Philadelphia

It’s been a long time since I’d been to Philadelphia, something like 23 years. Many years ago I took a road trip to Philadelphia, then flew home. I don’t remember anything about the airport at the time, but being back in the same building got me remembering. I’d left someone the last time I was flying out of the Philadelphia airport, and at the time I felt relieved just to be moving on. It was an unhappy set of events that brought me to Philadelphia then, a lot of sadness, and anger, and shame. Not my favorite place to be, all things considered, but yet here I was, back in Philadelphia, even just as a stop on the way home from a business trip.

Memories of my last visit to Philadelphia and the details that lead up to it were running through my head, enough so that I had zoned out a bit. By the time I heard the young lady she must have been on her third or fourth ‘excuse me, sir?’

I looked up, unstuck from the flood of memories and questions whirling through my mind. There was one seat left in the waiting area of gate C18, and it was to my left. This young lady was trying get past me to sit in it.

“Sorry to bother you, but could you move your bag so I can take the seat?” she was asking, still having not lost her patience at my inattention. Feeling guilty, both for not being aware, and for leaving my bag in the way, I nodded to her while pulling my bag into my lap.

Wallet? Check. Boarding pass? Check. Passport? Passport? Where is my Passport? I had it when I passed through customs, but it’s not in the pocket I usually keep it. I panic for just a moment as I rifle through my backpack. Lots of little pockets, and pockets in pockets, means I lose stuff in it all the time. I’m beginning to get alarmed as I realize I can’t my find Passport.

I may have dropped it when I sat down, I thought, the pocket in these shorts is shallower than usual and I’ve been surprised by this before, so instead of panicking I should look around my seat.

“Is this yours?” the young lady says, holding my Passport. I’d lost track of time, in the worry of wondering where my Passport was. She was smiling, and it seemed as if she was trying to calm me down. I suppose I’d been a bit frantic for a moment, and she was trying to be helpful.

“Thank you” I said. “It’s been a long day, and I must have dropped it.”

“That’s okay,” she replied “no problem.” She paused, looking like she had more to say.

In that moment I could have looked away, and gone back to my internal dialog, getting lost again in my melancholy. In that moment she might have thought better of what she was about to say and decided not to. But at least in this version of reality in that moment she spoke.

“This may seem silly,” she said somewhat sheepishly, “but you look really familiar. Do we know each other?”

Her dirty blond hair, just brushing her shoulders, was disheveled enough to be endearing, but not such a mess as to be distracting. Her eyes were a deep brown, and fit perfectly on her caring face. Altogether, she was rather pretty, in a girl-who-is-your-friend-but-not-your-girl-friend sort of way. Funny how you can pass by hundreds of people in a day, and still not really see them. With her question I looked at her for the first time, and thought that I might like to know her better.

But for the life of me, I had no memory of her.

I shook my head, partly as a no, and partly as an indication that I was still pondering the question. “I don’t think so. Perhaps you’ve seen me speak?”

Having spoken at conferences for many years it’s not uncommon that someone recognizes me but I don’t recognize them. It had just happened at the conference I was returning from, where someone approached me after my lecture asking if I knew them, only for it to turn out that they had seen me lecture at the same conference two years ago. Because they recognized me they thought I might have recognized them.

But she was unusually young to have been in any of my recent conference lectures. And while our industry is doing a better job all the time of including people that are not just white educated males, I didn’t think it likely that this particular young woman was in any of my lectures without me remembering her; she had the kind of face I’d want to remember.

She was puzzled at my question. “I’m returning from a conference in Germany, and thought you might have seen me at that or another conference. Are you in the video games business?” I asked, feeling obliged to lend some context to the situation.

“No” she replied with a light laugh. “I’m in grad school. I don’t play games.”

I gave her my doubtful look.

“There is a game on my phone I play once in a while.” She admitted, like she’d been caught.

“These days just about everyone plays something,” I said, falling into my ‘professional’ voice, the one I use when talking to press or partners about the ubiquity and cultural impact of video gaming.

“Let me show you,” she said, “I think I still have it on my phone.” She took out her phone, and I chuckled.

“I thought only Microsoft employees had Windows phones” I said jokingly, but she didn’t seem to get the joke.

A moment later she showed me her screen. The game was called Flowerz. It was a free game Microsoft gave away, likely as a way to get new users accustomed to using the Microsoft phone version of the app store. I knew this because I was one of the designers of the game, having first developed it as a web game while I was still at Microsoft many years ago. Then later, after I left, Microsoft ported it to the Windows phone. It was perhaps one of my biggest successes, given how many people had come to play the game. This idea struck me on one hand as very depressing, and on the other hand as something I was still just a little bit proud of.

“Believe it or not,” I said, “I made that game. Not just me, I was just one of the people involved. I was one of the game designers, but the real work was done by the rest of the team.” In my head I recalled it was one of Bulent’s first game projects, and how he beamed to be involved in the production side of the studio, and that James had spent weeks on getting the level design and difficulty ramp just right, though he was never really happy with it, just as he was often not really happy in general. Other names I couldn’t recall, but I still knew their faces. To her, this was just some little game she played, but to me it was evidence of a time and a team I was proud to be a part of.

“Really?” she exclaimed, seeming mostly impressed. “That’s awesome!”

I was in full executive mode now, part showing off my product, and part being conscious of trying to be just a little more impressive than usual. “Here, let me show you my name in the credits,” I said, sensing just a hint of disbelief in her tone. She let me hold her phone, and within a few swipes up came the credits, and I handed her phone back. “See that name there, that’s me. I’m Joshua Howard, it’s nice to meet you.” I said.

She shook my hand, smiling. “That’s so cool, that you made a game. I never met someone who did that.” she said, then paused before continuing, “But that doesn’t explain why you look familiar.”

As she spoke I began to realize that there was something about her that was familiar, or perhaps I was just convincing myself of this, because it was nice to be speaking to a pretty girl. She was young enough to be my daughter, and my heart imagined what she must have been like as a child.

It’s a strange thing, being a father of almost grown daughters — there is some magic age at which I don’t see a woman I could be attracted to, instead I see the little girl she must have grown up from. The dad in me and the man in me have clear boundaries, sometimes to my surprise. And this young lady, pretty as she was, was firmly sorted into the paternal side of my heart.

It was imagining her as a child that triggered something specific in my memory. Which clearly triggered something on my face.

“So you do recognize me, don’t you?” She asked, somewhat insistently, reading my expression.

I was unwilling to respond. The little girl my memory locked onto was someone I’d had nightmares about for years. Even after being married, and having daughters of my own, I would wake up in a sweat having dreamt that she showed up at my door, out of the blue. It was the same nightmare for years; she insisted I was her father, because her mother told her so. But I wasn’t, and having felt terrible about leaving her once, I didn’t know how to respond to her forcing her way back into my life.

I had abandoned two people the last time I left Philadelphia. Leaving my ex-girlfriend was the easy part. Leaving her daughter was, up until that point of my life, the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. I had been warned about the perils of dating someone with a child, but at the time I thought I was mature enough to handle it. I wasn’t.

Having fallen in and out of love with her mom, or so I thought at the time, I realized that I had fallen head over heels for the daughter. She was the closest thing to my own child I’d ever had, at the time, and part of me wanted to steal her away from her mother. But other voices in my head prevailed, perhaps out of practicality, perhaps out of fear, and in the end I accepted that as much as I cared for the little girl, she didn’t belong with me. She belonged to her mother. And leaving her mother meant leaving the little girl, the almost-daughter I had come to adore.

All of this flooded over me in just a few breaths, my face turning from fear, to sadness, and back to fear. She sensed that perhaps she had crossed some line. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude.” she explained, but without disengaging.

I leaned in, just a little, and looked intently at her. She held my gaze. “Megan?” I said, so soft as to be almost be a whisper, “is that you?”

Her eyes got wide, first with shock, then anger, then finally fear washing over her face. “How do you know my name?” she asked slowly, cautiously, “so you do know me, but how?” she pressed, finding a firmness in her voice she had lacked before.

Without even thinking I began to spill out the story, of how her Mom and I met. How her Mom kept after me, even shooing off the other girls, until I finally got the hint and asked her out. How we started dating while in college, and that from the very beginning I thought I might be getting in over my head, but that being courted by an older woman was just too Rod Stewart for me not to give it a try. How her mom fell hard for me, and I began to realize she wanted a future I could not commit to. How I began to secretly think of her, Megan, as my own daughter. How my attachment to her made breaking up with her mom harder than I knew how to handle. Then how I finally found a way out by driving her and her Mom to Philadelphia, where her Mom had been accepted for grad school, saying goodbye, and flying home, never looking back. All with a mix of relief and shame that stays with me to this very day.

As I was babbling forth I thought this must be what confession is like, speaking truths aloud that I had tried to bottle up and ignore.

The whole time she held my gaze. The dam having broken, I had let loose with so much more than I intended to. By the end I realized she was holding my hand in her hands. She was looking at me with those caring but bewildered eyes. A tear or two had escaped down her cheek, as they had on my own.

“I’m so sorry,” she said earnestly, after letting a moment of silence linger. “You clearly have been going through something, something hard and intense. But I’m not that girl. I never knew my mother, at least not really, she left when I was still very young. I don’t really know what happened to her, and for a long time that really bothered me, but I’m past that now.”

“You seem like a nice man,” she continued, “but I must have been wrong. I must have confused you with someone else.”

“No, don’t be sorry,” I said, “I don’t know what I was thinking, dumping all over you like that. I guess I’m more tired than I knew. I’m sorry for that, you didn’t deserve it.” I tried to regain what little dignity I could. Between the long trip, the lack of sleep, and the ongoing difficulty adjusting to a new reality, mixed with the memories of my last Philadelphia trip, I guess I must have gotten a little carried away. I pulled my hand away from hers, feeling suddenly uncomfortable and awkward.

Megan — how strange it was for this young lady to have the same name as the young lady in my story — turned to grab her bag, got up from her seat, and walked away. She didn’t look back, as I watched her leave the gate, and disappear into the crowd of the airport.

It was then I noticed that she had dropped something. Her boarding pass. After a quick once over I realized it was her previous boarding pass, so her having dropped it wasn’t a problem — she wouldn’t be coming back for it. But I couldn’t leave well enough alone, as I let my gaze drift to the name. She may not have been my Megan, but there was still some part of me that hoped — though I don’t know for what.

JOHNSON, MEGAN M the name read.

So it wasn’t her after all, I thought. Or at least it probably wasn’t her. It was silly of me really, I chided myself, to think that she might be at the airport the very same day I was, at the same gate. I felt like a sad old man, creating connections where none existed, all for want of a smile on a pretty face.

Only two more hours before we start boarding, I thought. Better shake it off and get my head on straight, I thought. Were that I was still married I’d have told this story to my best friend. But I was still adjusting to a world without her, and resolved that this story wouldn’t be shared with anyone. Too many sad memories, too much regret, and too much shame. I was learning to deal with the sad, and the angry, and while I wasn’t completely past it, I knew that I had to decide to move forward, and not keep looking back. I’d share many stories of this trip, but decided to leave out the young lady, the Megan I mistook for my own.

Until, when we finally boarded, and getting ready to turn off my phone, I did as I always do, and checked mail one last time before takeoff. Amongst a bunch of expected emails was the subject line “I think I might be your Megan”. Here is the email:

“Sorry to have freaked out like that. I didn’t know how to react, so I did what I’ve done a lot in my life, I ran.

I was telling the truth when I said I didn’t really know my mother, she really did leave me when I was very young. But she left one picture with me, the only thing I have from her. In the picture I am about three years old, in a princess costume, with my mom, and a man. I think you were that man.

I think I might be your Megan.

I found you online because of that game you made. You were pretty easy to find on Facebook too. I saw that you had daughters, but I felt like I was becoming stalkery, so I made myself stop.

But I had to let you know.

I don’t really know who you are, but I do know you are not my father. You knew my mother once, when I was little, but no matter what you think, you owe me nothing.

Megan Miller Johnson”

It’s just midnight now and I’m in bed typing this, not wanting to lose the intensity of it all. I’m home now, having landed, and gotten a cab back to the apartment. My oldest daughter, who lives with me, stayed up late enough to give me hugs when I got home. It was both a needed reminder of the good things I have in my life, and of the good things that I’ve lost. The older I get the more nuanced my memories seem to be; nothing is all good or all bad. I love my daughter, and it’s not her fault that I sometimes see her Mom in her eyes. I’ll gladly take the good there still is, even if it means making peace with the sad.

But I can’t sleep. As tired as I am. As exhausted as the time zone change, the long flights, and the layovers have made me, I can’t fall asleep. My mind is reeling about my run in with Megan. With my Megan. I’m still pinching myself about whether it happened or not. I’m hoping that by writing it all down I can make sense of it, make peace with it, and then allow myself to find some sleep.

It’s almost too fantastical to believe, and with every moment I get further from it, I wonder if it wasn’t a delusion borne of my nostalgia and exhaustion. But whether it was real or not doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t change the truth of it.

The truth is, I’ve learned that happy and sad are just moments, and that a good life is as full of such moment as possible. That not having sad means not having happy, and that I’d rather have both than neither. Megan was both a happy set of moments and some very sad moments, but I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Thank you Megan, for having been even a small part of my life, and for the smiles your memory still brings. I wish I had been a better person for you, but I don’t for a moment regret having you in my life.

Megan, if you are still stalking me on my Facebook page, if I really met you at gate C18 at the Philadelphia airport, know that I will never forget you. Know that I will no longer have nightmares about you. Thank you, for helping me decide to no longer be ashamed of my sad.

Note: this story was first shared with friends on Facebook on Aug 5th, 2015.

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