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Good Letters

His name was Peter, and he carried an L.L. Bean canvas bag, monogrammed and trimmed in forest green. It was December 28, 1988, and I noticed him at the gate. Preppy, but kind of cute. And then we boarded, and he took the seat next to mine. American Airlines; JFK to SFO; a DC-10, which meant a layout of two-five-two. I had the window, and he the aisle. We gave each other brief, courteous nods, he stashed his L.L. Bean bag, and I turned back to my book, sneaking an occasional glance his way.

The flight attendants did their familiar demonstration. The plane pulled away from the gate and taxied onto the runway. The plane stopped. The captain came on and made a lame joke. Peter (although I didn’t know his name yet) and I exchanged glances, rolling our eyes in shared wariness. He said something, I said something, and we didn’t stop talking for the next six hours, during which I didn’t look at my book or attempt the movie.

By the time the plane landed at SFO, we knew each other’s names, hometowns, employers, current neighborhoods, and how our mothers didn’t approve of the people we were dating—in my case, because the guy, in Mom’s words, “acted like a kindergartener,” and in Peter’s because the woman wasn’t WASPy enough, a fact Peter underlined by gesturing toward the L.L. Bean bag at his feet.

Peter liked his job but wanted something more; he’d always wanted to play music and worried that he’d find himself trapped with a mortgage and dependents before he took any chances in life. He hoped to find the woman he wanted to marry—the current girlfriend wasn’t the one, and not just because of Mom—before he turned thirty. His idea of the perfect day was taking his dog out for a run early in the morning, and spending the afternoon making love in a room where sunshine poured through open windows.

He blushed. “I don’t usually talk to people this way.”

“Neither do I,” I said, and told him about my job in New York and about how my boyfriend and I were taking a hiatus, although I did have plans to see Ben on New Year’s Eve. I admitted that I, too, feared never doing what I’d always wanted to—in my case, write. I’d taken a few classes and scribbled in my journal, but I kept putting off the hard work, the real commitment. Peter had green eyes, I recall now, because I remember how they bore into mine.

“Promise me you’ll do it,” he said.

“Okay, but you have to promise too.”

We clasped hands.

“But how will we know?” he asked. “We may never see each other again.”

“We’ll know,” I told him, and we shook.

The flight was over too quickly. As the plane taxied to the gate, Peter said, “I’d love to ask you out, but I don’t think my girlfriend would be too happy.”

“I’m busy every night, anyway,” I said, as though I met my soul mate on every cross-continental flight. But I’m free on sunny afternoons. “Besides, Ben and I are trying to work it out. It’s been great talking to you.”

How many times have I rescripted not just that moment but the one that followed, in baggage claim as I stood on one side of the carousel and Peter on the other? When my bag arrived, I picked it up and turned and walked out the door and to the curb. Why didn’t I walk over, slip him my number, and say, “For when things change”?

For, of course, things changed. I broke up with Ben for good not long after the flight, and one evening from my NYC apartment, phoned the company where Peter worked. No luck. I didn’t have a last name (couldn’t even remember the monogram), and I didn’t know the department. Five years later, when I left my career in NYC to pursue writing, I remembered the vow made somewhere over North Dakota, and hoped that Peter did too.

Soul mates? Perhaps not. Attraction inflated by economy-class proximity and the giddy six-hour suspension of gravity? Absolutely. Some 33,000 miles above ground, Peter and I had been freed from what would have kept us more constrained down below. No topic was off limits, and we spoke openly and freely, the way strangers sometimes speak, in a way that felt new and illuminating. I fell in love with possibility.

Six hours with nothing at stake became, at times, a magic interlude to replay in years to come. Earthbound attachments couldn’t compare. Surely Peter wasn’t perfect—and had we ever attempted an earthbound relationship, we may not have gone any further than an awkward coffee date recalling our pilot’s interruptions over the Badlands and Lake Tahoe.

And yet, who knows? Either way, I think of Peter not so much with regret as with a kind of fond gratitude for who we were that December afternoon, for what we brought out in each other, for what that day in the air became not only possible but necessary.

Every so often, on my way to the hardware store or the food bank, I find myself in Potrero Hill, Peter’s 1988 neighborhood, and wonder where he lived. I like to imagine him walking his dog (it would have been a big dog) up Mariposa or Connecticut street. I imagine braking, rolling down the window, calling out, “Hey. There you are. I’m twenty years too late, but here’s my number.”

And yet, in a way, he’s had it all along.

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