When I take my daughter for a walk, I see an ex-boyfriend freeze on the sidewalk, cradling a long-haired Chihuahua in his arms. I freeze too, paralyzed by the eye contact, the inevitable conversation.
"Hi," I say, not even daring to add his name.
"Hi...hey!" he musters, striding over to me, glancing at the sour-faced toddler on one side, the white schnoodle on the other. He is freshly shaven, wearing a button-down shirt, halo-ed in the cool air of a man who is pleased with his life.
I haven't seen him in eight years.
"How are things?" he begins, "Is that your...?" he stumbles before the word.
"My daughter," I finish, and I tell him her name. He says it's a beautiful name, and I remember in a flash how we shared future baby names while we were dating. It's such a strange memory that I doubt its veracity for a moment; all I know is that I could never see him in my future.
"Did you graduate in philosophy?" he asks, and I pause, because I was studying Middle East Studies and Arabic last I talked to him.
"Yes," I say. "What did you graduate in?"
"Philosophy," he nods, and I am a bit shocked, as he never expressed interest in philosophy before, was going to study business.
"And you kept up with the Arabic, eh?" he asks, changing the subject.
"No, not really," I respond. "I just minored in it, which only requires a few classes."
He suddenly looks embarrassed. "It's just that I saw you on TV...wearing a hijab."
"Oh. Yes," I say. "That was three years ago? We wore hijab every Wednesday for a few weeks, in solidarity with Muslim women on campus, after some political tension..."
"Yeah, I saw that," he says, briefly flitting his gaze to my daughter, who has wriggled out of my arms, trying to pull me away.
"Well," I say.
"Yes!" he agrees, "She seems to be getting antsy,"
"Yes, but it was good to see you!" I smile. Then I add, "I'm sorry, for..." I search for the words, What was I sorry for? I remember the night he drove me to the temple and asked me to get outside, even though it was freezing. He offered me his coat, and I found the ring inside. "Please?" was all he said. I was horrified. We weren't even dating, and I was moving to Korea the next day. How could he get things so wrong? "For being so immature while we were dating," I finish.
"Don't feel bad," he says, in a tone of warmthful generosity.
"I do," I say, though I remember I broke up with him again and again, though I remember he came to my apartment while I was on a date, because he "had a bad feeling" about the guy, though I remember him following me across campus yelling at me that he loved me, how he made me feel that the only way to get rid of him was to place a continent between us.
"I...had a lot of emotional stuff to work through," I continue, "But I"m sorry."
I walk home after that, with the dog, with my daughter, stopping in a field to let them play.
I am sorry, you know. I am sorry I didn't dig my heels into my "No," didn't persist in my "No," didn't tell him that I too, had a life to live, that I didn't want him in it. That's what I'm sorry about. That I was a woman trying to please and not a woman trying to live a life.
I take off my shoes and run with Simon in the grass, barefoot, like I used to. It should feel freeing, apologizing to an ex who happens to live next door. But I don't feel free, just grateful that things have changed, that my life is tidied and ordered and stripped free of pain.