The story excerpted from my 30-year-old copybook ends where it began, in the airport in Pittsburgh. A warm October evening had replaced the cold January night when I’d imagined skating away along Prophecy Creek, only dimly aware that my marriage was ending. Now I sat at a different gate waiting for another flight back to Philadelphia on a Thursday night, weary after a four-day arbitration. I knew already that I’d lost the case. I was on the wrong side of a dispute that had brought me back and forth to Pittsburgh since the summer because neither side was willing to settle. My mind was empty as it always is after a hearing, but without the satisfaction of having made a winning argument. I wanted nothing more than to inhabit a quiet space inside myself.
I stowed my court bag, took off my suit jacket, and watched idly from my aisle seat as other passengers boarded. The two men in business suits directly across from me were taking a comically long time to settle themselves; at the last minute, they decided to trade places. The man who had given up his window seat flashed me a deep-dimpled smile as he fastened his seat belt. He made several attempts to start a conversation, but I was too tired to talk. After a few minutes, I pulled out my new Walkman, a 31st birthday gift from a co-worker, and put on the headphones. With eyes closed, I listened to the mix tape he’d included with the present. A few of the songs he’d chosen—Paul Young’s Every Time You Go Away and Percy Sledge singing When A Man Loves a Woman, were supposed to make me believe he wanted to get serious. I hadn’t been fooled for more than a few moments. We’d been friends long enough for me to know he was playing a game, while I was struggling to keep my heart open for someone real and true.
Mid-way through the hour-long flight, the batteries in the Walkman ran out. I opened my eyes but kept the headset on to prolong my isolation. The man across the aisle was reading and highlighting a volume of the Federal Tax Code. I took that to mean he had a serious side. Then I noticed that the thumbnail on his left hand was purple. The bruise held my attention. To a woman like me with working class roots, there was something appealing about a man in a suit who wasn’t afraid of manual labor.
I began to feel foolish paging through an issue of People magazine wearing earphones. As soon as I took off the headset and began wrapping up the wires, the man opposite me began chatting again.
“Look out the window,” he said. “Can you guess where we are?”
“I have no idea.”
The seat beside me was empty. “Move over one, and I’ll tell you,” he said.
I did and he did, and made me laugh while he identified the cluster of lights around King of Prussia. The usual introductions followed: where we lived (Philadelphia), what we did for a living (he was a banker, I was a lawyer in a Federal agency). When it was time to return to our assigned seats, we decided to exchange business cards. He’d been a pleasant diversion; I thought that would be the end of it. I was no longer the lonely, vulnerable woman I’d been at the beginning of the year. I did not yearn to follow him home.
The following Monday, I was already more than an hour into my work day when Kitty, the secretary for our division, buzzed me a few minutes after 9:00 a.m. to say a guy named Steve was calling for me. The banker, I thought. How nice. Kitty liked to eavesdrop. I smiled at her and closed my door. The conversation was brief. Steve and I agreed to meet for dinner that coming Friday. He left the choice of restaurant up to me. I called him the next day to tell him my decision and he offered to pick me up. By then, my ex no longer worked in the same building as I did and I had not heard from him in over a month. I decided it was safe to give Steve my home address.
The evening of October 24, 1986 was warm, a final taste of summer. The sun was setting when Steve arrived at my apartment. The restaurant I had chosen was The White Dog Café on Sansom Street, but I didn’t know the quickest way to get there. Steve was sarcastic about the roundabout route I suggested. He found a shortcut, and we arrived with enough time for a drink at the bar of La Terrace. A few previous forays into dating had taught me to mention early in the evening that I was in midst of a divorce. Steve told me my timing was a bit abrupt. I said I didn’t care. I liked my life and thought he should know my circumstances up front. If he had a problem with my marital status, we could end the evening after drinks and no one’s time would be wasted. Then he said he might as well tell me he was separated, too. We discovered that we’d both split up in the spring.
With that bit of awkwardness out of the way, we went on to have a wonderful dinner. A highlight was seeing Ricardo Muti, the renowned conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, seated on the other side of the dining room. By the time the meal was over, we weren’t ready to say goodnight. We drove across the city to Head House Square for after-dinner drinks and a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from politics (mine–idealistic, his—pragmatic) to our mutual desire to have children. At the end of the evening, we pulled out our Day Timer calendars to schedule another date; within weeks, despite the obstacles, we were planning our future.
The issues that caused us friction on that first evening are still the same—we argue over directions, I tend to blurt out what I think needs to be said, and his practical nature occasionally provokes me to claim he has the soul of a pedestrian. We have had an ample share of adventures and bad luck. What has been essential for the past 30 years is this: that persistent man on the plane has taught me every good thing I know about love.