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November 20, 2008

My Lost Love

He was my childhood sweetheart, my relationship safety net — until he wasn't.

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Photo Credit: Hola Images/Getty Images

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He was literally the boy next door. His name was Nello, a family name, and when I was angry, I used to call him "Jell-O" just to annoy him. Home videos show us spending entire days in my parents' maroon shag-carpeted basement, playing a married couple. At 5, he was an ideal husband: tan, gorgeous, and submissive enough to be talked into almost anything. He let me decide where we'd live and the names of our children, played by a motley gang of My Little Ponies. He lived in the same row of town houses on my suburban street, easy enough to find when I wanted someone to watch my new tap routine or to help me put my mom's lipstick on our Border collie.

Our parents became best friends and spent hours on the shared front stoop watching us play. Even then, I liked the way Nello doted on his baby sister, carrying her across the stretch of front yards like a soccer trophy. He was obviously the boy I'd one day marry — never mind the fact that he was the only boy I knew.

When I was 7, though, we moved to another town. Even if I couldn't walk over and swing open his screen door anymore, I continued to know in my bones that Nello would be the guy I'd end up with. I asked him to my first "bring a date" party in junior high, his skin still tan and his smile perfect, while I was battling acne and Brillo-pad hair. At the end of the night, he hugged me and said he had a good time.

Nello was my life raft, a promise of the secure future I'd one day have. With his athletic build and mascara-commercial eyelashes, he also gave me instant cred. I brought a photo of us together to sleepaway camp and lied to my whole bunk that he was my boyfriend, which garnered a chorus of jealous "oohs." What did I care that none of the Camp Timber Ridge boys wanted to kiss me if I had a better — albeit semi-imaginary — boyfriend back home?

By the time we moved out of our parents' houses and on to college in different states, we'd lost touch, other than the annual Christmas card and photo. I dated other boys, of course, sometimes for years, but I always knew none of them was ultimately the guy for me. Nello had graduated from college in New Jersey, gotten into real estate, and was still playing soccer. Knowing that my tomorrows were secure, thanks to a future marriage I'd secretly arranged myself, made it okay to date guys who were horribly wrong for me. (The fact that Nello wasn't also counting on our impending nuptials was, to me, a technicality.) Unlike most of my friends, who went crazy with husband-hunting after college, I was happy to live abroad, to take new jobs in new cities, to not rush into my adult life because I knew I had the world's best partner waiting for me in Grown-up Town whenever I was ready.

When the real-estate market tanked, Nello decided to pursue his dream of living in California. He and his sister would share an apartment together in San Diego; on the cross-country drive to their new home, they visited the Grand Canyon and the red rocks of Sedona. They got jobs waiting tables. The last I heard, he was learning how to surf.

When I went home for the holidays that year, I noticed we didn't get the usual card from Nello's family. When I asked my mom about it, she told me we needed to talk. I expected some lame drama about a falling-out she'd had with his mother, but instead she told me that Nello had died. He'd gone swimming in the ocean with a friend one night, and when the other guy couldn't find him, he assumed Nello had walked the few blocks back home. The next morning, after he didn't come home or show up for work, his sister called the police. His body wouldn't wash up for a couple of days. Since my mom said she didn't know how I'd handle the news, she'd waited to tell me in person.

I'd known Nello longer than any man in my life besides my dad, but for the past few years I hadn't really known him. What I'd held onto was an idea of him and what he represented. He was a consolation that no matter how many guys were the kind of jerks who dumped you on Valentine's Day, there was at least one guy out there like Nello: single, handsome, reliable, kind.

In the local paper store, I picked through the sympathy cards. Nothing said anything close to what I was feeling. I stood in the aisle, my throat tight. I decided on a blank one with a wispy watercolor branch that I thought his mother, a painter, might like.

Over Christmas, my family and I watched home videos of Nello and me in the old neighborhood. After about 10 minutes, I was sobbing so loudly that my mom turned off the TV, then sat back down and put her arms around me. Of course I was crying for Nello, for his lovely family, for how unfair his death was, and for how we'd all miss that sweet kid. But what I couldn't say aloud was that I was also crying for myself — a widow of sorts, adrift in this big, scary world, no life raft in sight.


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