Love Lessons from Bad Breakups
Before she met her fiancé, Paul, there was Mike the musician. And that skinny premed guy. And Thomas, who occasionally wore skirts. Stephanie Dolgoff, a soon-to-be-married journalist, revisits four boyfriends who helped her become who she is now.I'm getting married in two months, and now I see why checking into a mental facility is likewise called "committing yourself." Luckily, not one of my mini nervous breakdowns since accepting Paul's proposal has been about him. Deciding to pledge my 34-year-old troth to this man is the smartest move I've made since ritually burying my scale in my garden and holding a funeral service for it.
No, what gives me pause about making such a huge commitment is the long and twisted road of relationships I've taken to get to this point. My mother sees my parade of exes like that human evolution chart where the ape on the far left gradually becomes more and more upright, until he's an actual human male in a 1950s business suit who can perambulate without dragging his knuckles. She tends to remember the real winners. But while I've yet to live down the self-styled radical who gave me his self-released CD with a photo of his mohawked self urinating on the American flag, I've also been involved with a great number of sweet, smart, relatively conventional men with whom it simply didn't work out. When I was with each of them, things felt right. Maybe not forever—I didn't think that way until I realized my eggs had an expiration date—but with each boyfriend, I couldn't imagine myself with anyone else. Now I'm planning on committing to one.
To that end, I tracked down four of my formers—both those who had dumped me and those I had dumped (in particular, the ones who I thought hadn't burned me in effigy and might call me back)—and made dates to dine with each of them. I was curious as to what they were up to, how they'd turned out, if they still had their hair. Would there be any remnant of a spark? The woman who will stand up in front of God and the caterers at the wedding is the sum total of many, many (many) less wisely undertaken relationships over the decades. I really wanted to know how I'd grown since I'd been in them and to reinforce the fact that there'd been good reason to split up. I was also terrified—I feared dredging up painful memories and being asked to account for some of my own missteps and wrong decisions. Here's how it went:
Sick Puppy LoveIn 1983 at age 16, I was a screwed-up and secretly bulimic high schooler, but even then I had a self-preservation instinct that led me to Rich. A skinny, sweet, nervous senior with a shock of brown hair parted Jackson Browne–like down the middle, he spent much of our time together cracking jokes to get me to smile and driving me around in his maroon 1972 Chevelle Malibu Classic. At 17, he had only a vague clue what kind of a sad puppy he was dealing with, and I had even less of one. All I knew was that he made me feel secure, didn't ask too many questions, and kept me out so I didn't have to spend much time at home.
A few months ago, I met Rich—who has matured into a Rick—at the Palm restaurant in Philadelphia, not far from where he lives with his wife and two daughters. When I heard that he'd become a gynecologist, I knew my vagina had not been his inspiration. He didn't seem particularly vagina oriented back in 1983 and '84, when we were an item. To be fair, I didn't know what to do with it either. The poking around we did on each other's bodies as teenagers was about as fumbling and unintimate as the rest of the relationship was, but neither of us knew the difference.