They're both 50 now, and most details of fifth grade are fuzzy. One is not: This is where love began.
It never went beyond the holding hands stage. Mainly Connie Mago and Chris Tanner just talked about sports and music and stuff that kids talk about. They ate lunch together each day in the cafeteria at Tarpon Springs Elementary. They played tennis. Then the bus took them home, 3 miles apart.
In middle school they remained inseparable, but Connie's folks didn't allow dating. She feared even a first kiss because she knew her dad would disapprove. Her shy boyfriend suppressed any romantic urges. Then just as they were about to start high school, Chris' family moved to Spring Hill.
"Only 40 miles,'' Connie said, "but it might as well have been California for two kids and no car.''
They wrote letters, but they could feel their relationship fading.
Chris hoped he might save it by having Connie come to his Springstead High prom. His mother agreed to drive him to Tarpon Springs to pick her up. But an hour into the dance, Chris got so sick he could barely stand. He had tonsillitis. His mom drove Connie home without him.
Relationship over, it seemed.
• • •
Chris played in the band and sang in the choir at Springstead High. He made the varsity tennis team. Connie earned a place in the National Honor Society, joined the Latin Club at Tarpon Springs High.
He got married, had a son, installed tile. Divorced.
She went to college, became a corporate accountant for Florida Insurance, married twice, divorced twice. No children.
Eight years ago, Chris attended the Renaissance Festival in Largo. He saw Connie walking with her husband. He wanted to say hello but kept his distance. Why start trouble?
• • •
By 2010, Chris had been a bachelor for 20 years and had no desire to change. He and son Stefen shared a home he bought in Spring Hill. Chris took an inside sales job with Trinity Tile & Stone. His friends pestered him to join Facebook so he could keep up with family and friends. Eventually he agreed. He had often thought about reaching out to Connie on other social media, but this time he did it. "Hi, remember me?'' he wrote.
"How could I forget my first love?'' Connie replied.
Afterward, Connie thought she had been too hasty, too flippant. "What if he's married?'' she wondered. "I didn't even check.''
In one message, Chris apologized for not being able to take her home from the prom. "I'm still embarrassed by that,'' he said. "You deserved a better evening.''
Chris and Connie made plans to meet. Even though he lived 40 miles north in Spring Hill, he worked five minutes from Connie's home in Holiday. He was installing a tile floor when she arrived.
"Wow!'' Connie wrote later about the encounter. "He hasn't changed at all!''
He stared at the familiar green eyes and big smile. She tried to focus on what he was saying but kept flashing back to their youth. They had both saved a souvenir prom mug from that last dance. He had even kept the entrance ticket and a photo of them together. His sentimentality impressed her.
In the next several nights, they talked on the phone for hours, staying up until 4 a.m., laughing and catching up. He admired her independence as a successful business woman. She respected his perseverance as a single parent who had worked through the construction industry meltdown without losing faith or humor.
They went to a Hudson restaurant — their first date in more than 30 years. They walked on the beach, holding hands.
By chance, Tarpon Springs High Class of 1980 was about to celebrate its 30th reunion. Chris and Connie saw it as a chance for a "do over'' from the ill-fated prom. This time they danced all night.
• • •
On April 28, they married in the underwater theater at Weeki Wachee Springs — 33 years to the day of the prom that might have been their last date had it not been for what Connie called "divine intervention.'' Mermaids swirled in the crystal clear water with a banner:
"And they lived happily ever after.''