I emerge from the jetway into LAX and walk toward baggage claim. It's late. The shops are closed and travelers are scattered, some curled up on the carpet. I'm tired, in a hurry to get home, my eyes fixed forward. A woman approaches, a stranger. At first I only notice her because she's coming straight at me, as though we're going to collide in this mostly empty terminal.
As I redirect to go around her, our eyes lock and I see someone very familiar and attractive, roughly my age. The eye contact is penetrating, deep, not everyday flirtatious. Neither of us blink or look away. Her eyes are green and frank. After we pass each other, I turn to look back and see that she has stopped, and is looking back at me.
I'm not a guy who hits on women. The bar scene never appealed. I prefer an introduction, conversation, the exploration of common ground. But this connection is explosive, opening places in me I've never been. I take a breath and walk toward her.
As I approach, I notice more details: blunt-toe cowboy boots, worn jeans, a black cashmere sweater, a single pearl on a gold strand. She doesn't cross her arms or cock her head defensively, she just stares straight at me. I can hear my breath and my heart.
When I get to her, I have no words. I hold out my hand, palm up. Remarkably, she takes it. It's a worldly hand—rough, firm, warm. "I'm Sam," I say. And then, apologetically, she says, "You need to go." She smiles a Mona Lisa smile, turns and continues toward her gate. I watch her until she's gone.
Years burnish a memory, especially one that's held tight, but I'm pretty sure this one is accurate because I've called it up a lot over the last 33 years. It's my lady-in-a-white-dress moment, my "Bernstein" moment. You remember him: He was Charles Foster Kane's long-time protégé and bean counter, a man who did well serving his mercurial boss. In his dotage, he tells a reporter his what-might-have-been story: He's on a ferry that's crossing over to New Jersey, looking at a ferry that's coming in, and there's a woman waiting to get off.
"A white dress, she had on. She was carrying a parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by that I hadn't thought of that girl." Bernstein's story ends there, but carries us into the fantasies we all hold about what might have been had we taken a left instead of a right.
As for me, I was 25, single, starting a new career and my white-dress memory is exhilarating not because of the fantasy I attach to it: I run after her! Buy a ticket! Get on the plane with her! We go someplace tropical! We shack up on the beach! … Et cetera! Mine burns in me because it makes me ask why things happen the way they happen. Why did she say "You need to go"? What did she know, and how did she know it? How could she see so clearly that we were not meant to be together? In that electrifying moment, when I held her hand, did she see the rest of my life and decide to point me there?
I walk out of the airport, get in the bus to the "C" parking lot, drive my beater Dodge back to my apartment in East L.A. As I unpack, I find a crumpled piece of paper with a phone number and the name "Anna" on it. A friend in New York gave it to me before I left. He said, "She's nice." The following day, I call the number and arrange to meet Anna for a drink.
Anna and I were married. We had three children, and built a life that we still enjoy together. And in the best moments of that life together, I thank my woman in the white dress not for the fantasy she provides, but for telling me to go.