Published Monthly

Old Girlfriend

By Africa Fine

Certain old girlfriends never quite go away, no matter how many years pass, no matter how many new girlfriends follow. It’s not always the prettiest old girlfriend, or the smartest, although those qualities will help her maintain her place. The old girlfriends that never go away are the firsts – first serious relationship, first sexual experience, first love.

Jeff’s old girlfriend won’t go away, and it bothers me. Of course, I know better. I know that he loves me like he has loved no other. I know that, in his eyes, I am smarter, more beautiful, more capable than any other. We share a child, we share laughter, we share our lives. We were truly meant to be together in that way that sounds corny until you find it for yourself. Most of the time, I see myself as he sees me: loving, determined, flawed but essentially good.

Yet, there is a part of me that can’t forget the young woman I once was, when I didn’t know the person I would become and I didn’t always like the person I was. I listened to him talk about his old girlfriend, I saw the photographs and read the letters, and I wondered why it seemed she was always on his mind. I was jealous of her then, wanting to occupy the space in his thoughts that she did. I was jealous because I thought I couldn’t measure up, that no matter what I did I’d never be as thin, as beautiful, as captivating as she was. He never said it, but I always believed he compared us two and found me lacking.

First love

Ruth was Jeff’s first love. They met in college during a time when he was most unsure of himself. He has described himself as troubled during that time, skipping classes (and eventually failing to graduate on time), drinking, doing drugs, feeling alienated from everyone and everything. Except Ruth. Their relationship was emotional, perhaps overly so, and she was both a part of his problem and the thing that kept him from going completely over the edge. His stories about that time are fraught with extremes at both ends of the emotional spectrum. Even factoring in his tendency toward hyperbole, this was no ordinary love.

He kept many photos from their time together, although, interestingly, few are of the two of them. In the photos, she is very pretty and confident, as if she knew quite well the effect she had not only on the photographer, but the rest of the world as well. She is never laughing or carefree in the photos; either she is smiling almost professionally into the lens or, as she is in one that is particularly memorable, she is on the phone, speaking seriously into the mouthpiece, purse on shoulder, pausing just long enough to give the person on the other end orders before she leaves her apartment. There is something calculated about this photo, although she seems unaware of the camera. I’ve wondered whether there was ever a time when she was just Ruth, unplanned, unprepared, natural.

Perhaps part of the problem, the reason she won’t go away, is evident in the very fact that I have seen these pictures and heard these stories. Do I need to know this much about an old girlfriend, particularly one who was supposedly long gone by the time Jeff and I met? Today, maybe I would be less of an enthusiastic audience; today, maybe he wouldn’t talk so much about her. But then, more than eight years ago, Ruth and Jeff were very much a part of each other’s lives. They had been so long before I came along, and I resented it. They shared history, and I wanted him all to myself.

Go to Part Two ...


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