Of all possible illicit online liaisons, how did I wind up with my first lover’s wife?
I fell for David when I was 14. But after six years together, I had a birth control mishap, an abortion, a meltdown and a humiliating split I couldn’t erase—since he refused to speak to me. While I was friendly with other exes, this initial heartbreak remained foggy and unfinished.
By 35, I was married to a taller, sweeter man, sure I’d completely recovered from my first disastrous breakup. Yet during years of difficult fertility treatments, I was haunted by the pregnancy I’d ended in college. Was being barren punishment for not becoming a young mother? I feared I’d ruined my last chance. Should I have kept the baby? I craved an answer to that lingering question.
The Internet led me back to David, 500 miles away. I emailed him, asking to discuss our painful falling out two decades earlier.
“I’d rather take out my own appendix with a bottle of Jack and a dull spoon,” he answered.
Still sardonic, the quality that originally attracted me. “Why?” I pushed.
“Let’s leave the bad memories intact. Am I scared to see you again? Fucking right I am,” he wrote. “Think you’re still nuts? Is a trout’s ass watertight? Can we finish with the joint therapy session now?”
This sarcastic exchange completed the chapters of my memoir that were focused on him. Upon publication, I sent him an O Magazine review of my book that included his quote, adding “It was just optioned by a film producer.” I hoped he’d talk now that my romantic trajectory—and his fateful rejection—was deemed cinema-worthy.
“Hey, that’s great,” he replied this time.
I was relieved. Mature adults, we were over the past. No harm done. Trauma averted.
Until the next email: From his wife.
“Congrats on all ur success,” she wrote.
He must have forwarded my message to her. I worried they’d shared a computer and joked about the original Crazy Ex-Girlfriend who wouldn’t leave. I awaited a “get away from my husband” admonishment.
Instead she wrote, “I’d like Eva Mendes to play my part in the movie.”
I wondered what she really wanted from me. To see what I looked like or if we were similar? To gloat? I decided his wife—let’s call her “Eva”—was a test I had to pass to get a last heart-to-heart with her spouse. Assuming he was reading along, I typed how pretty she’d looked in a sparkly black dress at a party. I’d spied the picture web-stalking a classmate’s Instagram, curious if David still had hair.
When Eva requested a Facebook friendship, I was flattered. Why not add her? Here’s why not:
“No offense, but maybe think about losing the bangs?” she wrote. “Ur gorgeous, but darlin’ it’s aging u.” She added, “p.s. Ur facebook entries suck ass. U write beautifully, but social media, not so much. I’m available for 50 bucks an hour :)”
This semi-stranger using tween slang wanted me to pay her to edit my web profile? Rather than finding my path to emotional resolution, I’d stepped on a landmine. Guess I wasn’t the only one harboring hidden animosity.
Annoyed by her insults, I investigated her Facebook wall. No job mention, lots of selfies, Woody Allen quotes, an article “Do you Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” In khaki shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers, she looked like a cute camp counselor. There were few pictures of David. I was disappointed that their teenage son resembled her, not her husband, curious to revisit the curly red-haired science-brain I’d met in ninth grade.
Looking through her albums, I relived my six years with David. He was the first to take me to bed, to get me high at a Dylan concert, to give me jewelry (a gold heart necklace), to say “I love you.” (Actually I blurted it out and he asked, “Think I’d put up with your insanity if I didn’t love you too?”) Despite our intense passion, we were socially acceptable, cruising to our little brothers’ Bar Mitzvahs in his silver Camaro, blessed by our parents. Hooking up in Israel during my summer study abroad, it felt like we were both hot and holy, tricking the world.
So at two a.m. one autumn Friday, I impulsively drove my orange Cutlass four hours to his university in the middle of the night to ask why he was sending me cryptic typed-out words to Blood on the Tracks. He never really answered, though he did admit that he’d fallen for a petite girl who was under his covers in the other room. With Eva asleep in his bed, I cried in his arms on his living room couch. Then I drove home, sobbing to the Dylan bootleg he’d made me. It became the soundtrack of my dark era.
After graduation, I heard he landed a great job, married Eva and welcomed a son. Broke and adrift, I envied their prosperity and perfect family. When a friend said Eva’s second child died in infancy, I was stunned, mournful for them. It threw me back to my own lost baby.
It turned out while I’d been burning to know their story, my memoir had ignited Eva’s curiosity about me.
“Why did you change everyone’s name in your book?” she now emailed.
“The Random House lawyer suggested pseudonyms,” I explained.
“Why did you turn my dead daughter into a dead son?” she asked.
This stopped me. I felt guilty for appropriating her trauma. “I’m so sorry. It was a mistake,” was how I finished this eerie cyber-chat with my one-time rival.
Yet Eva wasn’t through with me. She disclosed that during my calamitous road trip, while she was in his bed, she’d been in lust with her Shakespeare professor. So while David was breaking my heart, he didn’t know she’d been breaking his. Was she being competitive by confessing this? I’d just published a book about my old lovers, after all. Rather than regaining David’s attention, I was stuck e-waltzing with his angry spouse. She’d been a mythical figure—the petite size-two brunette he’d chosen over me. (I was size eight on a good day. Was that why?)
“You look thin and lovely on TV,” she wrote next, admitting that he hadn’t encouraged her writing; he insisted their problems not be aired in public. I liked the idea that she might envy me.
“He loved being quoted in your book and O Magazine,” she added.
It was electrifying to have a spy in his house, the least likely turncoat I could have imagined.
“He Googled?” I asked anxiously.
“He ran out to get a copy,” she clarified. “Might be the first time he was in a bookstore.”
A day later, Eva apologized for being “bitchy” and “passive-aggressive,” saying “Have NO idea why I am writing such personal things to u. Will blame it on alcohol, heat wave, lack of impulse control.” So she had an addictive personality—something else we shared. Clean and sober for years, I was getting swept up in a new compulsion: emailing my first boyfriend’s mate.
It turned out she was Jewish, cynical, well-read. An English major. My age. Were we doppelgängers who switched lives? She’d aimed to publish too, but didn’t know her subject.
“Try chronicling this electronic tête-à-tête with your husband’s high school girlfriend,” I offered.
“Then he’d know we’re in touch,” she said.
The revelation that he didn’t know came as a surprise, and I was confused over who I should feel loyal to. If I ever told him, it might damage their marriage. If I didn’t, I’d feel like I was her co-conspirator, trashing him—betraying my ex with the woman he’d once betrayed me for. In between work and the evening classes I taught, I kept checking my in-box to see what else Eva revealed.
This time she was the one alienated, frustrated, lonely in an empty relationship. Content in work and love at last, I expected vindication to wash over me. Yet knowing my first lover’s wife was hurting made me sad and bizarrely worried. Underneath her snide tone, she seemed confused—like I used to be—pent-up, career-less, repressed in the conservative milieu I’d escaped.
“My shrink advised me to ‘Lead the least secretive life,'” I wrote to her.
“Why am I confiding in you?” she questioned (me or herself?)
“Does a memoirist delving into unresolved pain hold up a mirror?” I asked.
“Am very entertained by this repartee 🙂 PLEASE give me a subject. Will be one of ur protégées.”
The wife of my worst heartbreak wanted me as her mentor. I used to envy her marriage, now she coveted my career. I felt emboldened. “Get an MFA. Write a book about the daughter you lost.” I tried to assist her, unlock her, give her permission. “Two of my students published momoirs. They’re hot.” I listed bestsellers on motherhood, then worried I sounded insensitive. She didn’t seem to mind.
“Ur a real firecracker,” she answered. “Thanks.”
But I wondered if I was I helping her, or updating my early amorous loss, so that this round, instead of playing the discarded girl, I’d be the heroine who won. After more intense cyber-volleys, my brain, husband, and therapist insisted: disconnect. To avoid staying stuck in the past, I quietly un-friended her, leaving the woman I’d over-connected with online, but had never even met.
The intimate portrait Eva provided offered an illuminating coda, clearing up many misconceptions: Waiting a decade longer than her to wed didn’t ruin me, it saved me. Those extra ten years single allowed me time to finish graduate school and develop two professions I adored, with the help of a smart therapist who said, “Love won’t make you happy. Make yourself happy.”
Just as I let go of the fantasy that I needed to talk to my first ex in order to fully heal, he returned.
While he was visiting New York, he emailed, casually asking if I wanted to get together, as if I hadn’t been begging for this rendezvous half our lives. I quickly showered, shampooed, put on makeup, flattering jeans, heels, perfume. When he came over, I stared at him. He was still cute, less burly, with hair (though it was thinner). Luckily there was no heat. We talked nostalgically for an hour, sipping bottled water. In retrospect, we were ridiculously mismatched; all we had in common was our history. Not wanting to hurt their marriage, I kept what Eva confided to myself.
The next day, I wondered why he’d finally reappeared.
“I wonder if Eva pushed him to meet with you?” my husband said.
Was I no longer a threat?
A few years later, when I learned they’d divorced, I guessed another reason Eva may have sent him to me: she no longer cared. Catching up with my first boyfriend felt sweet and healing. But it was nowhere near as charged, confessional, and intensely compelling as my clandestine email madness with his wife. She gave me the closure he couldn’t.
This piece originally appeared in ELLE.
Susan Shapiro is an award-winning writing teacher and bestselling author of 12 books including the writing guide The Byline Bible. Follow her on Instagram at @prof123