"You'll never be a castaway again."
Christine Norris and Sean Vanden Dries had spent fewer than 30 days in each other's company when they got hitched.
Well, fewer than 30 days as adults. That doesn't count their sixth-grade romance in Springfield, when they slow-danced to Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" and played Seven Minutes in Heaven in a classmate's basement. (He never kissed her in the closet, incidentally: "My mom always told me I should ask a girl's permission, and I didn't have the guts.")
Their alliance was fleeting, and at the end of junior high Vanden Dries moved away, bouncing across the United States and abroad with each new order received by his father, an Air Force officer.
They lost contact completely until spring 2007, when Norris started helping to organize a 10-year high school reunion. A friend wondered aloud about Vanden Dries and nudged Norris to see if she could find him. A quick search on MySpace brought up his profile, so she shot him a note inviting him to the reunion.
"I'm thinking, 'Internet stalker,' " says Vanden Dries, who asked Norris to name the lake where they met after school to prove she was who she claimed to be.
Norris, now 30, got it right, of course, and they traded a few cursory catching-up e-mails. But Vanden Dries had no interest in the reunion, so they let the communication drop.
That fall, Norris, a nurse who'd been taking care of her ill father, posted a message on MySpace about her dad being in the hospital with an infection. Vanden Dries, now 32, wrote to ask what was wrong, and they began a twice-weekly correspondence.
Norris had a live-in boyfriend at the time and was focused intently on her father, so Vanden Dries, she says, was "just this person who was completely safe, that I could tell stuff to, and he wouldn't try to hit on me, wouldn't judge me."
And as he started revealing parts of himself to her, Norris picked up on a "really bitter, angry-man vibe." It wasn't something Vanden Dries was trying to hide. He'd enrolled in the Air Force Academy thinking that would be his career, but when military budgets shifted and the Air Force had to downsize, he was among the unlucky whose positions were eliminated. At the time he was in Alaska with a new wife, a new dog and a new mortgage, so rather than join a different military branch he decided to look for a position in the private sector. He found a job in Kansas City, Mo., but it didn't turn out to be as great as it had first seemed, and his wife was so unhappy, she left. Within a year they were divorcing.
"They say a lot of Americans of our generation feel entitled to things, and I guess I felt entitled -- 'cause I worked really hard to get something and it all fell through," he says.
In his e-mails to Norris, he would constantly refer to the Tom Hanks movie "Cast Away," saying, she recalls, "I'm going to go live on my island with my volleyball and I'm not going to have anybody but the volleyball and me and that's going to be fine for the rest of my life."
By spring 2009, Norris's father had been given a diagnosis of cancer and had moved into her ward at Virginia Hospital Center. She'd broken up with her boyfriend and was spending nights after every shift sleeping in her dad's room. Her only release was the now-daily e-mails to Vanden Dries, who had joined the Army and relocated to Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga.