[Believe it or not, this is a non-Madonna related post. The names have been changed, but the story is real. I used the name Dennis because I don’t know anyone with that name, and for the joke payoff/Angel reference embedded in paragraph four. It’s my blog, and I’ll set up jokes if I want to.]
In the beginning, there was Dennis. Not precisely at the beginning of everything, but certainly at the birth of the city girl I’ve since become. We met in college, dating only briefly during the fall of my senior year. By spring, our connection was gone. I was never sure why it faded, and it did somewhat darken my last months in school.
Nearly two years later, we crossed paths again, in one of those Hollywood-style-magic moments, in the randomness of Grand Central Station; as endless, hurried people filed through subway turnstiles, the two of us stood fixed, talking as an hour flew by. Neither of us had a pen, but I had a lipstick, so our exchange of phone numbers fell into cliché. We reconnected, and then reconnected.
Amid a dozen phone calls of flirtation and chatter, and a handful of dates in October, each of them more intense than the next, lasting several hours each, it seemed like…not a relationship, but a something. There was even an implication that we’d be spending New Year’s Eve together in the big city. When we were together there was an unbelievable intensity…more of a flashbulb, briefly bright, then not so much burnt out as vanished. It never had a chance to develop into love, of the roaring, epic variety, but we laughed a lot, and I still believe that there were true, pure moments when neither one of us wanted to be with anyone else. In my younger, less experienced days, that feeling was like the generic version of the brand name love.
One late December night, he didn’t pick me up for our date. I assumed that something had happened to him, and left him several messages. (Otherwise, why wouldn’t he call?) But he didn’t call. And when the Phantom Dennis vanished, there was no smoke lingering in the air, nor ash lying at my feet, just an absence where an undefined, potential something used to be. My ego was bruised, but mostly, I just missed his company.
That was the week before New Year’s, 1994. Since then, not a word. Just the paranoia of living in the same city, knowing that despite the statistical unlikelihood of running into an ex in a city of millions, it’s bound to happen. After all, it had happened to us once before. Did that increase or decrease our odds of randomly seeing each other again? I thought I spied him on the street, heard his voice, saw his jacket on a guy his height and build, saw a man with a goatee; it didn’t matter whether it was really him or not. It could have been. And my face flushed, as if I had done something wrong, and I ran from any potential confrontation. We never spoke again.
For years, when a rare dating prospect sailed onto the horizon, it was a longstanding joke among my friends: since Dennis and I hadn’t officially broken up, how did I know we weren’t still together? And if we were still together and I started seeing other men, wouldn’t that be cheating?
I heard through the grapevine that he had moved to Boston. (At that point, I was pretty sure I was free to see other people.) I’d never know anything more about him. It was the end.
And then there was Google.
I resisted the temptation for several years—before this year, it had never occurred me to do the Internet equivalent of sending out detectives to comb the web and potentially provide me with insight into someone who had removed himself from my life. If he had wanted me to know about his post-me existence, he would have called. Clearly, the phantom wanted no part of me.
But then, suddenly, I realized the decade-mark was approaching. Nine years after our inconclusive parting, curiosity reasserted itself loudly, and I couldn’t stop myself: I sent out an veritable Googleplex of unknown spies to plumb the breadth and width of the Internet and flesh out the enigma of nine missing years.
One simple search yielded the information I sought: a near-complete profile, in the form of his professional resume. A roadmap of everywhere he’d been, geographically (Massachusetts), spiritually (Buddhism), academically (clinical psychology). And at the top, gleaming like neon, was Temptation personified, an unholy Grail: an email address.
Over three days in November, I created a comprehensive chronicle of the life I had lived over the last near-decade, providing him with the type of information about me that I had uncovered about him, translating my bulleted resume into prose, so we’d be informationally even. It was the kind of email I periodically get from an old classmate who finds my writing on the Internet—just touching base, keeping it neutral, friendly, curious.
I kept it in my “drafts” folder for three weeks, never really knowing if I intended to send it. What was the point, really, of dredging the riverbed of history and trying to find meaning amidst the mud? It wasn’t in pursuit of romance rekindled; I never believed Dennis was right for me. He was a vegetarian, for God’s sake. (Speaking of God, our theological differences were stark, to the resume-revealed extent that while I worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he attended summer programs at a Buddhist seminary in Nepal.) I knew there was a better fit out there somewhere for both of us.
But after 9/11, when men and women all over the United States checked in with their exes, trying to reconnect with the people in their past, and in the process, to reconnect with a more stable emotional state, I heard nothing from him. I knew he was living in Boston, studying the human mind. But it always kind of bothered me that he never tried to find out where I had been on that day. More proof that our destinies were separate strands. He wasn’t for me. But I still wanted to know more.
I had no real hope that he’d respond. But hope’s feathers kept itching me, like dermatitis or wool, or like his assertive facial hair used to irritate my sensitive skin during our intense makeout sessions. In the end, I sent the email out of writer’s curiosity. I had to, more as a communicative, sensitive person extending a hand of friendship, than an ex-something’s madness. (But in retrospect, my disclaimer that the letter was “not from some deranged stalker” might have struck him as slightly alarming. Oops.)
However eternal my catlike curiosity and persistent hope sprang, it was for nothing. New Year’s Eve week 1994 or 2003, no difference. No response. Now that was the Dennis I remembered.
With 2004, a new year, a fresh start. But before bidding the memory a final, fond farewell and banishing it to memory and experience, I indulged in one goodbye Google. Accidentally leaving his middle initial out of the search, I found a new webpage that I hadn’t seen before. This more comprehensive homepage revealed that, during the month of November, while I was moving paragraphs and phrases around, crafting and redrafting my email to a man from my past, Dennis was moving straight ahead with his future. By the time I finally sent the email in December, he and his wife (Jane) were undoubtedly on their honeymoon. I pictured their return to overstuffed email accounts and the unceremonious deletion of messages from anyone they didn’t know…or perhaps Dennis’s dramatic “you won’t believe this, honey” reading of my email to his new bride, as she teases her devoted husband about the trail of broken hearts he has clearly left in his wake over the years. But I recognize that it ultimately doesn’t matter what they think of me. This search was never really about Dennis, and it certainly wasn’t about Jane. It was about me.
I’m not sure I believe that some kind of cosmic energy had him bob to the surface of my consciousness in November and December, as he was moving on with his life, prompting me to move ahead with mine. And after taking such care with each word in that email, I don’t know if he ever even saw it. Even if he did, I doubt I’ll ever hear from him. But at least now, I have the closure I deserved so long ago.
I cannot guarantee that curiosity will not prompt a future return to the website, to view photos from Dennis and Jane’s wedding. But our breakup is now official--effective immediately, I’m dating other people again. Guilt-free, and somehow lighter, freed from the Googleplex and emancipated from the ballast of the unresolved.