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11. The Dating Dad: A little bit of magic

This happened last spring. The flight from LA to San Francisco is less than an hour, and it’s a wonder — you fly over the seam of the California coast; sometimes skimming the slate blue Pacific, sometimes soaring over long swaths of California’s Highway 1, which curves and dips through rolling hills and past sheer cliffs. But most of the time, you’re right at that liminal place where the ocean kisses the land; sometimes gently, and sometimes with a fury that seems like passion.

I would have missed my flight, had it not been delayed by mechanical problems. But I made it, slipping past a stunning woman to my seat by the window. I felt that palpable, universal sense of relief — she wasn’t an unshowered, patchouli-wearing dude heading to NoCal, or a kindly but talkative grandma who smelled of lavender and old paper, and she wasn’t a 700-pound armrest hog who breathed loudly through his nose when he wasn’t burping. So I buckled myself in, took one more discrete look at the beauty beside me for the briefest of assessment (thin, professional, put-together, grown-up, Asian, not interested), and dropped into a doze that lasted until the flight attendant pushed her rickety cart back to our row.

I tried to read, then yanked my laptop out of my backpack and wrote three or four sentences before realizing I was squandering a chance to watch as we flew up the coast. It was near dusk, and the sun was bouncing rays off the waves, making the entire cabin of the airplane flicker with fiery refraction. So I just watched.

Though I could feel the face of the other passenger turned toward me, I didn’t say a word to her. I don’t tend to speak with people on airplanes if I can help it. I take pleasure in the relative peace of flying, the soporific drone of the engines acting as white noise for my brain. Plus, I’m terrible at starting conversations.

And she was really pretty.

But, to my surprise, she asked me a question, and it set off internal butterflies. “Excuse me, could you please tell me if we’re flying over land, or water?”

“A little of both, actually,” I answered. And explained. Then I commented on how I’d stopped trying to write so I could enjoy the view. I told her we were just flying over Monterey and Carmel.

We talked a little bit — the usual stuff; our first names, jobs, what we were doing on the plane. She confided in me that she was terrified of flying, so I spent the last 10 minutes of our flight talking about anything I could think of, to help her stay calm.

I thought about giving her my card as we neared baggage claim, but couldn’t think of a good reason — I was in SF for the weekend, and there was no chance of hanging out with her again. And what would be the point, really?

“Goodbye, Lisa. Good to meet you.”

“Bye, Eric. Thanks for talking me down.”

And that was the end of it.

Until, a few weeks later, she sent me email. Using my first name and the fact that I was a writer who lived in Denver, she managed to track me down.

Later, Lisa would tell me these things:

  1. She didn’t really expect me to write back.
  2. When she first saw me in the airport, waiting for our delayed flight to board, I was having a phone conversation, and laughing, and she thought, “Frat boy — I hope I don’t have to sit by him.”
  3. And when I did sit by her, she figured I’d try to hit on her, and she wasn’t feeling too pleased about it.
  4. But I fell asleep instead, and pretty much ignored her.
  5. My answer to her first question indicated that I was more interesting than she’d originally thought.
  6. etc.

But I didn’t know any of that when I checked my email after a long day at work. I was headed out to the gym, but had to stop and sit and process. She’d looked for me! Why would someone go out of her way to find a guy, me especially, who lived half a continent away? It was flattering, and I didn’t actually believe she’d written out of anything more than friendliness.

Three weeks later, I was back on an airplane, flying to the Sacramento airport. We’d emailed back and forth quite a bit (but never spoke on the phone), and she’d invited me to spend a weekend with her at Lake Tahoe. She offered to fly me out and take care of my expenses while I was there.

My friends (and youngest sister) told me I’d be an idiot to pass it up.

That Friday afternoon, I peeled myself out of my seat and shuffled my way off the plane. I tried to settle my nerves with a drink of water and a pit stop, taking a final inventory in the mirror: nasal cling-ons? Food between my teeth? Hair okay? Earwax? Eyebrows in control? Then I walked to baggage claim, excitement and inexplicable dread wreaking havoc on my nervous system.

I didn’t remember exactly what she looked like, but I knew it was her when she walked into the airport. The temperature in the Central Valley was near 100 that day, but the airport was damned glacial. So even though I could feel a rivulet of perspiration ease its way down my spine, my fingers were articulated blocks of ice.

We hugged, and both blushed. Then she excused herself to hit the restroom before our two-plus hour drive to the mountains, and I immediately sent a text message to those concerned:

“Different than I remember. Very pretty.”

We’d both admitted to being more nervous about those first two hours than about anything else — talk about a crucible! We’d probably have some idea of our interpersonal compatibility before we even checked into the condominium for the weekend. Our conversation along the way was punctuated by individual realizations of our audacity. “Are we really sitting here together? Is this really happening?”

But there was no question that it was a romantic endeavor, and that we were in the midst of a really wonderful story. By the end of the first hour, we were holding hands.

The weekend was pure magic, and those momentary splashes of reality (“How did you find me?” “How did this happen?”) just made it more incredible. We wandered, we hiked, we gambled away some quarters, ate great food, played and talked and laughed and wondered aloud how we’d managed to end up there together. It felt too soon to be flying back to Denver that Sunday afternoon and I still think about the dreamlike weekend we had in each other’s company.

We’d connected, but didn’t know what to do next.

That summer, we spent a few spectacular days at her place, where we agreed that we adored each other but knew there wasn’t much we could do about it. She even spent a weekend in Denver with Simone and me. In the end, proximity, our schedules (well, mine), and reality did their part in allowing us to drift away from that initial splendor. We still trade the occasional email or text message, but the fire from that first weekend isn’t much more than embers now.

It’s a pity. But I’ll always remember the romance and mystery of the beauty from that stunning flight up the coast who went out of her way to find me.

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