Fighting the impulse to fall for your own fantasy

Some folks fall in love gradually; for me it always happens in an instant. One February morning a few years ago, I was at the airport in Albuquerque, headed for California, when I saw a beautiful, sweet girl dressed in white, maybe 24 years old. I watched her at the check-in counter—she was sad but radiant, and she moved and spoke delicately, like an Arctic bird on a fragile bit of ice. With her was a gumpy guy in a hot pink NO FEAR T-shirt. He was pestering the lady behind the counter with questions about the plane: Was it a 747 or a 767?

Davy RothbartDavy Rothbart is a bestselling author, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, contributor to This American Life, and the editor/publisher of Found Magazine. Davy Rothbart's magazine Found is dedicated to discarded notes, letters, flyers, photos, lists, and drawings found and sent in by readers. The magazine spawned a best-selling book, Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World, published in April 2004. A second collection was published in May 2006, a third in May 2009. The magazine is published annually and co-edited by Rothbart's friend Sarah Locke.

Editor: Talha Khalid

The agent had no idea, but he was determined to pry an answer from her. I prayed that this guy was not the boyfriend of my darling girl. The pair finished their business at the counter, and to my delight said goodbyes and headed off separately. I noticed for the first time that the girl was wearing a cumbersome plastic boot on her right foot—as though perhaps she'd broken a bone or torn a ligament—which caused her to lurch and sway with each step. This effortful gait combined with her sad glow twisted something in me, and my heart hurt, and I was in love.

It was with a kind of painful wonder that I got on the plane and found myself sharing a row with the limping girl in white. She had the window, I had the aisle. Between us, her purse and my backpack shared a seat and gently caressed.

Our plane rocketed into the sky and the girl looked forlornly out the window. I waited for her to glance my way, but she was so lost in her aching and faraway thoughts that she never turned from the window, not even when the beverage cart rolled past with pretzels and Coke. To busy myself, and because it was the only other thing on my mind, I pulled from my bag the short story I'd been working on for three weeks. I went through it making little changes, turning the pages loudly in hopes that the girl would peek over. Her lips were pursed; her eyes cut at the clouds. In a way, she was too nicely dressed for my taste, but that bland elegance was exotic to me and made me hunger for her more. I looked back at the typed pages in my hands—I was in that fleeting honeymoon phase I sometimes have with a just-finished story, where for a moment everything about it feels perfect and snugly in place. Finally I said to the girl, "Hey, what's your name?"

She smiled at me, which was a surprise. Her name was Kara. She was a student in Seattle. I asked about her boyfriend's interest in planes. Boyfriend? At the check-in. Oh, no, she explained, that was only her cousin; she'd been visiting family in New Mexico. Her ankle, she said, had been badly sprained in a bike crash. I'd thought her gloominess would make conversation lurch and buckle, but everything sailed smooth as could be. She acted oddly grateful to me for the small talk, and occasionally held my gaze for an extra sixteenth-note. But how could I parlay this chance meeting and warm chemistry into a lasting love? I told Kara I'd be right back and took the riddle with me to the back of the plane. I needed to give Kara something that would keep us in contact, but what? Then I knew at once—I'd give her the story. It would communicate something of me, and more importantly it would give her something to respond to, a reason to stay in touch.

I glided back down the aisle and took my seat again. Kara laughed. "Wondered if you were coming back."

"Got held up in traffic," I said. "Listen, do you like to read?"


"Reading, do you like to read?"

She paused and thought about it. Granted, it was a stupid question, but not a complicated one. At last she said, "No."

"No? You don't like to read?"

"No," she said. "I hate reading."

"You hate reading."

"I just don't like it."

"You just don't like it." I laughed. She clearly wasn't kidding. All I could do was repeat after her like an idiot child.

"Sometimes I read magazines," she offered hopefully.

"Sometimes you read magazines."

"But only sometimes. Mostly I look at the cosmetics."

Sadly, shamefully, pathetically, I forced my story on her anyway. I tried to explain what it was about, but the crashing down of my fantasies made me tongue-tied and weary. I wrote my e-mail address at the top. "In case you want to let me know what you think of it," I said. Kara smiled brightly and folded the story carefully into her purse, as though it was a sick mouse. Later, I imagined, she'd rid herself of the thing in the ladies' room trash can.

Now, years later, I still think about that flight from time to time whenever I meet a girl like Kara who immediately sets my heart on fire. While I believe in intuition and the value of following our romantic instincts, I also recognize that for the most part, the qualities I glimpse in women that instantly make them feel like soul mate candidates are mostly my own constructs. I've learned not to get so worked up right away and to try to get to know someone gradually, which allows you to find out whether you'd be compatible in an actual relationship. Maybe you realize that a person has amazing qualities that could have been ignored, or maybe you learn that she hates to read; either way, it's best if your ability to get to know her is not competing with your fantasy. Just because someone sparks intense feelings, I've come to understand, doesn't mean it's a perfect match.

When at last my and Kara's flight reached San Diego, I was headed for baggage claim and she was off to catch her connecting flight. We hugged. She had no scent at all. "Keep in touch," I said.

"I will," she said. Then her face took on the dark look she'd had when I'd first seen her. She turned and I stood watching as she shuffled away down the long corridor until at last she disappeared out of sight.


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