The Ex Factor

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

It has taken me five years to come to terms with how H has a past that did not include me

After nearly five years of marriage, I am no longer so affected by The Ex.

Still, I wanted to avoid H's former wife when we went to Wales last month to meet their daughter.

Encounters were inevitable, but I had several tricks up my sleeve.

For example, when we arrived at a pre- arranged spot to pick up or drop off the girl, I'd tell him to go ahead first.

There's e-mail from work I must read, I said. Very urgent. I'll catch up with you all later.

One time, I wore sunglasses even though it was a dark, wet and wintry morning. Meetings are easier to stomach when you don't have to look the other person in the eye.

Another time, I put on a pitiful face, moaned that I had a headache and stayed in the car.

My favourite excuse was to go to the toilet and stay inside for as long as I politely could.

It didn't go unnoticed.

Where's Sumiko, The Ex asked when we arrived at the lobby of a hotel one night.

She's in the toilet, H said.

Is she hiding, she asked.

No, he said, she is not hiding. She needed the toilet.

Which was true.

I did need it. But I was also glad I needed it. And when I finally appeared in the lobby, I was relieved that The Ex had left.

When H told me what she said, my first instinct was to bristle.

What did she mean by "hiding", I demanded.

What do I have to hide from?

And why is she talking about me as if I were a child? Isn't it patronising?

Besides, wasn't that a rather intimate question? Something that's asked between people who know one another well and share a bond, a connection, a past?

I could have gone on but I stopped.

It occurred to me that I was being ridiculous.

It was a throwaway remark and she's entitled to think and ask what she wants.

And if I were to be completely honest, yes, I was hiding in the toilet, sort of.

Besides, getting agitated about her was becoming tiresome not just to H but also to me.

I was sounding like a broken record and I also risked spoiling a nice holiday with such negative thoughts.

I let it go.

It's been quite a journey, me and The Ex, at least on my part.

In the first two, three years of my marriage, a comment like that would have left me stewing for days about the possible dark meanings associated with it.

Blame it on the insecurity, jealousy and awkwardness of being the second wife.

Even though H constantly assured me of his love, I couldn't help but dwell on the years they'd spent together.

I imagined blissful days (although their time couldn't have been that wonderful if they had split up). It sounds crazy, but I felt left out.

His retort has always been: "But you dumped me."

He likes to remind me that if I had given him a chance when we were teenagers (we dated in junior college), we might have got married earlier.

That usually shut me up - until something triggered another bout of angst.

I was easily triggered.

Him saying he had been to Spain led to an inquisition about their holiday there.

An old photo of him taken when he was married drew sarcastic comments of how he looked in it. I suppose I was making the not-so-subtle point that he was better off now with me.

When we first met, his wardrobe included brightly coloured shirts. I was convinced it was her influence and so I embarked on a culling campaign.

Out went the paisley and prints. In their place I got him black, white, navy and grey shirts. (You look better in austere colour palettes, I assured him.)

I even resented the old pairs of shoes he must have worn while still married to her. Bye bye shoes.

Luckily, I have come to my senses.

Life is short, it is impossible to change the past, especially a past that didn't even involve me, so why was I wasting my time raging about it?

Better for my sanity if I just accept the situation and move on.

Mainly, though, I stopped getting worked up about The Ex because I dislike myself when I think mean thoughts.

I strive for a tranquil state of mind.

So, these days, I no longer dwell on what was between them but what is between us, and I think we're both happier for it.

I'm much less conflicted when it comes to A, their nine-year-old daughter.

I'm keenly aware that he moved back to Singapore because of me and that I have deprived the girl of his constant presence.

I try to make up for this.

I give him time and space to talk to her over Skype, and when I meet her, I constantly remind her how much he misses and loves her.

I also abide by certain rules when I'm with A.

I don't dig for information or say anything negative about her mum. I keep to routines her mother would want her to maintain (like making sure she prays before she sleeps), I don't pretend to be her mother and I don't go out to win her love.

On our last trip, The Ex agreed to let us take A to France for a holiday.

I realise it couldn't have been an easy decision given how young the girl is. She also has a serious nut allergy.

Luckily, there were no mishaps. She had a good time with us although she also missed her mother.

Our final drop-off point for the girl was Bristol Airport where The Ex was waiting.

I resolved to act normally.

I didn't wear my sunglasses.

I didn't hide in the toilet or behind H.

Mother and daughter were delighted to see each other.

Unexpectedly, The Ex gave me a box of chocolates and said "Thanks for looking after A."

I must say I was quite touched, and I said goodbye to her with a smile I believe was warm and genuine.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan