When Your Uber Driver Brings a Time Machine

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Modern Love

The name next to the tiny photo of my Uber driver looked familiar, and so did the face. If it was him, I was in for one awkward (or interesting) ride with the ex-husband of the woman now married to my ex-husband.

Wrapping up a business trip, I was standing outside a hotel in Silicon Valley. My meeting had ended sooner than expected so I was headed to the airport to try to catch an earlier flight to New York. Since I wasn’t in a rush, I had chosen the shared ride feature.

I had two minutes to decide whether to cancel, as the car icon was closing in.

I kept the reservation. I knew it was him.

What are we to each other, two people whose ex-spouses are now married? The word must exist in some language, maybe French or Italian. Twelve years ago our marriages ended, and several months later our exes moved in together. His wife had been my husband’s assistant, then associate. Their work involved investing in start-up companies in Latin America, so they traveled often, and we spouses often tagged along.

Back in the New York City area, we regularly had dinner at each other’s houses. I knew their children. Over time, they moved to the Connecticut town where my husband and I had a weekend house, which meant we saw them even more. I didn’t think much of it, though friends told me they thought it was creepy.

The divorce shattered me. My husband and I had met near the end of college and shared a huge circle of friends. I was attracted to his fancy suburban background, a step up from my scrappier family where I was the first to graduate from college. We lived in Hong Kong, saw Angkor Wat and Easter Island.

At first, our opposite natures felt complementary — my curiosity, his need for the familiar. The biggest difference, or so we thought, was that I wanted children and he didn’t. And if we weren’t going to have them, I wanted more of everything else: spontaneity and adventure. Yet he was ready to settle down. In suburbia, no less.

We started unraveling. If we’d had children, we would have had a reason to fight for the marriage. At the time, I said the child issue was our undoing, but we knew it was more than that. We couldn’t make it past 10 years, when initial attraction often starts sliding into other kinds of marital love. And we both had turned to others for emotional support.

Time really is the only thing that heals a wound like divorce. I can’t remember when I stopped thinking about my ex every day, but I realized — as my Uber driver wound his way through traffic toward me — that it had been ages since that whole mess had ruled my life. I can conjure up my ex’s face but not his smell or his voice. I don’t recall what it felt like to wake up next to his body.

Over the past 12 years, I had barely thought of the guy whose face was now on my phone. He had emailed me after we each separated, looking for commiseration or help in his divorce case. I was too consumed by my own pain to reply.

When his car pulled up, I saw a big, familiar smile through the windshield. He sprang out and said, “I had a feeling it was you!”

After a long embrace, we got into the car, with me in the passenger seat instead of the back. It was oddly comfortable sitting next to him. He canceled the ride share passenger and we went to a cafe, where we sat for nearly two hours, chattering.

We whipped out our phones to share photos. Weddings. Homes. Trips. A new wife and gaggle of stepchildren for him. A new husband and French bulldog for me. Full, happy lives. Or at least that’s what the photos suggested.

It made me wonder what photos from our previous marriages would have suggested about those lives. Did we feel as contented then as we both appeared to feel now? Would others have been able to see something shattering behind the smiles?

And that’s when we turned to a subject that once cut deeply for us both, though I can’t remember who asked first: Had our exes been physically involved before our splits? He didn’t know, and neither did I, though we didn’t think they had, at least not “technically.”

Most startling, though, was how it no longer mattered — to either of us. That once-scalding question had lost its potency. But it took seeing him and talking about it to make me realize that.

We quickly moved on. He knew my mother and best friend and wanted updates. I was thrilled to hear that his children were now promising young adults, details I could have gotten through my ex had I ever thought to ask in the occasional emails we trade. Boys who would remember me as their stepfather’s ex-wife.

“He’s been a standup guy as a stepfather,” my Uber driver said.

I assumed he was, even though it caused me terrible pain that he hadn’t wanted children in our marriage.

“They were meant for each other,” we said nearly in unison, before rattling off the quirks that made them compatible and agreeing that we are all better off in our new couplings.

I have been with my new love for 12 years, almost exactly as long as I had been with my ex. Two years ago we traveled to Italy. As we packed, I couldn’t help remembering another trip to Italy in my previous life, a trip for a 10th anniversary that marked the beginning of the end. On our first night in Positano, I lost my footing on the cobblestone streets and knew I had broken something.

A local doctor confirmed it and gave me a shot of something alcoholic. The next day we flew home, cutting our trip short. The marriage never felt the same. That foot never felt the same either. Until recently, when I noticed my toes don’t feel numb anymore.

When I met the man who is now my husband, I was 39 and he was 46; our window for having children was nearly closed. I knew he didn’t want them, yet I couldn’t pull away. I started to admit that maybe there was a reason I chose men who were skittish about fatherhood. It was easy to assign the decision to someone else.

I still mourn that loss, but increasingly I’m at peace with it. Rather than going deep into a few key relationships, I have an ever-expanding collection of people in my life — extended family, younger friends, mentors of all ages. I have gratifying work, volunteering and time to read, travel, learn. None of this came out in the wave of photos, but looking at them made me see it.

My Uber driver, whose tie to me still yearns for a name — perhaps my ex-once-removed? — wanted to make sure I didn’t miss my flight. So we returned to the car and headed to the airport, where we hugged again and promised to keep in touch.

I immediately called my husband. We rarely talk when I travel, preferring to text and email. I come home to flowers and some little surprise near the mail. If I have taken a red-eye, I jump into bed with the man and pooch I have gotten a real chance to miss.

This time I couldn’t hold it in. “You’ll never believe who my Uber driver was!” I said. And then I spilled the whole story. We were on so long, I nearly missed my flight.

My husband was rapt, wanting every detail, even though he would see me in a few hours. And I was glad because, for years, he hadn’t wanted to hear about my first marriage, studiously avoiding the subject. But this had changed for him too, now that it was so far away.

“That could have been a scene in a movie,” he said.

In the movie version, though, I would have had a fling with the ex-once-removed. In real life, I got closure from the most unexpected source. I realized that connections at a distance, along with the passage of time, can offer telling reflections and a reminder that marriages can unravel in an instant. How could I ensure this new life wouldn’t break apart the way my last one had?

Months later, to protest Uber’s business practices, I deleted the app, but with a twinge of regret. In a strange way, Uber had helped me sort out my feelings about the most significant men in my life and moved my current relationship into a more honest place. Who knew there was an app for that?