S how us a man or woman who’s never Googled an ex, and we’ll show you someone without an Internet connection. Googling, however, often dead-ends in snooping; if you want to make actual contact, you might have to venture into MySpace or Friendster territory. And on Friendster, you will be faced with the Sophie’s Choice of online sleuthing: to browse anonymously and not be busted, or to risk browsing publicly, and be given access to the list of people—possibly exes—who have browsed your profile (assuming they’re not browsing anonymously).
Of course, it could be that the one-way spy mirror suits your purposes. “I probably Google exes more since I got married than I did before,” says Lorenzo, a 40-year-old TV producer. “I have no real desire to muck around in the past. Mostly morbid curiosity. What they look like, if they’re married … ” Despite his just-looking mantra, however, he keeps his Googling secret from his wife. “She’d be annoyed, because when I’m snooping on exes, I’m not focusing on my relationship.”
Our friend Andie also prefers to lurk. “I’ve never Googled an ex in the hopes of rekindling; I’ve only done so to make sure their lives are worse off without me,” says the 33-year-old computer-gaming producer. Sometimes it has the reverse effect, though: “I wind up Googling myself to see what would come up if he Googled me. So the whole thing turns out to be more a referendum on what I’ve done with my life than what he’s done with his.”
So why do we persist in reaching out to the one that got away? Probably because on the rare occasion that it does work out in real life, it does so in a fantastical, dramatic way. Take Jo and Frank’s story. On her 31st birthday this spring, Jo, an editor, and Frank, a 35-year-old “finance guy,” reunited—ten years after they first dated. Two months later, they were engaged. The first time around, “it was a great relationship, but I was 21. I was too young to get married.” They stayed in touch (even through his six-year relationship with someone else) but were never more than friends until this year. “He called to wish me a happy birthday, it was about 3 a.m., and I told him to stop by my party,” Jo recalls. “When I opened the door to him, I knew.”
Despite the Hollywood-style ending, Jo is pretty clear-eyed about the passage of time. “We remember what we each looked like when we were young and firm and perky.” But there are other benefits, like depth of character, and things that seemed to matter a lot back then—specifically, her more privileged background and education—are no longer at issue.
Or take Amy, a 35-year-old writer. “I was the queen of calling old boyfriends completely out of the blue,” she says. There was one ex she never managed to reach: Gustavo. They first dated twelve years ago, and knew each other in elementary school thirteen years before that. “I thought about him over the years—mostly how there was nothing wrong with him,” says Amy. She Googled him time and again, but never found his e-mail address. (“E-mail is so much less scary than a phone call!”) Then, a few months ago at a movie screening, she noticed his name in the producer credit, and afterward bumped into him in the lobby. Not sure about the movie, but they’ve had a happy ending so far.
Both Jo and Amy are aware of how their stories come off—a little too cute in a city of professional cynics and inveterate commitment-phobes. But maybe that environment is precisely why they started looking backward—dating a past flame lets you apply all the hard-won wisdom of urban dating (like, oh, say, how not to be a stalker). And who could resist an opportunity to show off the new and improved version of him- or herself?
It’s perhaps why our friend Elise refuses to give up on James, whom she’s known since he was 10 and she was 8, more than 30 years ago. He first declared his love for her in high school, and since then they’ve dated (each other and other people), moved across state lines for each other (she to Chicago, he to Hoboken), and split up—twice. James married, had a kid, and divorced. Elise got her heart broken, and in the middle of an “old friends comforting each other phone call,” she blurted out, “Do you think we’re meant to be together?” She recently spent a week in Chicago to see if round three would stick. “It was nice and comfortable, but no fireworks,” says Elise. “And now we’re in a holding pattern. He’s there, with a child to support. I’m dating someone else.”
It’s hardly a fairy-tale ending, but then again, there’s more than one reason to hunt down an old flame. Sometimes you have to go back just to make sure you were right to leave in the first (and second, and third) place.
Emma Taylor and Lorelei Sharkey are the authors of the new A-Z guides Em & Lo’s Rec Sex and Em & Lo’s Sex Toy.