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Still wry and insightful, Mike had that same way of pausing disconcertingly to think before replying to a simple question, peering out with aquamarine eyes from under bushy brows. I'm sure he still sends many women inside the beltway to the ladies' room to splash cold water on their faces. But over fried calamari at lunch, I didn't turn to mush, and it's not merely that I'm in love with someone else: Seeing him brought me back to a time (for me, in my early twenties) when, as he put it, "you felt like you could die without the other person." And as much as I love Paul, I could never feel that way again. Being with Mike pretty much cured me of wanting to chase those highs because I crashed enough times to realize they couldn't be sustained. I began to see that it was safer not to rely on anyone outside yourself for something so fundamental as your happiness.

I'd filed this relationship under "learning experience" because it taught me how deeply I was capable of feeling, whether or not my love was reciprocated. But over lunch, Mike revealed that he had, in fact, felt as deeply as I had, though at the time he was unable to show it. My judgment may have suffered when I was 23, but it seems my heart knew what it was doing.

Warts and All

I saw Thomas as a fixer-upper. We dated and lived together for more than three years, from 1994 through '97, during which time my writing career was going swimmingly as I worked toward healing some family rifts and finally began to drive in the direction of life's traffic, not against it. Big, strong, and sexy, with baby-blue eyes, olive skin, and long straight hair, he was an artist when I met him, living with two cats and his Indian python, Sapa, in a roach-infested cave of an apartment. He frequently let adult tasks like paying Con Ed slip through the cracks and thought nothing of wearing a skirt home to Virginia for Thanksgiving at his mom's. He also had a chartreuse silk zoot suit that I tried in vain to get him to toss. Later came a crew cut and the eyebrow ring. Clearly, I got something out of being the "together one" (I had a good credit rating and adult clothing). Otherwise I wouldn't have been with someone who I felt required so much overhauling.

When I admitted as much to Thomas over dinner at a little French place in Brooklyn, where we both live, he just shrugged and smiled in that gracious, nonjudgmental way he always had of accepting and forgiving fault in others as a part of being human. And that's the crux of why Thomas was important to me: I was such a perfectionist back then, with impossibly high standards for my relationships, and he allowed me to be my own imperfect self. At 27, the idea that you could not do everything right all the time and still be loved was a novel one; or that you could get mad at someone and still love them. "In between the really, really awful times, we got along really well," he summed it up at dinner.

I don't think I felt entitled to a fully renovated mate back then, someone who was already in move-in condition. (For the record, he's now happily married and the president of an Internet company.) When things ended with us, we remained friends. And we still are, especially now that I don't feel any obligation to "improve" him.

*Indicates name has been changed.

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