Pull up a bar stool and order another round. We’re about to talk about one of those dating urban legends that we all know is true, but we hate to be reminded.
We all know about the one who got away - the mythical first or maybe second or third love that stole our breath and then our hearts before vanishing into the night, either by their own devices or by some hand-spun twist of life and destiny. You’re probably thinking of your own now - that beautiful creature who slipped away no matter how much you argued, chased, and fought. And that’s why you need another drink: you know it’s true.
We meet these people who forever imprint on us. We may forget about them for spans, and we may move on, but we are always vulnerable to their return, whether it be a memory or a sniff of their perfume in a bar when they walk through the doors, hand in hand with a past you swear you packed away.
As a friend’s coworker puts it, there are always the people who will call us up, and no matter where we are or who we’re with, we will answer.
I’ve always put this legend off as just the inspiration for a Katy Perry song and country music videos. I have a collection of my own potential we-just-missed-it paramours, but I’ve tended to think my nostalgia borders on melodrama and the distorted outlook of a creative writer. We writers can concoct a storyline for any chance relationship, but it makes the projection only as true as a fairytale recited to the young, innocent, and naive - and the anguish even truer.
It’s no surprise then that a fellow creative relayed her own shock on a recent Friday night that a former boyfriend of hers had reentered our small bubble of Richmond. They dated months prior, for not long, but “he’s one of those people I’ll always love.” They ended things when he had to move away. Romance is no tonic for reality. Gin works better.
For the past half a year, she’s been blissfully coupled off with another who dotes on her with much more abandon than the ghost of this story. She knows she should be with her current beau, and that is who she loves, she reassures me with that gin in hand. “But I was shocked at how I felt when [redacted] texted,” she confesses.
“What did he say?” the eager reader asks (including myself).
Just a simple note: he’s back in town. He didn’t ask to meet.
“But that’s obviously what he wants,” the audience at the bar concludes.
“Of course,” she agrees.
So she took three days to reply. “I had to make him wait, you know.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said thanks for letting me know.”
“Did you ask to meet?”
“But you want to.”
“Of course. What if he’s the one who got away?”
It doesn’t sound like a what if. I’ve dwelled on many what-if’s in my time. With maturity and time, these hypotheses fade and practicality is embraced. The what if has passed, it cannot be changed, move on. Why don’t I @ myself next time?
But if your breath is re-stolen and your heart possibly pivots back to the original days, this may be the one who got away. The distinction may be fractional, and maybe my theorem isn’t exact, but some people are actual ghosts and others are just memories.
“Why didn’t you say more?” I beg.
I think of my own ghost who I hit up maybe two years ago and received a similar lackluster response - and all my friends who have drunkenly or all too soberly tried to reconnect with the ex they regret. We mortals are willing to stand tall once, but rarely twice. We bow out when our loves do not flock to reciprocate romance right away, because we’ve drawn our sword, you’ve seen it, but now it’s back to our shield to hide behind. No one seeks to be burned twice.
So does this mean if you reach out to the ghost and they aren't instantaneously receptive, it may not be the actual end?"
“I don’t know," my friend says. "I’m happy now, or I should be happy - and I thought he was gone.”
Yes, you thought he got away, as do we all.
In tandem to this conversation, I dined with a different friend group the next night. My friend who is a decade older listed off a number of her friends who are getting divorced and later mentioned an acquaintance of ours is having an affair with an ex.
“Isn’t that upsetting?” bemoaned the idealist in the group (me).
My friend shrugged. She was desensitized to broken marriages by this point.
“It’s because so many of them weren’t in actual love with their partner,” she pronounced. “They loved someone else.”
Maybe it’s not always someone else, and it can be something else, but often these people always knew what or who they really wanted. But at some hour they evaluated their circumstances and decided this is the best it can be, they or it is not coming back, so they should shack up with the next best available thing. That sort of resolution tends to crack with age, and even kids may not keep the castle standing.
And do they end up with their one who got away?
That’s not an answer I have, and I think it’s possible to have several ones who slip away with fiddles to your heartstrings that they stole (or maybe some other organ), but the fear is that these ghosts linger and permeate and can undo everything you think you know. But we can’t sit around pining like toys on shelves waiting for our loves to remember they love us - because maybe they don’t love us, but their ghost sure does.
I recall someone who told me I was the most compatible person she’d ever been with. I still think about her often and have worried I won’t get over her. I think of my college crush who I wasn’t sure about until it was too late and she had moved on. Or had she? She’s suffered a series of one year stands, and every time I see her relationships' disintegration on my Facebook feed, I wonder what if - not what if something had gone differently, but what if we’re meant to be and she is the one who got away? Then I laugh, but not deeply enough.
Back to the heroine of our original story: did she tell her current boyfriend the ghost was back? Does he even know about the ghost? No and no. And there’s nothing to tell if they’re not meeting up.
But driving through Richmond yesterday, she spotted his truck parked on a street corner.
“You know, there will always be those people.” She shrugs.