friends with an ex
Long Reads

Friends with an ex: “In a moment of crisis, I called my ex. Here’s why”

Can you imagine being friends with an ex? Author Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is so close with her ex-boyfriend that she found herself calling him in a moment of crisis. Here, she explains why their relationship is still so important to her, even after they have broken up.

I tell the police that I will call a ‘friend who lives in the city’. We are friends, not just meet-for-coffee-once-a-year-friends. We are binge-watch-TV-together friends and middle-of-the-night-fear-sharing friends. He is also my ex. We haven’t had sex or kissed in years. But we still say, I love you. We still say, I want to know you forever.

Yet I am scared he won’t pick up. We’d talked on the phone only a few hours before, and it had ended clipped and fast. You see, we have been going through what might be called a second break up. He is not sure he can forgive me for my plan to leave America. I am leaving for career reasons, but also because I miss my family and the city I grew up in. It seems to him a second ending.

New York is rushing past in its yellow, white, and rose gold light. I keep staring at the grille between me and the cops. It makes the back of the car feel like a cage. I search for his name in my recent calls. My ex owes me nothing. He could let it ring and ring.

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We’d met when I was only 19 and he was barely over 20. We were together for years. How many years exactly is not clear. We got together and broke up and got together again. There were so many tendernesses. He’d cook me lunch and bring it to me after my college classes. Hanger steak and onions or dumplings. He proofread my class assignments, because I was and am plagued by dyslexia. So many of his favourite songs are my favourite songs. We read to each other in bed. I took him to meet my grandma and he made her laugh. We wore the same size black jeans. 

Being friends with an ex: "Now that we have broken up we are gentler. Kinder. He still cooks for me. We still wander bookstores together"

But our fights were apocalyptic. He’d storm off or I would. We’d shout. We’d throw things. He smashed a pair of headphones I spent hours decorating. I’d done a design of the Peaches of Immortality, because I wanted him to live forever. And because we’d both loved the hokey TV show version of Journey to the West – a story in which a monkey steals the peaches of the gods and lives forever. My ex stamped up and down on these peaches until they shattered. 

We were not good at caring for each other. We didn’t know how to moderate our needs. When he needed to be alone, I thought he was never coming back. When I didn’t reply to his messages, he thought I didn’t give a shit. Gradually we became too tired to get back together. It was easier, we found, to be friends. We are gentler. Kinder. He still cooks for me. We still wander bookstores together. This peace is only threatened by my departure from the city in which we’d met and learned to love each other. By planning to leave I summoned the old anger, the old betrayal.

I press the call icon. His name appears in thin white text. He picks up. The relief scrambles my words.

Why am I in the police car? I am not suspected of committing a crime. I was on a bridge, at night, walking by myself. I looked distressed. I was staring into the black water. In other words – they think I could be a jumper. They did not cuff me. They did not force me into the car. They simply ordered that I must get inside. They would not listen to my reassurances that I was fine, that I would go home. And in the end, I did not know how to refuse.

I tell my ex that the cops want to take me to the hospital. They may even want to commit me. They cannot be ‘responsible’ for the consequences of letting me loose on the city. But as he knows I have a flight to make very soon – a flight out of the country. 

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Why am I calling my ex? Because the cops and I have made a compromise. Although when two men in uniforms tell you to get in their car, your bargaining power feels limited. They’ve agreed that I will meet a paramedic parked in an ambulance nearby. If the paramedic says I am OK and if someone will take responsibility for me, then I can leave. And so please, can he do that? Will he do that? Is it too much to ask?

My ex tells me he is on his way. He was on a date with a girl he’d just met online. Guilt sings in my skull. I wonder how he will explain me to this girl. I hang up when the car reaches the ambulance. 

bridge at night
Being friends with an ex: "As a teenager, I’d struggled with severe depression. This journey to the bridge feels different from that"

The paramedic is kind. She takes my blood pressure and shines a light into my eyes. She keeps asking why I was on the bridge. I explain that I was going on a walk and that I was thinking. She asks what I was thinking about. It feels too complicated to explain. I am so tired. So tired when I wake up and when I go to sleep. So tired all the time. Perhaps it is just the uncertainty of being in one’s mid-20s

As a teenager, I’d struggled with severe depression. This journey to the bridge feels different from that. You see, my life is going well. I am doing well. I’d done well in America – enjoyed undergraduate and graduate school. As an instructor, I’d received strong evaluations. I’d received a fellowship. If anything, I had gone to the bridge to check in with myself, to look down in the water, and feel my fear of death. I’d gone to feel the burn of life in my lungs. I know what it is to want to die. I had as a teenage girl attempted to find a route out of the world. But now, I am searching for the energy to live.

I imagine the many, many lost walkers this woman meets. I wonder how many of them have someone to call and what those someones are like. I imagine what it would be like to have someone else pick you up. A husband? A lover? A mother? I imagine having no one to call.

When I see my ex, I am filled with a lightness. I know that I am safe now. They hold out a piece of paper that says he takes full responsibility for anything I do after I am released. This is more than one asks of a husband or wife. Only a parent takes this responsibility. Briefly, I think of all the things I might do that he might have to take responsibility for. They do not say when this responsibility ends. A week? A month? A life? Will my actions always belong to him? I scan his face for doubt or concern, but he is nodding. He seems calm. 

They give him the paper, so I don’t see the exact text. He barely reads it. He signs his name quickly, without flinching. I want to cry. Once he yelled at me and told me that I was a crock pot. Once I threw a Snapple bottle at the wall, in the middle of an argument. And yet here he is signing to say that all that I do he owns. 

Being friends with an ex: "The cliché goes that to love someone you set them free. But my ex does more than that – he takes me to the airport"

In the car home, he holds me. He stays with me overnight. He does nothing sexual, just watches over me as one would a fevered child. He tells me he will miss me when I go away. He jokes that maybe he should have let them keep me, so I wouldn’t leave the country. He asks me if I’m sure that we shouldn’t just get married and get a small dog together and live near Seattle. We could eat good, fresh fish.

The cliché goes that to love someone you set them free. But my ex does more than that – he takes me to the airport. We hold each other for a long time. I ask if he will still be responsible for me in my new country. He laughs.

Years later, I call my ex and tell him that I’m planning to write a novel that begins with a husband and a wife and a dark night on that bridge. He tells me that he wants to read it when I am done.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please contact Samaritans for free on 116 123. The phone line is open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s second novel Starling Days is out now, published by Sceptre

Images: Getty, Unsplash