The Ex Factor

Trying to get back with the boyfriend who dumped me was no day at the beach

It wasn't right. Him, breaking up with me?

Guys didn't do that. I was always the pretty one, the smart one, the cool one; the one pursued. And the dumping? That was my department.

Well, not this time. Not in July 1986, when Seth gave me the heave-ho. And not only did his breakup phone call slay my pride, it destroyed something profound in me. Because this time I really was—truly, madly, deeply—in love.

I fell apart. Tumbled through several stages of grief that included disbelief, denial and a sense of loss so painful I don't think I've felt anything close since. I drank. I cried. Screamed into my pillow. I walked around like a zombie, until one morning a week later …

… he called.

Said he was checking to see if I was OK. Reiterated his offer of friendship, which I interpreted as, "The door's still open! Obviously he's had a change of heart, these things happen, he wants me back, but doesn't know how to say it over the phone."

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Proof: He invited me to go to the beach the next day. Said he was going with some friends, am I free?

I tore through my outfits, looking for something irresistible. Bought several bathing suits. Got zero sleep the night before.

At 9 AM sharp, a car horn beeped outside my window. Seth stood leaning against his rusty Subaru, all charm and smiles, squinting up at me in the morning sunlight. I skipped down the stairs.

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He opened the door for me to squeeze in next to: four other women, one in front, three in the back. With much laughter and gaiety, he introduced me to his friends—all of them attractive, fun, perfectly nice women. But who were they, really? Exes wanting to get back together with him, like me? Really just friends? I didn't know, didn't care. I only knew this jaunt wasn't about him and me firing anything up again. I wanted to run screaming from the car. But I kept it together, all the way to the beach.

There's a small island in view of this beach, maybe a mile out—much farther than I felt capable of swimming. Which might have been why—as I sat on my towel listening to the women talk and laugh with Seth—I wanted to try to swim there.

You see, I wanted to drown. The plan was to swim as far out as I could—no way could I make it to the island—and just let myself go under.

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I got up, walked down to the water and dove in.

The shock of cold woke me and somehow made my grief and pain more intense, but there was nothing to do but swim. And so I did. Every so often I turned back to look at the beach, until it became just a sandy stripe with colored dots for people. I felt strange currents pulling at me—the water all different temperatures—and thought with terror of sharks or poisonous jellyfish, but kept on swimming.

I was waiting for the point when I would want to let go.

Maybe it was adrenaline—I felt tired but revved up—that gave me strength. Eventually, I was closer to the island than the beach, and saw that it was rocky, that waves were crashing against it. It was covered in seagull shit and encircled by squawking gulls. But it was my destination.

Clutching bunches of seaweed, I pulled myself up and onto the stony outcropping, which was probably just 30 feet across. I clambered to the top. Standing in long sea grasses, I looked back at the beach, now just a thin line on the horizon.

On a sandy slope of the island, I took off my bathing suit and lay down. The afternoon sun soaked into me. I vibrated, I was so tired. As I lay there I realized that I would never be able to consciously drown myself. I told myself over and over that he wasn't worth all of this, that I would move on, that I would find someone else, that he was a dick to take me to the beach with a bunch of women.

During the whole long, exhausting swim home, I kept telling myself these things, even though I didn't believe any of it, not one word, but I kept it up like a dirge in my head, even as I dragged myself, gasping and coughing, on to the shore.