“Cool. Tomorrow in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental.”
He hit the “Send” button and thought, “That skydiving thing ain’t nothing in comparison.”
He remembered the feeling quite well. That feeling when he had climbed out onto the little step of the airplane moving through fresh Midwestern air at eighty miles an hour, eleven thousand feet above the ground. Some call it the adrenaline rush, but there is probably more than just adrenaline in play. Inevitability of having to let go and plummet had made his stomach shrink into a golf ball, and he could recall the sensation vividly. But that was nothing like what he felt pressing “Send” on his phone. Tomorrow. The Lobby. The Mandarin. It was real, it was happening, and it felt like an invisible ninja stuck a dagger under his ribcage and twisted it a couple of times. It was painful. He had dreamt of that moment for such a long time, and it finally arrived. Tomorrow. The lobby. The Mandarin.
The pain let go, temporarily. He stepped out on the balcony and lit a cigarette. Clutching the phone in his hand, he pulled up the airline app. Travel plans were changed. The trip was ticketed. The boarding pass was in the Apple Wallet. August was winding down, and the leaves had a dull hue to their greenness. Last time he saw her the leaves were brighter; the air was hotter.
The cigarette tasted good, and he sucked it all the way down to the filter.
He was going to see her again. After twenty five years, she had come back to his life. Digitally, to be exact. People connect and reconnect nowadays, swimming in the pools of social media and fiber optic networks. It took years, but there she was, her full name staring at him from his inbox in Roman characters. It was slightly strange to see her name in Latin script. Not that he hadn’t seen it before. He had googled it, he had read her quotes in international business press, he had seen a few pictures online. On that August evening, however, she was no longer a mystery, no longer a blast from the past. She was just 800 miles away, having flown across the Atlantic westbound on family business.
“Perhaps she is sipping some wine”, he thought, “taking in the views of Columbus Circle, or running in Central Park, maybe strolling down West Village…”
The invisible ninja was back, this time delivering rapid punches straight into the solar plexus. He would see her in about eighteen hours. What would it be like? He only had an hour he could spend in Manhattan, having reshuffled all his travel plans to pass through LGA. But he couldn’t have not gone. Even an hour, after decades of thinking about her daily, seemed like a miracle, something impossible that by a wave of some magic wand suddenly came to be.
What would it be like? He’d had dreams about meeting her, perhaps a few times a month over the past quarter century. Those dreams hadn’t always been pleasant or erotic. Some were, but mostly he would dream about flying across the Atlantic eastbound, meeting her, hanging around, and her barely acknowledging his existence. Then he would wake up with that gnawing sensation, so similar to the one the invisible ninja was making him experience now, choking him with one arm and stabbing his chest repeatedly and mercilessly.
The fact was, twenty five years ago he said goodbye to her at the airport. He took the eastbound transatlantic flight to see her again for the first time, after the initial goodbye eighteen months prior. Airports and airplanes have become a theme of their fragile connection in space and time. That airport goodbye felt final, but he just couldn’t put a stop to his emotions, no matter how much he had tried. He stopped trying after some time. He embraced life, moved on, as they say, but her portrait adorned every place where he had ever set foot. It was a mental portrait, the memory of her deep sky-blue eyes, her long hair that smelled of wild strawberries, her smile, her touch, the warmth of her body against his. He sought her out in the mundane minutiae of daily existence. He watched Cameron Diaz movies not for the love of Diaz’s acting skills but for the resemblance of those piercing sky-blue eyes. His ATM pin has been her old apartment number plus her first initial all this time. He always wondered if anyone else had experienced a high school fling that stayed with the them without the other party being present in the same way it had stayed with him.
The invisible ninja was not sleepy, periodically delivering straight kicks in the abdomen at random intervals. He, on the other hand, needed to get some sleep. He set the alarm for 6 AM while finishing some food and a couple of glasses of wine. The wine seemed to have pacified the invisible ninja somewhat, but he knew it wasn’t over. Ahead was a flight, a cab, an elevator ride up to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel lobby.
“Let there not be any delays,” he thought, checking the weather app.
Sunny and 80s, in both locations. Thank god it wasn’t January. He sipped on more wine and tried to picture the encounter, her walking toward him… Or perhaps she would be sitting down as he walks out of the elevator? Would she get up and smile, running forward? Would they embrace for a while? Or would it be more civilized, more restrained? He didn’t know, but the anticipation made his insides tie up in a pulsating knot, as if the ninja stuck his hand into his gut and was squeezing everything inside in a rhythmic and violent fashion. The rush! Oh no, jumping out of planes was a walk in a park. You either land or you die. Coming face to face with more than two decades of… what? Was he still… in love? Was it lust? A heartbreak that never healed? Nostalgia? He didn’t have a clear answer or perhaps didn’t want to know or admit. As thoughts drifted in and out of his cranium, he dosed off. The ninja did too.
Glowing red numbers showed 4:00 AM. He had been asleep for three hours; he could catch another two. But the invisible ninja was wide awake and back at work, punching, kicking, squeezing.
“Relax, man,” he started talking to himself. “She is just a human being, a person just like you, with a job, responsibilities, family… Ok, so you had a thing back in the day. You are meeting to catch up, you happen to be close enough to swing by. Dude, chill!”
Two hours of solitary discourse and no sleep flew by rather quickly. The alarm went off, he had to get going.
“At least the adrenaline is supposed to keep me awake,” he thought adjusting the shower knob to make it cooler.
The ninja shamelessly snuck into the shower and was doing his thing. He couldn’t convince himself to chill. He was lying to himself. It wasn’t just a thing back in the day. It was the thing of all things. He felt guilty thinking in those terms, but it was the bitter truth. Yes, that was more than a thing, more than a high school fling, more than just a year and a half of good times.
“Flight attendants, get ready for takeoff.”
He looked at his watch. Right on time. Eastbound flights usually land earlier, but you never know with LaGuardia, a complete mess of an airport. He fired up his laptop at 10,000 feet and started replying to work emails. It seemed to make the ninja calm down a little, and he took a deep breath, looking out the window. The plane was flying right at the jumping altitude, and he recalled the drill again.
“Step out on the wing after me,” the instructor would say.
“OK!” was the right response before battling the wind and grabbing onto the upper part of the wing while securing the feet on a little step below.
“Prop! Up! Down! Arch!”
And then he would fly. The brief shot of adrenaline dissipated right away; just floating in the skies, carefree, amazed, happy. That August morning, inching toward LaGuardia, adrenaline was being pumped into him by the invisible ninja who at that point had obtained a humongous syringe and was just administering the stuff into his veins directly. Emails were coming in, so he tried to focus on work to make time pass quicker. It made a difference until laptops had to be put away.
“Fifteen more minutes until landing,” he counted in his head, gasping for air as he felt his throat close up and his heart racing faster. “Then walk straight to the cabs, no stopping anywhere, you may gain fifteen or twenty minutes.”
He had made sure to pick the seat in the first row and be the first one off the airplane. The walk to the cab stand took just a few minutes, and then there was the line. Google Maps showed sixty minutes to the Mandarin Oriental.
“Why the fuck does it take an hour to drive six miles in this town,” he was thinking out loud, trying to experiment with alternative routes on the app. “Why can’t you just get an Uber at LaGuardia like at any other airport? Oh yeah, the cabbie union.”
Truth be told, he always loved New York. He had been coming to the city for years, mainly business, sometimes short getaways. He got to know it way better than most Midwesterners, even with some hook-ups. He could get a table at Minetta Tavern on a short notice. He knew the promoters at a couple of clubs and could easily bypass the lines of eager locals and tourists in search of the ultimate nightlife experience. New York appeared to him as the perfect mix of American grit and European refinement. A city whose energy and pulse made him feel most at home. He was always a city kid, a stranger to the idea of suburbia, totally indifferent to owning country homes or lake cabins. The buzz of Park Avenue, the hustle and bustle of Meatpacking District at night, multilingual crowds in SoHo, the smell of roasted nuts on Times Square — he loved every bit of it. New York made him feel alive and he was always a little bit sad when it was time to head back. That August morning the cabbie was sitting on the Triboro Bridge in a horrible jam, and he was watching the skyline. It looked different yet again. New buildings seemed to have sprung overnight, but it’s been two years since his last long visit. Time flies. Twenty five years flew by way too fast. What would happen if he never moved? Would they end up together? Doubtfully. He chuckled a bit.
“Please get off on 96th and go through the park, you’ll save 15 minutes,” he told the cab driver.
“Are you sure, sir?” the cabbie asked, obviously annoyed.
“Yes, I am looking at Google Maps, it’s faster that way.”
The invisible ninja popped up from under the car seat and started working his magic with some sharp weaponry all over his torso. So much pain for one hour of… One hour of being close to her, one hour of hearing her voice, one hour of getting lost in her presence. After what seemed like an eternity, The Mandarin Oriental was finally several feet away. The watch showed 12:40 as he slammed the yellow car door and headed toward the hotel elevators.
Thirty three, thirty four, thirty five. The doors slid open and he stepped into the lobby. Posh, quiet. A couple of visitors at the front desk. Staff in black suits. Quite an imposing chandelier. The invisible ninja was on standby next to him, behaving for the most part, occasionally throwing a punch or two into his midsection.
He pulled out his phone and wrote a short message: “I am here.”
He couldn’t help thinking about the first time he went back to see her. She ran toward him at the baggage claim and threw her arms around his neck. He couldn’t hold back the tears. Her strawberry hair was brushing against his face, her slim model-like body was tightly pressed against his, and he thought that this moment must have been the closest thing to what religious people refer to as “heaven.” They kissed for a long time in the backseat of the car, making their way into the city. Who was driving then? That he couldn’t recall, but he remembered the taste of her lips, the taste he had never forgotten.
He looked at his phone and opened the new email. “I’m coming!”
That’s when the ninja did a round kick smack dab into his throat, right into the windpipe just below the Adam’s apple. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, opened them again and looked in the direction of the elevators. And there she was.
She was walking rather fast, waving and smiling, the chandelier light beams bouncing off her hair. She wore a cream-colored skirt, a very chic blazer, minimal but extremely tasteful jewelry. She fit right into the Mandarin Oriental and into the whole New York society scene. He realized that he’d never seen her dressed up. Back then wearing jeans was the top of the dress code. But as much as sophistication, there was an air of confidence around her, powerful and striking confidence. No matter how much he had imagined this moment, he had always pictured the timid teenager, well aware of the power of her striking looks yet not quite sure in herself. The woman at the Mandarin wore no façade of self-assurance. She embodied poise and composure; she was comfortable in her exquisiteness and beauty, which suddenly made him feel like a teenager. He took a few steps forward, and she gave him a quick hug and a peck on the cheek.
“Hi… Wow… Twenty five years,” he mumbled, realizing he was sounding silly.
“You look good,” she said, touching his face. “Come on, let’s grab some lunch! You must be hungry.”
“A little. I only have about an hour, unfortunately,” he said, following her confident steps toward the restaurant.
As they sat down, he said “You look wonderful, you haven’t really changed!”
“Of course, I have,” she replied.
“Perhaps just a little,” he said, placing the napkin on his lap.
They started talking. The conversation seemed to flow in many different directions. Work, travel, children, old classmates. She had accomplished a lot over the two decades and was deservingly proud to share with him. He never doubted that she would accomplish a lot. She was one of the smartest people he had known. He listened to her, half frozen, staring into her eyes, which seemed even brighter and bluer, like two deep wells filled with the Caribbean azure water on a sunny day. He was looking at her with the same stupor he had experienced upon seeing her for the first time ever. He remembered that day more than clearly. A new kid in a new school. He walked into the classroom, where she was sitting on top of the desk, chatting with girlfriends. She turned her head and looked straight at him. That was it. That was the moment she penetrated his soul, pierced his heart with her sapphire brilliance. That was the day he pretty much considered the beginning of his life, because, in his mind, she gave his life meaning. From that morning on, he never truly felt the same as before. He’d had no idea that crossing a classroom threshold could be so life changing.
They started to reminisce about school days after placing lunch orders.
“Remember how you used to write killer essays?” she said.
“I did?” he asked, surprised.
He had to strain his memory. Most of his memories about those years of high school revolved around her. The innocent Old World adolescent dates, ice cream shops, making out in parks, cutting classes together. And those evenings, of course. Those evenings when they lay under the blanket, having made love, at his tiny little apartment, and she would call him this one sweet word that just doesn’t translate well into English. He would run his fingers through her hair, taste her lips, her chin, her neck. Those evenings he was in heaven. And when she wasn’t around, he was in hell. He remembered the summer she had left on a kayaking trip for a month with her family, up on the Finnish border, during which he pretty much spent the entire time staring at her photo and counting days, hours, minutes until her return.
“You know,” she said, “I still have all your letters.”
“Me too. In fact, not a day passes by that I don’t think of you. Sorry, I’m not trying to be dramatic, it’s just the way it is,” he said.
She gave him the look. Oh, how well he remembered that look! It was slightly coquettish yet with a healthy dose of judgmental scorn and a sprinkling of self-flattery. That look! The same look she had given him as he entered that classroom in 1989. Amalgamation of flirtatiousness, power, and solitude. He had debated earlier whether it would be smart to tell her that. They both had lives, families, children, workdays and vacations, and this lunch meeting was not about plunging back into the teens. But he couldn’t hold back. He felt he had to say it, as it was the one truth that stayed with him throughout, as he matured and morphed into a middle-aged, middle-class American Midwesterner with affinity for New York. Maybe because New York was just a little bit closer to the other Atlantic coast.
They kept chatting about different things, toasting to success, with magnificent New York skyline hugging them through the panoramic windows of the restaurant. From challenges women face in the workplace to memorable trips, the topics kept coming and going. iPhones made an appearance at some point, kids’ pictures pulled up, videos played. The clock was ticking. The hour marched on, and a ride back to LGA was looming inevitably. At one point she took his hand, sighed, and spoke his name. He placed her hand on top of hers and uttered her name as well. Their eyes met again, and she had the warmest smile on her face he had ever seen. It was time to get ready. Her flight was also leaving later the same day out of JFK.
They walked back to the lobby, and as they stopped in front of the elevators, she said, “You are such a dear person to me!”
He peered into her shining blue eyes and said, “And you are always on mind!”
She gave him a kiss — a brief kiss on the corner of his lips — and for a second he felt just like the very first time their lips had met.
He didn’t say the words. He wanted to, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. He just wanted the moment to last.
“OK, have a safe flight!”, he said.
“You too!”, she said. “Let’s stay in touch, check your WhatsApp sometimes!”
He stepped on his half-finished cigarette and slam-shut the yellow door. Columbus Circle, Harlem, Triboro Bridge, Queens — a familiar route. Playgrounds, apartment buildings, dog walkers rushed by the cab windows as he looked on. New York seemed different than an hour ago. It was a bright sunny day, and the sky was as blue as her eyes. To him it felt like she graced the universe with her presence, that her being there made the whole world smile. It was a good feeling, although he wasn’t smiling. The invisible ninja was sitting quietly next to him as the cab was flying past the skyline.
“Of course,” he thought, “it’s only 20 minutes the other way.”
He tried to catch up on emails during the flight, but it wasn’t working. He mostly stared at the sky, much like he had stared at her photo that summer. There was no reason to be sad. She was going to be back stateside, and email and chat apps were now there. But something was making the invisible ninja elbow him in the ribs from time to time. What was it, exactly? He couldn’t pinpoint it. All these years she had been an icon inside his brain, an unattainable being that only he knew and pretended to understand. He had pictured meeting her many times, but he had never pictured the details. All those musings were the work of neurotransmitters, but not today. Today he went to the Mandarin, held her hand, felt her lips touch his lips. He thought it was a lot to process.
“Let the adrenaline subside,” he reasoned. “It’s been a crazy day… What a day! Way more rush than any skydive.”
The ninja snoozed in the middle seat.
He kept staring at the sky and seeing her eyes, blue and bright. His mind was jumping back and forth. One moment he saw a high school girl, lifting her head and looking up at him. The other second, it was her at the Mandarin just a couple of hours ago. He felt a drop of moisture forming in the corner of his eye. The plane engine was humming over the Great Lakes below, as the shoreline slowly came into view.