My first big girl job was working for a trade publishing company in downtown Phoenix. I wrote a ton of copy on a ton of topics that no one, not even “industry insiders” ever read. But they paid me to write and I had health insurance. My mother was thrilled I hadn’t found a job on a cruise ship, which was my plan after returning from the Peace Corps.
Living in my parents’ guest room (my childhood bedroom now converted into a sewing room), and driving the family mini van, I worked for that publishing company for more than three years. There were all kinds of cliché life lessons learned; there were also life-long friendships gained from a workplace that was unnecessarily intense, vulgar and sexualized.
(Ask me some time about the woman who had a breast augmentation and came into work afterward wearing a tube top because “they looked so good!” Or the woman who was notorious for flaunting her drug problem in the restroom.)
The best part of this job was the travel. Our childhood travels were repeat, and beloved, trips to the southern California coast. We went to New Mexico and Colorado once, but otherwise, there were thousands of miles on that Toyota Previa between Phoenix and San Diego.
The publishing gig had conferences nationally that needed an underpaid and overly trusted early 20-something to attend. I became skilled at the art of the trade show booth set up, schmooze and tear down. This is how I saw Boston, Seattle and Washington D.C. for the first time.
It was at a conference in Seattle where I met AJ. He was working for a medical device manufacturer in southern California. Our booths weren’t far apart. My boss eventually noticed that the lean, blond, surfer guy kept circling. She joked he was trying to speak to me. I was oblivious, and my feet hurt.
There are two memories from standing at a trade show booth for 8 hours at a time: I am great at pointless small talk, and my feet always, always hurt in dress shoes.
Eventually AJ came in for the kill, and started a conversation that would continue via email for months. He was a surfer and mountain climber and really nice guy. He lived in a small apartment in southern California and worked in medical device sales to fuel his otherwise down-to-earth adventures. He spoke Spanish and we regularly sent emails in a second language, hoping the other would actually understand the emotion the sender was attempting to convey.
Eventually, he asked if I would come to LA to spend a weekend. It seemed like a bold first date, and while I had moved out of my parents’ guest room into a house shared with a handful of girlfriends, my father was not going to be happy about an overnight in southern California with a dude no one knew.
(Or a dude everyone knew.)
The bargaining continued for a few weeks until it was decided I would come for a day-long date. The (pre 9-11) Southwest flight left from Phoenix at 6 am and returned at 10 pm. It was late summer, and we planned on going to the beach. This is how I ended up in LA for a 12-hour date with only a bikini packed in my purse.
The night before, I slept over at a girlfriend’s house with another friend. Kristi and Meghann asked a thousand questions I couldn’t answer about AJ. I think they were both intrigued and a little scared I was going to spend the day with someone in another state who no one knew.
I did have a cell phone, but keep in mind it was an early 2001 Nokia freebie with no texting or Internet. My mother was looking for a good photo for the impending milk carton. Mini, who had a toddler at home and was painting the walls of her first adult house, said bluntly, “Please don’t get stabbed.”
It was Kristi and Meg who coined this date the “24-hour Wow,” even though it was roughly half. (“12 hour Meh” doesn’t sound as catchy.)
It was a fun day. We went to one of those fancy beachside brunch places, ate plates of $18 toast and eggs, and worked through our nerves. Soon enough, I was hiding behind a huge boulder on the beach, slipping on that bikini and we were in the surf for several hours. There were fish burritos and a long walk that followed. In a blink, I was back on the flight with sand in my hair and on my toes and a smile across my face. I was ridiculously proud of myself for taking such a leap at love, even though it wasn’t.
The emails continued for months after, but with less frequency. I think we both knew the distance wasn’t going to work. I was eying graduate school and he had family ties to southern California. He was handsome, smart and interested – but the spark wasn’t there.
I saw him a few years later at yet another trade show. We’d both signed up for the conference 10K and ended up running next to each other for a few miles. It was friendly; I’m certain we both walked away happy with our decisions.
Meghann would prove to be the matchmaker of my life.
But that, friends, is a story yet to be told.