I’m in Sydney, visiting my ex-boyfriend James. James knows everybody, and he knows all the good places to go. We’re walking along the Manly promenade, looking out at the ocean. Sergio walks ahead with James’s new girlfriend, talking animatedly about peanut butter, because her job is peanut butter-related and Sergio is socially skilled. He is also my boyfriend. James and I walk behind, catching up on news of the friends we used to share and of the families we used to share. It feels very comfortable walking beside James, and it is – until Sergio looks over his shoulder and glares at me. I follow his eyes to my hand, which is holding James’s. James and I quickly disengage. I laugh. It was an accident! We didn’t even know we’d done it. Sergio laughs, too. Peanut butter girl doesn’t.
Sergio and I are due to get married in a few weeks. He doesn’t realise it, but before doing the deed, I’ve decided to check out my exes. It’s not that I don’t love Sergio enough; I’m just being careful. People put more thought into buying a car than into whom they are going to marry. Is it really so wrong to check out the other options – to look over the men I’ve left behind?
I had left Australia three years earlier to travel, just after breaking up with James. Truth be told, I fully expected to return to James, but somewhere along the way Sergio happened, and I decided to leave Australia permanently and live with him in Scotland. As the wedding approached, I was as excited as I was terrified, and felt the need to revisit the person I had been. I wanted to make sure I was being true to myself; that I was right to leave my old world.
I’ve never been very good at making decisions. Closure? Forget it. When I was dating in my teens and early 20s, I lingered over relationships, too terrified to move on. Each boyfriend came with a life laid out. To end it meant abandoning a known future and heading into an uncertain one.
James was a sweet man, a good man. Our four years together were contented. He would have been a doting father. He would have fixed things, renovated beach houses, earned a huge income doing that job of his. (What was it? Even meeting him again, I zoned out when he talked about his work. All I know is it required a suit and a business degree.) But as we walked along the promenade, I waited to see if James would make me laugh. Nope. And I remembered that he never had.
I said goodbye to James, and sighed with relief. I was right to leave him behind. He’d make someone laugh one day, but it was never going to be me. (It wasn’t going to be the peanut butter girl, either.)
Dave was my first love. Most nights with him ended in a fight – often it involved him hitting a man who looked at him or me the wrong way, but mostly it involved him arguing with me. He wrote poetry, sang in musicals, taught ballroom dancing – and fought. I hated his friends. I hated his family. I hated the way he dressed. I hated that he flirted, and then some, with almost every woman I knew. But boy could Dave kiss. Being a good Catholic girl at the time, Dave and I managed to avoid fourth base for many, many months. Most of 1981 was spent kissing. One whole year was dedicated to foreplay – ie, a year of the best sex I would ever have. Dave was also unusually sized, in a good way, which I didn’t realise at the time, him being the first. This means I have been disappointed ever since.
Sergio wasn’t able to join us, so I went for a drink with Dave alone. Covered in tattoos, divorced and unemployed again after leaving his umpteenth job that year, he got a little tipsy and talked about old times, such as when he was driving and we were having an argument. He shut his eyes and pressed down on the accelerator until I said sorry. And the time he drove two hours from Melbourne to break into my dormitory at boarding school “for a hug”. Then there was the time he house-sat for my parents, found my brother’s air rifle and shot our glorious garden to pieces. A few drinks into our reunion, Dave performed a song for me (right into my ear, so I could absorb the haunting, breathy beauty of it), taught me how to do the rumba and tried to sleep with me. When I refused, he headed off to find someone else.
Dave had passion and creativity, and I wanted (and got) those things in my life partner. But mostly Dave made me want to kill him. (I found 51-year-old Dave on Facebook the other day. He has just married for the third time. She looks about 19.)
Next was Tom, who used to ride to university with a police light on his cycle helmet. Posh and pretentious, and with gorgeous, curly, brown hair, he was certain to be a celebrated poet. I read his poems and told him he was a genius. He read one of mine and, with a scathing look, told me he didn’t understand it and perhaps I should try again. When I phoned Tom before my wedding, he was curt and made me feel like a stalker. “Y’know, Sergio’s a writer, too,” I said, only just stopping myself from adding: “And he totally gets my poem.”
“Glasgow?” he said. “Isn’t that the worst city in the world?” I found myself hanging up quite hard. How dare he diss Glasgow? As far as I know, Tom’s never been published.
I couldn’t find Michael’s contact details. He was a medical student and musician. He gave bad massages and did the pointy-pointy kiss thing, as if he was cleaning my mouth with a cotton bud. He was the leader of the big band, and sang “We want bread not circuses” at a benefit I helped organise. This was my first and only attempt at being a groupie. I remember saying, “But you’ll earn a fortune as a doctor. How does that chime with your politics?” He assured me he would use medicine to help the poor and to continue the struggle. Only 22 and pretty stupid, I didn’t really know what he meant, and he chucked me because I wasn’t committed to social change. He was my first politically-active boyfriend and, once I did a bit of thinking, I realised I quite liked his ideas. I Googled Michael. Turns out he has dedicated his life to helping the poor and is well on his way to changing the world. I’ll never know if his kissing improved.
I tried to contact Daniel, who cried whenever we had sex, more so when he was looking at me. Once, while he was at it, head in the pillow howling, he came up for air and said, “I’ve just got to get through this!” I couldn’t track him down, unfortunately. I do hope he came out.
The last stop on the ex tour was Ethan, whom I met on a sunny Melbourne afternoon in 1990. After four years, James and I were on the rocks and had decided to have a “break”. Ethan was a gorgeous law student who cycled everywhere and wanted to be a writer. His mother was an artist, his brother a well-known actor. He had come to look at a room for rent and I showed him around nervously. He was the most exciting man I had ever met, and the best-looking. Before he left, he said, “Look, I love this place and I want the room, but there’s a problem.”
I was shocked. “Is there?”
“Yes.” He paused. “What are we going to do about the sexual tension?”
(We were going to go with it. Sorry, James.)
I was at home, about to arrange our meeting with Ethan, when my brother rang from the phone box in the main street. Ethan had just had a car accident in our small town and was wandering about looking dazed. I asked my brother to bring him home, and we gave him and his dad a cup of tea in the living room. My fairly traditional and strait-laced family sat nervously in the lounge while Ethan talked nonsense, his father eventually explaining: “He’s not well again.”
The last thing I remember is Ethan taking me aside and asking, “What kind of underpants does God wear?”
“Probably Y-fronts,” I answered, recalling that our conversations had always been strange. At the time, I thought this was because Ethan was a warrior poet. Turns out it was almost certainly because he had always struggled with his mental health. I still have a poem Ethan wrote for me, which I had cherished as a beautiful declaration of undying love. Rereading it now, I realise he was trying to chuck me.
About a year after I finally split up with Ethan, I met Sergio at a party near London. I was 25. He was cooking a huge pot of bolognese and he asked me to tell him 10 interesting things about myself. I liked that he asked that. He liked that I answered without hesitation and in full, and that some of my responses were rude. I fell in love with him immediately, and – bang – a new future appeared before me. It was going to involve a lot of laughter, and a lot of pasta.
Sergio didn’t find it strange that I wanted to catch up with my exes. He understood that they were important in the making of me, and that I needed to say goodbye. I think it helped him get to know me better, too, to fill in some blanks. In fact, Sergio introduced me to his own ex before our wedding. Thankfully, they didn’t accidentally hold hands. (I’m not as understanding as Sergio.)
Twenty-five years later, and I am ridiculously happy. I think my ex tour played a part. My exes helped me uncover the qualities I didn’t want in a life partner, and the ones I did. Don’t get me wrong, Sergio checks that the cooker is off a little too often and is the untidiest man I have ever known, but he’s good, kind, contented, passionate, risk-taking, artistic, funny, charming and gorgeous.
We celebrated our silver wedding anniversary in September 2015. At the same time, our 18-year‑old daughter was breaking up with her first serious boyfriend. The guy reminded me of James: sensible, likes money. And Sergio and I are thinking: oh God, she’s going to try out the bad boy next, isn’t she? .