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1 essay
by Sage Behr

Sage Behr is an actor and writer based in Chicago. She has received a Fulbright to study theater in Brazil in 2022. 

Ex-Girlfriends

Sometimes I look at my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page. It’s more likely to happen when I’m hungry. I don’t find anything I need there—just photos of the two of them that span back to a time when my boyfriend didn’t look like my boyfriend. The practice leaves me with various questions I don’t feel I can ask directly. Has she always kept her Instagram private? How much did he love her? And when, exactly, did he lose his baby face?

If I’m being frank, his ex’s Facebook page doesn’t do much for me. I don’t know if it’s an issue with permissions or the reflection of an abandoned feed, but it’s composed mostly of photos of the two of them. I scroll with awe through the media that accumulated over a relationship that spanned several life stages.

I want to emphasize that when I do this, I’m usually also dehydrated.

Sometimes I linger on photos that show my boyfriend looking happy. When I pause on his ex’s face, I can’t decide if I find it pretty or not. But her appearance is not the issue at hand. As I scrutinize the photos for evidence of intelligence, soul, and wit, I feel like a ludicrously inept bad feminist. On social media, it’s impossible to know what people are like, or even what they really look like. I can see someone’s face, but I can’t know how it moves, or how their smile makes others feel.

I can’t find any justification for stalking my boyfriend’s ex if I’m not jealous. I’ve read thinkpieces. Internet stalking stokes insecurity and encourages comparisons. It warps perspective. Through angles, lighting, and captions, it forces you to believe that others lead sexier, happier lives than you. But I don’t feel that my boyfriend’s ex leads a sexier, happier life than me. In fact, I always get bored scrolling through her page and switch to my Instagram, which I find more entertaining and interesting.

On my own grid, I scroll with renewed vigor. What would my profile look like to someone who has never met me? My face is oblong, unpredictable. Distinctly cross-eyed when I’m laughing. My captions are ironic and erratically capitalized. Although my boyfriend’s ex doesn’t know who I am, her mere existence compels me to examine my own social media with a freshly critical eye. What soul comes through?

My last boyfriend slept with his ex early on in our relationship. When I found out, I became addicted to her Instagram. I would scroll back in her photos until I saw what she had posted of him: the heart emojis, the invasive candids, the drunk selfies. Once I watched her story. Stories were new to Instagram at that time, and I didn’t know that she would see the viewers. She immediately screenshotted my username and sent it to my ex.

When my ex confronted me about it, embarrassed, he shouted, “Get over it! I am!”

“Then why did you like her photo last week?” I shot back venomously.

I was embarrassed too. But that didn’t stop me. I kept visiting her page secretly, usually from the bathroom. My ex’s ex struck me as glamorously shallow. She used warm-toned, obvious filters on every image and exclusively posted pictures of herself. I wondered what he saw in her. I’m not shallow, I would reason as I covertly scrolled, but I’m not glamorous either. Is there something attractive about her that I’m missing?

As my fixation grew stronger, I started to post on Instagram like never before. I had to assume that my ex’s ex was also checking my feed. It was a strange sort of vengeance, to show off the trophy of a prematurely embittered relationship in such a public way. It was the first time I had ever been cheated on, and it had damaged my ego badly. I posted to convince myself I was happy that my ex had eventually chosen me.

Instagram rapidly solidified the relationship with my ex. I have always been uncomfortable with commitment, even to people I really like. I’ve had a lot of three month flings. Most of those I conveniently started with an end date in sight. Dating someone publicly felt like exposure therapy for commitment issues. I realized that my relationship could fail publicly, too. Our shared Instagram trail motivated me to stay with my ex, even when those familiar, squeezy feelings told me to jump ship.

My ex certainly benefited from hurting me so early on in the relationship. I filled the gaps in our connection with the visceral need to understand how he could ever have put our love in jeopardy. His ex obsessed me. I wanted to holistically excavate their connection. I wanted answers. Why had he loved her? What did it feel like to love her?

When his ex abruptly made her Instagram private, I felt bereft. Without her, I was stuck alone with him.

In retrospect, I realize that we must have caused my ex’s ex to suffer. Whenever I scrolled back on his grid to find photos of her, I was surprised by how few of them there were. Almost all of them were unromantic. Theirs hadn’t been a happy relationship, at least by our standards. My ex and I remained in love until the bitter end of our dysfunctional partnership, and we documented it. From what I could see of his previous relationship, that hadn’t been the case with her.

Once, while my ex and I scrolled through his photos together, I slipped past a picture of some fingernails holding a small white stick. I scrolled back up to take a closer look. The stick had a blue cross in the middle.

“Wait—” my ex said, but it was too late. I clicked on the photo.

“She was pregnant?” I said. My ex-boyfriend clenched his jaw.

“I don’t know if it was mine,” he said. “She said she had a miscarriage.”

“What?!” I shouted.

We fought. Afterwards, my ex sat and watched me fold clothes.

“I know what you’re doing,” he said. “You’re trying to make me not love you anymore.”

I didn’t respond.

“It’s not gonna happen, you know,” he added.

I wished it would. To be implicated so directly in another woman’s heartbreak put a damper on my happiness to be with the man that chose me over her.

That night I self-soothed by scrolling back on his Instagram until I found a familiar picture. In it, she wore a leather jacket. I wondered what it felt like for her to sleep with him even when she knew he had a new girlfriend. After all, she had been his girlfriend first. I had always considered myself the victim. Now it shook me to scroll back to her last Valentine’s Day post of my ex, with the caption, “vos y yo, siempre y always.”

What counts as solidarity with the woman who came before? I had trained myself not to confront my ex’s ex’s heartbreak. Months later, she still occupied an inordinate amount of space in my relationship. For all the time I spent torturing my ex for how he had hurt me, I spent even more wondering about her. Maybe my fixation revealed that I was more committed to her than to him. That unexpected loyalty represented a threat to my relationship. To engage with her inevitably made me think less of my boyfriend. What could she have thought of me?

If stalking my current boyfriend’s ex makes me feel anything, it’s a sense of deference to her, and to the primacy of their relationship. As I scroll through old photos, I feel that my boyfriend and his ex existed originally and spontaneously together. They pose with cats, hug at college graduation, and compose full-hearted, unironic anniversary salutes that they tag all their friends in. Their posts seem so alive, and so innocent of the fact that they would eventually break up. It makes me wonder if I have only playacted at such a life. But when I return to my senses, or to my own grid, I am satisfied to see the evidence that I too have lived, loved, and documented it all.

Social media stalking is something that lots of people do, but very few people talk about. That makes it difficult to verify the experience with an outside source. For me, stalking eventually has little to do with the person I’m observing. It’s a self-referential gesture. It teases me into accepting the continuity of self that others present, even when I know how fragmented life actually is. And just as it makes me agonize over the lives I haven’t lived, it makes me nostalgic for all the imperfect and precious moments that do make up my life.

After my ex and I broke up, I continued posting on Instagram for almost a year. This time, my impulse wasn’t to feature my ex, but to bury him. I felt industrious as I took self-deprecating or beautiful photos and crafted funny captions. A sense of effortless humor buoyed the whole process. Looking back at the squares from that period, I recognize myself much more than I do in photos with my ex. Those single years were some of the happiest of my life.

I wonder if my obsession with my boyfriends’ exes is more of an attachment to then or a negation of the now. Does it have to do with my past or theirs? I’m not sure. Life is less chronological than my brain would have me believe. Instagram makes me want to snap it all to a grid and just keep scrolling.

Returning to my ex’s Instagram now, I have to pass photos of myself to reach those old favorites of his ex-ex-girlfriend. I used to think of her as the woman he had loved not more, but before me. I felt like the underdog for that reason. But in the years we spent together, I surpassed his ex by quite a margin. My ex’s social media remains full of me. I laugh in an elevator, I drink a beer. I kneel below the Arc de Triomphe. I’m his ex now, I think. And someday I might loom in someone else’s imagination the way my boyfriends’ exes do in mine.

But I hope not. I hope they delete my photos first.