made me nervous. She had complicated hobbies, like making her own beer and playing archaic musical instruments. She had big, passionate ideas about what was wrong with the world and how to save it. We met while volunteering, because that's how every lesbian meets every other lesbian in Washington, D.C.
She also had my haircut. To be fair, I had her haircut, too. Doppelbanger Syndrome—banging one’s clone—is a scourge of the lesbian community, and we had a critical case: same Bieber haircut, same thick-framed glasses. “You guys sisters?” everyone wondered, from pervy guys to sweet old ladies. D.C. doesn’t really do butch-femme, so there we were, left to haggle out the gray areas in the same dressing room at H&M.
We dated for a few months, then shuttled back and forth between cities when she moved for law school. As time went on, I found that I liked the distance fine. Whenever we spent more than a few days together in either of our tiny apartments, it started to feel like being trapped in the back of a Volvo on a parental road trip. She had an unsettling knack for finding my weak spots, then poking at them with a pointy, mean humor that made me feel like a sucker if I didn’t laugh along. I never had any siblings, so I never got the whole incest taboo thing. But maybe this was why my friends found the idea of making out with their brothers so gross—because their brothers were very annoying.
What I did know is that I was spending a lot of time soothing the litany of personal slights the world seemed to continually commit against her—classmates, professors, guys who played the banjo, coal companies, campus military recruiters. Why did I ever think that constant conflict was sexy? Still, I tried to empathize. Years before, another ex’s mom had given me a book called “The Highly Sensitive Person,” which had filled me with an uncomfortable feeling of pity-love.
I rummaged around in my own experiences to try to help her, but it was always awkward. “When I was your age” would jump out of my mouth and instantly become another punch line. But what little life I’d already lived at 31 was so different from the one in front of her that we weren’t really speaking the same language.
When I was her age—stick with me here—I was about a year from getting married, about two from getting divorced, about three from getting off a suitcase full of head drugs and about five from finally realizing that I wasn’t the only very special person on planet Earth. She was still hung up on things that had happened in summer camp. I’d wrung the hell out of the eight years that I had on her. I began to realize that I needed to be with someone who had already covered the same ground.
And then she showed up for a date dressed as me. Wearing all of my clothes. A me costume. She’d been at my place all day, apparently going through my closet. She’d rummaged up some deep cuts, down to an ugly necklace I hadn't seen in years.
We were meeting for a drink that I was dying for after spending the day reporting on abuses at a juvenile jail. I’d sucked in my sensitive personhood all day. I needed someone to listen, to let me pour things out and strategize about something important. Instead, I was staring at her size-10 feet stuffed into my size-8 Toms.
She thought this was hilarious. I felt totally disturbed and violated. I’d seen Single White Female in the theater in 1992! Maybe I was overreacting. But then I flashed back to the first night we ever spent together, when I stayed awake until dawn because I had the delirious thought, drifting off, that she seemed like the type to stab you in your sleep. Glaring red flag number 2 took the form of my cap-sleeved Madras shirt.
Now that it was snickering at me from across the table, I really saw the full resemblance. It was more than the haircut and the clothes. It was the whole ensemble of me at 23—the smugness that the world was always wrong and I was always right. She was the me I am still exasperated at and embarrassed for. I felt sheepish, like waking up the morning after puking in public. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to be drunk on being 23 again. The hangover was humbling.
I once read a self-help book that said I should visualize meeting my former self, then give her a hug instead of blaming her for being young. A hug I could manage, but I sure wasn’t going to sleep with her anymore.
Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop