"Hello!" read the email. "Coming to LA and would so like to see you. There's a lot to catch up on. Dinner? Only if you want to."
It had been 18 years. He was coming halfway across the world on a business trip to the city where we'd moved into our first apartment together. I'd cried a million tears a million years ago over our breakup. I'd been sure we'd get married and raise a family, but he'd had other ideas, and I'd gone on to do those things with someone else instead. And I knew from his once-every-year-or-two calls on my birthday that he was now shacking up with his brother's ex-girlfriend. Still, he was my first love.
"Would be great to see you," I replied.
And now here we were, almost two decades later, across the table from each other at a fancy dinner for two. Were we stepping into a parallel universe where we'd never split up?
I'd suggested a few casual places near me, but he'd booked a reservation at a five-star hotel restaurant on the beach instead. I spent awhile getting ready, picking out a short dress and tall boots I thought he would like.
"Come home as late as you want—as long as you come home," my husband said, kissing me goodbye.
I arrived early and ordered a glass of zinfandel, arranging myself at the bar, crossing and uncrossing my legs. He walked in, my face got hot and we embraced, his six-foot-five frame bending around me just like it used to.
I didn't think I was going to do anything, not really. I was happily married, more or less. But I had another ex-boyfriend who used to say any guy and girl going out alone after sundown were on a date. And in this case, well, there were rooms right upstairs. It felt like going skydiving—probably perfectly safe, but with enough risk involved to make me feel a little breathless. Sitting at our table overlooking the Pacific, we talked about where we were living now, our families, social media, work, old times … anything but his girlfriend or my husband and toddler.
As it turned out, we weren't quite the people we remembered. It was like we'd been set up on a blind date by a mutual friend: a few spots of common ground, but plenty of territory that felt new and strange. I started to realize I was doing that thing I used to do on first dates: partly assessing how much I liked the other person, partly assessing how much he liked me and maybe even enjoying that intrigue a little.
He drank a lot. A lot a lot. Maybe he was trying to talk himself into something that I wasn't quite ready to talk him out of. After dinner, he suggested we have another drink, so we repaired to the lobby downstairs, the waves crashing just outside.
This was the person I'd lost my virginity to. The one I'd spent five and a half years of my life with. The one who'd put a Sade record on the stereo and cooked me steak the first time he'd invited me over to his place. The one I'd gotten up at 3 AM to call every Sunday morning after I got back to college in Ohio because long-distance to Sydney was so expensive during the day. The one who'd written me hundreds of letters and made me cassette tapes letting me know how much he missed me. Yet, he seemed a little arrogant now, his stories going on a bit too long. How could that much love just … fade away? Now we told each other some of our inside jokes and smiled into each other's eyes, but after that, there wasn't that much between us anymore.
I gave him a ride back to his Airbnb, which happened to be in an apartment building we'd almost moved into two decades earlier. He invited me up to show me some of the things he'd been working on. I left my car parked illegally outside, partly because there wasn't anywhere to park and partly so I couldn't stay long. We chatted some more, me standing with my back to the door.
What was I doing? I wondered what he was thinking. Were we both just taken in by wanting to be taken in, wanting to remember? I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed not to really feel those old feelings anymore. Sadly, happily, our moment had passed. Finally, I stepped off the rollercoaster, drove home and climbed into bed, kissing my sleeping husband hello.
The next day my ex came over to my house, in a pretty neighborhood where he and I used to take walks when we were 22.
"You'll like him," I told my husband. "He's funny."
But the meeting was awkward, forced. My 3-year-old son was unimpressed and impolite. The four of us walked to a butterfly garden nearby. I watched as a monarch flew away, disappearing into the sky. Fifteen minutes later, my first love left me. All over again.