When I arrived at the Santa Barbara wine bar he suggested, there was only one open table, dimly lit and intimate. The booze, sexy music and candlelight felt like a callback to our first kiss 15 years before, almost to the day.
Maybe the wrinkles I've accumulated will be less prominent? I mused, then ordered a local Chardonnay and two small plates: arugula and charcuterie.
Butterflies performed somersaults inside my belly. I was nervous. Anxious. Excited. I tried to focus on the novel I brought with me, ironically titled "What She Knew." Instead, I flashed back to the last time I saw him.
We had just returned from Napa to scout wedding venues for our second attempt at getting hitched. I dropped him off, we shared a heated kiss and I drove to my apartment 95 miles south.
Days later, I learned he had been cheating on me. I ended our 6-year relationship, the best of my life up to that point, with a two-line email. He fired back with a litany of messages, which began with profanity and culminated in pleas.
"PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME … YOU ARE MY EVERYTHING," he screamed through the screen.
He sent texts, letters, roses and initiated countless hang-up calls. I never responded. I never told him a mutual friend outed him. I never considered reconciling.
Over the years, we corresponded intermittently, but not about anything deep or meaningful—and never to revisit our history.
But when I had to travel to Santa Barbara to interview a source for a story, I reached out and asked if he'd like to meet. I'm happily married with kids. He's engaged. What's the harm? I thought.
While I grew up with him, our lives today couldn't be more disparate. He has been operating on a loop since I left—upscale dinners, regular happy hours, exotic vacations, with a different girl by his side every few years. I married, bore three children and spend most days mired in urine and feces with a toddler attached to my hip—or more often the knee because both hands were full.
Revisiting my child-free, ex-fiancé—and reflecting on my life before I became a responsible wife and mother—felt like a much-needed departure from the monotony.
So, I dressed in skinny jeans, black boots and a black sweater, along with some strategic bling (aka my wedding ring). He wore some variation of a T-shirt and jeans.
When he walked into the bar, I stood up, navigated my way toward him and gave him a big hug, standing on my tiptoes to reach his neck. My first thought was that he'd bulked up! I felt like a doll enveloped in his 6'1" frame.
"Congratulations," I whispered, while tucked in his embrace.
It was comfortable. Easy.
"You look great!" I said.
He appeared as enamored with me as he always had been.
He puffed up with the compliment, that familiar sparkle gleaming in his eyes. And my heart swelled with gratitude—not just that we were sitting together as friends but for the confidence that I'd gained from him during our relationship.
I met Ben* when we were both 26. He was a creative, bright-eyed surfer who dabbled in oil painting and strummed the guitar. I was the emotionally scarred virgin who lived in the apartment above him.
We had a sweet albeit star-crossed romance. His irrepressible free spirit countered my type-A tendencies. Like peanut butter and jelly, we complemented each other.
Molested by a neighbor as a young girl, my vision of sex was ugly at best. At worst, it was a tryst that would make me feel powerless.
I was more than just a late bloomer; I was petrified. So, a few weeks after our first kiss, when Ben playfully tickled my belly, his hands roaming toward my hips and thighs, I recoiled. It was a visceral reaction, a callback to my neighbor tugging at my panties when I was 5.
Ben had sex hundreds of times with two dozen different women. He knew his way around the female anatomy. In that way, he knew more about me than I did. To me, my nether regions were like Fort Knox, an impenetrable lockdown. As for my knowledge of men, that, too, was unchartered territory.
But rather than walk away or pressure me, he took on the role of tour guide. We tried dozens of times to be intimate, even with only our fingertips. Each time he got too close, I squirmed. He stopped, held me close and told me how much he loved me.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I know I'm a freak."
"You're not a freak. You're beautiful. You're smart. You're amazing. I love you. We'll work through this—together," he said. Over and over and over again.
Without either of us realizing it, Ben became my therapy, gradually melting the ice that encased my body. It was beautiful. Until it wasn't.
Our relationship healed me while simultaneously driving him crazy. It wasn't just the sex that ultimately drove us apart. We also reached an impasse. I was ready to grow up, buy a home and have a family of my own. He wanted to maintain the status quo.
But after a year trying to stay afloat as a 32-year-old virgin in LA's sex-crazed dating pool, I rekindled the flame with Ben. It wasn't an impulsive decision. I thought about it for months. I wanted my first time to be with someone I loved. Someone who understood me and would take his time. Someone who wouldn't make me feel weak or powerless.
Though we had been dancing around sex off and on for more than six years, the actual act happened without much fanfare. Gardeners were working outside in the early morning light and streams of sunlight danced through the blinds. But I didn't regret it. Not in the moment. Not years later.
And, when I saw him again 15 years after we parted, I discovered what I really wanted to say: "Thank you."
"For what?" he said, his smile growing wider.
"How patient you were. So many people get raped or molested and then get involved in a string of destructive relationships that continue a cycle of fear, horror and pain. You gave me a different story."
Sure, I was hurt, sad and admittedly furious that he cheated on me—and I'm profoundly grateful I didn't marry him—but I also treasure the time we spent together.
When the evening was winding down and I had two glasses of wine under my belt, I admitted I'm still a Pollyanna.
"When I look back on our relationship, I remember how gentle you were," I said.
He beamed again. Part of me thought I would call him out then, let him know I knew he cheated. But it seemed irrelevant. What did I hope to gain? How would it have changed anything? And ultimately, how uncomfortable would both of us be sitting in that muck after more than a decade?
The truth is, I still love Ben—but not intimately. I love him for the role he played in my story. In fact, because of Ben, I embarked on a relationship with my husband from an empowered place. I was confident in who I was and what I deserved. In part, that's because Ben helped me reclaim my body.
*Ben's name has been changed to protect his innocence.
A version of this story, with reporting on what happens in the brain when you reconnect with an ex, originally appeared in Discover magazine.