*This article was originally published in a slightly different form a year ago here. It’s since been edited, updated, and republished in the spirit of Halloween.
As a woman with a regularly maintained pixie-coif, it’s never fun finding long, curly hairs clogging the drain of a moldy bathtub. When you share a home with someone, it can either mean he’s messing around, or that he hasn’t deep cleaned since the ex moved out over a year ago. In my case, it was the latter. Bachelor pads aren’t exactly renowned for their pristine condition, but since this was now to be our shared place of residence, I naively set out to change all that. I soon learned there’s no simple way to vacuum up a ghost. I also learned that I don’t much enjoy cleaning, especially not up after other people.
There’s that moment in every relationship when a couple decides that it’s high time for an apartment upgrade. In my case, this moment was approximately three days after moving into my now fiancés then place, a realization I experienced while cleaning out the medicine cabinet of my “new” bathroom. (Her “old” bathroom.) I was throwing out expired antibiotics and crusty foot scrubs when I discovered a little house-warming present in the form of organic yeast infection treatment cream and suppositories. How thoughtful.
Since it obviously hadn’t occurred to him, my otherwise attentive partner, to scour the place for incriminating evidence before unpacking my things and welcoming me in (pretty sure that’s just a basic common courtesy, but maybe I’m being old-fashioned), those holistic gine meds were the first of many abandoned treasures I would come to unearth, like a pink-sparkly-Hello-Kitty-sticker-and-rhinestone-encrusted-plastic curling iron set with her name inked on it in pink glitter pen, and some sticky photo booth pictures of the two of them kissing. How sweet.
Carving out one’s identity in a new relationship isn’t easy. And it can be made even less easy when haunted by the ghost of Ex-mas past. However accidental or seemingly insignificant her remnants, when you move into a place that’s been previously inhabited by your current love and his ex live-in, it can feel plagued with a palpable sense of history (or their story, if we’re splitting hairs). It’s kind of like the plot of one of those late night TV murder mysteries when the new tenants arrive at a big Victorian country dream house, bags in hand, all hopeful of new beginnings, only to be traumatized when they learn the tragic story of the elderly couple that was bludgeoned to death in the master bedroom.
I don’t mean to compare my situation to living in a crime scene, but as someone who is dangerously curious and probably responsible for a large portion of dead cats, I felt like I was a private investigator reopening a cold case file; on my knees with a magnifying glass tracing the origin of the bullet wound and inspecting the method of entry. My internal dialogue went as follows: “Who was this woman who used to live here and why did she have this trashy blonde wig and just one cowboy boot? Where was the other boot? Did she wear these in seriousness or were they leftover from a Halloween costume? Did they coordinate their Halloween costumes? Oh, she liked to order the Caterpillar Roll from Katsuya. Me too! Ew, he obviously has a type. I’m never eating here again, this was obviously their place.” This is loosely based on the first time I opened the drawer to the left of the sink to find soy sauce packets and takeout menus marked with the letter “S” for her name. She also enjoyed the cucumber salad. TMI.
Although my plans for nesting didn’t necessarily anticipate someone else’s expired feminine hygiene products in my bathroom (but they do include his and hers sinks and a claw foot tub and a golden goose. I want it now daddy!), I’m told relationships are about compromise. What this meant to me at the time was that when you find yourself out of college, mostly unemployed with the exception of a part-time job working at your mother’s shoe store, and you fall for a guy with a spacious and low-rent apartment with hardwood floors and charming crown molding on a quaint, tree-lined street, it’s logical to make a few minor concessions. Because love conquers all or whatever. Act now, think passive aggressive thoughts later. That’s my motto.
So I stayed. I stayed in that apartment for a few years, improving what I could, throwing out what I couldn’t stand to look at, sitting on those sloppy seconds (the couch, not the man), and finding the patience to accept a work in progress; to understand the concept of sacrificing right now for better things later. On the bright side, at least my ghost was benevolent and not some tortured bloody murder victim who’d come back for her vengeance. And, for the most part, unless I went poking around on Facebook or digging in the depths of what was once their joint walk-in closet, it, she, the ghost, stayed out of my redecorating process. Rather than saging or calling psychic hotline, I found it more cost-effective to sell her discarded shabby-chic dresser for $25 bucks in a garage sale (and smile with secret vindication when you have to lower the price three times to sell it). I’m more of a mid-century girl myself.
Maybe when we enter into new relationships we are all a little haunted, by uncertainty and exes and self-doubt and half-empty boxes of eco-friendly tampons. But when we date someone, we sign-up for their past, not just their present. Their life experiences (exotic, tan ex-girlfriends, bad break-ups which leave them in shambles they forget to sweep up) can make us jealous, insecure and irrational. They can, and probably will, but they shouldn’t. Because as much as they, these pasts, antagonize our sanity, they also act as a welcome mat. They provide a raw structure, a framework, that we can then clutter with bizarre porcelain knick-knacks and selfies from the Arizona meteor crater you and your boo road-tripped to. Because those ghosts have shaped the ones we love into the people who love us back; into the people who make room for us, even if only in their secondhand homes.
Eventually I got used to it. The ghost didn’t come out to play unless I taunted it. I grew accustomed to the creaky floors that let me know he was coming to bed after a late night of working, to the smell of the cedar incense I bought him for Christmas and the snuggling under the Pendleton blanket we found at a flea market. A few years after moving into what I’ll now refer to as the “Haunted House on Mansfield,” we moved into a new place, sans his baggage and her trail of vaginal problems. But because of that experience, living in the aftermath of someone else’s existence, every time I return home from the grocery store to the slightly inconvenient task of unpacking, I find a small pleasure in stocking our shelves with cans and bottles and bags of things nobody has ever opened before me. Sure, it’s only nasal spray and dry skin cream, but it’s our nasal spray and dry skin cream. I’m still waiting on the claw foot tub.