Early one morning three years ago, I peeled myself away from my fiancé in our tiny Manhattan bedroom and plopped down in front of my computer. In my inbox was an e-mail from my ex-boyfriend, Robert*, whom I hadn't heard from in ages, with the subject line "Congrats x3!!!"
Robert toasted me on my engagement, gaining tenure at the university where I taught, and my recent book deal. "I could not be more happy for you," he wrote. "You should be incredibly proud of yourself." I wondered why he was doing such a big rah-rah show of support—but then he revealed perhaps the true reason for contacting me: "As for me, I can only lay claim to one of your achievements—I got engaged last fall and will be married in July. And get this, I'm going to move to your neighborhood!" What? Robert, who'd seemed like a perpetual bachelor, was actually, finally getting married? And was moving to my old Brooklyn neighborhood? Back when we were dating, Robert dragged his feet about leaving Manhattan at all, much less picking up and moving to another borough.
I immediately did what any woman would do: I looked up his fiancée on Facebook. Suddenly, I was staring at a near mirror image of myself. She was also petite and Asian, somewhere in her 30s, with a youthful smile and lush, shoulder-length layered hair. I blinked several times in surprise. Not only was she a writer who shared my own crunchy political leanings and lived in the same liberal neighborhood that I had for most of my adult life, but our names were even vaguely similar. I later learned that they'd met on the same dating website that he'd been so embarrassed about meeting me on some four years earlier.
But the thing that needled me the most: She'd gotten my rather stuffy banker turned CFO ex to sign up for our local food co-op, where members logged in monthly work hours ringing up groceries and stacking organic eggs. ("Imagine me, bagging carrots!" he wrote.)
I was too stunned to reply. I think I even started to cry. Even though I was happily engaged to someone else, it still stung that I'd been replaced—by someone exactly like me.
Back when we were involved in our yearlong courtship, my ex looked great on paper: a rich, older, gainfully employed Southerner with a passion for swing dancing even greater than my own. He was a child of divorce like I was but also wanted to get married and have a family. "I always knew I'd find a great partner," he said on one of our early dates, grabbing my hand from across the dinner table at some swanky celebrity-chef restaurant.
Although the other women he'd dated had also been educated, artsy types, I considered myself the perfect foil to Robert's squareness: a yoga- loving New Yorker who sipped herbal tea and loved adventurous eating. I'd hoped I had the power to capture his heart in a way that perhaps none of the other women before me had.
Six months into our relationship— after so many swing dances and trips to New Orleans to meet his family—I was biting back the urge to tell Robert that I loved him. Burned by prior relationships, I needed him to say it first, but there was something deeper holding Robert back. (To him, saying "I love you" was akin to saying "Let's get married.") Suddenly, there was no more talk about having found "a great partner." Instead, it was all about clocking more hours at his company.
"I want a family," I told him shortly after he'd met my entire extended family at Chinese New Year—our biggest, most-family-oriented holiday of the year. "I need to know we have a future together." While he didn't agree, he didn't exactly disagree, either. And because he didn't balk and run away—in fact, the next evening, Robert finally said the three words I'd been waiting to hear—I took it as a sign that maybe he was ready to commit. But the day after our anniversary, when a ring never materialized, I'd had enough. I broke up with him, wordlessly—just took my stuff from his apartment and departed—without a fight.
The following year, I met Owen, a dashing, blond Englishman with an easy smile who enjoyed foraging for mushrooms with me. After several seasons of searching the city's parks for wild morel and enoki mushrooms together, we were engaged. But while Owen was the love of my life, and emotionally present in ways that my ex had never been, he wasn't completely divorced from his wife in Berlin, making it harder for us to get married and start our family together.
So by the time I received Robert's e-mail and saw his fiancée's profile, I had to contend with a bunch of answered questions and a whirlwind of emotions. Had he finally nailed his "type"—younger Asian-American writers who lived in Brooklyn and shopped at the food co-op? (I hadn't even realized that was a type!) Not only did I feel replaced, but I had the distinct feeling that it should have been my life. Everything my doppelgänger was getting—a gigantic home and Robert's investment portfolio—felt like, well, mine. I know it may seem a bit crass, like I was mainly in it for the money, but after a lifetime of dating artist types, one of the things that initially attracted me to Robert was his financial stability.
I also couldn't help but feel that I had primed him for her. I had helped make Robert marriage-ready! Or at least "marriage-receptive." And if I hadn't left the way that I did, when I did, he wouldn't have been motivated to pull the trigger by the time she came along. She should thank me, shouldn't she?
And right behind that were thoughts so deeply buried and insecure that I dared not verbalize them out loud to anyone: Why her and not me?
For the next two weeks, I was angry with Owen for his slow-moving divorce. Robert's e-mail sat there unanswered in my inbox, a nagging reminder of the fact that he had merrily hit these life stages ahead of me, while Owen and I sat in limbo. Instead, I vehemently complained to my friends, who were even more irate than I was, especially the ones who knew Owen and I had recently been trying to get pregnant. Why did men get to start over with younger women and dodge the biological clock? We worked so hard on them, only for another woman to cash in on our efforts—how was that fair? But my best friend just shrugged. She was never impressed with Robert's reserve and his inability to commit. "Honestly, I think you dodged a bullet," she said.
A few days later, after Owen and I found and giddily collected a flush of choice morel mushrooms within city limits, we made another brilliant discovery: I was pregnant. Turns out that it was a little like the process of finding the right person—a simple act of patience, timing, and allowing nature to take its course.
That night, over a decadent creamy wild morel linguine dinner, everything seemed different. Owen's inching-along divorce, Robert's summer wedding—nothing seemed to matter in light of our discovery. I realized that, while my ex may have initially patterned his next relationship after me, I had chosen someone completely different: Owen, who was open and loving, and willing to take a leap of faith.
And the fact that Robert's soon-to- be-wife was my doppelgänger? Once I had time to process it all, I found it kind of flattering. "Congratulations," I finally wrote Robert. "So glad to hear you got with the program."
*Name has been changed
This article appears in the June issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.
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