Kate Dignan and Gabe Utasi

Kate Dignan and Gabe Utasi (Michael Tercha, Tribune Newspapers photo)

The one thing that everybody knew about Gabe Utasi was this: No way was he going to move back home to Cincinnati.

Gabe left Ohio 10 years ago, telling anyone who would listen, "I'm never coming back. I'm NOT coming back." He settled in Phoenix, grateful he didn't have to endure those miserable Midwestern winters.

He'd return to Cincinnati to visit his family only once a year, usually in late September, so he also could catch the MidPoint Music Festival.

On his annual visit a little over a year ago, Gabe was hanging out with five or six pals at the festival, including Andrea Poling, one of his best friends from art school. Between sets at one of the music venues, Below Zero Lounge, the group was joined by three others, including Kate Dignan.

Everybody knew everybody else with this exception: Gabe, 35, and Kate, 33, had never met. Although they had tons of friends in common, they hadn't run into each other because Gabe was spending only a few days a year in Cincinnati.

"Gabe, this is Kate. Kate, Gabe," said Andrea, making quick introductions.

"I thought he was cute and I was definitely interested," Kate says. But after Andrea introduced them, she said, "'Gabe lives in Arizona. We've been trying to get him to move back for years.'"

"When I found out he was never coming back to Cincinnati, I kind of crossed him off the list," says Kate, who grew up in Hinsdale.

Gabe, a graphic designer, thought the same thing. "I still had no intention of coming back to Cincinnati, so I wasn't really thinking of investing much time."

They spent the evening listening to music with their friends and talking in between, maybe for a total of an hour.

Although her long-term relationship had ended two years earlier, "I was just re-entering the dating world, and it had been slim pickins," Kate says. If only Gabe didn't live so far away; he had promise. "He was funny and he was wearing Converse low-tops. When I saw he was wearing them I thought, 'He's down-to-earth. He doesn't take himself too seriously.' I was digging on him."

Kate thought she'd see him again at the music festival the next night, but it didn't turn out that way. Maybe it was the flight from Phoenix that did him in, but he came down with a horrible cold and didn't go out.

"That was kind of it," Kate says. A week later, Gabe had returned to Phoenix, and Kate was out again with their mutual friend, Andrea, who posted a photo of them together on Facebook, bundled up in their winter coats. "Right away, Gabe commented on it" on Andrea's page, says Kate, rubbing it in that he was in sunny Arizona, with something like, "People wearing coats; that must suck."

"That was the first inkling I had that he might be kind of flirting over Facebook. I wasn't (Facebook) friends with him. I didn't even know his last name," Kate says.

Soon they were Facebook friends, and they began messaging each other. "Second-grade-style flirting," she says.

They swapped cellphone numbers and started talking and … talking. "We wound up talking every night three hours, two hours," she says. "And I'm not a phone person. I remember that we talked enough that I burned through my rollover minutes."

It seemed easy and comfortable. "A lot of times she'd be on a walk with her dog (or) I'd have to listen to her brush her teeth. She was doing her go-to-bed routine," Gabe says.

About three weeks after their first meeting and many phone calls and emails later, they decided to meet, and Kate bought a ticket to Phoenix.

"I do not take a lot of risks at all," says Kate, a coordinator at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "Part of what got me to do it was one of my dear friends said to me, 'You're so afraid to get hurt or be disappointed that you don't take risks, and I'm afraid you're going to miss out on a lot if you don't.'

"With that in my head, I said, 'What the hell. Worst case, if he's a total weirdo, I'll get a hotel room and hang out in Phoenix.'"