I Feel Like A Jerk For Going Through My Ex’s Wastebasket


When I took out my trash the other night, my front door slammed shut behind me. My planned night of wine and coursework was abruptly ended, and I was locked out of my flat without my phone, wallet, and shoes. I had no idea when someone would be back to let me in. I decided that the climb from the balcony to the open kitchen window was too risky, so I overcame my social anxiety and knocked on my neighbor’s door.

A hairy shirtless man answered as his younger-looking wife wrangled their children into their pajamas. After I jumbled an explanation, he let me in to make a phone call. Once inside, I hesitantly asked to look up my contacts online.

I am living in London for a year doing an MA, and I don’t know many people in the city, let alone in my neighborhood. I self-consciously logged onto their computer as their children peered at me from behind the sofa. I wrote down three contacts—my flatmate, my landlord, and my ex-girlfriend.

My ex was a big part of my original decision to come to London. I met her while doing a term abroad during undergrad, and we kept a long-distance relationship over the summer. When I came back to start my course, I lived in her room while I searched for an apartment. In retrospect, this put an unfortunate amount of stress on our relationship. But for a while after that, we were fine: she is the reason I live where I do—it is close to her.

At 10pm on a Friday, the chances of finding a sober peer are pretty slim. My flatmate was on a date, and his phone was off. I left him a message with no means for him to return the call. My landlord was sympathetic, but unwilling to help. That left me calling the only person I know in London that lives anywhere near me: my ex.

“Mark who?”

The bar was noisy, and I had to repeat several times that I was locked out before she finally understood. The Kosovan family watched me, bewildered, as I tried to enlist her help while simultaneously apologizing for bothering her. I felt super uncomfortable.

She said she would call back, and I sat down with my extempore hosts to watch the Leicester-Watford match, which was thankfully an important, riveting—and distracting—game. At one point I confirmed that I did, in fact, know what had happened between Serbia and Kosovo.

The phone buzzed, and the text said that I should meet her outside the bar. She agreed to give me her keys so that I could get into her flat. I was not invited to stay for a drink. At the time, I thought that was pretty unreasonable.

I borrowed a cheap pair of flip-flops and set off. She greeted me reluctantly, exactly like an ex-girlfriend doing an inconvenient favor. She suggested that when I got to hers, I could make myself useful by doing the dishes. She offered me her laptop to help me contact my flatmate and get some work done, and volunteered her couch for the night in the event that my flatmate didn’t come home from his date.

We had seen each other for coffee or drinks on several recent occasions, and as I walked alone to her empty flat, I cautioned myself against expecting anything more than a blanket and the sofa. It was apparent that neither of us was operating under any pretense, and I had to confirm to my pitiful male brain that there was clearly no chance of having sex with my now-peeved ex.

Everything felt familiar—the creak of the floor and the smell of the air. Trinkets and presents I bought her. I sat on her bed to open her laptop, I thought of nights together with her: warm, exhausted nights in her arms, and bitter nights when we could barely tolerate each other. My thoughts wandered to other lovers, and as I thought of where I have been since she and I broke up, one question dominated my thoughts:

“Who has she slept with since me?”

My MA in sociology has taught me to unpack nuance, and I like to pride myself in being able to read social situations well. But when you add love (or an approximation thereof) to the mix, rational thinking is an afterthought.

Though she and I broke up months ago, our recent “dates” (a methodologically dubious classification by the researcher) planted new thoughts in my head—a desire for a familiar relationship in the likely absence of any intimacy.

Our interactions since have been mixed at best, with mostly unilateral affection shown on my behalf. Part of me is willfully ignorant, and needs a definitive answer even when the writing is on the wall—the same part that rummaged through her wastebasket. There was no way for me not to be hurt by finding what I would inevitably find, and I tried to rationalize that to myself the best I could.

Simultaneously, I told myself that I wouldn’t find anything—she had been as romantically unsuccessful as I, and therefore would consider reconciliation.

But I recognized the packaging immediately. As I tugged on the corner of the pink foil, I was still explaining to myself what the packaging could be. OTC pills, or some kind of feminine supplement. Then I was staring at it, holding it in my hands and no longer able to pretend that it was anything other than what it was. My heart dropped.

One of my friends blithely explained, “your exes have sex with people that aren’t you.” But abstract knowledge is different from confronting reality. I washed the dishes. 

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