It had been a long time since I’d met anyone promising in the romantic arena, and I’d pretty much retired the dreams I’d carried since childhood about marriage and children. I’d been settling instead for a sprinkling of dates, here and there, taking what I could get, almost forgetting that I ever wanted more.
One night on a whim I took myself out to a popular Manhattan dance spot where the lights were dim, the music was loud, and the crowd was lively. I sat at a small table surveying the scene when I spotted someone interesting across the dance floor. He looked at me, then looked away, and finally, he held my glance. Before I knew it we were playing the mating and waiting game, until the braver one of us stepped across the great divide and asked, simply, “Would you like to dance?”
We found our way easily into each other’s rhythm, and to the tune of “This Can’t Be Love,” we covered ground. As we dipped and twirled around the crowded dance floor, he whispered in my ear, “We have great dance compatibility.” I heard in his words the hint of a future, and my cautious heart began to come out of hiding.
After dancing a few numbers we stopped to catch our breath, and over drinks we got acquainted. “Do you take lessons?” he asked. “No, but I’m thinking about it. Maybe West Coast Swing.” It seemed like the right thing to say, as if I was in the know. He told me about a new club in Soho, one that he was hoping to try. Then he got down to business. Taking out his wallet he proudly showed me a picture of his son, “From an early marriage,” he explained. He quickly added, “It’s been over for years.”
I told him I’d been married once, also long ago, and I had no children. Pushing a ringlet back from my forehead he asked me for my phone number. Then he wrote his own number on a scrap of paper, and his name in case I’d already forgotten. Richard.
We had our first date a week later. It was an easy evening with good conversation in a dark, crowded restaurant. Over shrimp curry and chicken tandoori, he told me about his good friend, Carol, whom he often went dancing with. She’d recently fallen in love, and he was hoping that would happen for him, too.
“I’d like to get married again and have at least one more child,” he said as we walked outside, looking for a cab to send me home in. Standing on the corner not yet ready to part, I felt as if I was dreaming when he said he had told Carol about me. “Let’s call her and tell her how our date’s going,” he said, smiling.
When I got home that night I thought about how unusual it was to be with someone who was that open about what he wanted and so eager to involve me in his life. His sincerity and lack of pretense were touching me in all the right ways, and by the end of our second date, my dusty old dreams for marriage and children were tumbling out of the closet.
“It would be nice to have a big family,” he told me on our third date, “because my parents died when I was so young.” My overbearing family seemed heavenly to him. I thought about inviting him for Thanksgiving to show him what the other side was really like. But I held back.
After dinner we went for a walk, and then we stood in front of my apartment building for a long time before he kissed me. As we walked inside we made plans for our next date. Dancing, we both agreed, at the club in Soho. It had a small dance floor he’d heard. We’d have to go easy on the swirling. Bring it in a little closer.
The next day I thought about what I’d wear on our date and was looking forward to talking to Richard. I didn’t hear from him for a few days though, and I thought it was a little odd, since we’d been speaking often. Finally I called him at work and left a message. A little impatient, I also left a message on his tape at home. A few days later, still nothing. I was trying hard to keep my mind from going where it wanted to go—he lost interest, I was too eager, he got scared and ran. I found out soon enough it was none of the above.
Three days after our last date, Richard died in his sleep. It wasn’t a heart attack, an aneurysm, or anything discernible. The autopsy report that came back eight weeks later was inconclusive but confirmed that it was of natural causes. I received a phone call from Richard’s friend, Carol, exactly a week after our last date. She’d searched his house for my phone number and found it finally on Richard’s dresser. She was sorry she didn’t get to me sooner, and no, there was nothing I could do. The funeral was already over, and so was shiva.
We hung up, and I sat very still waiting to feel something deep and dark inside, something that would move me to cry bitter tears. But I felt nothing. No, I felt eerie. Why, I wondered, through the slow, steady shock that grew heavier not lighter as the days stretched into weeks. Why was I pulled in at the final hours to witness the end of a life I barely knew? What was the reason for us to meet?
Many months later I got my answer. I came home one evening from a date with a man I had started seeing. He was a divorced dad, not looking for a commitment, my usual scenario. As I reviewed my evening with this casual guy, I thought about how disappointed I was that he kept forgetting to show me pictures of his children, and that he had to cut our night short because there was just too much he had to do the next day. Oh, and about next week, well he didn’t know yet if he’d be available. He’d call me.
There was nothing to hope for with this new man, no fantasies to get lost in. It was all pretty dim. That’s when I understood why I had to meet Richard. The feelings he stirred in me showed me my desire for love wasn’t dead, just buried, and the dreams of my childhood still lingered in anticipation that they might yet come true. No, Richard wasn’t taken from me to leave me hungry and wanting. He was given to me to show me the kind of life in which I had stopped believing.
I like to think that there was something special Richard got from me that he took with him to his final sleep. Perhaps he, too, experienced the sweet rush of old dreams resurrected and the wonder of living again in long-forgotten hope. These exquisite treasures so many of us search for and never find. And maybe even worse, some of us no longer look. If that’s true for you, then I’m here to tell you. Bringing a heart back to life can sometimes be so simple. For me it all started with a look, a touch, and a dip on the dance floor.
Sandra Hurtes is a freelance writer who lives in New York. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.