“Oh, I’ll never stroke a camel again.”

“Did he bite you?”

“He had my whole hand in his mouth.”

“Gosh.” The old woman is shaking her head.

“And do you know what his name was?” The woman clearly has no idea. “Saddam.”

And so the conversation goes. The man is seated opposite me on a train from Davis to San Jose and wearing a t-shirt with an American flag and the word “Freedom” emblazoned across it. And although I think his shirt is a bit of a joke, I respect the man’s logic. Had I heard his camel stories (there were actually two) I might not have visited my ex-girlfriend Amanda, nearly had a hand bitten and a foot in my mouth.

Why I did see her exactly I don’t know. But I have just read the novel, High Fidelity (there was also a film). In it, Rob Fleming, avid music fan, lists his all-time top five worst breakups and visits those ex-girlfriends in an effort to understand why his relationships have since followed a template for failure.

I lost interest in the book when the shallow, immature and self-obsessed Rob, with whom I found great kinship, began to grow up. But my travels unwittingly followed a similar course when I visited the two ex-girlfriends of my relationships past.

The first, Beth, lives in Berkeley with her boyfriend; the second, Amanda, with hers in Sacramento. Beth and I remain close friends – best friends, in fact – and meeting with her was nothing but pleasant.

Seeing Mandy however was an altogether different story, and not one penned by Nick Hornby, with a happy ending, or a forthcoming film adaptation starring John Cusack, or anybody anywhere near as suave.

Should I have more than five break-ups from which to choose, mine with Mandy would definitely make the chart. Since I don’t, it enters by default. It was nevertheless the sort of breakup that lovelorn Emo songs are made of.

I broke up with her (let’s make that clear) in January 2004. (You have to strike between the holidays and certainly before Valentine’s Day.) And in the year that has passed, I imagine as most men would, that she never quite got over me. There were actually e-mails to that effect and then a silence that I took to mean that a severe bout of depression had ensued.

My meeting with her last night however proved that not to be the case. On the contrary, she’s not turned to the bottle, or a nunnery; nor has she recorded a heartbreak album in the vein of Leonard Cohen. She is in fact doing fine. And after a brief moment of disappointment at this I was too. We enjoyed a mostly pleasant evening: dinner, a moonlit stroll, great conversation. And then suddenly the realization that we were barely strangers. Having shared showers, now sharing a bottle of water seemed somehow inappropriate. It dawned on me that I would probably never see this stranger that I used to know so well ever again. And so I postponed the farewell and arranged to meet before my train out of town the following day.

The train was soon approaching and there was no sign of Amanda. While I waited, the annual Picnic Day parade passed through downtown – a marching band, jugglers, clowns – and I realized that I didn’t recognize a single face, painted or otherwise. There is nothing for me here, I thought. Everybody has moved on. And I suddenly looked forward to being back in England, to immersing myself in a world I had thought only temporary, and to grasping with both hands the opportunities and relationships that make a life less ordinary.

I wanted to tell Amanda all this but time was closing in. With just minutes to go before my train showed up she did. With her boyfriend. And, saving my grasping hand for England, I gave her a hug, let go and said goodbye. And suddenly, not seeing this stranger ever again didn’t seem so bad after all.