I Can’t Get My Ex’s Voice Out Of My Head

Photo by Zen Chung
He hadn’t chosen a place for us to go on a date and instead suggested we meet up and "wander around and find somewhere,” And as he said that this voice in my head said, “Come on, mate” with mocking exasperation.
“It’s so unimpressive when people who ask you out don’t take control of the situation,” the voice continued. As I walked up to introduce myself I saw that although he had a lovely face, he was wearing this stupid hat that said “Make Peckham Shit Again” on it. Okay.
We sat down at a pub and I asked him about his job in finance and his brother and whether they have much in common. What kind of food did they make in Iran where half of his family were from? And he gave me these short answers like “the hours are long” and “yeah we do” and “lots of meat, rice." These responses didn’t morph into new comments or ideas but instead just circled back around until I was asking him another question. 
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“It’s not worth the hangover you know,” said the voice in my head, low and smirking. “Just tell him you’re not feeling it and go.” I didn’t do that, but I did make up some excuse about having to work early tomorrow. He nodded and I thought he got the message, but as soon as we left the pub he pulled me by my arm towards him and angled his face in for a kiss. 
“No, no, no,” I told him and the voice in my head said the same, except it added: “If you have to pull someone towards you to get closer to them — you can safely assume they don’t want to kiss you.” 
Then, it turned out he had to go the same way home as me, meaning we had to walk for ten minutes in cold, crisp silence. That’s when the voice asked: “Do you remember our first kiss?” 
I did. I always do. The red wine that had dried into the cracks of my lips and how my hands got lost in fistfuls of curls, how we carried on until my jaw stiffened, until stubble scratched my skin pink. Until we were back at mine and there was lilac light seeping through the blinds, and it was morning. And nothing could get me out of bed because he was in it. 
I'm not sure if you have worked it out already but the voice I keep mentioning isn’t a fairy godmother’s or an intrusive thought, it’s my ex-boyfriend's and it crops up in my head when I’m trying to date other people. 
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I just want someone to make me fizz with feeling. Someone who I can be myself around, who I can carry on with in the silly outfits and the silly opinions, someone that never becomes the yardstick of anything, because I realise now it should be me doing that for myself.

annie lord
“What were you thinking?” he asks now and I tell him to leave me alone, even though I know he won’t listen.
He’s been in my brain like this since we broke up nearly three years ago. At first, it was a lot stronger: whenever I had a conversation it was like there was loud music playing in the background that no one else could hear. I sought to validate my actions by impressing this voice even if it was just one dreamed up in my own head. I’d fancy guys simply because I knew they’d make him jealous, ones with admirable jobs like youth worker or objectively hot men with Patrick Swayze backs rippling with muscle. I went off others because I knew they wouldn’t bring up the same feelings in him, like this guy who I had great conversations with, but who had long hair and played guitar and just was too hippyish for my ex to ever get jealous of. 
This internal dialogue was easy because we’d been together long enough that I knew how he’d think about anything and everything. Could tell his facial expression from the sound of his breath down a phone line, knew when it was him coming up the stairs from the rhythm of footfall. He’d gone but part of him never left me. This part said, “Ooh vinyl!” when I eyed up the belongings around one guy’s bedroom, and told me another would be the person on First Dates they get on a few times because they're so sad they make a good plot line.
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It’s not that difficult to understand why this happened. For a long time he was the thing in my life I cared most about, that I held up above everything else. He made me laugh, could explain the meanings from a book I was reading without it being unbelievably annoying, would lie in bed with me and our limbs would fit together like two pieces of flatpack furniture. He might have gone now, and I might be glad we broke up, but he’s still the yardstick I measure value against because nothing better has arrived yet for me to make into the new arbiter of goodness. It’s like my mom always says: “You won’t ever be fully over him until you love someone else.” 
“But he doesn’t even know you anymore,” replies my friend when I say something along these lines to her. “You’ve changed so much I doubt he’d even recognize what you’d need to make you happy.”
She’s right, I am different now. 
The plain bodycon dresses I used to wear to complement my shape have gone. Now I’m in wild colorful patterns and low waists. I buy jeweled earrings and tops with puff sleeves, never stopping to worry what people around me will think of these outfits. 
I can also spend whole weeks alone without feeling lonely. And there’s this quiet that comes over me when I’m not in the mood to talk because I no longer feel as if it’s my responsibility to make sure everyone else is having a good time. I’ve relaxed into my personality like a big armchair. I’ve got so much better about asking about other people’s lives rather than just monologuing about my own problems. There are small changes too, like how I’ve not been making as much time for films as I’d like or how for some reason every book I get lost in is a class-driven narrative about a babysitter. 
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“You should be setting the parameters of what you want,” my friend continues. “Don’t let him dictate the terms of your life – because he’s certainly not being dictated by yours. Although I do agree with him, or your idea of him, that it was good you didn’t kiss that guy.”
I think about what those parameters would be, what I, the me without him, would want from a relationship. Someone who makes me laugh until my lungs feel itchy and asthmatic. But not a class clown guy who performs to everyone because I imagine it would be hard to reserve any attention for yourself. Someone who isn’t a writer to prevent all of our conversations from turning into this creative back and forth — I don’t want date night to feel like a seminar. Someone who would be really nice to my friends and love chatting about random stuff with them like Met Gala dresses and how all people either look like rats or pigs (I swear). Someone probably with a shaved head and probably with a little earring, and probably a fleece also. 
But also they could be none of those things – they could be an unfunny writer who doesn’t get on with my friends, I just want someone to make me fizz with feeling, to make me like them so much it feels like someone’s sawing at my stomach. A guy who I can be myself around, who I can carry on with in the silly outfits and the silly opinions, someone that never becomes the yardstick of anything, because I realize now it should be me doing that for myself.
Understanding this, I see that the advice my mum gave me isn't quite right – it should be: “You probably won’t ever be fully over him until you love yourself,” not “until you love someone else.” And if my ex-boyfriend's voice was still there, it would have laughed at that line because it’s so sentimental. But I can’t hear him right now, so I repeat it again because I like it, and that’s all that matters.
Notes on Heartbreak by Annie Lord was published June, 23, 2022 by Trapeze available in Hardback, eBook, and audio for $18.16.

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