Many moons ago, on a summer’s night, I stumbled across her profile in an AOL chatroom. Does anybody remember AOL chatrooms? If you don’t, you missed out on a cultural phenomenon. Anyway, I read and re-read her profile; something really stuck out, though the only thing I remember it saying was: “I say what I mean, I mean what I say, I mean it!” Sensing that I had one chance to make an impression, I played with words and composed a line of two parts quip and one part schmaltz. For the life of me, I can’t remember what it read, though what I do recall was pausing and thinking: Are you ready for you life to change? I sent the message… but this isn’t the day I’m talking about.
Nor was a it couple of weeks earlier, when during my first visit to Missoula – in the throes of a hangover – I sat up in the backseat of the car in which I was riding, looked out over the Reserve Street bridge towards Squaw Peak and the Nine Mile Valley and thought: I can’t imagine being in a relationship this far west and this far north. Pretty heady stuff for the worldly Philly boy that I was at the time.
In the second tidbit, I’m convinced that I was sensing her presence in some weird ethereal plane. In the first, I think I had identified her. Nevertheless, the day that I’m talking about was roughly six months later, when I was going to meet the girl who had become ‘The Voice in the Night.’
For hours on end, night after night, we ‘chatted’ online. Soon we were talking on the phone. I couldn’t believe it, here I was relating to this voice, this person, better than anyone in my life. For months our nightly ritual continued, building an unspoken relationship. If one of us would have mentioned the ‘R’ word I think we both would have ran the other way. We were so open with each other precisely because there was no expectations or pressure. There was definitely no hurry to meet. We used to joke that we would get around to that in 2029. We were constantly in the moment with each other. But a funny thing happens when you strike gold like this. Certain emotions creep in.
For months I was walking around like I had a girlfriend that nobody knew about. I’m sure I exhibited all the outward signs of falling in love, but to those around me, there was nobody on my arm. With the exception of a select few, nobody knew what I was up to. There were times, when I was playing hockey, I would look up from the crease and gaze at the spectators and imagine her being there, watching. A bittersweet loneliness crept into my existence. The sweet part was to have this connection with this human being, the bitter part was being separated by thousands of miles. At some point the conversation got around to meeting. Despite the 2029 jokes, we agreed that December would be as good as any. I suggested the twenty-ninth. It was after Christmas, all the family obligations would be over with, and it would be the perfect time to hang out for a few days – five to be precise. Who was I kidding? I wanted to see if this magic conducted itself to real life.
So the countdown was on. When I mentioned: “See you in eleven days,: Tammy had a reaction. It was thing like this: “AAAAAHHHH!” She felt the pressure. What ifs were creeping into our thoughts, like when a good friend asked, “only five days? That’s not a lot of time.” To which I responded: “It’s an eternity if we don’t hit it off.” I mean sure, we got along on the phone, but, what if she was nothing like her picture? What if she had rancid broccoli farts? What if…
Christmas came and went. The hours ticked away. The night before I was flying out, I got a phone call. It was the airline. You’re flight from Minneapolis to Missoula has been cancelled due to staffing concerns. What? Didn’t they know there was a Nor’ Easter coming up the coast and was forecast to hit Philly on the thirtieth. There was a real chance that the storm could take a huge chunk out of the plans and that our five days could be reduced to five hours. That wasn’t going to happen, so I got on the horn and said, “hey, I’m flying out on the twenty-ninth. If I have to spend a night in Minnesota, no big deal, but I’m not staying in Philly.” When I told Tammy, she thought I was joking. Then she felt relief. What was see you tomorrow was see you in two days. More time to stew in romancistential (yes, I just made that word up) angst.
And so, as of this writing, thirteen years ago to the minute, I was sitting in the Philadelphia airport watching the sun rise over a city rife with anticipation of approaching Armageddon. If you think I’m being overly dramatic, you haven’t lived on the east coast. There was an energy in the air, and as I waited for board my flight I fed off it knowing that I was about to meet this voice in the night. If you were in the Philadelphia or Minneapolis airports that day, I was the guy with the coy smile. Everything felt right.
Speaking of Minneapolis, with backup plans in place ( a hotel room and the idea to see a Wild game) I played the standby game. The experience gave me my love of airports. There’s just an energy about them. It could be that most people are out of their element and possess a certain vulnerability, or maybe I just relive the anticipation I felt that day. I even savored standing in line to get a cup of coffee.
My first chance to get to Missoula the standby route went up in flames. The fight was overbooked and there wasn’t a chance. It was decision time – do I fold and go to the hockey game and wait another day, or do I take a chance? Since I was having such a good time being an airport voyeur, I hung out for another three hours to give my quest a fighting chance. As the time neared, I approached the gate. The only other couple there were arguing with the Gate Nazi about this or that and were demanding to be placed on the flight. Me, I just enjoyed the show. When she finished with them, I told her my story: That I was on my way to Missoula to meet a girl, my voice in the night. She swooned. I know for a fact she bumped me up the list. “How?” you ask. Let me tell you.
As the time approached, I counted the bodies in the gate and compared it to the planes capacity. Yes, the Gate Nazi told me the plane’s capacity. She told me to sit nearby and count. I did. As the plane loaded I was feeling discouraged. More passengers trickled on. I got a better grip on the numbers. There was a possibility. I felt a smile. I was going to make it. Then, my name was called. She smiled at me and wished me luck and handed me my boarding pass. The couple that was giving her grief was left out in the cold. On a side note, to the Northwest Airlines Gate Nazi on that last flight of the day from MSP to MSO on December 29th, 2000, thank you… You helped change my life.
But, things are never that easy. As the plane was ready to depart the captain comes over the intercom and says: “Sorry folks, this flight is experiencing a critical weight ratio, we will be asking for volunteers to give up their seats, if there are none, we will be forced to bump passengers.”
What? Oh shit, I thought. I was the last one to get a boarding pass, they will bump me off the flight. I held my breath and waited. And waited. Someone obviously took the bait, because I was still in my seat. It would be a matter of hours before I would be face to face with the voice in the night. I smiled as the plane rumbled down the runway and took off into a cold Minnesota night. Somewhere over the plains, I looked from the window – where way below lonely lights bobbed in a sea of dark desolation – to the ‘air’ phone that made its home in the back of seat. Yes, this was in the days before everybody had smartphones. I got my wallet out, swiped my credit card, and called her.
“Guess what?” I said.
“I’m on my way. Be there in two hours.”
“AAAAAAHHHHH!” She said.
When Tammy tells her side of the story, she claims that I don’t know how to tell time. Because, the flight wasn’t due for three hours, causing her an extra hour of that angst I mentioned earlier. Her story is, she went to the airport, saw that the flight wasn’t due for another hour, went home, did what nervous women do, and came back in time to meet me.
Since that night, I’ve flown into Missoula scores of times, but I can tell you that no approach seemed as long and as foreign as that night. The plane just didn’t seem like it wanted to land. On the approach I looked over the ground that in the following years would provide the fodder for many memories, and more importantly, many stories. But I wasn’t thinking of that then, especially
after the plane landed and taxied to the gate. I sat in my seat as I watched people scramble in the aisle. When it was my turn, I took a deep breath, stood, and followed the heard up the jetway. Through the crowd, I saw her flaxen hair. It’s rumored that the 80’s never left Montana, so it’s no surprise that her hair was the first attribute I spotted. As I stepped into her sight, so began the most awkward ten minutes of our lives. I had so many images of what our meeting would be like, but nothing in my imagination could have prepared me for the dichotomy of reality. Here is this spirit that I knew so well, in this body that, well, that is in a body that was a complete stranger. Our minds knew each other, but our eyes were like seeing the person across a smoke-filled room for the first time. Do I ravage her? I wanted to. Do I kiss her cheek? I wouldn’t mind. Do I hug her?
The unspoken compromise was option three. We hugged. And then we struggled to talk, ironic considering our entire relationship was, and still is, predicated upon yapping. But what do you say when you’re in shock. I was too busy thinking that five days was going to fly by.
To make a long story short. on the very day, seven years later, I made an honest woman out of her. And that happened six years ago. December twenty-ninth changed my life forever! Happy Anniversary Tammy.
From the Toe (it’s an inside joke!)
which at the time, seemed like the edge of the world