You hear a lot about it. How you never forget. If I’m honest, I had a lot of “first loves,” and not a lot of love. What can I say? It was what you might call a rough adolescence.
As it turns out, though, one was different. I just didn’t know it. The story plays out like this:
Rob was an awesome guy, and more popular than me in high school. He was cool. He was liked. He was handsome. But he had something else going for him. While I would not have been able to name it then, today I’d say it was substance and soul.
I might have had substance and soul as well, but I was an outsider. Not as pretty as his girlfriend. Not as popular. You don’t try to compete with girls like that. You don’t even think to.
Despite the disparities, we had a date. I know, I know—he was already taken. But truth be told, I didn’t think I could afford to have a lot of rules about things like that.
It was lovely. We had wine (something he’d never tried), and he showed me a thing or two about sex I’d yet to discover—for that reason alone I’d remember him forever. But like most of my high school “loves,” it was one date and done.
Advance thirty-plus years. He finds me on Facebook. He later says seeing me there took his breath away. It took mine away, though I could not say why.
I like to imagine the fates were perching above us, smiling and murmuring amongst themselves: “Let’s see how it goes this time…”
It feels important to note here that I am deeply happy in my marriage. Rob is, too. So whatever “this” was, it wasn’t about a clandestine affair or a reunion that would dramatically change four lives.
But if it wasn’t that, what was it? And why did it feel this way, so long after? The question hung in the air.
I casually said I’d love to chat. He said he wanted to read one of my books first. No fair. He’d know a lot more about me today that I would about him. Then again, he might not like my books, and that would probably be good to know up front.
Turns out, he liked the one he read. He was ready to talk. And so from Texas to Maryland, across the phone, two souls once again touched at a pinpoint moment in time and space.
If that sounds dramatic, all I can say is you weren’t there. You didn’t feel it.
I expected a talk about our lives, maybe my book, how Facebook was changing the world. But he had something to say, something he’d waited a long, long time to say.
It utterly blew me away.
“I thought about you constantly after that one date. For years it was daily. Then, because it was ruining my life, I forced it to an every week or so category. When I met my wife, maybe once every month.”
There’s a reason for the cliché about your heart pounding. You can feel it, and you’d swear someone standing close by would be able to see it. You put your hand to your chest and try to breathe normally.
“I was stupid,” he continued. “I didn’t know how to stop living my superficial life, to stop caring what other people thought. But no one had ever made me feel like you made me feel. Like at that moment, I was special, and the only person you cared about. You were so kind and thoughtful. You planned out the date with wine and everything. Afterwards, I didn’t know what to think or what to do.”
Like a bullet ricocheting down a long set of narrow alley walls, I was trying to make sense of it.
Someone loved me, and I didn’t know?
“I was sure it wouldn’t go over well,” he continued. “I knew my girlfriend and her friends would turn on you. They were ugly. I figured my friends would understand, at least my good friends. But I waited too long. When I asked you out again, thinking we could work through how we would bring “us” out to everyone, you were already dating someone else.”
He paused here, and then simply said: “I was crushed.”
Rob loved me, and I didn’t know? How could I not know?
For the record, yes I was dating someone else soon after, but that never lasted for long.
“Wait another week and ask again, Rob,” I pleaded to his 30-years-ago-self while his current self waited nervously for my response over the phone. To be honest, I am not sure what I said in reply. All I can remember is what I was thinking:
What might it have been like, if I had known?
Our call lasted an hour maybe. We did go on to other topics. But it took me a few days to really grasp what he’d said. To think of someone thinking about me, every day, holding me as his ideal—when it seemed to me the whole world was just as happy to throw me away? It boggled my mind.
I wondered, did he think of me the day I nearly took my life in college? How about the day I married my oh-so-not-like-Rob first husband? Was he thinking of me the day I left that husband, giving up my children for half of every week? Was he thinking of me in those long years between husbands when I dated dud after dud after dud, thinking no one would ever really get me?
How might it all have been different, had I known? It was as if someone reshuffled all my memories, upgrading each one.
I had not been alone, even though I had thought I was. I had not been unlovable. My kindness did not go unnoticed, and in fact it had mattered more than my looks or my popularity.
Today I have a beautiful life—one I could never have believed I would find back then. I am deeply loved by my wonderful husband. I have amazing friendships. I even have an “audience” of readers and a long list of students and clients who see what it seems Rob saw back then. I am successful by all counts and measures I know.
You might even say I am popular.
Still, for months I continued to wonder…
How might it have been different if I had known Rob was thinking of me? If I had known such a man was measuring every girl that came after our one date by the standard of how I made him feel? If I had known he waited to marry until he found the woman who made him feel the way I had? That he has even told her about me. (ME???)
And then, just as I was considering writing this very article, it dawned on me: Maybe I did know. Maybe that invisible force that binds us all in love, whatever we might choose to call it, has surrounded me all these years.
Maybe that’s why I am still alive. Maybe that’s why I left my oh-so-not-like-Rob first husband. Maybe it’s why I waded through dud date after dud date, holding out until my beloved Brian came along.
Today I am not only loved and love in return; I have actually attempted to become some kind of mass vehicle for love. My own unique brand, of course, with my own funk and style. In books. In teaching. And yes, on Facebook.
In my own way, through words such as these, I attempt to pour the wine for any thirsty soul.
Perhaps you can thank Rob for that.
You just never know.