The Thunderbolt, Part One
Harris said he’d be at the cookbook party by 7:00 p.m., which gave me an hour to hang out with him there before I headed uptown to have dinner with another old friend and his family. The party was a bit out of the way, and I almost skipped it, but since I was only in my hometown, New York City, on rare occasions, I figured I might as well get out and see as many of the people I loved as I could. What had brought me here from Los Angeles was the chance to fill in for a month at the New York bureau of the radio show where I was on staff as a reporter. I bolstered my energy for a busy evening of flitting around the city in hyper–social butterfly mode—a way of life I rarely indulged in anymore.
The walk from the office on East 47th Street to the party on 66th Street filled me with wonder and made me wistful for this place I loved so dearly. In early autumn, twilight in New York is magical; the sky glimmers and there’s energy in the streets. You feel powerful, invincible, as if every gritty bit of the city is yours. I found myself doing a mental trick I hadn’t done since I’d moved away: reciting the address of my destination while I walked as if it were the lyrics to a song. Two-three-four / East Sixty-sixth Street, I sang to myself over and over again this September evening, the clunky tune mingling with the click-clack of my bright pink “comfort” high heels. Inevitably, after all that repetition, I would muck up the street number, and I did this time, too. But there was such a crowd in front of one particularly gorgeous old brownstone, I didn’t need to check the little slip of paper in my purse to know I’d arrived.
Crazy busy. Some swanky food magazine editor was debuting a new cookbook. Harris had long been a foodie, and in the last few years had broken into writing about all things gourmet. Good for him to be mingling in such well-fed company. Now it seemed I’d have to fight a dreaded crowd to find him. How could I be a city person and hate mob scenes?
As I made my way to the front door, I took a look up the staircase. It was packed with a crush of people. In the thick of it, facing in my direction, was the most handsome man. He had a shock of brown hair and big brown eyes to match. I know it sounds ridiculous, but in that instant, the mob seemed to disappear. Much to my surprise and delight, I saw him looking right back. Not just in my direction, but at me. Our eyes locked, and, even from a distance, I could swear a sort of chemical reaction erupted between us.
I’d read about these celebrated coup de foudres, thunderbolts, where people met and fell in love at first sight. I knew from experience that an instant attraction could be intoxicating—and dangerous. As was the impulse to imagine that a momentary connection was something larger. But this thunderbolt felt different. This was a beautiful, instant intensity I’d never, ever experienced.
Practical me prevailed: I had to find Harris. Time was tight. I peeled my eyes away from the handsome stranger and pushed through the thicket of people. After a series of wrong turns, I spotted him holding court in a corner of the room, smiling and gesturing as if he owned the place. Harris was so good at making people feel welcome, connected. Everyone clutched goblets of wine—no disposable plastic cups for this crowd. My friend did a round of introductions, and as he got to the end of the group, I was happily surprised to see the man from the staircase.
“Lisa, this is my friend Sebastian I’ve been telling you about, who I’m going to Asia with next week. You know, for that story I’m writing for Gourmet magazine. And Benjamin, this is Lisa, my friend who works in public radio out in L.A.”
He was better looking now that I could see him up close, and there was a warmth about him, an easy friendliness. I felt a bit self-conscious and suddenly a little off-kilter in my pink shoes.
Long ago, I’d been one of those kids who hid under her mother’s armpit to avoid looking at strangers. Then I went into the news business. Earning my living posing questions to people I didn’t know had cured me of my innate shyness. Confidence was a good quality, one I was happy to have cultivated—especially now faced with this handsome man. Right at this instant, though, I found myself feeling unsure about how to proceed. I wanted to say something clever and prophetic, but I couldn’t find the words. So I stuck out my hand, and he stuck out his, and we shook. Sebastian asked if I wanted a drink, and I said yes, and he said he’d get me one from upstairs, and I said I’d go with him, and there we were, presto, in our own conversational bubble. We talked a bit about public radio—always reliable upscale cocktail-party chitchat. With everyone captive in their cars, and smart programming in short supply thanks to budget cutbacks and media consolidation, the public-radio audience tuned in with almost cultlike devotion. Personally, I was sick of the news, and tried to avoid it as much as possible. At the same time, I appreciated the attention those commuters paid our show, and was grateful to have a job at a news outlet that had such an enormous, attentive audience. Better than having no audience at all. I’d been out of work a number of times, and underemployed, so I knew well what that was like. I also was very aware that in situations like this one, my profession converted into useful social currency.
Once we had my wine and a refill for him, I started plying Benjamin with questions about his upcoming trip to Asia. He ticked off the itinerary: a swing through Hong Kong, a few provinces in China I had never heard of, two places in India whose names I knew simply because of their tea—Assam and Darjeeling—and, for a few days, the tiny neighboring Kingdom of Bhutan.
“Ahh. The happiest place on earth,” I said. I hoped my being dimly familiar with one relatively unknown country in all of Asia—and knowing the factoid that it was purportedly filled with blissfully happy people—might impress him. Although I’d never come anywhere close to the continent. I wasn’t even certain just where on the continent Bhutan was.
“Yes,” he said smiling. “Exactly.”
“I’ve always been curious about this happiness thing and Bhutan. It has to have something to do with the fact that television is banned there, right?” I’d now exhausted the extent of my knowledge about the obscure little nation.
“Right, although His Majesty did let TV in a few years back,” Sebastian said, his smile broadening and his eyes intense. “But it’s still a very happy place. Hey, get a visa and come with us. Harris and I will be your guides.”
What I wanted to say was that I would have driven to the airport and boarded a rocket to another galaxy with this man, whether or not my dear old friend Harris came along as chaperone. We kept talking, but I really don’t remember what we said. I was lost in Sebastian.
Then, a sort of internal alarm rang and jolted him into remembering he was looking for quarters for the parking meter. After I dug a bunch out of my purse and handed them over, I asked the time and discovered that the clock was ticking for me, too. I needed to head to the other side of town for dinner.
A quick good-bye, and off I ran. The friend I was meeting turned out to be running very late; I sat at the restaurant with his family as he called every five minutes with updates from the traffic jam. Ordinarily this would have annoyed me, but not tonight. Just knowing Sebastian was out there in the world improved my disposition immeasurably.
The next day, I sat in our midtown offices trying to motivate myself to research a story about rich young couples who were trading the plush suburbs surrounding New York City for a new crop of multimillion-dollar kid-friendly condo complexes being built right in the heart of Manhattan. With enough money, you could now have a family without disrupting your metropolitan lifestyle. Among other luxuries, like on-staff dog walkers and a wine cellar, these buildings offered concierges to assist the nannies. An email popped into my inbox and saved me from my internal rant about conspicuous consumption and the decline of civilization. The very sight of the man’s name made my heart beat faster.
It was great to meet you last night. I owe you a drink for all that change you dug up for me. When can you get together?
Sebastian and Harris were leaving on their journey in just a few days, and by the time they returned, I’d be back home in Los Angeles. I could find a way to see him tonight. My calendar was totally open after work. I liked it that way, and this invitation reinforced why: The most interesting experiences seemed to happen spontaneously—just the opposite of how most everything worked in New York City, where every moment had to be planned by the quarter hour, lest you felt as if you might be “wasting” a bit of your precious time.
And yet I found myself hesitating to accept this invitation. I’d witnessed many a friend as they sabotaged or just plain avoided opportunities out of some sort of unexpressed fear that success or happiness might result. They became riddled with anxiety and self-loathing before they’d even sent in that cover letter or gone on that date. Now here I was, similarly paralyzed.
The voice of this other me politely declined. It was easy to justify not seeing him. We lived on opposite sides of the country; launching into a relationship that was destined to be long-distance was preposterous, a mistake I’d made in the past that I’d vowed not to repeat. My, I was getting way, way ahead of myself.