When I was six, nearly seven, my family moved from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles. On our very first day of school, my brother, who was in the fourth grade, and I, in second, knew no one. I made my first (and only real) friend by relentlessly giving her bunny ears in line for recess; she, in turn, would push me violently up against the chain-link fence that bordered the school's tarmac playground. When we finally graduated to best friends—things were much simpler then, right?—we entered into a covenant of choreographed dances, invented languages, and ensembles we crafted after our icons Madonna and Paula Abdul.
It was around then that I also experienced my very first crush on a blonde-haired skater type named Michael who also happened to be my neighbor. (His parents lived in a cool bungalow on the other side of the cul de sac where Jason Priestley would later reject my request for an autograph while he smoked cigarettes on the set of Calendar Girl.) As rumor had it, every year for Michael's birthday, his mom sent a stretch limousine to our humble school to collect a group of kids for a pool party. Even then, the ritual seemed out of sync with this sensitive kid who was so artistic that our teacher allowed him to work on his Jackson Pollock-esque paintings at an easel during class. I got wind of the somewhat-exclusive event and made up my mind that, no matter what, I would be in attendance. So when the vehicle showed up one afternoon, and invitees proudly made their way to the awaiting car, I took my place along the leather banquette and held my breath in anticipation.
Though we lived in L.A. full time for less than three years, I retained California residency throughout college and for several years afterwards. Somehow, the limited time we had spent living on the west coast impacted me in a profound way. I often reminisced on the house we rented only blocks from where O.J. Simpson would later be indicted for murdering his wife, the earthquake emergency kits full of fruit snacks and trailmix that we were allowed to eat on the last day of school, and the stretch of bee-infested asphalt on which I perfected my handball serve (and discovered my allergy to the insects). I also always, always recalled Michael and a mischievous friend of my older brother's I'll call H. These two boys were the first experience I had with flirtation. And for years after we returned to the east coast, I privately reflected on the intimate moments I decided that we had shared.
As I reintegrated myself into the routine of the school I had left behind, and eventually graduated to the world of training bras and Steve Madden loafers, I thought less about Michael and H., and the influence they had on me. Though Bunny Ears and I stayed in touch, and often surmised about their whereabouts, neither of us—her family having moved away a few years after mine—ever heard from them again. When she and I occasionally reunited, we'd spend our time together recounting the way H's longish hair fell in his eyes, the deep dimples that punctuated his tan face, and that one time we took Polaroids of ourselves in matching baseball onesies and slipped them into his overnight bag. Even as we grew older, and our interests and trajectories changed, we desperately held on to those memories like the precious talismans of mutual experience.
As the headline of this article suggests—and sorry for taking so long to get here, but I wanted to explain precisely why these two people were so integral to my life—I hired a private eye to find them. It was one of those alarmingly simple ideas that provoked an unexpectedly enthusiastic reaction from my colleagues, each of whom confided in me that they, too, had wondered about the whereabouts of figures from their childhood. I resorted to the services of a P.I. because amateur attempts at surfacing both men, now both approximately 30 years old, proved fruitless via search engines, Facebook, and other social media. If I wanted to find them, I'd have to bring in the big guns.
Enter Darrin Giglio, a private investigator (opens in new tab) for North American Investigations, and the most reputable-looking result when I Googled "New York private eye." After a quick call to a 1-800 number, the outfit's hold-music most closely resembling the Pink Panther theme, I found myself writing Darrin an e-mail in which I detailed what I knew about both H. and Michael: their names, sisters' names, approximate ages, and the public elementary school they both attended in the '90s. That was it.
I was unsure what was I hoping to unearth, but the two week-long wait for information made me inexplicably nervous. What if something terrible had happened to one of them? What if they were unfindable. Or, worse yet, what if they didn't remember me? I expected the unexpected, but what happened next was even stranger than fiction...
After sending vitals to Darrin Giglio, a private investigator at North American Investigations—and, as a reminder, I knew very little of the whereabouts of both Michael and H.—I heard nothing for nearly 10 days. And then, on a Saturday at 2 P.M., I got the cartoonishly cryptic message I had forgotten I was waiting for:
"I hope all is well. We found Michael and we are working on H. I may have some additional questions. We will speak next week."
I implored him for more details, but, like any good gumshoe, he kept me on ice until he had full confirmation. When I finally got Giglio on the phone early the following week, he was confident in his information; when I asked precisely how he had located two people I'd been Millennial-level-expert sleuthing for nearly two decades, he remained mum. "I'd prefer not to reveal my methods," he said in what I now recall as a toffee-thick Boston accent. I inquired as to how much the services he and his team had provided me pro bono would run, and he ballparked the effort in the $1,500 range. Damn. After a little more small talk on the matter, he promised to email me his findings.
"Here is the info," he wrote a few hours later, providing me with my crushes' full names, email addresses, and cell phone numbers. He signed the missive, "Let me know how it goes." All of a sudden I felt lightheaded. It's one thing to wonder, daydream even, about the first boy to make you understand what Patti Smith once called the "scorpion sting" of desire—it's quite another to contact them directly and be all, 'Hey, I hired a private investigator to find you because we shared a homeroom class and had tons of fun riding our BMX bikes in the early '90s. P.S. I loved you.'
At this juncture in the process, it occurred to me that I miiiight want to fill in my husband on my latest for-the-story scheme. When I called him at work to confess to what I had done, he seemed not only nonchalant but also a little impressed. "It's amazing that you can even remember that far back," he said. When I challenged him to recall his own first crush, he faltered before mentioning an older girl on his high school's soccer team. "The reality of these guys remembering me," I told my colleagues dejectedly after we got off the phone, "is probably slim to none." But because I'd come this far, I did the only thing left to do and reached out to both of them, anyway. I fired off a crazy email to Michael, below, and a certifiable text to H.
Though Michael, or "Mike" as I inexplicably decided to call him in my subject line, didn't respond right away, within moments I spotted the telltale trio of dots that indicated that H. was crafting a text. I ran over to Sally (opens in new tab) and Natalie (opens in new tab) both of whom writhed around in discomfort when I showed them what I had written. After an immeasurably too-long period of consideration, I received his careful response. I continued to self-flagellate, as evidenced below:
Are you dying from embarrassment yet? Good, me too. Are you scarred by my 'bout' typo? Samesies. But, in the name of journalism, I soldiered on.
Soon, to the amazement of my colleagues, H. and I were sharing personal photos. For the record, he's still super cute with crater-deep dimples and big ears. He's married to a Jenna Dewan-esque wife, and together they have two big-eyed children. His sister, whose name and general likeness I recalled, is "married with a couple of kids." He paused before writing, "We're like full grown ups. It's really weird..." H. never once called into question the method by which I procured his contact information, but wasn't surprised that I was unable to surface him. "I'm like the anti-social media guy so it would be super tough to find me, I guess," he wrote. When I pressed him further, as in literally asked, "Did you know I was obsessed with you?" he was similarly unfazed. The rest of our interaction—including his kind reaction to a dorky shot of me and my own husband—below:
Bolstered by my lovely interaction with H.—and his hilariously astute reflection on my territorial big bro—I went ahead and texted Michael as well. His response was even better than H.'s:
After a 45-minute phone call, and two glasses of white wine on my end, I ascertained the following: He has maintained that charming out-to-lunch SoCal cadence; he splits his time between San Diego, Lake Tahoe, and Hawaii; he is some sort of omnipotent content creator who works with the likes of Nylon and Kendrick Lamar. The reason I couldn't find him? He now goes by his first and middle name, which somehow threw off my entire search algorithm. Check out his killer Tumblr (opens in new tab).
Michael and I reminisced on everything from the way our third- rade teacher encouraged his artistic nature to the time he and I were hall monitors (something I had forgotten). After nearly an hour of surprisingly comfortable conversation, I was drunk on the romance of discovery...and sauvignon blanc. After having had zero contact for nearly 20 years, not only were we alarmingly compatible, we also discovered that we have friends and professional contacts in common. Though it seemed highly improbable that he would remember me, he easily recalled anecdotal things like my awesome handball serve and my heavy-cut bangs. By the time we said our good-byes, I had enough confidence to ask him the big question. "Did you know I had thebiggestcrushonyou?" I blurted. Without even a moment's hesitation he responded, "Did you know I had the biggest crush on you?!" We both erupted into laughter.
I've thought about this experiment a lot over the past two weeks, and have tried to parse out the individual emotions. Do I feel like we're destined lovers? No. Do I feel overwhelmingly nostalgic? No, not exactly. Do I think we will be forever in touch? Maybe, but maybe not. In the days since I made initial contact, Michael and I have exchanged pleasant notes of encouragement. After reading the first installment of this story he texted me, "You have such a good memory! I can't believe you remembered the bees!" And I, of course, have done the commensurate amount of reconnaissance, surfacing several photos of a sinewy and attractive hipster-looking dude with blondish hair and a rotation of beard configurations.
He looks happy. He looks captivated by his work. He looks like the kind of guy who's had some hard times, but maybe came out on the other side with a more spiritual take on things. He looks like fun. More than anything, though, he looks like a stranger.
Justine Harman is an ASME-nominated journalist and the former features director at Glamour, where she launched Condé Nast's first-ever narrative nonfiction podcast, Broken Harts. Her latest podcast, KILLED, about stories submerged by the media, was the #12 most popular new series (opens in new tab) in 2022. She lives in Los Angeles.
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