Nearly nine years ago, a close friend and bridesmaid got up to make a toast at my wedding with a glass of champagne in hand, and to rule out premeditation and malice, perhaps several glasses already downed, and began a monologue that made me sink into my chair and try to disappear under the tablecloth.
"Ever since I've known my friend," she began in a clear, loud, and authoritative voice, "she has been with a lot of losers." She paused for effect.
"A whole lot of losers."
My brother-in-law, who was ensuring the simultaneous translation of all English toasts into French, hesitated before repeating what he'd heard. If I remember correctly, he was merciful; "loser" became "mec" or "guy." Only a mild improvement, but he did his best.
"Lots and lots of losers."
I held my breath, wondering if my friend was planning to go into the gory details of my recent past relationships.
"So we," she motioned to the other bridesmaids seated nearby, "We were all quite relieved when she found A." They all laughed on cue. Had they known she was planning to do this to me? I edged up slightly in my chair and shot her a look, wondering if I should try to grab the microphone. But she grinned back at me and I knew she was finished. With a few more words of praise for my new husband, she raised her glass and drank. I breathed deeply and gulped my own champagne in relief, and wondered just how much of the English my new in-laws had understood.
It was true that my recent relationships, although not nearly as numerous as my friend implied, had been all wrong. The worst potential crash-and-burn was my ex-so-called fiancé, who had been easily usurped by A when he came along. But a rapid series of mistakes and narrow escapes had led to my husband, and a relationship that we both recognized instantly as The One. I was ready then to forget the painful errors I'd made to get there, and looking back now, I mostly have. Because while the "losers," as my friend so eloquently summarized, were sometimes nice guys, they were all mistaken paths or dead ends for me. There wasn't a single one with whom I could project myself into the future. One, however, did come very close: S.
S was my high school sweetheart. The prom date, the hero, the obligatory lead romantic role in any American teenage girl's life. Except that central casting didn't plan for one in the filming of my script: I was a nerd and a geek, the girl boys only talked to when they wanted help with their math homework. In the classic high school film comedy, it would have been left at that, but S and I found each other through another medium: computers. This was before Facebook, back when the Internet was restricted to academics and industry, and hapless geeky teenagers found each other behind green screens connected to local dial-up bulletin board systems. Through the reassuring anonymity of pseudonyms (S is not his real first initial, but the first initial of his 'nym), we could discuss, gossip, "geek out," and even flirt, and with enough courage, eventually arrange in groups to meet in person at a local coffee shop.
It was at such a meeting that I first saw S. His bulletin board system was in Olympia, Washington, which was an hour south of my home in Seattle. Olympia passed for a small town, and didn't even have a decent coffee shop at the time, so the local geeks met at Denny's. But my dad lived in Olympia, and I visited him regularly on the weekends, so one day I met S at Denny's on a Saturday afternoon.
He had long blond hair that fell halfway down his back in a ponytail. He had round glasses, and, to me, the look of a handsome American teenage hero, softened by an aura of geekiness. He first smiled and I melted (not that it took much at the time). In the parlance of our generation, we didn't "go out together" right away, and I can't remember when, officially, he became my boyfriend. By the end of high school, we were certain we would be together forever.
He first took me to his homecoming dance in his dad's white Toyota pickup. A year older than I was, he could already drive. I think I remember tentatively exchanging kisses, maybe our first, behind the wheel of that truck, in the muddy parking lot of a restaurant in the foggy darkness of the Port of Olympia. We circled around Olympia's downtown, all five blocks of it, to arrive in the park where he'd arranged a white-tablecloth-covered table in the gazebo. There was dessert, a red rose, and parents with cameras hopping out from behind the bushes to play amateur paparazzi. At age 16, I thought such a date couldn't be upstaged. He surpassed himself nevertheless, not just by other romantic gestures, but by always, always, being there to listen to me. He understood me in a way that no one else has understood me until A.
Soon his dad's pickup was replaced by his very own hand-me-down Volkswagen Rabbit, a gift from an uncle. It was dull chocolate brown and had a sunroof that leaked water, which was mighty practical in the Pacific Northwest, but I loved it, because it was so S. S taught me to fearlessly take apart a computer and put it back together. He introduced me to strange music, from Pink Floyd to German techno. He took me to my first and only monster truck rally, where we sat with John Deere hats pulled down low over our foreheads and watched the action, sharing our half-serious commentary with each other. While faultlessly respectful to everyone, he instinctively distrusted anyone who fit any mold, and was more comfortable than most teenagers in breaking his own. He read voraciously. When he wrote to me, or when we spent hours talking on the phone, we never ran out of things to say.
The next scenes in the film flicker by without surprise: we go off to college, at opposite ends of the country. He goes to a school a three-hour drive away, and I to a school a six-hour flight away. We promise to stay together and I break that promise. We see one another during vacations, briefly get back together a couple of times, but the distance and my immaturity and indecision are always too much for me to conquer. After graduation, I stay on the east coast while he goes back to Olympia, and we lose touch. I meet and marry A, and blush at my friend's toast. Two years later I move to France.
When I visit now, I find Olympia hasn't changed much since I left. Just as before, its status as state capital confers a certain importance and economic stability, and its status as home to the alternative Evergreen State College gives it neo-hippie cred. It has two high schools, a port, a mall, a Costco, a farmer's market, and even several good coffee shops. Perhaps I should stop thinking of it as a small town. Yet when I'm staying with my dad, I'm always amazed that my path doesn't cross S's somewhere. He must shop at the same stores, park in the same parking lots, walk down the same streets. Each time I'm in town, I look for him, not knowing how I'd introduce A or le Petit, not sure he'd want to see me, but ready to run up and tap him on the shoulder nonetheless.
I was in Olympia two weeks ago. For two days, the cold, damp curse that has held the region since spring lifted. It was warm, the sun chased away the clouds, and I finally got out the sandals I'd started to regret bringing in my luggage from Paris. The Olympic Mountains were holding vigil on the horizon, and Puget Sound was luminous in the golden early evening. After dinner I was too restless to stay inside.
I walked along the water, swinging around the end of the bay, crossing through the abandoned lots near the port where sidewalks and new projects have recently sprouted. I passed in front of the empty farmer's market, cut through the port parking lot and rejoined the boardwalk. That was when I started to look for S again. There were people everywhere on land and on water, chatting noisily on the patios of restaurants, dangling their feet over the edge of the pier, pushing strollers, paddling kayaks, throwing stones as far as they could into the still, rose-gold water. In the Northwest, sunshine draws out people like ants to spilled sugar. I felt almost certain I'd see S somewhere.
Years ago, six months before we moved to France, was when I last saw S. We were at a friend's wedding in San Francisco, and although we were both logistically solo for the occasion, we were also both happily together in life with someone else. I told S about A, about our then tentative plans to move to Paris. He told me about his fiancée. He glowed when he spoke of her. After our friend's short, simple, beautiful Quaker ceremony, S turned to me said that that was what he wanted for his wedding. Just what was really important. The essential.
I followed him into the reception hall, grateful that we were the first to arrive and alone. It was the last scene in the film. I told him something I'd heard once, something so trite it would be panned in any review, but it felt true enough to me. You only remember two loves: your first, and the love of your life. You were the first. And A is the love of my life. I wanted you to know that. I then apologized for how I'd treated him, an apology I'd guiltily kept to myself for so long, and let the gaps between the words say the rest. He nodded and squeezed my hands and looked at me in astonishment.
A few years later, I asked for news of S from our mutual friend. A rolling postscript before the credits was all I got: he'd heard from a friend of a friend that things with the fiancée didn't work out. He knew nothing more. I later found S on Facebook and became "friends," but he's apparently even more skeptical of the forum than I am, and rarely updates his status. He has no relationship data listed, but he also doesn't maintain a profile picture, both choices I have to admire. After a brief friendly message, he stopped responding to my hey-how's-life-been-treating-yous. I suppose it is just as well.
I climbed the wooden tower at the end of the boardwalk. In one direction, I could see the Capitol building, the lake, the evergreen forests that hide the greater part of town. In the other direction, the mountains and the Sound were still there, heartachingly beautiful against a sky that was now fading to violet. Such days hold all the elements to make me acutely homesick. A couple of teenagers climbed up the tower after me. The girl held a bunch of balloons and posed in front of the view of the Sound, then laughed. A boy with an earring and a camera took her picture.
I slowly started walking back to my dad's, my sandals pinching my feet. I wondered why I was so intent on accidentally bumping into S. I realized that he represents the path not taken. The me who stayed. The choices that would have kept me in Seattle, or even Olympia, and not led me willing, happy yet homesick across an ocean.
I don't regret the choices I've made, and I can't imagine life without A or le Petit. I know, too, that A is incomparable to anyone else. Certainly not the idealized high school sweetheart, who no matter how right for the role he was at age 17, is not someone I ever truly knew in the way I know A. S and I grew inexorably apart after high school and accepted the inevitable. A and I recognized each other when we met, and fought across timezones to hold onto what we knew was already written somewhere to be true. And, in the twelve years since, we've learned even more about how right we were when we took that chance.
Yet, frivolous as it is, part of me still imagines the Me That Might Have Been living on in a very different and entirely fictional happily-ever-after. It has more to do with my bittersweet, longed-for, self-imposed exile than S himself. Since I wanted S and his fiancée to incarnate that happily-ever-after, part of me is also glad that I never do manage to run into S. I picture him madly in love and married, with kids and a house and a new Volkswagen, and a story he sometimes tells of his half-forgotten first love who now lives in Paris. What would I say if I met him and it wasn't true?
As I turned round the end of the bay heading back, I saw a family of three walking toward me in the distance. The woman was wearing a baby in a Bjorn, and the father had long hair held back in a ponytail. It looked blond. I thought to myself, yes! And then, no, a few steps later I saw it was a trick of the strange late-day sunlight. He was too short to be my S, anyway. They came closer and I confirmed my mistake. I smiled maybe a little too broadly when they passed, overflowing with tenderness despite myself.
They must've thought I was crazy. I prefer to say that I'd just seen a ghost.