Relationships

The Pain of Googling Your Ex

If I had been smarter and more compassionate, could I have helped him?

I type Miguel's name into Google's search bar. A newspaper article appears. I've Googled him several times before—as I have other exes who've become lawyers, poets, professors—but there's been nothing.

My stomach clenches. He's been arrested. He walked into a posh jewelry shop on the Upper East Side and brazenly grabbed a bunch of expensive rings from the counter. He ran from the shop but was caught by police a couple of blocks away.

In the photo accompanying the article, Miguel's hair is long and matted. His skin is sallow and pocked. He's missing teeth. The article says he's been arrested once before for attacking someone on the street. He's described as "mentally ill" and living in "a group home."

He and I met for the first time at a café on Manhattan's Upper West Side. I was sitting alone, reading a novel and eating lunch, when he approached. He was 21, my age. His mocha-colored skin was flawless.

"I love the way your dark hair brings out your light eyes," he said and paused, dramatically. "And how delicately you eat."

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I found his Spanish accent seductive and didn't mind his corny come-on. Putting down my egg salad on rye, I gazed into his dark, heavily lashed eyes.

The next day, he gave me chocolates and flowers–clichéd, but no one else had ever done so. He and I became lovers and moved into a walkup apartment not far from the café. We had part-time jobs—mine, clerical; his, teaching—that covered the rent, but not much more.

Miguel's family had been prominent in business in Colombia, but his father had amassed huge gambling debts. The family fled to New York when Miguel was 12.

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He told me he was attracted to "ethereal-looking Jewish women with long hair." I wasn't happy about his stereotyping, but I was also guilty; I often stared at dark-skinned Latino men on the street and imagined myself in their beds.

Miguel's thick hair fell to his shoulders, and his smile was dazzling. Wherever we went, females of all ages stared longingly at him. I couldn't believe my luck: He was mine!

But was he truly mine? He was fiercely jealous and often accused me unjustly of flirting with other men, which I'd read could be a sign of someone's projecting his own leanings to flirt and cheat.

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"I will be faithful to you forever," he swore, whenever I expressed doubts about his fidelity. Yet, when we argued, which was often, he stalked out and disappeared, not returning until the wee hours. I found matchbooks from well-known pickup bars in his pockets.

"When you're acting crazy," he said, defiantly, "I go and have a few drinks alone."

Miguel often got into loud arguments—with waiters he felt disrespected him, for instance, or a neighbor who knocked on our door and politely asked us to lower the TV, which was blaring, the way Miguel liked it.

"I'm going to be filthy rich one day," he said. He coveted expensive watches, colognes and clothes. With my left-of-center politics, I didn't approve of his money-and-object lust.

He deemed a Latino friend, whose skin was darker than his own, "not good enough" to date his sister.

I was appalled. "That's horrible!"

He shrugged. "You're naïve."

I was deeply unhappy. Did he have any traits I admired? In bed, though, when he pulled me towards him and whispered, "Querida, my heart is filled with you," I couldn't resist. My desire for him shamed me.

One night after dinner, about a year into our relationship, he screamed, "You flirted yesterday with that man on the subway!"

"Shut up, shut up!" I screamed back.

The next thing I knew, he was slapping and punching me all over.

"You're like all Jews—untrustworthy!" he yelled. Crouching down, tears streaming, I held my hands protectively in front of my face.

At last, he stopped hitting me, seeming spent. "Querida," he said, reaching for me. He grew angry when I refused to let him hold me.

I wept and spent a sleepless night on the sofa. Hives sprouted all over my body. In the morning, frightened and practically hyperventilating, I packed what I could and walked out the door permanently, while he promised never to hit me again and begged me to stay.

My parents had recently moved to the Virgin Islands for my father's work, and I flew there to be with them.

Miguel figured out where I was and sent me letters. I never wrote back. Sometimes the thought of him repulsed me, and sometimes it filled me with desire.

Gradually, though, I stopped obsessing about him, and returned to New York. Eventually, after a few more boyfriends who weren't right for me, I fell in love and got married to someone I respected, and whose values I shared.

Now, I stare at the screen, squeezing my eyes to fight the tears. The pain, poverty and tragedy of Miguel's life shake me to my core. Guilt floods me. Why hadn't I seen the mental illness lurking behind his paranoia, narcissism and blind rage?

True, I'd been young and inexperienced. And, he had hurt me. But if I had been smarter and more compassionate, could I have found a therapist to help him, perhaps to put him on meds? Would he have metamorphosed into a calm, kind, loving person? Would he and I have been able to stay together? Not that I want him any longer: I love my husband and daughter and our peaceful life.

I force myself to close the article. I leave my desk, telling myself I had not been complicit in Miguel's undoing. I hadn't possessed the awareness, resources or capacity to help him—if, in fact, he could have been helped by anyone.

I know that I shouldn't blame myself. What I need to do, instead, is to feel grateful that I saved myself, and that I was fortunate, unlike too many others, to have people to turn to and somewhere to go.

And, for those things, I am deeply grateful—and have been every day of my life, since.

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