IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Ex-Boyfriend Came to the Play I Wrote About Our Relationship

My ex didn’t know about my affair, and he wouldn’t be flattered by the character I based on him.
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Emma Jeszke
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My ex didn’t know about my affair, and he wouldn’t be flattered by the character I based on him.

In general, I found college to be awkward and mostly useless (so imagine how glad I am to be $30,000 in debt for it). I quickly realized I wasn’t interested in competing with my lit classes over who could drop the most subtle references to The Iliad in a 90-minute period, and that I’d rather die than ever attend a frat party or any social gathering, really, that involved more than 15 people.

But I did, eventually, discover things I liked about being in college, one of which was dating/sleeping with men.

After two semi-traumatic, early high school relationships, I swore off dating and sex. Instead of focusing on emotionally manipulative, destructive men with drug problems, I focused on myself, my interests, my friends and family. I got great grades and got into great colleges. I acted, occasionally as the lead, in school plays (a fact that is funny to me now as an avid dreader of public speaking). But unfortunately, amidst all my late-teenage glory, I still had a skewed sense that with relationships and sex only came hurt and struggle, and so avoided them at all costs.

I turned into a total prude. My depressed vagina with trust issues came to my attention freshmen year, with my first “man of interest” — one of many James Dean wannabes to come (bad habits die hard). When he tried to pursue sex after an appropriate amount of making out, I said, almost without thinking, “Oh . . . I don’t do that.” (And ran out of his bunk bed, mortified.)

Of course, I recovered from this first failed and embarrassing sexual encounter. I met a boy I worked on the newspaper with — a kind, albeit aloof, audiophile — who would be my college boyfriend. (The first time we had sex was while watching Cruel Intentions, which could not be a more apt metaphor for our entire relationship.)

I liked him because he made me mixtapes, he liked me because I wrote poetry (I laugh at this now). The story, and ultimately the play that I wrote, of our relationship is rather boring until his friends, a group of eclectic, eccentric “writer” boys enter the scene.

This is the part of the story where I become a total asshole, so I thought I should preface it by acknowledging that I am fully aware of the asshollery that is my part in the story. So be kind. (Or don’t — I can take it.)

I spent a hot sticky summer in metro-Detroit (the northern, rich suburbs — their neighborhood, not mine) with these dudes, smoking cigarettes and pretending to like drinking my whiskey straight, to be impressive. If I’m being honest, I was 19, and for the first time was hanging out with people that I thought were "my people" — people who liked to read, who liked to talk about heavy subjects to the point of delusion, who preferred listening to vinyl over basic-bitch MP3s. I was surrounded by real-life Holden Caulfields, overprivileged boys with indoor pools and home movie theaters (like, actual movie theaters), but who wanted to reject it all by moving to a big city (on their parent’s dime?) and start careers as novelists. Dorky me with Sylvia Plath aspirations surrounded by, what I thought, were the actual Jack Kerouacs of our generation. Can you imagine?

2009 me. My hummingbird, for the Wilco song, was fresh.

2009 me. My hummingbird, for the Wilco song, was fresh.

After several years of feeling nothing but indifference at best and anguish at worst toward the opposite sex, I suddenly found myself drowning in people I found interesting and attractive. And I wanted to sleep with them all, boyfriend be damned.

After a certain amount of alcohol and depressing conversation, the lines between who was dating who became inextricably blurred. I’d find myself tangled up in the arms of one of my boyfriend’s friends, drifting to sleep, while he watched from the other side of the room, clearly hurt but too afraid to say anything. Who wanted to ruin the free love thing we had going on? It was so hip.

We all shared a journal — what I would give to read it now — in which we all wrote our thoughts and feelings. Most of my entries were poetic retellings of how I was in love with everyone I was with, except my actual boyfriend. It was grim. This situation was clearly not sustainable.

After the summer had ended, we all went our separate ways: my boyfriend and I back to college, one off to New York, another back to a college — but not to actually attend college. My boyfriend and I tried to recover from the what-the-fuck summer we just had. It was fun, sure, but the situation was not normal. It was a group of people feeding into their own narcissistic fantasies of who they wanted to be, and I was at the center of that. As the only girl hanging out with all these lonely dudes, I mean come on, I knew what I was doing. I loved being the center of their affections and they liked receiving mine back. But to do all that when one member of the group was your boyfriend? Yikes.

I had developed a deeper relationship with one of the guys specifically, the one who lived in New York — let’s call him Mark — and that relationship didn’t end with summer. We continued to talk — a lot — in secret and eventually ended up sleeping together, a lot. I realized the way I was acting was cruel and destructive, almost mirroring my early bad experiences with sex. And why was I doing that to my boyfriend? Sure, he was self-centered and not right for me, but that didn’t mean he deserved this. I broke up with my boyfriend to fully pursue Mark, who, of course, at that point became markedly less interested in being with me, and only called at his convenience for the next several years.

The breakup haircut that I’m glad grew out.

The breakup haircut that I’m glad grew out.

Although the love affair with Mark gave me several unfortunate things — like destroyed self-esteem, a bad haircut (to cope, duh), and years' worth of wondering what love was if it wasn’t us — it did give me the realization that I wanted to, and should, write. 

He, much to my chagrin, was the one who told me to write a play, and being willing to do anything to become worthwhile to him, I complied. And what better a subject than a play where a girl meets her boyfriend’s friends, falls in love with one of them, and then he strings her along and away from her boyfriend, and then ditches her in the same way she ditched her boyfriend?

Thinly veiled autobiography, folks. I called the play Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It explored what happens when you try to build on relationships that are based on fantasies. (Hint: It doesn’t end well!)

Poster design by Jackie Bonett

Poster design by Jackie Bonett

To my surprise, my teachers liked the play and it was selected for a reading and a subsequent production. To my even bigger surprise, my ex-boyfriend, the person who was the leading man in that phase of my life, showed up to see the play. He must have heard about it through friends or on campus, 'cause I sure as hell didn’t invite him.

I was already hiding in the back of the theater when he walked in — meaning I could, like, sneak out and move to Brazil after the show, right? Wrong. I forgot I had to do a post-show talkback, so, you know, explain myself in front of everyone, including him. Fielding questions like “How much of this really happened?” and “Was your boyfriend really that big of dick?” were particularly fun ones.

And holy shit, I was terrified. My ex didn’t know about my affair. He wouldn’t be flattered by the character I based on him. I think I watched his reactions, with balmy hands, more than I watched the actual play.

As Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” started to play, and mine and Mark’s characters started to throw paint at each other and then proceed to have sex in it, I was like, shit. This after-play conversation with my ex is going to be SO. AWKWARD. Nervous butt-sweat was definitely present under my Spanx.

When the play was over, he came up to me. I put on my best play-it-cool expression, glad that my haircut had grown out. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. He looked the same. He didn’t have much to say, except, “I liked Mark’s character.” Then he walked away. (Four years later, this memory still makes me cringe.)

I heard later through friends that he said he wasn’t “in my play,” meaning there was no character based on him, which made me laugh, as it was a testament to his lack of self-awareness that led me to stray in the first place.

I’ve learned to forgive myself for my mistakes, and to heal from the hurt I both caused and suffered. I’ve reclaimed writing as something that is mine, not something I do to appear cool to potential mates. I’ve put that goddamn play in the vault because reading it makes me nauseous. 

But I think I learned the most important lesson of all: Stay the F away from real-life Holden Caulfields.