I managed to amass a decent number of ex-boyfriends before settling down to marry Ben at the ripe old age of twenty-two. I was a habitual heartbreaker, except for the one time a particularly charismatic and beautiful man unceremoniously dumped me. I was crushed, and coped by flinging myself into a series of ill-advised rebound relationships. One of these backfired when it became unexpectedly and unmistakably real.
I’ll call him Alex. We met online, through a college dating site. He was a student at an art school a few hours away. The first time I saw him in person, I compared him to the particularly charismatic and beautiful man with whom I was still deeply infatuated. Alex didn’t measure up; I deemed him only mildly charismatic and beautiful. Nevertheless, he was interested in me, and therefore irresistible.
By all appearances, our long distance romance proceeded along swimmingly, despite my merely lukewarm feelings for him. We talked until our phone cards ran out of minutes. We visited each other on the weekends. We chatted on AOL so frequently I developed tendonitis in my wrist from all the typing. I wasn’t happy, but neither was I lonely.
We spent spring break together with Alex’s family in Indiana. One day, his mother let us borrow her Chrysler Sebring convertible. We drove it to a tattoo parlor in nearby West Lafayette, where Alex held my hand as I got my nose pierced. By the end of the week my lukewarm feelings had heated up considerably. To be clear, I was still infatuated with the man who had broken my heart. But as we slipped in one last epic makeout session the night Alex dropped me off at my apartment, I remember thinking with no small amount of surprise: You are far more charismatic and beautiful than I realized.
He was also far more of a fundamentalist than I realized. Not long after I started to fall for Alex, we started having tense arguments about faith and theology. It turned out that we more or less disagreed about everything. He staunchly believed that non-Christians were going to hell; I couldn’t reconcile that this meant he believed my beloved Buddhist poetry professor was destined for eternal damnation.
We broke up. We got back together, even though our theological differences were clearly irreconcilable. We drifted apart when I spent the summer in Mexico. I drove down to finalize our breakup upon my return home. He’d met a Baptist girl at his summer job; I’d been asked out by the man who would become my husband. We parted ways amicably, with nary a broken heart between us.
I married Ben within a year of our breakup. I must have mentioned Alex during our brief courtship; he was, after all, my penultimate romantic involvement. (On the official record, anyway; what happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico.) But compared to Mr. Charismatic Beauty, he was a less formative figure in my life.
Through the years, however, I’ve thought about him with guilt and gratitude. In my first book, Any Day a Beautiful Change, there’s a parenthetical. “My sincere apologies to the boys I dated in that era, especially the nice one.” Alex was the nice one. I regret how casually I used him, seeking consolation in his arms even as I pined for another man. In an otherwise rotten and dysfunctional time in my life, he held my hand through the pain. If he had not absorbed the worst of my post-heartbreak craziness, my beloved husband might have become another rebound - a chilling thought.
Here’s where it gets weird.
Last month, some friends and I went to hear Glennon Doyle Melton speak at a local church. It was a fabulous evening. We didn’t realize we had tickets for the meet-and-greet, so moments before Glennon went on, we were snapping photos with her in the church parlor. I was still flooded with the adrenaline of meeting one of my writing heroes as I sat in the sweltering hot sanctuary listening to her tell her story.
At the very end, the man sitting in the pew ahead of me - one of the few men in the overwhelmingly female audience - turned slightly. I hadn’t seen him in fifteen years but he was obviously Alex.
Alex, in a sanctuary packed with 800 people. Alex, in a metropolis populated by more than nine million people.
(Love wins in the most mysterious ways. Because you know who doesn’t go to hear Glennon Doyle Melton speak? Fundamentalists.)
Stunned, I elbowed the friend on my left. “That’s my ex-boyfriend,” I whispered. I elbowed the friend on my right. “That’s my ex-boyfriend,” I whispered.
The last five minutes of the program lasted forever. As the standing ovation died down, I tapped my him on the shoulder. “Are you Alex?” I asked. He nodded, looking at me blankly. (I am apparently not aging as well as I would like to believe.)
I introduced myself and watched the astonishment wash over his face. I extended my hand to shake his but he was already leaning in for a hug. He introduced me to his gorgeous and bewildered wife. We compared notes on how long we’d been in Chicago. And then I uttered a line that is as awkward as it is true: “I remember you fondly.”
I tend to believe that coincidences are just that. A friend disagrees; she thinks nothing happens by chance. Maybe she’s right. Alex is, of all my ex-boyfriends, the only one I would actually want to run into. This man, whom I might have loved a little bit a long time ago, is the only one to whom I had something to say, however awkwardly I conveyed the message.
(I will never, ever use the word fondly again.)