The Devil You Know

When I graduated from college and moved back to New York, it hit me that since I had not met the love of my life at school, I would have to find him in the Real World, a place that seemed terrifyingly dangerous and immense. So instead of trying to meet new men, I opened my address book and called up the guys I knew from high school, camp, and Jewish youth group. We’d make dates and reminisce, and sometimes the evenings would end in making out, or more. Though my recycling, or blue-binning, didn’t lead to anything serious, it gave me the self-esteem I needed to start fresh. But some New Yorkers spend years recycling old exes, like dogs digging up buried treasures. And though there are advantages to “re-dating,” the disadvantages often far outweigh the easy sex and the comfort of a familiar bed.

“You’re sitting there on a date trying to be civil and nice, but you know the dumbest things she ever did,” says George, 43, a producer, who recycled one ex for six months before they broke up again. “Half the fun of a relationship is getting to know the other person, but when you recycle, you can only discover what she did in the year you weren’t together. And you can’t talk about who you dated.” When George and his ex first reunited, the sex was hot, but then her messiness and compulsive need to stay out late began grating on him—again—and he ended it.

The main reason both men and women blue-bin is a craving for guaranteed great sex. This is an especially strong motivator for women: It’s hard to get a guy to figure out what you want in bed, so when you do, and the relationship ends, there’s dismay at having to start coaching all over again. An orgasm-less one-night stand with no phone call is a downer, but add in a few O’s and you don’t feel so trashy.

But there’s another issue for women that can make blue-binning especially appealing. Some single women of a certain age will do almost anything to keep their man-total down—for fear that they are turning into sluts, a sobriquet that remains alarmingly powerful even for adult women. “There’s a guy I dated who I get together with every now and then,” says Celia, 29, a lawyer, “and he said, ‘Are you sure this is okay?’ I said, ‘It’s great. I don’t have to increase my numbers.’ ”

Still, she admits that when feelings are involved, recycling can be dangerous. “There’s another guy in my life, a Mr. Big who I dated on and off and still care for. We went out to dinner one night, and when the cab stopped at his house, he gave me a passionate kiss. I got back in the cab because I knew I would get emotionally attached.”

When a blue-bin turns into a semi-regular occurrence, often both parties must work hard to hide it from their friends. As one girlfriend of mine puts it, “When you date an ex, you screw over your friends who tried to be supportive during the breakup. Then, inevitably, they say something they regret when you get back together.”

Despite its pitfalls, blue-binning persists in this city because no one wants to reenter the brutal singles scene. “After a breakup,” says Celia, “you think, Oh, God, I have to go update my profile now. Please don’t make me do that. And guys don’t want to have to keep dating these bitchy Manhattan women. When you recycle, you get the esteem and the attention you need without any hassle.”

Though either party can initiate a blue-bin, frequently it’s the men who are more likely to pick up the phone. Some just want casual (good) sex without any expectations, but others are stirred because they realize what they were missing. Terry, 37, a comedienne, dated one guy for five years who wouldn’t marry her. After she dumped him, he kept calling and she ignored his calls.

Then the holidays arrived, and her resolve softened. “When Thanksgiving came around, I didn’t want to be alone for the holidays, and I wasn’t having sex with anybody, so I called him back. We were together three more months, but then I realized he was kind of a loser. It was like eating stale bread. Sometimes it’s better to go hungry.”

The Devil You Know