Hand-Me-Down Love (2000)

If your relationship didn't work out, would you help your ex-mate find a replacement?

a cartoon of a man on a stick being dangled in front of her by a woman's ex.

a cartoon of a man on a stick being dangled in front of her by a woman's ex.

IM ENGAGED to a woman who would be perfect for you, but I’m not going to give her to you.”

My friend Dianne is relating how her brother Danny was taunted by his longtime friend. Weeks later, she says, friend and fiancée broke up. Fiancée met Danny. Fiancée married Danny.

Danny and his wife, it seems, were b’shairt—intended for each other, as we say in Yiddish.

Men: Suppose your beloved found someone who could love her better. Would you give her up? David Gates would. In “It Don’t Matter to Me” (1970), Bread’s singer/songwriter tells his beloved that if she finds “someone better than me,” she should dump Gates.

OK, David, let’s up your ante: Suppose you found the b’shairt for your beloved. Would you pair them up? For years, I threw down this gauntlet to my male friends, often in front of their girlfriends. Most replied, “No way,” or a two-word variant ending in “yours.” But now and then, one would reveal himself to be a true lover. “If I knew a man who could love her better,” he’d say, “I’d give her up.”

No one I know has actually done so. But after my divorce, some of my most fitting dates were set up by my ex-wife. I, in turn, arranged matches for her ex-boyfriend. Such is the way of the Modern Orthodox, whose numbers are few. Others recycle their bottles; we recycle our mates.

“What kind of idiot would do that?” To Lina, my European wife of five years, such romantic pass-along is unfathomable. “Your past is your past,” she says. For her, love is a revolving door. When you’re out, you’re out, and don’t let in the draft.

For others, shutting the door is not so simple. Though the song is over, they can’t forget the tune. Sooner or later they ask themselves, “Whom do I know for my ex?”

For me, the moment came in 1987. I had fallen head over heels for “Rebecca,” a striking brunette. Beneath her outer beauty was the finest, wisest, most decent, clearest-thinking woman I had ever known. Our romance had that easy, Harry-and-Sally comfort. There could be no doubt: Rebecca was my b’shairt.

After six months, however, came the Big Talk. Try as she might, Rebecca could love me only as a friend. “On paper, we’re perfect for each other,” she explained. “But something is missing, something that always will be missing. I’m afraid I could never marry you.”

Thus began an ordeal of grief, anguish, and despair. Each day, I’d pathetically comb through my phone messages and mail, convinced she’d come to her senses. Wherever I’d go, her framed portrait came along in my pocket.

One evening, I arrived at Atlanta’s Jewish Community Center for a lecture. A lean man in blue jeans approached the receptionist. He was tall and handsome, if you go for the Robert Redford type. “Excuse me,” I heard him say, “someone left their lights on. I wrote down the model and license plate. Is there any way to page the owner?”

I had just met Rebecca’s true b’shairt.

It was now my move. I’d walk up to Robert Redford and say, “Are you single? I know a fine woman. Here—I have her picture.” My humiliation would be complete.

NO-O-O WAY-Y-Y. Hey—if I couldn’t have her, why should he? I couldn’t. All, right, I wouldn’t. Would you?

Besides, he’d probably just say no, like Burt Cummings. Cummings was lead vocalist of the Guess Who. “Don’t give me no hand-me-down love / I got one already,” he declared (“Hand Me Down World,” 1971). Lucky for David Gates.

Eventually, Rebecca and I rediscovered what we were meant to be: good friends. I penned her personal ad (“Still turning heads at 41”). She remarried. But the primal possessiveness I had shown that night may have cost her a better match.

In 1996, Fate dealt me a second chance. Picture this:

My new wife and I are settling into Month Eight of Marriage Two. At 9:30, we crawl into bed. The evening has passed in peace. What could possibly go wrong?

Ring. The phone sits on Lina’s night stand. She answers. “Hello?” Pause. “May I ask who’s calling?”

It’s a woman.

“Just a moment.” Lina cups the mouthpiece. “One of your floozies,” she whispers, her endearing term for my exes.

I grab the receiver, straining the cord across her windpipe. “Hello?”

“Yes,” says a sultry voice, “is this the Paul Stregevsky who wrote an essay urging men to date older women?”

Be still, heart. “Yes, it is.”

“My name is Esther. I’m a clinical psychologist in L.A. When I read your essay, I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to meet this man.’ But I was too shy to call.”

“Who is it?” Lina asks. I wave her off. Wife, don’t you need to make sure the little ones are tucked in bed?

“Anyway,” Esther continues, “I just broke up with a Modern Orthodox man, and I finally found the courage to call you. I’m blonde and pretty, and I work out. I’m 38, but I want to have kids. Truth is, time’s running out. I’d travel to meet the right guy. I was hoping it might be you.”

Esther, where were you in ’92?

“Well,” I say, “as you can tell, I’m now married.”

“That’s great.” she lies. “Mazel Tov.”

“But I know a few good men in Atlanta,” I say. “And in Baltimore and Washington. Let me think of some names.”

Lina bolts up, flashes me a finger, and storms out.

Once I hang up, the fireworks begin. “You should have said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m married now,’ and hung up—end of conversation!” My Russian wife and I have reached a cultural divide. “Stupid Americans,” she mutters, “passing on their romantic leftovers.”

To which I say: I’m a leftover, you’re a leftover. Sooner or later, someone we loved, or might have loved, will go fishing for leftovers. If we’re the selfless lovers we claim to be, let’s help them fish wisely.

Even if it hurts.

© 2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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