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At the advanced age of thirty-two, I’ve learned enough about the world to have developed a well-established set of personal rules by which I live my life. Here is the first one: The whole concept of a One True Love Who Completes Your Soul is total bullshit.
I don’t mean love in general, of course—I love my parents, my sister, a few assorted friends, and Churchill, the English bulldog I had when I was growing up. I’m talking about the fairy-tale, Prince Charming, marriage-as-a-happy-ending, love- at-first-sight kind of thing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a brand of snake oil concocted by the online dating and wedding industries for the sole purpose of bilking millions of unsuspecting women out of their hard-earned money. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any role models to look to who’ve actually sustained long-term love, much less successful marriages. My parents, and most of my friends’ parents, were of the generation who believed strongly in the power of divorce and remarriage as an alternative to buying a sports car when in the midst of a midlife crisis.
You could call me cynical, or jaded, or even a little bitter, and I wouldn’t argue with you. It’s not as though I arrived at my philosophy on love when I was thirteen and still thought I was going to marry the lead singer of Duran Duran. No, it took years and years of bad dates, horrible setups, and one real bastard of an ex-boyfriend for me to come to my senses.
Which is why I never imagined I would meet someone on an airplane. I mean, how random would that be? After all, in real life, lovers are not brought together by a quirk of fate, or by some random act that realigns the universe; most people who get together meet through friends, or work, or something equally mundane. Those syrupy tales of two halves of one heart reuniting are just Hollywood fairy tales, usually starring Meg Ryan, and marketed to women in my age, gender, and marital-status demographic. But I have always refused to buy into the hype, just as I refuse to transform my pin-straight hair into Meg’s adorably scruffy, Sally Hershberger–designed coif. So when I boarded the American Airlines flight from New York to London, my battered old knapsack slung over my shoulder (I never can pull off that glamorous world-traveler look—really, I’m only one small, scary step from completely throwing away my dignity and embracing the butt pack), the last thing I was expecting was romance. In fact, I was fully prepared for a boring, six-hour trip full of bad food and uncomfortable seats, and—if experience was any guide—a small child sitting behind me, screaming the whole way.
I snagged a window seat, and was glad that I only had to share one armrest. I had desperately hoped to get upgraded to business class—that Shangri-la for travelers, with its cushy seats, free drinks, and plentiful armrests—but the same grouchy airline employee who wouldn’t give me a seat in the emergency-exit row certainly had no interest whatsoever in upgrading me (he’d been far more accommodating to the Ricky Martin look-alike who’d been ahead of me in line, I’d noted). I was relieved when a middle-aged woman wearing a pashmina shawl and carrying a thick paperback sat in the empty seat next to me. I usually get seated next to obese men who have personal odor problems and who snore so loudly they actually drown out the roar of the jet engines. This woman tended in the other direction—as thin as a greyhound and marinated in Obsession perfume—but still, a definite improvement. Or so I thought.
Shortly after takeoff, the woman began twisting around to whine to her husband, who was sitting directly behind her, about how her back was hurting her and why couldn’t the airlines provide orthopedic pillows, and how could he not have remembered to pack his blue jacket, and why hadn’t the airline honored her request to sit next to an empty seat so she could stretch out during the flight, and had she known they were going to stick someone next to her, she would have rather sat with her husband. Considering her tone, her husband’s weary answers, and the fact that every time the woman turned around she knocked me in the side with her pointy little elbow, I was starting to suspect that the husband had lucked out by not having to sit next to her. It was probably the first peace and quiet he’d had since marrying her (not that she showed any intention of leaving him alone to enjoy it). On her third go-round, this time lodging a complaint on the too-cold temperature of the airplane, I heard the man sitting behind me offer to trade places with her so that she and her husband could sit together.
“Oh, thank you. We would have booked our seats together, but I was supposed to have an empty seat next to me. But then they sat this woman here,” she said, her voice laced with self-righteous indignation, as she shot me a dirty look.
I returned her dirty look—a skill I could win a gold medal in—and Mrs. Pointy Elbow was properly chastened . . . or scared, I actually couldn’t tell which, as I’ve been told that my signature dirty look is quite intimidating. I base it on a combination of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (“You can’t handle the truth!”) and Hillary Clinton when she thinks no one is watching her, with just a hint of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry thrown in for some color. In any event, Mrs. Pointy Elbow averted her eyes and stopped complaining—for the moment—and turned her attention to collecting her things. It took her a while, a laborious process of gathering her book and newspaper and purse and pillow and blanket together, all while this guy was standing in the aisle, waiting patiently for her to finally clear out of what was now his seat.
To my surprise, the guy was cute, in a scruffy sort of way. I hadn’t noticed him in the airport lounge when we were waiting to board, but then he wasn’t exactly a head-turner. He was tall and lanky, although not skinny, thank God (I can’t deal with men who have thinner thighs than I do). He had a long, angular face, shaggy dark blond hair in need of a trim, and his too-long nose was slightly crooked, as if it had never been properly set after being broken. From the barely noticeable lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes, I guessed his age to be about thirty-six or -seven—definitely on my side of forty. It wasn’t until he smiled at the woman as she thanked him for changing seats with her that I was struck by how appealing he was—his smile lit up his whole face, his grin open and genuine, his eyes crinkling pleasantly. And I don’t normally go for blond men—there’s something too California-ish, too frat-rat about them, too much like Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But this guy was more Owen Wilson than Sean Penn.
And his considerable height was a definite plus. Men who are shorter than I am face automatic elimination under the rules set forth in the Official Claire Spencer Dating Handbook. It’s not that I’m prejudiced against petite men—it’s just that the last time I went out with one of them, my date spent the evening saying things like “Wow, you’re a lot of woman, aren’t you,” and then challenged me to an arm-wrestling competition over dinner. Around the time I turned twenty-five—about the same point I stopped slouching in a misguided attempt to appear dainty—I decided that I would no longer date short men, and this policy has saved me an enormous amount of humiliation. Now I only have to deal with my good friend Max Levy, who doesn’t reach five foot six in his cowboy boots, and who is always trying to get me to dance with him so that he can act out the scene in Sixteen Candles where Long Duck Dong rests his head on the massive bosom of his “sexy American girlfriend.” Needless to say, I don’t find this nearly as funny as he does.
My new seatmate folded his long frame into the seat next to mine, slouching down like a teenager, and, to my complete humiliation, caught me checking him out.
“Looks like we’re stuck together,” he said while smiling pleasantly at me.
“Hmmm,” I said, and to cover for my previous ogling, gave him a polite, dismissive smile, before hiding behind my copy of Elle Decor.
But he wasn’t put off. “I’m Jack,” he said, holding his hand out sideways.
“Claire,” I replied, taking his hand.
It was awkward to shake hands in the narrow space, but actually I was secretly pleased at the attention. Even though I don’t believe in the One True Love thing, I’m not against a little harmless flirting now and then—it’s all a matter of controlling your expectations. I did wish that I’d dressed in something a little more glamorous than my favorite jeans and a black turtleneck sweater, and that I’d worn my contact lenses instead of my horn-rimmed glasses, but I’d been hoping to catch a little sleep on the plane, and so had dressed for comfort, not for a date. At least my hair was clean, and freshly blown out, and I was reasonably sure that my makeup was still intact.
Oh God, what am I doing? Don’t even think about it, I told myself. I’m sure I’m not his type. He’s all preppy and outdoorsy looking, and he probably goes for skinny women who like to run marathons and go camping. Certainly not someone like me.
Because the thing is, I’m big. Big. I’m very tall for a woman, five feet ten inches from head to toe, and hardly fall into the current beauty ideal of being Gwyneth Paltrow thin. I’m big all over—big arms, big hands, big feet, big boobs, big hips, and one of my thighs is probably about the same size as Gwynnie’s entire body. It’s not that I’m fat, really—in fact, through rigorous gym sessions, I’m at a healthy weight, even if I’m not about to go parading around in public in a bikini. And although I’ve definitely grown to be comfortable with my body—well, more comfortable, anyway—it’s still hard to live in a culture where the last two full-figured women to achieve prominence were Monica Lewinsky and Anna Nicole Smith. There are guys out there who have a thing for fuller-figured women, but since there are also fetishists of toe licking and underwear sniffing, this was not necessarily a reassuring thought.
I pretended to go back to reading my magazine, while Jack turned his attention to what looked like paperwork he’d retrieved from his briefcase. It wasn’t until the dinner service arrived, and we were offered our choice between a seafood dish of some sort and chicken with pasta, that Jack packed up his files and stuck them in the storage pocket in front of him.
“I think I’ll have to go with the chicken. How about you?” he asked.