We were just two friends having a friendly drink at the bar. At the time, I did not understand what was happening: I was with a man looking to cheat on his wife.
We met at a conference a few weeks prior. I was in my third year on the tenure track and still in that hopeful, terrified stage of a young academic’s career. A dear colleague of mine was very ill. He was a mentor, a kind and encouraging dad-like presence at my job, who also happened to be nationally known in our profession. We knew he was in the hospital, and we were on tenterhooks awaiting word. His prognosis was not good, and yet we were hopeful. No matter how cynical, how cerebral we are, hope stirs us. But often we only realize its supreme presence in our lives when it is finally gone.
I was in the airport waiting to board a flight to a conference when I got the email. My colleague was dead. I was sick at heart and considered hopping in a cab and going home. But then I thought about what he would want for me, about how much he believed in me, and how foolish he would regard any maudlin displays of grief. I got on the plane.
This was one of those conferences that’s by invitation only, there were fancy people there, and it was all paid for–a real boon to the CV for a junior scholar trying to make her name. When my flight landed, there was a guy with a sign with my name on it waiting for me, just like in the movies. We were ferried around like that for a couple of days, staying in a nice hotel, then being driven to various sites for tours and talks and dinners. It was, professionally speaking, a Big Deal.
Unfortunately, I was not in quite the right frame of mind to capitalize on the opportunity, which began with cocktails and dinner in an upscale steakhouse, the kind whose bar is filled with leather chairs with brass studs and oil paintings of cowboys. I am shy and introverted by nature, so a party at which I don’t know anyone is challenging. Make it a party that’s 90 percent men, most of whom are middle-aged or older, in a professional context, and you’ve created my nightmare scenario. Normally I handle such situations by clinging to a wall, carefully observing, and spending lots of time in the ladies’ room. It gets you nothing, but it costs nothing too. In this case, though, I was still in shock over the death of my friend, so I tried a different coping strategy: booze.
I am a lightweight, and it only takes two drinks on an empty stomach to get me drunk. By dinner, I was pretty toasted. I barely spoke to my table mates and focused instead on the many challenges of not looking drunk. I struggled to stab those pesky cherry tomatoes, chasing them across my salad plate with my fork as the guest speaker droned on. The little tabs of butter in foil wrappers likewise befuddled me. It’s a wonder I didn’t require stitches from trying to cut my steak.
Eventually they herded us back onto the shuttle bus for the return to the hotel. I was so eager to leave, and so disinterested in talking to anyone, that I was first to board. I took the front row, the one with an expansive view of the road, and rested my head against the window as the other conference goers filed past the empty seat beside me. Despite myriad alternatives for seating, a man sat down next to me. I stirred from my reverie to acknowledge him.
I don’t recall if there was an opening line, but I do recall a moment where I felt like I was standing at the edge of a canyon and thinking, “What the fuck do I care? I’m gonna see if I can make it across.”
He was an officer in the Air Force, about 50 but fit as hell, handsome, and clean cut, like he had been poured into a mold labeled “ideal white masculinity circa 1960.” He was wearing a natty suit and projecting just the slightest air of nonchalance. I could smell it.
“I’m not really into this conference,” I said. “I feel like I am somewhere else.”
It was an enormously risky thing for me to say, because no one was wearing name tags. I did not know who was who at the conference, meaning I had no awareness of who could help–or jettison–my career. Showing human frailty in that situation was an invitation to judgment, not just of me as an individual but of all women in my field, who labor against the usual offensive stereotype that emotions cloud our reason. And it was personally risky, to display that kind of vulnerability. Rejection, even from a total stranger, only serves to deepen the well of loneliness we are drowning in.
On the other hand, I am also aware that when you are brave enough to reach out, fate often provides a person willing to reach back. I learned that lesson in the most powerful way years before, when I was in graduate school. I was going through a horrific breakup that taxed my ability just to breathe, let alone keep my teaching job. One day I taught my class, returned to my department for office hours, and found my recent ex–the one I had been living with after four years together–and his new girlfriend–the one he had cheated on me with–flirting loudly in another office two doors down. I shut my door so I would not have to hear their voices and promptly dissolved into sobs. Just then, in the midst of a silent hyperventilation, there was a knock at the door. Delusional in thinking that my ex had come to comfort me, I opened it with a rush. Instead, it was one of my undergraduates. He looked shocked to see the person he regarded as his “professor” standing there with hands full of Kleenex and a face wet with tears, smudged mascara, and snot. I was horrified. I tried to compose myself and do the right, professional thing.
“Um, I was just… Come in!” I opened the door wider and stepped aside so he could enter, but he didn’t move. “Please,” I coaxed. “Come in.”
“No,” he said. “It’s…ok.”
There was an awkward pause while he stared at me and I stared at a spot on the wall somewhere behind him. Mortified and beyond recovery, tears continued to pool in my eyes and trickle down my cheeks. I don’t remember much about this kid, other than that he was Joe Average Undergrad, a white, middle class boy of privilege who, from my vantage point at the podium, was no different than the rest of his peers–that is, totally preoccupied with binge-drinking and shirtless volleyball. (This sounds a little like I went to grad school at Top Gun University. I assure you, it was just a regular university.) But then he said something that made me think, “My god, out of all the kids that could have been standing there when I opened this door on my actual, crumbling, embarrassingly broken state of mind, it can NOT be an accident that it was him.”
“No, really, it’s ok,” he explained. “My sister died last year. She had cancer. And it was really hard. Sometimes I would just fall apart…” His voice trailed off. I don’t remember all of what he said, but I know he said, “So I understand,” even though he never asked why I was crying. After what he had been through, he was wise enough to know that it didn’t matter. Before he left, he also said, “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything about this to the other students.” Which was exactly the fear that shook me when I opened the door and saw him standing there–that I would return to a classroom full of sniggers and undermining comments. Such is the workplace dynamic of the young female instructor when students equate authority with age and masculinity. Instead, his words freed me to focus on caring for myself, and they showed me that there are decent people in this world, at precisely the moment when I was losing faith.
Now, a few years later, grieving the death of my colleague and feeling overwhelmed by my precarious professional situation, I was sitting on a bus revealing my vulnerabilities to a total stranger.
“A friend, a colleague of mine, he died today. I found out right before I got on the plane,” I explained. “So I’m not really feeling present at this thing.” I gave a halfhearted wave at all the suited people nattering enthusiastically behind us.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. “My daughter died last year. I know that feeling, of not really being where you are.”
I offered my condolences and asked what happened. His daughter was in her early twenties when she was killed. She was embarking on a career in the Air Force, following in her father’s footsteps, and learning to fly. There was a training accident, a crash. She survived, but with horrible burns. She spent several months in a burn unit at a VA hospital, disfigured and in agony, alternating between hope for recovery and for relief from the pain of this world. During that time, her dad–this gentle gentleman sitting next to me–took leave from his duties to tend to her. He told me about how close they got, and how it changed him. He was politically and socially conservative, with a strong religious upbringing that he had conferred on his children. His daughter was a good girl, he told me, but she was also an empowered young woman who had boyfriends and adventures that were supposed to be just part of the catalog of experimentation we all acquire before we settle into ourselves. Instead, they were all the life she had to reflect on at the end, and so she shared it with her dad–all of it. He said it was uncomfortable at times, that dads don’t want to know all the risks and sadnesses and illicit triumphs their daughters experience, but that he felt privileged to learn about her true life and to be there with her at its end. She died while he was holding her hand.
He conveyed all of this to me, and I listed intently, over the course of a thirty minute ride back to the hotel. His grief was towering, and mine so small in comparison, just like the kid outside my office back in graduate school. But, just like that kid, he never made me feel diminished, which is the mark of a kind and knowing person. Instead, he made me feel understood. And I think he liked being around me, because I reminded him not so much of his daughter–she was about a decade younger than me when she died–but of the freshness young women exude, like a warm breeze scented with flowers and watermelon. Young women are unaware of it, of course, because they are usually conditioned to criticize and hate themselves. But men–especially older men, especially men with daughters, especially older men with daughters they will never see again–are absolutely intoxicated by it.
The mood lightened as we debarked from the bus back at the hotel, and we settled into a pattern of wry banter that carried us through the rest of the conference. He asked me to join him for a nightcap at the hotel bar, but I demurred. The next morning, he was waiting for me at the door of the bus as we boarded yet again. This time, he was in his Air Force uniform, a blue suit with lots of embellishments that made him look like a 1950s bus driver. I made a joke to that effect, totally unaware that this is a common dig made so frequently at Air Force officers’ expense that it is effectively a cliché. But come on–they really do dress like bus drivers from the 1950s! It wasn’t until later, when we received the program and everyone at the conference was seated in front of their fancy place cards, that I realized he was a general in the United States Air Force, and a multi-star general at that. Looking back, my youth, my vulnerability, and my lack of deference to his rank were probably an alluring combination. (I also had a bangin’ body back then.) But at the time, I was totally oblivious.
The conference finished with little of note, but the general and I did exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Work periodically brought him to my city, and he said he would give me a call the next time he was in town.
He did, a few weeks later, and we met–just two friends having a friendly drink at a friendly bar. At the time, I did not realize that he wanted to sleep with me, and perhaps neither did he. It was all very chaste. There were some hints in his compliments to me, of course, but most of the evidence lies in the negative space of what didn’t happen after. He never called again.
We met, I thought as friends, and I reiterated that on the date. Over a drink, just one, we chatted about how “totally normal it is,” to have friends of the opposite gender, with a big age difference, who live in different cities and meet quietly from time to time. Totally normal. I was wary enough to ask pointedly about his wife, and he told me a little about her. They sounded like a great couple, I said, and it would be nice to meet her next time.
Had I flirted, had I been silent about his family life, had I put words to the unspoken chemistry between us, I think it might have gone differently. But in terms of what did happen, there was really, truly, nothing untoward. We stood together at the precipice of an affair, and then we went our separate ways.
I suspect he didn’t really know why he was there either, though the crisis within his family had clearly led him to me. I suspect he realized, when he saw me for that second and final time, that we would never quite be able to recapture the simple elegance of our original connection–two strangers sitting quiet and still, alone but together with their grief, while the world spins on and on around them. I suspect he realized, as we talked, that the fresh breezes that waft from young women are best appreciated at a distance.