Ever wonder what happened to that old flame who once burned so brightly? New York Journalist Susan Shapiro did -- but instead of just mulling over memories of relationships gone sour, she tracked down some of the men she had dated between the ages of 13 and 35. The result is her new book, “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” an account of her six-month search and the lessons she learned. She came on the “Today” show to talk about the book; here’s an excerpt.
(Warning: This excerpt contains language that might be offensive to some people.)
I slipped on the black slingbacks I'd borrowed from my best friend, Claire. The last time I risked such high heels was at my wedding. I tried to walk without wobbling, praying that the added height hid the nine pounds I'd gained since he last saw me. In two decades as a journalist I'd never been this nervous for an interview. Yet I'd never interviewed anyone I'd been in love with before.
I hadn't seen Brad in ten years. In ten minutes he was coming back to see me. Not to say "I'm sorry," "I can't forget you," or better yet, "No woman has ever been able to replace you." No, after a decade, Brad was finally seeking me out again—to help him get book publicity.
I pulled a tight black T-shirt over my long flowing Indian skirt, adding silver bracelets. Too Greenwich Village, which I feared I was, but sexy, which I feared I wasn't. At least I had a tan. Whipping the shirt off, I switched from my sports bra to a black Wonderbra, turning my respectable breasts into major knockers, a Gloria Steinem acolyte suddenly Living Barbie. I would rather be dead than dowdy for this reunion. I tried a tighter black tee—much better—spraying Opium perfume down my faux cleavage. Lining my lips Midnight Red, I caught a spark from my diamond ring in the mirror. My hand was shaking.
Out of the thousands of days we'd been out of touch, Brad could not have picked a worse one to reconnect. Six months before my fortieth birthday, I was staggering through a vulnerable stretch of midlife crises: my "no-book-no-baby summer." That morning I'd received two faxes. The first, from my gynecologist, summed up results of fertility tests explaining why, for the last year, my husband, Aaron, and I had been unable to conceive a child. My reproductive system seemed to be in fine working order. Aaron's wasn't. The problem was his low sperm count and the lack of his sperm's "motility." According to the doctor, the medication he'd been taking wasn't increasing the amount of his sperm or making it swim any faster.
The second letter, from my agent, listed the last five publishing houses that had "passed" on the novel I'd spent five years writing. It felt like she was saying, "The only baby you have is ugly, we don't want it."
I threw both letters down the incinerator in the hall, destroying the evidence before anybody else could see it. Rushing back to answer the phone, I thought it would be Aaron, calling from the airport to say his flight was delayed. But it was Brad, the man whose children I could have had twenty years ago, now a Harvard professor, saying, "Hi Sue. I just landed in New York. I have a book coming out," as if we'd last spoken yesterday. Brad's timing always sucked. Today it was so bad it seemed destined.
"Hey, that's great," I'd said, equally casual, feeling surprisingly jazzed to be on the phone with him. I had an urge to see him in person. "What are you doing for lunch?"
"Coming to see you," he'd answered, presumptuous as always, though I had just issued the invitation.
"Bring me a galley. If I have time, maybe I'll write about your book," I threw out, turning my big date with Brad into a business opportunity to avoid anxiety. Or was it rage?
What the hell did he mean—he had a book coming out. I was the writer! I'd recited Robert Louis Stevenson's "I Had a Little Shadow" by heart when I was two. My mother taped it, I had proof. In first grade I won an award for filling out the most notebooks in the history of Shaarey Zedek Hebrew School, twelve hundred blue notebooks crammed with Hebrew letters I couldn't read. In my family, achievement was redemption.
According to Shapiro legend, my father proposed to my mother by saying: "I just got into medical school in the Midwest. You coming or not?" They fled the Lower East Side and eventually settled in suburban Michigan. Of their four offspring, I was the first and the only girl. I was quickly followed by Brian and Eric, both redheaded and freckled like my mother, and Michael, the youngest, whose hair was dark as mine. I always thought the defining event of my emotional landscape was being usurped of firstborn power thrice, by three brilliant science-brain brothers. Picture it: Queen Sheba for seventeen months, then dethroned, dethroned, dethroned.
While I had my mother's twenty-twenty vision, my brothers were all nearsighted like my father. They wore gold-rimmed glasses with thick lenses and viewed the world as their laboratory. They dissected frogs in the kitchen sink—merrily holding up body parts that pulsated after they were amputated—and kept calves' esophagi in the freezer and live bees in jars in the refrigerator. (The first to freeze won. Then they'd try to resuscitate them.) By the time I was ten, family dinners were dominated by "The Disease Game," where one called out symptoms, the other diagnosed.
"Forty-two-year-old Cambodian refugee vomiting blood?" asked my father.
"Schistosomiasis!" jumped in Brian, my oldest, biggest, loudest brother.
"Good! You know more than your old man already." My father spooned gravy on his steak. "Thirty-four-year-old white woman with perforated uterus."
"Could be endometriosis," guessed the middle son, Eric, the diplomat.
"Botched abortion, probably," weighed in Michael, the smallest Shapiro. "Pass the potatoes."
I'd eat alone in my pink room, memorizing Sylvia Plath's “Ariel” and plotting escape.
I thought I'd found it at sixteen, when I started the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Yet on my first day of freedom, freshman year, I gravitated right to Brad, a patronizing, macho biology major.
"Do you have a light?" I stopped to ask him in the dormitory lobby.
He took the Virginia Slim Menthol from my lips and broke it in two.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" I yelled. I'd already decided to be a raging feminist poet. I had no use for this intrusive, oversized prep in a blue-and-gold sweatsuit.
"I'm Brad," he said. "Don't smoke, it's bad for you."
I noticed his gigantic shoulders. Out of all the first-years, his were the broadest. "So are you," I said, digging into my backpack for my own match. I found one, lit another Virginia Slim Menthol, and walked away, smoke trailing.
He followed me to my dorm room, where he scanned my schedule (Romantic Poetry, Journalism 101, Modern Drama, Psych. of Deviant Behavior) and declared it worthless. An alliance with a male, fraught with fierce rivalry—what could be more familiar? I declared him worthless and he wrestled me to the floor. I put him in a choke hold my brothers had taught me, never imagining the hold he'd wind up having on me. Or that it would last, off and on, for fifteen years, from age sixteen to thirty-one. The worst years to be off and on in love with anybody.
By the time I was twenty, I'd graduated, sworn off Brad and the Midwest and braved New York City solo. I earned my masters degree in English and toiled, for thirteen thousand dollars a year, as a peon at The New Yorker, eventually finding a way to almost make a living freelancing and teaching. Six months after school ended, Brad surprised me by moving to Manhattan too. Not for me, but for an opportunity to work as co-CEO of a medical research company. When that failed, he decided to get his Ph.D. in biology. Why did he get to publish a book? I didn't invade his space by curing cancer.
Half linebacker, half bespectacled science nerd (like the males I knew best), Brad hadn't taken an English class since tenth grade. His letters to me, in his sloppy third-grade handwriting, were hidden in a shoebox in the back of my bedroom closet where my husband wouldn't find them. The most profound one read, "If I was capable of loving someone it would be you, but I'm not so I don't."
During our brief phone conversation, he'd said he was a tenured professor (I was an adjunct) and that he'd wound up selling that "failed" science company for seven figures. He also mentioned (okay, I asked) that he was dating—but not married, engaged, or living with—Kim, a twenty-four-year-old graduate student he could have twenty children with. To make Satan's Circle complete, my returning WASP-alpha-male-ex had published a self-help book on primal instincts and self-destructive impulses, like the kind I should have suppressed when I told him to pick me up at my apartment.
It could have been worse. I could have been single and idiotically hoping I would end up with Brad, as I had for eleven years after college. What had thrown me was the way he slept with his knees over my legs, locking me in. I liked to sleep as far away as possible, back turned. But the minute he lost consciousness, Brad's heavy limbs draped over me like an avalanche. I couldn't move, more physically entangled than I'd ever slept with anyone. Sure that it meant something other than that's how he slept with women. Plural. Always plural.
Not that it mattered now. I was happily married to Aaron, who didn't sleep as close but stayed. Aaron was ten years older, four inches taller, twenty times wittier, and a thousand times more loyal than Brad. I was thinking in numbers, subtotalling everything: years, mistakes. Not that I was comparing. This was just a lunch interview and I'd done hundreds. Expertly, on deadline. Hell, I'd taught an NYU class called "Interviewing" and didn't even need textbooks. When the doorman buzzed, I raced to the intercom, tripped on Claire's slingbacks, and fell to the floor, wrenching my ankle. I knew I couldn't handle grown-up shoes, but it was too late to change. I brushed myself off and limped to the door.
Brad walked in and said, "Hi."
"Hi," I answered.
We hugged quickly, then I took a long look at him. He didn't look so hot. He was in khaki pants, a blue blazer, and white shirt buttoned to his neck, stiff. The only time he'd dressed hip was the year I took him to The GAP. I picked out three pairs of tight black jeans and black T-shirts, helping him try them on until a salesgirl yelled, "Only one in a dressing room!" and threatened to call the manager. His brown hair was too short, a crew cut he'd settled on after graduation. I liked him better with the dark, curly, white boy's Afro I used to run my fingers through. He'd gained weight too. Not fat, but too big. With short hair his features seemed splattered across his face like a platypus—huge ears, nose, brows. Oh no, I still loved him.
To keep my hands busy and my heart from bursting, I handed him things: an anthology that had reprinted two of my essays, my most impressive clips from The New York Times and the Washington Post.
"I found most of these online," he said. "I did a search."
"You did?" I gave him my two previous books—a poetry collection called Internal Medicine and a humor book, The Male-To-Female Dictionary.
"I've already read your humor book," he said. "It was hysterical."
"You have it?"
"Amazon.com," he said.
The hidden perk of publishing: it left a trail that could be easily followed if someone from the past wanted to find you. Or was that the hidden peril?
Excerpted from “Five Men Who Broke My Heart” by Susan Shapiro Copyright© 2003 by Susan Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.