My first boyfriend died. At least I think so. I Googled him. Just curiosity about someone who had once played a starring role in my life. Considering his skimpy online profile — office address and phone — I assume he avoided the computer, a fact that didn’t stop me from imagining the e-mails I’d send him: inquiries about his work, his kids, accompanied by words of humble bragging to show him what he’d missed.
Yet, thanks to Facebook, I did find his wife — or ex-wife. I studied the photo, of her at a table in front of a rose-covered cottage, a bottle of Pimm’s next to her elbow. With her no-fuss haircut and queen-mother plumpness, she exuded a quaint English-village quality straight out of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. The fingers of her left hand looked unadorned. I scrolled through the few posts. I stopped, then gasped. So sorry, a friend wrote, he was a cherished colleague and will be missed.
Will be missed! I leaned back in my chair. I searched death records, obits, memorials. Without proof, how could he be dead? As the daughter, wife, mother of lawyers, I understood the importance of hard evidence. I found nothing.
The last time I saw him, he had seemed sad. With good reason, I learned: His wife had left him for a man who owned a pub. When I asked why — my curiosity trumping good manners — he’d been matter-of-fact. She wasn’t happy, he answered.
Would I have been happy, I wondered, if I’d chosen him?
That question was the basis of my third novel. Do you pick the man who, as a teenager, quotes Shelley on a rock in Hyde Park, or the rock that you married? In my retelling, the English boyfriend suffers from a hole in the heart, a metaphor I could mold to my own purpose. I was inspired by his letters, those deft masterpieces buried in a shoe box and tied with a satin ribbon.
Spared the obstacle of an ocean, my husband and I attended colleges three states apart. His daily, dutiful letters were penciled on torn sheets of perforated notebook paper; any verse he included was of the roses-are-red variety. I pictured him tackling those paragraphs like homework, scratching them off his to-do list the minute he signed his name.
I met the boyfriend when I was 18 on a trip to London with my grandmother. He was the son of her old friends. As we stepped off the hotel elevator to be greeted by his beaming parents, it was obvious he was there against his will. His mother pushed him forward. Accustomed to a grandmother who pushed me forward, I sympathized.
We spent the next day together. That evening, we strolled around Hyde Park. Entwined, we missed the closing hour and had to climb over a locked gate to get out.
One day and one evening was all we had. We’d write, we promised. We clutched each other. I wept.
A month later, I met my future husband. Though we’d played together as toddlers, he’d left our town when he was 10. I’m going to marry you, he declared on our first date. I hugged my pocketbook, which contained the most recent black-inked declarations of my Englishman.
I married my preschool playmate. I sent a Dear John letter to the man across the pond. So many drafts on lined yellow legal paper littered the floor. He never answered.
Unlike me, the protagonist in my novel chooses the poetry-quoting suitor. In fiction, a character can explore the author’s what-if fantasies, can pick the scary path her creator would scorn.
As I studied that Facebook photo, I started to rearrange the plot. Did my boyfriend’s wife ditch the man who ran the pub? Did she regret that decision and return before he died? If he indeed died. I thought about the power of first love. About how your imagination can turn a stranger into whatever you want or need at the time. Maybe he didn’t die. Maybe he’s just behind that rose-trellised door, about to come out into the garden and claim his own glass of Pimm’s.
Mameve Medwed is the author of five novels and numerous essays, stories, and reviews. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.