The Writer lived seven states away — in Maine. His profile read: “I’m tall, my mother thinks I’m handsome, and I always finish the Sunday New York Times crossword in ink.”
A little breathless, I wrote, “Really? In ink?”
He answered, “Indelibly.”
I’m not exactly proud of this, but one clever adverb was all it took to launch a long-distance love affair. One thing was sure — The Writer and I were simpatico from the start, and we kept amazing ourselves with how much we had in common. I’d become a good cook later in life. Him, too. He wasn’t afraid of béchamel sauce or a flambé if the situation called for it. He recited Yeats from memory, and we were both loyal to Joni Mitchell, even in her smoky voiced years. And there were the technical merits I was always on the lookout for. He never butchered an irregular past participle, and that counted for a lot.
Before I knew it, I was scooting out of my office abruptly at 5PM because, in the days before smart phones, the only way I could get or receive a message from him was to sit at my desk, at home, and log on. I couldn’t wait to get home and be with him, even if he was 630 miles away, and the only things we were touching were our keyboards. Our screen repartee went on for hours.
We started talking on the phone. His New England accent was wildly seductive. His stories, too — from the salmon almandine he shriveled to hell at his latest dinner party to the juicy gossip at his newspaper. I made him laugh. We talked music, books, old loves. We began to share secrets.
By our two-month “anniversary” we’d exchanged photographs in the mail, the kind that used to be delivered to the metal box attached to your house, because in 1999 people would have said things like, “A phone that’s also a camera? Ridiculous!” The photos I sent were careful to feature my face and sidestep those parts of me now migrating south. The pictures he sent were grainy and distant. Did he seem shorter than he described himself? Who cared? I started getting flowers at work. Delphinium and roses. Sunflowers and purple orchids.
By month three, it was official. We began and ended each day on the phone. And this: “I love you.” My friends looked at me funny, but I thought being in long marriages had clouded their ability to see the magic of the moment.
I reserved my flight and my love would meet me at the Bangor International Airport.
“I’m going to Maine!” I told my two best friends.
“What?” they said in unison. “No, no, no. This is not the kind of thing you do.”
The “you” they were talking about had been in a long marriage. I kept an emergency preparedness kit in my basement. I’d spent a childhood afraid of bears in the suburbs. I changed the batteries in my smoke detectors twice a year. They had a point.
I countered all their logic with, “When you know, you know,” and other sentences just as elliptical. Before I left, I told them to be thinking of the bridesmaid color they might want to wear.
“Something understated,” I added, “because, you know, second marriage and everything.”
I had to endure a bumpy flight to LaGuardia and then get on a 50-seat commuter plane, the kind that always ends up in an FSA investigation because it didn’t clear trees on take-off. And then, after all the buildup, all the waiting . . . I landed in Bangor, and there he was, attempting a casual pose as he leaned against a bank of seats.
“Wow!” he said as he pushed flowers into my hand.
The voice was right. But it was coming from the wrong mouth. Not the wrong mouth, exactly, just smaller than the tantalizing one I’d imagined all those hours on the phone. We leaned in to hug. My lips met his nose. I’d been more comfortable at every junior high dance I ever attended.
In the car leaving the airport, we spoke over each other’s sentences, which had never happened before in our marathon phone chats. I was thankful for the dark because it was easier to say, “I’m sorry, what were you going to say, no you go first” without looking at him.
When we got to his apartment, I noticed a rash moving up his neck, about to reach his left ear. I wondered if I had one, too.
“To us,” he toasted with wine he’d mercifully thought to buy.
“To the great state of Maine!” I said, as if I were on some sort of weekend retreat for middle-aged women who’d lost their minds.
When he left to go to the bathroom, it was my first moment alone since I’d walked off the plane and into his arms. Okay, I thought, We’re just nervous. Shake it off, Linda. I came up with a great plan for the morning. We’d go to the market and plan a sumptuous dinner to cook together. I pictured us chopping and sautéing in a steamy kitchen, with lots of laughter and deliberate touching.
Maybe we could restart with a spirited discussion of his favorite chili recipe, the one he made for his hordes of friends at his famous football parties (though looking around, I wasn’t sure where he actually sat them all. Or stood them all).
Okay — sue me — I began opening The Writer’s cupboards. And here’s what I found: three plastic plates and five mismatched glasses. Here’s what was missing: pots, pans, olive oil, whisks. No chicken stock, no garlic, no convection oven. His cookbook collection? Mastering the Art of French Cooking still in the bag with the receipt peeking out. He’d bought it the day before.
I might as well have found bodies under the sink.
In that first panicked moment, I considered grabbing my suitcase and heading for the door. Then I heard the toilet flush and the water running in the sink. And that’s when I saw the pencil — with an eraser — sitting next to the unfinished NY Times puzzle. From Tuesday.
The bathroom door opened, and there were wan smiles all around.
I understood. I did. The Writer wanted to be a great cook, and handsome, and tall. He would have loved to have a beer once in a while with Will Shortz and talk to him about his crossword strategy. It was too easy for The Writer to type his hopefulness on to a page and think, Well, I’ll work on making it true later.
I know because I was doing the exact same thing back at my house, all those evenings we’d spent “together.”
And then we hit Send, and it all took on a life of its own.
What I wanted to do, but didn’t, was tell The Writer we should just start over, this time with the truth closer to the top. I’d go first. Breakfast this morning was two Milk Duds. I have less energy than I pretend to; a yellow spot on my front tooth that will never go away; an ache, deep and persistent, from the great love of my life. Some days I’m flawed and regretful. I can also be optimistic and graceful. I’m still able to pull off a pretty fine boeuf bourguignon for eight. There you have it.
I stayed the weekend with The Writer. I ate lobster (twice, in restaurants), and we filled Saturday driving to Acadia National Park, probably so we wouldn’t have to look at each other so much. He told me he was the youngest person ever to climb Cadillac Mountain. I told him I’d won a speech contest in college. Technically it was third place, but I don’t think he got himself all the way up that mountain either.
His final email was waiting for me when I got home. Apparently The Writer had spent lots of time in the bathroom that first night trying to think of ways to let me down easy. He stopped short of “pig in a poke,” but barely. He hoped I hadn’t traveled home with my hopes still in place.
I’m rooting for anyone who still gets on a plane and throws caution to the wind. I’m not big on advice to people in love, but if I were, I’d tell you to be aware that very few people can finish the Sunday Times crossword in ink. And unless you want to hear about it into the next decade, you might want to skip the part about the bridesmaid colors.
The Writer moved south and got married. My boeuf bourguignon is still killer.