I remember her every year at this time — and when I see the Missed Connections on Craigslist, where strangers who were too shy to connect when they first crossed paths hope to unite.
These personal ads imply that lost opportunities can be found. That’s why I gave a blanket to a woman I didn’t know. Now, I recognize that some connections with strangers are meant to be brief. When we tell ourselves that we missed a connection, we invent a cavity and a fantasy to fill it. More tragic than that, we miss the silenced part of ourselves that needs our own attention, instead of the attention of another person.
I know this now because of Natalie.
It was the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. We were waiting to board a plane at Sacramento International Airport. She stood at the Southwest Airlines counter. I glanced up while I was reading Jim Thompson’s “Pop. 1280” and saw her.
On our plane bound for Los Angeles, the last open seat was next to me until she took it. The mathematical odds of her sitting next to me were 1 in 137, and the philosophical odds were untold. Before I could say anything, she fell asleep. I thought of Gabriel García Márquez’s “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane,” in which the narrator sees a pretty woman at the airport, sits by her on the plane but never talks to her, because she sleeps during the whole flight.
I requested a blanket from a flight attendant.
Half an hour later, my sleeping beauty woke up.
“I got you a blanket,” I said, hardly taking my eyes off my book.
“Thank you.” She smiled and accepted it.
Once we landed, the captain announced that we couldn’t leave the plane yet. Light ushered away the darkness of the cabin and my seatmate opened “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.
“What class is that book for?” I asked.
“Psychobiology. And yours?”
“Just for fun.”
“How’d you know it was for a class? Oh. I was using my pen.”
“And the sticker on the back: ‘Used,’ ” I said.
We spoke about school, she the student, me the community college instructor. It was her third year at UCLA as a psychobiology major. Medical school was the academic destination. I asked about her interest in neuroscience, and her laughter was bashful. She then detailed fetal development and synaptic activity, her voice very sure, her words unafraid. Family, roommates and lifestyle management rolled off her tongue. This candor was matched in her countenance. We continued to chat while exiting the plane and while at the baggage claim, and she felt comfortable enough to let me drive her to Westwood.
In the car, we exchanged stories about our Thanksgiving weekend, habits and favorite foods until arriving at her building on Veteran Avenue. She wasn’t thrilled about her week ahead, and I had the same feeling about mine.
“We should call each other,” she said. “When we’re both having hard days, we can talk about them.” I agreed and brought up dining as an additional remedy. She hadn’t had Thai food in six years, she estimated. I promised a trip to Thai Town in Hollywood.
Forty-eight hours later, I wasn’t having a particularly hard day, but I thought I should talk about it. I was sitting in my car at Pasadena City College and I had one more English class to teach that day. The sun was setting, the stars would soon emerge and I could gaze at them and wonder. And I didn’t want to wonder anymore. I called Natalie.
After many rings, I left her a voicemail.
I waited a week before sending her a text message. She responded once — and only once.
I have since thought of her more than once.
On airplanes I think of the odds that she’ll sit next to me again and I cannot calculate them. I think of connecting flights and disconnecting passengers, of phone numbers collected among thousands on a SIM card. I think of how I was not Natalie’s missed connection but my own back then: I had become increasingly solitary after a married woman and I drifted away from a friendship that we both knew shouldn’t evolve.
I hoped a new connection with Natalie would develop so I wouldn’t have to be incomplete anymore. This only furthered the fiction that I was missing something in me. I paid for that story with parts of myself, which after time became invisible. Through mindfulness meditation I see those parts again and I welcome them. Now I understand that it’s OK for strangers to leave each other as strangers and that it’s OK for strangers to become more to each other — that one result is not the right answer because there isn’t a single right answer. It was the kind of connection only missing when we are missing compassion for ourselves.
The author is a novelist living in Culver City. His website is tommytung.com.
L.A. Affairs chronicles the current dating scene in and around Los Angeles. If you have comments or a true story to tell, email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com.
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