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Old flames rekindling romantic fires

The moment Liz Bondzio and Chris Wicker first laid eyes on each other, they knew it was meant to be.

He was 14, a skinny kid with a skater haircut and a cute smile.

She was 15, pretty and pony-tailed.

They dated, in high school out in California, then went their separate ways. But they always felt an attraction. So when -- 8 1/2 years later -- they found themselves single again, they got in touch. They were on opposite coasts, by that time, but it didn't matter.

They reconnected. Now the couple lives together in Western New York.

"I don't see us ever not being together," said Bondzio, 28.

"I'm not a trouble-maker anymore," joked Wicker, 27.

The couple puts a local face on a national phenomenon that's drawing plenty of attention: the rediscovery of "long-lost loves" as a way to finding hot new romances in the present.

Some people rave about it. Others caution that it could be dangerous.

But there's no doubt about it: reconnecting with former flames is a decided trend.

Web sites and new books are devoted to the topic, and talk shows from Oprah Winfrey to National Public Radio have debated it. Celebrities -- like Nicollette Sheridan and Michael Bolton, who reunited in recent weeks after dating in the early 1990s -- have popularized the idea, too.

The Internet, with popular sites like www.classmates.com, is fueling the boom, making it much easier for people to track down old crushes. A new online poll conducted by the classmates.com Web site found that 71 percent of respondents planned to use the Internet to find love in 2006, and that 54 percent had thought about their "first love" within the past year.

>A word to the wise

But there's a dark side to this phenomenon, some caution.

"People need to be warned," said Dr. Nancy Kalish, professor of psychology at California State University at Sacramento and author of the book "Lost and Found Loves." "This is wonderful for people who are widowed or divorced. But for middle-aged people -- you risk contacting people who are probably married."

And that, Kalish said, can cause a lot of hurt, whether a sexual affair results or not.

The whole phenomenon of reunited sweethearts is personified perhaps most famously in Donna Hanover, the former Mrs. Rudy Guiliani and first lady of New York City.

Hanover, 55, who went through a nasty divorce after 18 years of marriage in 2002, landed, soon afterward, in the arms of her long-lost high school sweetheart, Ed Oster.

She has been married to Oster since the summer of 2003, and now she is a well-publicized proponent of finding true love by attempting to reconnect with former flames.

"It's been an incredible blessing, a really wonderful thing," said Hanover, who wrote a book about her experiences reconnecting with Osler, and about the experiences of other couples who have gone through this. "I feel so fortunate."

Hanover's book is called "My Boyfriend's Back," and when it showed up as a topic on a TV talk show, Buffalo-born Bondzio felt compelled to visit Hanover's Web site -- at www.myboyfriendsback.com -- to share her own story.

"This works," gushes Bondzio, who works as a verifier at a call center in Amherst.

>Happy together

Bondzio grew up and went to school in Southern California. In high school, she was infatuated with Chris Wicker, a native Californian who had a wild streak.

After a few tumultuous years of dating, the couple lost touch. Bondzio was in Idaho at that point, and Wicker stayed on the West Coast. Both went through other relationships -- Bondzio's included a six-year marriage. She had two kids before divorcing in 2001.

Single again, Bondzio decided to get in touch with Wicker, to see what he was doing. She called his parents.

"They were definitely shocked," she said. "But they were really happy . . . and they were more than happy to have me get in touch with Chris."

Hanover, who splits her time between homes in New York City and Newport Beach, Calif., said that she cautions people not to expect every attempt to reconnect with an old flame to end up as a "Harlequin romance."

"I tell them, 'Maybe you had good judgment back then,' " in splitting with the person, she said.

But, she said, one great part about successfully reconnecting with a past love is that the person sees you through what Hanover calls "young eyes."

"You kind of see each other through a prism, of how you used to see each other," she said. "It's a wonderful fountain of youth. Guys will sometimes date somebody who's 10 or 15 years younger, in an effort to feel young -- but this is by far the best way to feel young."

>Internet fuels trend

Kalish, the professor at Cal State, said she has seen a "doubling" in the amount of these rekindled love affairs since she began her research in the early 1990s. A lot of that is due to people just casually surfing the Internet, and tracking down old classmates, neighbors, or co-workers out of idle curiosity.

"If you're married, you shouldn't be contacting a lost love," she said bluntly. "These people can spend years suffering."

For Wicker and Bondzio, there were no existing marriages, so they were able to be together again.

In fact, Wicker, who works as a refiner operator at a local plant, said he almost got married twice in the years he was away from Bondzio, but something always held him back. The second time, he was just a few months away from his wedding date when Bondzio's phone call came.

"She didn't seem any different," he said.

After a few conversations, Wicker decided to take some vacation time and visit Bondzio in Buffalo.

"I told him I'd believe it when I saw it," said Bondzio, with a wry smile.

But he did come. And just 12 hours after he walked through her door, he told Bondzio that he was dropping everything to move to Buffalo to be with her. That was March 15, 2002 -- the couple celebrates the anniversary every year.

Wicker was as good as his word. He moved to town, bringing just two possessions with him: a stereo and a snowboard.

"I thought, 'Why, after all those years?' " said Bondzio. "Girls always have those first-crush things, but guys don't. But it was just natural -- it was really awesome."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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