The Ghosts of Lovers Past

I was nestling into the pillows one night, the cordless phone cradled on my shoulder, while Joe, the man of the moment, told me a bedtime story.

“I rented a jackhammer and dug up the old patio, all that concrete and slate that my uncle had put in 30 years ago,” he said, his deep voice quietly reflective. “Each evening, I'd leave my job early, come home, and start to work while I still had the light. I'd jackhammer and sweat so much I'd soak my T-shirt. The whole neighborhood turned out to watch me.”

Joe was describing in intricate detail the construction of a brick patio he had built solo during one summer at the old family homestead. I listened avidly, picturing him rugged and sweaty as he threw his whole being into creating something. Then, suddenly, his memories took a dark turn.

“But she never came out of the house,” Joe continued, lowering his tone to a hollow rumble. “Not once did she ask me how things were going or look at what I was doing or offer me a glass of water.”

I pulled the phone away and went numb. My warm fantasies had turned to stone-cold realities. A third party had barged into our conversation, a spectre from the past.

Dating at any age comes with the full complement of apparitions — call them the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future — a Dickensian boneyard of broken dreams with glints of great expectations that keep a single person like me optimistically looking for love.

At the time, I'd known Joe for only a couple of months, but we were speaking on the phone every night. He liked to talk. He shared insignificant details about things like his trip to the 7-Eleven to buy bacon. He spoke proudly of his kids. He struggled with the politics in his law office.

But many of the winding trails in Joe's stories led back to his ex-wife. She was alive and well, the mother of his children, but he never spoke her name, referring to her as “she” or “the ex.” Clearly, she rattled him. He sneered at all his former flames, but “the ex” got the full torrent of his venom. He tarred her as cold, conniving, and moneygrubbing.

As much as Joe foamed and raged about her, it was clear that his ex-wife still got the lion's share of his passion. What was “she” doing butting into our romantic phone conversations? Joe seemed unwilling to start anew. Five full years after his divorce, the man refused to pull the stake out of his heart.

When you've been dating for a while, the host of hovering spirits expands to a cast of hundreds, multiplied by years spent, miles traveled, and romantic traumas survived. Each relationship becomes a remake of The Shining. You never know who will pop out of the closet to scare you, ax in hand. His ex-wife? His mother? His ex-wife's mother? Your mother? Like Hamlet, we are ruled and ridiculed by ghosts. To be, or not to be? To be in love is wonderful; not to be is alone.

When I first met Joe at a holiday party, I spontaneously burst into giggles. Joe was funny looking, but he was my kind of funny looking: tall with a full head of brown hair, slightly gawky, boyish at 50, and quirkily handsome. He wore sexy shoes, distressed brown oxfords. Beyond the superficialities, I'm still trying to figure out my infatuation with him.

We started to see each other regularly. He cooked me dinner, usually steak tips and salad. He fixed things around my house. We went to a Celtics game. We usually ended our evenings on my couch, kissing. Once I asked him if he wanted to see a movie. Joe claimed he hadn't been to a movie theater in a couple of years, not since he went out on a disastrous blind date with a tightlipped woman who spoke in monosyllables. I asked him if he stayed friendly with any woman he had dated since his divorce.

“Nope,” he said, abruptly closing the door on the discussion. His curt response foretold the shape of things to come. When Joe walked, his sexy brown shoes didn't leave tracks.

One evening, after Joe had made dinner, we were in his bedroom. It was a defining moment in a relationship that, so far, had been very close, crammed with the stuff of our daily lives, but not truly intimate. Joe was showing me his new computer, but I was distracted.

“Do you care for me?” I asked him, sitting on the side of his bed. It was one of those questions relationship experts warn you never to bring up because you might not like the answer.

“I have so much baggage,” he said sadly, as he stared up at the wall above my head. “Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever be able to care romantically for anyone again.”

Then he swiveled around to his computer and started playing online backgammon. He turned his back to me. I got off the bed and went into the bathroom to cry. The mirror reflected my reddened eyes and fallen face, the apparition of another failed opportunity.

I emerged and hurriedly said good night. We hadn't quarreled, but we had disconnected. Driving back to Boston along Route 1 in Saugus, I passed the plastic cows lined up outside the Hilltop Steak House. I was struck by the absurdity. The Hilltop herd would moo before Joe embraced me as his ghostbuster.

He hung on for another month. Then, he simply vanished. He exited as he had entered — in damaged condition. Our last conversation began when he called me from his car. He was at his son's soccer game. We were swapping news when he interrupted with an emergency bulletin:

“Oh, no,” he snarled, “there she is. The ex just pulled up. I'm sliding down in the seat so she doesn't see me.”

Later, I found myself lamenting the breakup with an artist friend named Julia in a cozy café in her South End neighborhood. Julia had a hurtful story of her own. That's when I realized that ghosts haunt everyone.

Julia once dated a college professor who had been separated from his wife for 12 years. He had no plans for divorce. He insisted he was single and available. She believed him enough to get involved and fall madly for him. She wanted to think she could handle this kind of relationship, that it made perfect sense in a senseless sort of way.

“The French have a name for it,” she said, in between sips of sparkling water. “Amour fou. Crazy love.”

Julia avoided all discussions of the wife. So did he. His grown children, however, became the spectral messengers. Julia imagined that they didn't like her. She imagined that they reported things back to their mother — the wife 12 years separated. She imagined the kids wanted Dad to drop-kick the girlfriend, which is exactly what happened on the July morning he was supposed to take her away for a week's vacation on Nantucket.

“An hour before he was scheduled to pick me up, he called me and said he couldn't keep seeing me,” she remembered. “There I was, alone, with bags packed. I was devastated but not surprised.”

In hindsight, Julia realized that she should have talked openly about her fears from the start, just as I should have with Joe. We decided that dating is all about bravery. You can't be afraid to bring up touchy subjects that may cause discomfort. Successful couples deal with tough stuff together — the nuts and bolts of true intimacy.

A few weeks after Joe evaporated, I was talking to a man I didn't know, a man a helpful fix-up friend had thought I ought to meet. He was new to Boston and seemed intelligent and appealing. We were getting acquainted on the phone.

He said he had grown up in a small town in western Kansas. He asked about my roots. I told him I came from a suburb of New York City. The man fell silent — so silent that I couldn't hear him breathing. I finally asked if he was still on the line.

“Still here,” he said. “But I'd like to put off meeting you for a while. I'm very busy right now settling in, lots of stuff to do. I'll be in touch. Bye.”

I hung up in disbelief. What had happened? He acted like he'd seen a ghost.

The next day, I received an e-mail from him offering an explanation: The worst relationship in his life had been with a woman named Liza from Manhattan. She was hip and sophisticated — always made him feel like a pathetic hick from Podunk. Liza shredded his self-esteem.

“I promised myself after all the pain caused by Liza,” he wrote, “that I would never again date a woman from New York.”

I could have written him back a reassuring reply, something about how it might be different with me because, gee, I live in Boston now and he's not in Kansas anymore. I could have written back, explaining that, though we're all haunted by past relationships, strong romantic souls can put the ghosts to rest.

But I didn't. I wasn't game enough to tackle the ghost of Gotham.