It was Christmas break of my sophomore year of college, and I was in Kmart, of all places. My mom had dropped me at the local mall before heading off to do an errand and I had some time to kill. I thought a little retail therapy (on a scale that my college student self could afford) might do me some good.
Image: Catherine via Flickr
I was in a difficult place in my life then, neck-deep in a horrible, emotionally eviscerating relationship with what had to be the world's most manipulative man. We'd broken up and gotten back together on an almost weekly basis for six months, and I was a wreck. An absolute wreck with no self-worth and an absolute surety that if I could just change, just be more, just be what he needed me to be (which, confusingly seemed to change all the damn time) that I would be worthy of him and not be getting broken up with all the time.
Of course, when we got back together, oh the joy! Oh, the euphoria! The angels sang and the sky exploded into fireworks and the makeup sex was fantastic. Of course we got back together - how could we not? We were meant to be together. Yes, we were, otherwise, why would we always end up back together again? It was fate.
On one particular chilly December day, when we were in the middle of yet another breakup and I was questioning (with the rational part of my love-drugged brain) why I always went back to someone who was (as my friends constantly pointed out) so incredibly awful to me, I turned a corner right by a stand of cheap, plastic poinsettia plants and walked right into Ernie.
Ernie and I had dated for five weeks during my junior year of high school. I adored him. He was, and still is, hands down my favorite boyfriend ever. He was funny, he was smart, he was cute (if a bit of a beanpole), and he didn't seem to care that I had to cut my own hair or wear the dorky clothing my mother, with her devout Southern Baptist sensibilities, made me wear. The day I broke up with him was one of the saddest days I can remember from high school, but it had to be done.
My mother had driven by the school the day before, right at lunchtime, and happened to see me crossing the street next to the school, holding Ernie's hand. There was no way she didn't notice me holding the hand of a non-White boy. Ernie was Hispanic and had more ethnic physical features. His appearance was one of the things that attracted me to him, really. I always did have a thing for tall, dark and handsome.
I could tell you my parents were wonderful people, who treated everyone they met with warmth and respect, and that would be true. It's also true that they were bigots. People who weren't white were treasured friends and valued coworkers, but they weren't allowed to date their daughter. It just wasn't done.
Except when it was. Ernie wasn't my first Hispanic boyfriend. I had been sneaking around with other boyfriends behind my parents' backs for years, but this time was different.
This time was Ernie, and Ernie deserved better than to be somebody's dirty little secret. He was a great guy who deserved to date a great girl openly, and he deserved to be welcomed into her home. I couldn't give him that and I couldn't bear it, so I broke up with him. In spite of the break-up, we stayed friends throughout the remainder of high school. Once we graduated, we didn't see each other again... until Kmart, that is. We literally slammed into each other, and like a scene out of a great romantic comedy, we both stumbled back, got our bearings and did an extreme double-take, followed by a slow toes-to-eyeballs open-mouthed assessment of each other.
We had both changed.
Four days after getting to college, I took my carefully saved summer job money and got my hair cut professionally for the first time. I also went out and bought makeup and a whole new wardrobe, tossing out most of my shapeless clothing. I reveled in my new friends in the Theater department, and I took several hours of dance classes every single day. My body got lean and shapely and my confidence and hair grew and I was probably hotter than I had ever looked in my life.
Ernie was just as much of a revelation. After school he'd joined the forestry service, and added some serious, well-toned bulk to his frame. Those shoulders! That chest! And he was combing his hair differently - it looked amazing. He looked amazing. We stood there talking and the chemistry between us was a palpable thing. All I could do was wonder if he was still as good of a kisser as eleventh-grade me remembered him being. And, of course, college-me was wondering about a whole lot more than kissing.
We stood there talking (and laughing - so much laughing) for awhile, but finally, we looked at our watches and I realized I had to go.
"Are you in town for a few more days?" He asked. "Can I call you? Can I take you out?"
"Yes to all three. I'd love to." I scribbled down my phone number, we hugged - a bit longer than a casual encounter required - and then I left.
Holy cow, Ernie. Holy cow. Ernie. I turned him over and over in my mind on the car ride home. I replayed the conversation all through dinner. I sat in my room with the music blasting, laying on my bed and thinking about him. And that was my mistake. I over-thought and talked myself right out of him.
I can't really get emotionally entangled with anyone right now. What if W. wants to get back together? What if I go out with Ernie and I get all hung up on him? What if he makes a move on me and we end up spending the night together and it's so amazing I don't want to go back? I have two more years of school, I can't afford to be derailed. I'm hung up on him already, and he hasn't even taken me out, let alone kissed me! I think I need to not be with anybody right now, and if I fall for Ernie, I'll just end up hurting him. And me.
Ernie called that same night. I told him I'd been cast in a big show and the director called early rehearsals and I was leaving to go back to college earlier than planned and we wouldn't be able to meet. He was gracious, and very understanding. He said it was great talking to me.
We never spoke again.
I went back to college, got back with the manipulative jerk and stayed with him for several more months of agony, got over him, got a new boyfriend who eventually became my husband and got on with my life. Life happened and kids happened and that husband is now almost the ex-husband, but I never forgot Ernie, not entirely. He'll always be a "what if," I suppose.
Last weekend, I went home for my high school reunion. No, Ernie wasn't there. The closest I could get to tracking him down was a mutual friend, who still lives in town. He hadn't seen Ernie in a decade or more. Over lunch, we reminisced and I told him my wonderful, romantic-comedy story about bumping into Ernie at Kmart, all those years ago. He smiled and told me I should have gone because Ernie was a genuinely terrific guy. I agreed, of course. Oh well, chalk one up for lessons learned.
Then my friend took a deep breath and said "I probably shouldn't tell you this, but for what it's worth, you were his one that got away, too. He was pretty hung up on you after he saw you again."
Part of me thought, No, you probably shouldn't have told me that. I went home after that lunch and as usual, I overthought.
Oh my God, what have you done? Well, it's too late now. He's probably married with six kids and besides, you wouldn't trade the good years of your marriage or your kids for anything. But you should have gone out with him. You really should have. Maybe it would have ended up just being a nice evening. Maybe it would have given you some badly needed self-confidence and you would have broken up with W sooner. Who knows what possibilities you could have had if you'd just taken a chance in your damn life?
I vowed, then and there, that I was going to take chances sometimes. Not on anything hurtful or destructive, but on something that might scare me, but still be an adventure. Whether that meant climbing a cliff, or strapping into a harness and wearing a helmet, or simply saying "yes" when a man I found attractive and intriguing asks me if he can take me out, or get to know me better.
I went to my high school reunion to reconnect with people from my teenage years, and I did. I laughed and I danced and I made new memories with old friends. I was myself with no apologies, no constrictions, and no self-doubts. It was wonderful. Freeing. Empowering.
And once, I even said "Yes."