It's difficult to feel cherished when we know that our partners are still carrying emotional baggage from previous romantic entanglements, but it's especially difficult when that emotional baggage manifests itself in the form of actual pieces of crap that used to belong to his ex-girlfriend. And what if he refuses to throw them away? Does that mean he's still in love with her?
In many cases, the New York Times' Modern Love column may as well be called The Insufferables, and on the surface, this week's installation, called Fuzzy, Purple, and Full of Thorns seemed like it was headed down the same treacly path. The tale chronicles one girlfriend's discovery that her boyfriend's been hanging on to a pair of his ex-girlfriend's fuzzy purple slippers, and the weird fixation she develops on them. The fixation, and the feelings that brought her obsession into existence, threatens the very fabric of their relationship.
The story unfolds thusly: After three months of dating, Chelsee Pengal discovered a pair of whimsical slippers in her beau's closet.
"What are those for?" Maybe rephrasing it would get me the response I needed.
"Why won't you tell me?" By now, my voice level was rising and the shrillness increasing. The fact that he wouldn't give me an explanation for the slippers meant the explanation must be bad. I already knew I didn't want to hear it, but I had to hear it to be sure.
"Tell me why you have them," I said.
"They're Jessica's," John finally murmured.
Jessica was his ex-girlfriend. Jessica had been his girlfriend for five years. They had lived together and had expected to marry, and still talked on the phone quite often.
It turns out, Jessica left them at the boyfriend's place when she and the boyfriend parted ways, and the boyfriend had just held onto them for several years, across several apartments. Pengal wonders if this means that her boyfriend's still in love with his ex girlfriend and, over the ensuing months, becomes gradually more and more obsessed with the fact that the slippers haven't been thrown away. Her boyfriend continues to act weird about the whole thing.
One might think that this situation contains more red flags than Chairman Mao's all-China birthday celebration, but I suspect that Pengal, along with everyone else with a more-than-minimal romantic history, has some piece of defunct relationship flotsam floating around that she can't bring herself to toss. In some cases, keeping the belongings of your ex around can be an aggressive gesture, the romantic equivalent of riding into battle while wearing your vanquished enemy's teeth in necklace form. But others keep our own versions of the fuzzy slippers around to remind ourselves that in spite of the fact that the relationship ended, the whole thing wasn't a complete bullshit waste of time. And sometimes people keep old tokens of love because of a weird personality quirk.
Awhile back, my boyfriend noticed a lamb shaped stuffed animal sitting on the top shelf of my closet and asked me what it was. I'd gotten it in Mexico City a few years ago, when I went to visit my at-the-time boyfriend's family. The lamb had sat on the bed in the usually vacant guest room all by itself with no one to hang out with, and I'd recently rewatched Toy Story, so I was in a complicated place, emotionally, with respect to toys. I'll spare you the details, but we ended up taking the lamb back with us and naming it; I couldn't just leave it there. (It barely spoke any Spanish; how was it even going to go grocery shopping?!) After the boyfriend was no longer the boyfriend and had moved out, I threw away most of the things he'd left behind, but I couldn't bring myself to get rid of the lamb. And now I was sitting in my room explaining its presence to the new person in my life. He asked if I'd throw it away, and I, like Pengal's boyfriend, told him that I'd think about it.
I don't think I'm going to, and it's not because I'm hung up. If anything, I'm too quick to burn bridges and salt the earth on either side. I've thrown away almost every remnant of my emotional life from the years I've spent having boyfriends. I've thrown away every hand written note, every birthday card, and every strip of cutesy photo booth pictures. I don't think any more photos exist of me with the guy I dated for nearly the entirety of 2007. But I'm keeping the lamb. It's not because I need assurance that I was happy then, I'm still happy now under different circumstances, and good things can come out of bad things (even though those things are true). I'm keeping it because, as you might have guessed, I was one of those kids who read The Velveteen Rabbit too much and thought stuffed animals had feelings. If I give the stuffed animal to Goodwill, someone might buy it and give it to their dog to chew on and shake around like he's killing it. It's not a very cute lamb. No kid would want it. If I gave the lamb to a charity, it would most certainly be destroyed, and I can't have that sort of toy death on my conscience.
In the end, Pengal's boyfriend decides to get rid of the slippers, after she'd decided that forcing her boyfriend to get rid of the stuff won't force him to get over his ex, that she's just going to have to trust him when he tells her, that he's with her because he wants to be with her, that he's really and truly over his ex. She could have spared herself months of grief and heartache if she'd understood that it's quite possible that he believes that stuffed Eeyore slippers have souls, and left it at that.
Image via Dani Simmonds/Shutterstock