You know that ex, the one who sailed into your life, red flags flying; who grabbed your heart then chiseled it away; who somehow charmed his or her way back in and pressed repeat on the whole cycle again and again. The one that being done with makes you feel like a real grown human. Just me? Well, we all come face to face with that person again…
I was riding my bike over the Williamsburg Bridge, my sweaty hair clinging to my forehead. There I am, struggling up the incline, when he appears around the bend, coasting down without a care — the metaphor for our relationship all too real. Our eyes meet ten feet apart, and my heart jumps into my throat, but he just rides past. You can’t really stop on the bridge, and why would we? I manage to continue pedaling, my mind spinning as quickly as his tires. What was the chance of such an encounter?
I always figured it would go down at a neighborhood bar — where we had spent so many evenings in our 20s — cheap beer making it that much easier, or that much worse. On those early post-breakup nights when he was still knocking around my brain, I would check for his silver bike locked out front wherever I went.
Of course, running into an old fling isn’t always bad — my friend Scott got back together with the love of his life after bumping into him three years post-breakup. But the worst encounters are more fun to talk about, right?
Says Gemma Burgess: “I ran into my ex at a bar,” she told me. “I started shaking as he came over. Then, like Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, I drank all my vodka in one gulp, and said ‘Good Lord, I seem to have finished my drink.’ Then, I walked away and hid in the bathroom.”
It can be even more jarring to run into someone on public transportation. My friend Christina bumped into her ex-fiancé waiting on the subway platform. After a minute of sweaty-palmed, heart-thumping “catching up,” she jumped on a train — it was going in the wrong direction, but it was worth it.
Another woman I know, Maria, had no such escape route: “My new boyfriend and I jammed into a packed train, and lo and behold sitting right underneath us was my ex,” she says. “I turned beet red and was WAY too nice to him. I basically acted like he was my best friend from childhood; my boyfriend was totally weirded out.”
What about when you’re basically at home? “I ran into an ex-girlfriend outside my apartment while taking the garbage out holding an umbrella in pajamas,” says Stef. Her wife was right inside, but it can be just as uncomfortable after you’ve moved on.
Another example: “I was leaving a restaurant when I spotted him across the street,” says Alex. “We hadn’t seen each other in years — and we were both married, mind you — but rather than simply waving and saying hello, I leapt behind a parked car and crouched there until he left.”
Ghosts from the past aren’t limited to our own neighborhoods. “I was on vacation in Puerto Rico lying by the pool with my eyes closed when I heard the voice of my college boyfriend,” says Beth. “I thought I was hallucinating, but it really was him, one chair away. We had a stilted conversation and then I spent the rest of my trip avoiding the hotel lobby and pool.”
Running into an ex can spark reactions ranging from butterflies to full-blown panic attacks to confident satisfaction when you realize you’re totally over it. But no matter the situation, no matter the history, even if he rides right on by, it will always be… awkward.
Have you ever had a run-in with an ex? How did it go?
P.S. First date rituals, and advice to your younger self.