A spy in the house of my first love

"Have NO idea why I am sharing such personal things with u," my old boyfriend's wife wrote me

By Susan Shapiro
May 1, 2021 11:30PM (UTC)
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Spying on an Ex through their spouse (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

Note: This story deals with serious themes, including suicide, and may not be suitable for all readers. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

In  HBO Max's new dark comedy series "Made For Love," the CEO of a technology company implants a microchip in his ex's brain, making it nearly impossible for her to leave him. Years before GPS devises and the high-tech billionaire boom, I felt brainwashed by a boyfriend I couldn't escape.

I was 14 when we met at a B'nai B'rith party in my Michigan hometown. He was an older man of 16 from Windsor, across the bridge. He had big shoulders, curly hair, and a silver Camaro whose cassette howled "everything about you is bringing me misery." 

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Local guys in Beach Boys and Seger T-shirts called me "bubbly," having no idea I'd get stoned and scrawl Plath-like poetry into spiral notebooks until dawn. I dug that he nicknamed me his "old sea hag" with "violent eyes" and "breeder's hips," casting him as my Canadian Ted Hughes. Over five years, he turned me onto Dylan, Hawaiian weed and sex while remaining socially acceptable — a nice Jewish pre-med, like my father.  My parents met when my mother was 14, marrying when she was 19, a romantic timeline — and story — I hoped to repeat.

I was afraid rushing to college early would ruin us. But he visited weekends and we secretly trysted on my teen summer Israel trip. He may have been my only bed partner, but in my risqué diary, I was a femme fatale, the West Bloomfield Anaïs Nin stealing forbidden passion with a mysterious paramour. Exhilarating for a semi-nerdy bookworm.

Until my senior year in Ann Arbor, when I found myself knocked up. He offered marriage, though we were long distance, saying, "Move here while I finish university." I just wanted it to go away. He paid, drove me home after, bringing me a pink can of Tab and a salami sandwich. Both devastated by the dramatic plot twist, we didn't speak for months. When I tried phoning, he stopped returning my messages.

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He wouldn't talk to me, but I interpreted his letter with anguished lyrics in the mail ("like a corkscrew to my heart/Ever since we've been apart") as a message he missed me too. In my ugly orange Cutlass, I sped 171 miles to his school in Ontario, excited to reunite at 2 a.m. I found he wasn't alone. Someone else was asleep in his bedroom, he let me know, as we shared a last smoke in his living room. Driving home sobbing, I knew all the words to "Blood on the Tracks."

Moving to New York for a graduate degree at 20, I was haunted by the shadowy girl in his bed who'd replaced me. They wed, a mutual friend said, and had two kids — a boy and a girl. I envisioned myself as a rebel devoted to art, not domesticity. Yet their young family made me feel like a failure for staying single and childless. Eager to erase the rejection, I slept with the wrong men, journaled, channeling my angst into purple poems and prose. In therapy, I struggled with addiction and guilt as my family detested everything I wrote. Landing a literary magazine job gave me hope. 

Yet hearing of the death of my ex's infant son unnerved me. Unsettled, I sat on the ratty carpet of my studio, getting stoned and lighting a candle. My depressed, foggy brain inappropriately connected the child I'd denied to the one they lost. Was it guilt about eluding motherhood? My own mom, who'd been an orphan, had four kids she adored, while I longed to have books, not babies.

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In creative circles, I gravitated to luminary mentors and critics, listening to my therapist's warning: "Love doesn't make you happy. Make yourself happy." I did, with work. On a blind dinner date with a brilliant scriptwriter, he charmed me by quoting the weekly book column I did for a local paper, impressed when I shared my advance review copies. At 35, I wore black to our Soho wedding. My college roommate rushed up to the chuppah, whispering that my curly-haired groom was my first love's clone — the older, taller, artistic urban version.

"You're crazy," I said. But he was, with better Dylan bootlegs.

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Then infertility at 40 flung me back to the past. Deconstructing my obsessive relationships in a memoir about heartache, I begged my earliest ex to meet. "I'd rather take out my own appendix with a bottle of Jack and a dull spoon," he replied, agreeing only to brief, unsatisfying emails in 2003. I quoted him, using the moniker "David Green" upon publication, "Eve" for his wife.

The Midwestern brigade questioned my vanity for putting out more splashy confessional books. Moonlighting as a nonfiction professor, I taught fellow misfits to explore their obsessions, chronicle their humiliating secrets, harnessing the power of artful reinvention. "The first piece you write that your family hates means you've found your voice" was my rule. "Writing is a way to turn your worst obsessions into the most beautiful," I promised.

In 2011, I emailed my ex that my debut book where he'd appeared was optioned for a film. He obviously bcc'd his spouse, since the response came from an address combining her last name and his, ending with "Sympatico.ca." Unfamiliar with foreign portals, it seemed poetic. 

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"Thx for keeping me in the loop about David Green. Congrats on all ur success w ur books," she wrote me. "If 'Eve' is a character in the movie, I'd like Eva Mendez to play my part."

Fascinated by the other woman in my inbox, I accepted her Facebook friend request. We were married, mature adults, so why not? Here's why not: 

 "No offense, but maybe think about losing the bangs?" she said. "Ur gorgeous but darlin' it's aging u. P.S. Ur facebook entries suck. U write beautifully, but social networking, not so much. I ghost write. I'm available for 50 bucks an hour :)"

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Clearly I wasn't the only tempest in our teapot. This writer ghost using teen slang wanted to fix my profile? Really? Curious, I scanned hers. She looked like a cute camp counselor. Brunette like me, but thinner. No job talk. Just uplifting adages, selfies, photos of their now teenage son. The next day she apologized for being "bitchy and premenstrual."

 Just as I'd been imagining her for so long, she had questions about me. 

"Why did you call me Eve in your book?"

"The Random House lawyer suggested pseudonyms," I explained, vaguely recalling it had to do with him being my first love, before the fall.

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"Why turn my dead daughter into a dead son?" she asked.

I didn't realize she'd lost a baby girl. "I'm sorry. That was a mistake." I felt guilty for appropriating her tragedy, but she didn't seem offended. 

She confided that, during my calamitous college road trip, she'd been more in lust with her older Shakespeare professor.  So while my ex was breaking my heart, she'd almost broken his? It was riveting; her casual memory somehow rearranged my amorous history. 

"You looked thin and lovely on TV. He was thrilled being quoted in your book and O Magazine," she told me.

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 "He Googled me?"

"He ran out to get a copy. Maybe first time he was in a bookstore."

I was stunned she'd make a joke at his expense to me, of all people. What an unexpected spy in the house of my first love! She was from my tribe, my age, also a cynical English major: my maple leaf alter ego.

 "Give me a subject to write. Will be one of ur 'proteges,'" she requested.

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How bizarro; the wife of my worst heartache was picking me as a mentor. I'd envied her marriage 20 years before. Did she now covet my career?

"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 answered. 

He didn't know?

Did I owe loyalty to the man who'd rejected me a quarter century ago? Transfixed by our illicit link, I couldn't stop replying, double-crossing my ex with the woman I could have been.

"Why am I confiding in you?" she asked.

"A memoirist delving into unresolved pain holds a mirror," I tried. "Maybe consider getting an MFA? Write about the baby you lost? As Robert Frost said, 'no way out but through.'" 

"Re: my daughter, I already wrote about her in a memoir class. Only one who saw it is the teacher."

I offered to read, critique or recommend editors. Sensing her desperation, I wanted to throw her a lifeline, unlock her the way I inspired my students. Or was I revising my erotic trajectory with a less pathetic ending?

"I'm not writing about my marriage, myself, or digging through," she said. "I need to be neutral and non-personal."

Unable to air dark feelings, she echoed the moralistic Midwest bravado I'd been force-fed, stuck in the kind of conservative, repressed milieu I'd escaped. While countless personal chronicles by men were deemed literary sensations, I recalled the many female authors pilloried for probing their inner worlds uncensored, labelled hedonists, narcissists, liars.

I told her how assignments from my classes led to countless bylines and shelves of books by my mostly female students tackling mental illness, abortion, addiction, losses, disabilities and sexual traumas. The only regrets I heard were for projects unfinished. I quoted Maya Angelou on the agony of keeping untold stories inside you, as if to coax her out of repression.

"Publishing provocative memoirs only increased my salary and stature. Only good things happened," I said. "My shrink says to be happy, lead the least secretive life you can."

 "Ur a real firecracker," she answered. "How's your marriage going?"

After I told her couples therapy really helped us, she revealed the worst confidence of all: She and her husband hadn't been intimate in months.

Talk about TMI. Instead of victorious, I was overwhelmed with sadness.

"Have NO idea why I am sharing such personal things with u," she wrote. "blame it on alcohol, heat wave, lack of impulse control."

Something else we shared. Clean and sober, my new compulsion was emailing my first lover's wife. She was the gift that kept on giving, generously offering  illuminating codas, clearing up lifelong misconceptions: Waiting a dozen years longer than she had to wed didn't hurt me. It saved me, allowing time for therapy, graduate study to nail my voice and find an audience for my work, regardless of what my relatives thought.

Her drinking, darkness and dissing him sent up warning flares. Trying to be the perfect wife and mother was suffocating her, I worried. Meanwhile my mate, Mom, and shrink saw our addictive link as regressive. "This triangle can't go anywhere good," my therapist said, insisting I disconnect. "It took you years to get away from him, quit drugs and alcohol, marry a great guy. Going backwards is dangerous." I reluctantly unfriended her, relieved she didn't appear to notice.

Or did she? Weeks later, my ex emailed: "I'm in town."

Had she pushed him to see me? It was cathartic to finally talk to him for an hour. But it was nowhere near as chaotically charged and compelling as my clandestine madness with his wife. She gave me the closure and liberation he couldn't. 

When I learned (from my mom) they divorced not long later, I sent her sympathy. It was "amiable and old news," she joked, "clearly the Jewish gossip network needs an upgrade." She'd been in Manhattan with her new musician beau, she added, wishing she'd met me "to lay eyes."

I imagined revamping our narrative arc as allies, erasing all traces of our ancient rivalry over a man. But she never contacted me again.

Four years later my mother texted, "Did you know she took her life? I heard she jumped from a bridge."  

Feeling gutted, I couldn't believe I'd been heartbroken twice: once by my ex, the other by his wife. I recalled Roethke's poem to his late student: "I, with no rights in this matter,/Neither father nor lover." I wasn't even her teacher.  

Rushing to Facebook, I searched for her pictures of my ex and their son, now motherless in his twenties. But her page and our instant messages were gone. The electric letters I saved spanned five years, the same duration I'd dated him.  How superficial I'd been, anointing her the slimmer, prettier wife who won the husband prize. While she'd enjoyed my book's depiction of our triangle, I feared my cavalier tone ignored the depth of her sorrow. For a second, I blamed myself for making her worse. Then I recalled she died four years after our final exchange. Looking up the last words she'd sent me, I saw how our need to escape had hooked us.

"GREAT on u for getting out of Michigan. Everyone in everybody's business," she'd written. "Think I wud kill myself if I had to live there."

I considered sending condolences to my ex, but he barely knew we'd been in touch. Instead, I reread her weird, witty voice, quietly mourning my doppelgänger, the elusive woman he loved who was lodged inside my head too, though we never met.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.


Susan Shapiro

Susan Shapiro, a writing teacher, is the bestselling author of memoirs her family hates like "Five Men Who Broke My Heart," "Lighting Up" and "The Forgiveness Tour." You can follow her on Twitter at @susanshapironet or Instagram @profsue123.

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