I used to believe in love at first sight, but now, years later, I’m not so sure this is a good idea anywhere but the movies. I know that when I met my ex-husband, I was immediately and deeply smitten (is that love?). We had agreed on lunch at a burger joint on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was seated toward the back, nervously looking up from a copy of the Times. The cause of the nervousness soon became apparent. In a brief exchange on the phone before we met—I was then a grad student, interviewing for a summer writing job—I had blithely assured him that he would recognize me immediately because I would be the tallest woman in the place. Standing at the end of the bar, not far from his table, was a rangy weather-beaten blonde of about 50, hair fried, dyed, and swept to the side, with a twang on her that should have carried all the way to Texas. And she was at least six feet tall.
Nonetheless, I took one look at him, and thought, That’s for me! Classically handsome and grown-up in a J. Crew way, right down to the khakis and loafers, so unlike the scruffy grad students who were my usual fare. But I think now it was not so much a matter of love at first sight as of the heart being prepared. The heart was like a great big Godiva chocolate, tenderly unwrapped and awaiting the right man to gnaw it to bits.
And so it was with Jeff. Wendy, who had known him for 20 years, was able to provide a bit of description beyond the serial killer/Gary Cooper dichotomy. He was the brightest writer she’d ever met when she was editing a computer magazine back in the late ‘70s. He’d been through a vicious divorce about a year earlier, had partial custody of two teenage daughters, and was now “rusticating” in a remote part of Seattle. He was soulful, musical, and an avid reader. And he was tall. Very tall.
All good. So the gaudy cellophane around my ticker was fully prepared to unpeel, fall to the floor, and await getting swept into the dustpan of love.
The Gary Cooper part was in the deep smile lines, rugged jaw, and lanky build. Perhaps it was the pale gray eyes and a barely perceptible scar snaking down one cheek that gave him an air of menace, quickly dispelled by a disarming grin. He wore a summer straw cowboy hat, I recall, and lifted it briefly when we met. I half expected him to say, “Aw, shucks, ma’am.”
So I was pretty far gone before we even had a drink in front of us. And what we talked about that evening, in a restaurant not far from Wendy’s apartment, I scarcely remember. Most likely Wendy and the radio show, scheduled to debut in just a few days. At some point, then or later, I asked why he and Wendy had never connected in a romantic way. His explanation: “She’s just always on, all the time, you know? It’s a lot to handle.”
I did know. “The Twins make it all the harder. Three’s not only a crowd, it’s an entire sideshow.”
“They are quite something, aren’t they?” I loved it that he got the joke instantly.
After dinner, he drove me back to Wendy’s apartment in his beat-up van, called the “Urchmobile,” because he referred to his daughters as “Urchins,” which I found charming. Less appealing was the interior, littered with McDonald’s wrappers and empty Coke cans, but, hey, they were kids and he probably didn’t think to clean up because he could hardly have anticipated he’d be driving me anywhere.
For the next two days, Wendy and I prepped as best we could for our debut on the last day of August. We had listened to old-time radio shows on cassettes—long-forgotten gems like The Bob Hope Show and The Breakfast Club—but these were not exactly what we wanted. Most of the shows we sampled were dramatic serials or too heavy on the jokes or devoted to one particular genre of music, like country or jazz. We were veteran magazine editors and thought like editors assembling a table of contents. So we had lined up a mix of the thoughtful, the absurd, the unexpected, and the disarmingly original. Or so we thought. These included an interview with pop-psych author Judith Viorst on her latest book, Necessary Losses; a contest of some sorts, with books as giveaways; brief musical interludes; a character we introduced as “Dr. Truth” (more on her later); and a segment I’m sure had to be totally new in the history of radio: an aural makeover of the strapping Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno, by a personal stylist from a local department store. That seemed more than enough to fill two hours.
And then, as well prepared as we would ever be, we sat down to watch the six o-clock news with a glass of wine.
In case you don’t recall, August 30, 1997—August 31 in Europe—was one of those days when the world stood still in shock and horror. Soon after midnight in Paris, Diana, Princess of Wales, and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, entered the Pont de l’Alma Tunnel never to emerge alive again. We watched in disbelief as the events unfolded over the next several hours, scenes from the crash, the updates at the hospital, and the pronouncement of Diana’s death around nine p.m. Portland time.
We looked at each other, mouths agape. This was surely one of the biggest WTF moments in either of our lives. Wendy called the station manager and wondered if we should cancel. No way could that happen, he said. Airtime had to be filled with something, and we were it.
But no way, either, could we go on with a full slate of blithe irrelevancies on a day of global tragedy.
“Just open up the phone lines,” said the station manager. “Tell people who you are and ask them to call in with their thoughts and feelings.”
We looked at each other again, sharing the same sentiments without having to say a word. Who is going to listen to a couple of middle-aged radio newbies on a morning like this? Won’t everyone be glued to their TV sets?
The only thing we could think to do was sit down with pens and paper and try to remember every damn detail of Diana’s life, so that we might seem like the resident Di experts, prepared for whatever might come up in conversation (as I recall, the only search engine in those days was Yahoo, and it wasn’t much good). It so happened that my copy of The New Yorker that week contained a long profile of Camilla Parker-Bowles, the real great love of Prince Charles’s life, and so I had all kinds of semi-germane chatter should the need arise to fill in some gaps that I hoped would not need filling.
And, of course, we could not go on with Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” introducing the show. After a very bad night’s sleep, we got to the station early enough for the production assistants to track down a more appropriate opener, maybe “Nearer My God to Thee” or “Amazing Grace.”
We introduced ourselves, explained our long association and hopes for the future, expressed our extreme sadness and dismay at the events of the last 15 or so hours. And then we gave out the phone number and prepared for an eternity of waiting as we filled the air with banal chitchat.
But people were listening, to our huge surprise. And they started calling almost immediately, sharing their reminiscences and their love for the People’s Princess. Some openly sobbing as we made soothing noises and kept up a sort of hushed golf-game repartee between calls. At the end of two hours, I was totally drained, but Wendy was high as a kite and ready to celebrate. I thought it would be inappropriate to go out to brunch on such a day, but we did have reservations and owed ourselves a couple of drinks.
Outside the studio building, summoned to join us by Wendy during a break (completely unknown to me), stood Jeff, tall and lean and with arms wide open. I ran to his embrace and he easily bent me over backward to plant a kiss on my lips. And there and then, dear readers, I experienced an irrefutable instance of love at second sight. If only I had possessed more of it….