With Facebook, our past loves can appear in our present, bringing with them the question, “If our choices had been different, would they have been the one?”
American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951. Used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive. Copyright 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin.
Is there not one boyfriend from my past who won’t eventually find me on Facebook? It happened again last week. Elo goes back to 1989. The night we met, I was singing in a piano bar on the outskirts of Milan. That’s how I made a living back then. Two years earlier, I’d gone to Italy for a two-week vacation and decided to stay. Living abroad seemed like a great idea at the time, but after 24 months in a foreign country, and now braving the cold, damp Milanese winter, the magic was wearing thin.
Elo was an editor at Il Giornale, one of Italy’s national newspapers. He happened to stop by the piano bar after his night shift at the paper. We struck up a conversation between sets, something rare in a city where fewer people than you might expect speak English. I’d learned rudimentary Italian, but still found comfort in CNN and English-language books sold at the Rizzoli bookstore in the Piazza Duomo. Conversation with Elo offered a welcome relief from conjugating verbs with masculine and feminine nouns.
The night I met Elo, he gave me a lift back to my apartment. I was less nervous about a ride from a stranger than I was about finding my way home on the Metro late at night, when the trains run at irregular times. We became friends, and Elo often stopped by the piano bar so he could give me a ride home. In fact, he was my last boyfriend in Italy and played a crucial role in getting me back to the United States, where I belonged.
Elo was divorced. His ex-wife had returned to her homeland of Holland. His youngest daughter, age 12, lived with him. Although not dashing like those Italian men who left me weak-kneed with their dark good looks and devastating charm, Elo was brilliant, cultured and could speak and write fluently in five languages. But he was far too nice to appeal to my penchant back then for men who cast a more dangerous shadow. I’m ashamed to say that I nearly despised him for his efforts to take care of me, treat me to little day trips to ancient Italian towns and deliver cappuccinos and biscotti on a tray to my tiny Milanese apartment.
I remember on one particularly dark, depressing day calling my father in Denver and asking him to find out how much a return ticket would cost if purchased there rather than in Milan. Six weeks later, I opened a letter to find a one-way ticket from Paris to Denver. By then, my desire to leave Italy had faded, but there was the ticket, bought and paid for.
It was Elo who arranged for my train to Paris and who helped me decide what treasures to leave behind from my vita italiana. He took me to the train station and promised to care for Minu, my Italian cat. He even booked a room for me in a small hotel in Paris that only an insider would know about. My attic room overlooked a cobblestone street lined with French bakeries. On my last morning in Europe, I awakened to the smell of fresh brioches and marveled at the way the golden light streamed out of the boulangeries in the predawn Parisian light.
Even though my leaving Italy wasn’t what Elo wanted, he let me go without protest. Now, two decades later, here he was, suddenly popping up on Facebook to wish me “Cara Kim, buon compleano,” remembering my birthday some 20 years later, still single, like me, after all these years.
Whenever one of these Facebook surprises happens, I can’t help but wonder how different my life would have been if I’d said yes instead of no, if I had stayed instead of going. It’s a bit unsettling when someone from the past arrives in the present, bringing with them the realization that even our most insignificant choices have the power to redirect the trajectory of our lives.
The reason they appear again, I’m not certain. Is it just for a fond salute, or an opportunity to clear up any wreckage from our past, or a chance to say thank you for a kindness?
I know it’s not a random fluke, not a coincidence, but an opportunity to see our singular lives not as a timeline, but as an ever-circling continuum with a limited cast of characters with speaking parts in the script that becomes our life story — and a chance to take another look at the one who could have been “the one,” but wasn’t.