Wednesday, February 27, 2013
I’m riding down the packed escalator to baggage claim at San Francisco Airport, my back all knots after the flight from Pittsburgh, and as I’m stepping off the escalator I hear: “Jonathan!”
I turn and there she is, after hundreds of phone calls, texts and emails. We hug and her green eyes are striking, her dark hair curly as I’d remembered, and her curves, Wow. Tall and busty, with a small waist and long slender legs, she’s wearing a figure-hugging black shirt dress and green sweater that brings out her eyes. She hugs me tighter than any woman ever has and I’m freaking, a mix of nerves and joy. We get to baggage claim, and my heart beats so wildly she asks: “Are you OK?”
“A little nervous,” I say.
Behind us, a fifty-something hippie couple are embracing, blissful looks on their faces. We can tell the couple is in a long distance relationship—a club I never thought I’d be in. Even so, after my divorce my first “girlfriend,” of sorts, was this virtual one I was now hugging. She got my attention as gals do, by teasing.
“I forgot, you’re a Lifer,” she wrote on my Wall, referring to me being a lifelong Pittsburgher. I didn’t like the word, but knew it was like a girl punching a boy from behind on the playground: a flirtation and challenge.
We’d met in college, a fact she recalled but I didn’t at first when we connected. Something about her mug-shot and name seemed warm and familiar, so I’d befriended her. I never planned to have any relationship with someone in California, but then I met this wonderful person.
The separation anxiety could’ve led me to it. I’d been with my ex-wife a decade, and I wasn’t transitioning gracefully into singlehood. I’m gregarious, but a loner and self-employed writer, so after the divorce (which was my idea), I felt very alone. My California friend also was lonely, having recently quit a bad marriage. Even from those first words online, we filled needs in each other. Flirting with her made me feel great, for a while.
Shortly after the first banter on my Wall, I was so intrigued by her that I asked if I could call. We talked and she had a girlish laugh that was beguiling, coming from this accomplished professional woman and mother. We hit it off, remembering that meeting years before. I thought of the hippie dress she was wearing that night and how we’d talked for hours about books during and after a party. I recalled how impressed I was with her intellect and how attracted I was, and how I walked her back to her dorm room.
“I remember it felt good standing close to you,” she said.
I recalled feeling nervous. That curvy girl I’d kissed years ago, so articulate and strong, had kind of scared a tough Pittsburgh boy like me. I remembered wanting to flee her dorm room, and couldn’t remember why.
As our friendship grew via email, text and phone, we found we had common interests, and we encouraged each other in our love of music. I was writing songs again—something I hadn’t done since high school. We both have good singing voices, a gift that came naturally in the family I grew up in, but not in hers. We exchanged photos and she sent me some videos and a clip of her singing lines from “Twilight,” by The Band: “Don’t leave me alone in the twilight, cause twilight is the loneliest time of day.”
Her voice was sad and sweet. I empathized—loneliness sucks, no matter where you live.
We talked about me visiting, in the beginning as sort of a lark. But as our late-night, hours-long discussions became daily, they were more intimate. Our intensity levels matched, and we seemed to be going through a similarly tough emotional recovery. Both of us had marriages that became nightmarish in their own ways.
As the weeks wore on, I knew I had to see her. A month after first emailing her, I bought a plane ticket. Four weeks later, in mid-October, we were together.
* * *
It’s Saturday night and we’re in North Beach walking along the street, having just visited Lafayette Park and the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio married. My tour guide is wearing a mini and the Italian boys and older paisans in a pizzeria we walk past eye her like a cutlet. Down the street, she whispers: “Those Italian guys looked at me, then they looked at you… I feel so safe with you.”
We round a corner and the Kelly green sign catches my eye. “This an Irish bar?” I ask.
“It’s Irishy,” she says.
Inside, I order drinks and I kiss her neck. “Are you sure you’re not Irish?” I ask, knowing she’s not. She laughs, and tells me how when she visited Ireland, the guys in the bars kept asking if she was Irish. She flows into a brogue, and her lower lip droops sexily as she says: "'So tell me, are ya married?' No, I’d say. 'Who’re ya here with, then?' I’m here with my mother. 'You’re here with your mum? Let me meet your mum… I’ll marry you.'"
I am kind of nervous the whole weekend, partly because I’m out of my element. We visit the Presidio, Richmond, Chinatown, The Mission, Baker Beach and elsewhere. On Sunday night I’m in a light sleep at her place, and I hear a foghorn that sounds really close coming through the open window. She whispers: “Jonny, are you awake?”
“Yeah I’m awake.”
She tells me how she had another one of those bad dreams in which she was all alone. But this time when she awoke, instead of no one being there as it was in the past, I was here, next to her.
“I’m here,” I say. We embrace.
* * *
After San Francisco I got a bad flu, which knocked me out of work more than a week. But the flu wouldn’t go away, and never really completely went away for two months. We stayed in regular touch as we had been, by phone calls and through text and email. She got “The House of Belonging,” and mailed it to me. We talked about how crazy this whole thing was. What do you tell people to explain it?
“We did it because we were sick of being lonely,” she said.
Though I’m sure she didn’t mean to, I felt pressure to visit over New Years, when she could spend more time with me, since her kids would be with their dad. My illness got me behind in my freelance work, and the anxiety from work and my obligation to visit stressed me, which worsened a separate health issue I had. And though I hadn’t spoken with my ex-wife for months, I needed to. I grew up with 11 brothers and sisters and I was with the ex for many years; this was the first time in my life that I was really alone, without even a roommate. I met with the ex and later told my friend, who didn’t like it.
I felt lonelier than before I met my California crush, and more remote from her. The intimacies we shared were forgotten in my crash after our love binge. I felt low, and resented her for wanting me to avoid my ex. Who was she to say, I asked myself. She has work friends, and kids she can hug every day.
I remembered some of the dubious words I’d heard her say: “You need to find a younger girl, if you want kids.” And, “You’re a Lifer.” Maybe I am, I thought.
I got moody on the phone with her, and once blurted: “I don’t want to be a stepdad. Then I’m the bad guy.” She said “You’d be the good guy,” but I responded, I’d be the interloper. In my loneliness, my heart closed up. And the longing was exhausting me.
A couple months after returning from my visit, I didn’t return her call for a week. I couldn’t think about it, so I put it off. When I called back, she no longer had time to talk to me. We juggled a few times to call each other, kept missing each other, talked a couple times and things fizzled out.
When she texted me in January after I’d texted her, she said she’d found someone on New Years and they’d been inseparable. I was glad for her, but I also felt like she’d been hurt, and that the friendship ended poorly. The whole thing had happened fast, and I wasn’t ready to regularly visit the other side of the continent to be with a gal I didn’t really know. It didn’t help that she had conflicts with her ex-husband (for good reason), and I felt like I’d already spent a lifetime being angry.
* * *
Months after we lost touch, I un-friended her. It was disconcerting seeing her mug, lurking. Then one day I pushed a button, and she was gone.
Technology enables us to do things we’d never considered, and the answers seem immediate. Flights of fancy seduce, and our comfort with email and the phone, where it’s easier to hide things, desensitizes. But it doesn’t negate the good. She inspired me when I really needed it. We helped each other through tough times and into better days.
We were sitting in a diner after finishing brunch on the Monday I left, and she looked amazing in a tapered denim shirt that hugged her curves and showed off her neck. “Look at you, with your long-distance boyfriend,” I joshed her, since she was glowing.
I hope she found the great love she wanted. If it’s not the one whom she’s seeing, may it be the next.
Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh journalist and freelance writer who has taken a break from Internet romance. Follow him on his blog, Barnestormin, http://barnestormin.blogspot.com, on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Email: Barnestorm@alumni.cmu.edu.