It started with a Christmas card.

“Thinking of you,” the card said.

Talk about a voice from the past. A simple card, nearly 35 years after that day in high school when she dumped him, ending a relationship that had been the first love of his life.

Yet not really ending it because that relationship haunted him for more than three decades. An itch he couldn’t scratch, an unfinished part of his past. Business left unfinished.

The card included an email address, so they started catching up on the times. He was on his fourth or fifth different career. She was still doing what she always wanted to do — teach.

Finally, she asked the question: “Are you still married?”

He lied and said “no,” inventing a long sad story about a wife lost to cancer. It would be the first of many lies.

He crafted long, romantic emails to a long-lost love, choosing the right words to play on emotions that had lied dormant for so long. He saw this as a second chance and filled his emails with romantic sentiments and stories about a fast-paced, hectic lifestyle that didn’t exist.

They met so long ago at a high-school dance. He was an unhappy teen, seeking solace in drinking, fast cars and willing young women. She wasn’t wild or willing and didn’t drink. Yet somehow they clicked.

Their romance mirrored the times. Hamburgers and fries, Saturday night dates at drive-in movies, making out in the back seat of his car yet never going “too far.”

They “went steady.” He gave her his class ring, which she wore on a chain around her neck. They talked about the future, about getting out of this hick town and seeing the world.

Then she went on a school trip with other students. She returned and gave him back his ring, ending the relationship as suddenly as it had begun. First love. First breakup. It wouldn’t be the last but the first time is always the hardest, they say. They were right.

Yet the memory of that brief time stayed with him for more than three decades. They corresponded briefly after missing each other at a high-school reunion but nothing came of it.

Then the card. After three months of flirting with each other by email, they decided to meet. He flew out to see her and they spent a romantic weekend in a resort, each fulfilling a fantasy that began so long ago. They remembered old times. In bed, her lack of inhibitions surprised him. The young girl who had pushed his hands away so many times was gone.

Yet the intensity of the weekend caught him by surprise. He cut his visit short by a day, using the death of a friend as a convenient excuse to head home.

She caught him in a lie during that weekend and it raised doubts. So much of what he had told her about himself seemed too carefully crafted, too able to play on emotions. A jet-set lifestyle, tragic family deaths, long absences. Just didn’t add up.

He returned home worried about what he had gotten himself into. Her emails talked about the future, professed love. It scared him. She noticed a change in his emails and her doubts increased.

They met again when she came East and spent the night together but the magic of that first meeting was gone. To try and extract himself from the web of deceit, he invented more lies, culminating with a fictional whirlwind romance with an assistant and a subsequent marriage.

She didn’t buy it and started checking him out, discovering that so much of what he had told her wasn’t true. She confronted him. He denied everything. She confronted him again. Finally, he came clean. He admitted lying but couldn’t confront why he did so.

Yet neither wanted to end the relationship. They continued their emails, punctuated with an occasional phone call. She wanted to change careers. He counseled her. She threw away the last vestige of self-respect and asked to continue the affair, saying she didn’t care if he was married.

He said no. He couldn’t do it. His wife knew about the affair. She forgave him. He couldn’t violate that trust again.

But they couldn’t just walk away. They stayed in touch, even though the emails grew less and less frequent.

He sought counseling. What had he hoped to gain by inventing a life that didn’t exist to try and recapture a long lost love? After several months of therapy didn’t bring the answer but it did tell him what he had to do. He sent her a final email, saying how sorry he was for everything that happened.

She responded that she didn’t really believe him and saying that more was needed if they were to build on a relationship.

He wrote back one final time, saying he wasn’t trying to build a relationship but instead wanted to bring closure and move on.

She didn’t respond. What began with a Christmas card ended with an email.

After 35 years, it was finally over but hardly resolved. Instead of closure, he left a gaping wound, one far bigger than the memory that haunted him for so long.

She saw him as an escape from a life she wanted to leave behind but, instead, he left her with nothing but bitter memories from a past that should have remained just that — the past.

–Doug Thompson
Washington, DC