19 March 2007

A Tale of Ten Years: Paris to New York City...

...and several points in between.

Ten years ago today, I was very nervous. I was going to have company. I'd "met" this French guy on the 'net early one morning in July of 1996 and now he was flying to visit me for the first time.

I'd looked at the map and I realized the Atlantic Ocean was pretty darn wide. The way I saw it, things could go one of two ways: Either he would be exactly like the man I had conjured up in my mind, based on the many thousands of words and photos we had exchanged over the past nine-month period (I already knew he had that famous killer French accent that could reduce the most seasoned and sophisticated American female to a puddle.) Or, he could in no way resemble my preconceptions and expectations - that instead of the handsome, slim, classic featured, head-turning visage his photographs depicted, he would be forty years older, 40 lbs. over-weight, a nightmarish dork that the most desperate American woman, (accent notwithstanding), would turn away from in haste and never consider offering a ride anywhere, even if she had not had a date in years and should be walking around outside with a brown paper bag over her head.

For all I knew, this French guy could have been featured on the French version of "America's Most Wanted", and he could have paid someone to pen all of those eloquent, deeply moving, beautifully constructed e-mails he had written - sort of a cyber Cyrano de Bergerac - and maybe he would turn out to be the antithesis of all I was hoping for; the person I felt I already knew after sharing so many secrets and dreams.

In the months leading up to this 18 March 1997 visit, I would log on each day and wait in eager anticipation for that AOL guy (yes, I was an AOL subscriber at the time - I'm not proud) to announce, "You've Got Mail", hardly able to contain myself so eager for his next brilliantly written offering. Michel and I did the international version of "You've Got Mail" long before Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan signed on for the part. I'm reasonably certain Nora Ephron stole the concept by somehow secretly hacking into our computers and reading our letters. I can't prove it, of course, but I'd almost bet the farm on it. If I had one.

I had been pacing in my Fort Lauderdale home, walking from the kitchen to the living room to my office back to the living room and thank God it was sturdy Mexican tile or I would have worn a path and left marks, waiting for his call to tell me that he had cleared customs (IF our government had allowed this potential French fugitive entrance into our country - you never know...), and where I should look for him, IF I decided to go through with this charade and pick him up.

The phone rang. "Susie, this is Michel. How are you?" (No matter what, even when he's been frustrated and annoyed with me, he's always been unfailingly polite about it - must be a French thing...). "I am at Miami Airport and I will be standing under a sign that says, "Meeting Point B. Shall I see you soon?".

I hopped in the car and drove to Miami Airport. I probably got lost I was so nervous. I parked the car in the parking deck and hoped that I wouldn't be mugged on the walk over to the International Terminal. You may not know it, but they kill people for sport at Miami International. Really. Remember those poor Dutch tourists back in 1994? Yeah. I was putting my life on the line, for this potential French faker.

I looked around, finally found "Meeting Point B", and instantly I recognized the man. He was exactly like his photos, only more handsome if that's possible. He didn't look like anyone who had just spent 9 hours on an airplane. His beautiful smile, warm embrace and yes, that accent. It was all there and he was the real deal. Any residual nervousness dissipated almost instantly. This was my friend, the one I knew through thousands of words and numerous photos. The quiet manner, chivalrous nature, unassuming personality, not to mention even more handsome than any photo I had of him, the brilliant mind and intriguing thought processes - yes, it was intact. Only better.

Little did we know what a wild ride we were embarking upon. So many adventures, air miles, road trips, train rides, more air trips and tons of long-distance and so many more words were in our future. A few epic arguments. Periods of cooling off because I would get mad over really stupid things and go for a few weeks of ignoring his e-mails or simply getting angry over the dumbest things possible. And somehow, he's always been there for me.

Yesterday, the doorbell rang. Daisies. On a Saturday. It wasn't my birthday. True, it was St. Patrick's Day, but I'm not Irish. I thanked the delivery man and truthfully had no clue who they might be from. I opened the card and I got one of those lumps that form in your throat when something touches you in a rare and meaningful way. In an instant, after reading the card that accompanied those beautiful flowers, I was back at "Meeting Point B" in Miami Airport. Flashes of a nice past. Could it really have been ten years ago? How fast it flew.

I hope he doesn't mind, but I have to quote the card because it meant so very much to me: I'm sharing this on the premise that "it's easier to ask forgiveness than it is permission".

"Chere Susie, 10 years ago I was about to fly to Miami, unaware it would be a life-changing experience. Thank you for all these wonderful memories and thank you to your parents for their great welcome. Love, Michel.".

Oh Michel, meeting you was tantamount to winning the AOL lottery, if there had been such a thing. I'm not sure what my life would be like had I not wandered into that French chat room one morning in July, almost 11 years ago, but I know it wouldn't have been as rich and interesting as knowing you has made it. You nudged me into writing - your encouragement, prodding, niggling, and sometimes stern wisdom and direction have been crucial to any literary success I've been fortunate to know.

Knowing Michel, and the impossible odds of our points ever coming close to an intersection, always reminds me of Robert Frost's famous poem. I mean, what was I even doing in a French chat room at around 5:00 AM in July? It's not like I speak French! I took three years in high school which means the number of words and phrases that I can say, would take all of 30 seconds, and that's if I'm speaking very slowly and with an exaggerated southern drawl. You just never know where your actions and stumbling around might take you and every now and then, you're cosmically in line for a gift you couldn't have ever conceived of or had the ability and requisite foresight to articulate a request.

"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

The measure of a true friend, at least in my not so humble opinion, is one who will take you exactly as you are, even the annoying and unattractive parts of your personality, encourage your talents, celebrate your victories and offer a compassionate embrace when things don't go as planned. A friend will walk with you when you know where you're going and hold your hand when you feel disoriented, lost and confused. A friend will tell you when your writing is reasonably good but a real friend will let you know in no uncertain terms on those occasions when you've not given anything close to your best effort and is unafraid to let you know that you can do it better, reach deeper, and suggest you try another angle. A friend will offer an opinion and advice, even if he suspects you may not like what he's going to say and, if he is a friend, and an exceptional one at that, whatever anger and irritation you initially experience when you hear his counsel will eventually evaporate and, if you're not terribly stupid, you will heed his advice because you will remember that his batting average has earned your respect and makes him credentialed.

It doesn't happen overnight, but if the raw components are present, a trend will emerge, and you will find yourself in the middle of a blessing.

I have an exceptional number of people in my life who I know exist by design - and not by accident. Sometimes I sit here and I look around my office at cards, gifts, notes, even a flute on my wall and books, dvds, sometimes TOO many chocolates and each item my eyes fall upon reminds me of how huge my blessing account truly is. Much more impressive than my bank account and so much more precious. I don't deserve any of it, but if you're reading this and you are one of those priceless "deposits", just be on notice how much you mean to me. I don't really need to list names - you know who you are.

But for today, I want to remember the magical March of 1997.

Ten years later, Michel, my respect, admiration and affection has grown. I know I speak for my family, and from my heart, when I say that you are a rare and exquisite find, a blessing, and the very epitome of a friend.