A chance encounter becomes lost opportunity

This Just In...

November 30, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

HOW OFTEN does it happen that the heart takes sudden flight and soars? I know of a second marriage that started with smiles over a pile of produce in a supermarket, and a first that started when an elevator door split open and eyes met.

But there must be a trillion other moments in the vast realm of human experience in which the heart takes flight and lands with a thud, or with the groan of regret.

I detected a faint groan in the words posted late last summer on a tree by the North Central Railroad Trail in Sparks, Baltimore County. It was addressed, "Dear Mr. Portland Maine," and it expressed pleasure over a shared hike but a longing for more hikes. It was signed with an e-mail address. I had seen such postings for lost dogs, but never for missed opportunities, so in the interest of human understanding -- and to settle my own curiosity -- I dropped a note to the person at the e-mail address on the tree.

"Wow," came the reply from a woman I've decided to call Jane to protect her privacy. "I was very surprised to receive your letter of inquiry asking if Mr. Portland Maine ever contacted me." We agreed to meet over a lunch hour, and Jane told me her story the other day.

She's in her early 50s, though I took her for mid-40s, fit and trim, with dark hair and a style of dress that might be called hip but contained. She's divorced, with two children, one in college and one in high school. She has a job as a researcher and more than a passing interest in astrology. She likes to listen to meditative tapes with positive, subliminal messages as she walks about her city neighborhood or up and down the NCR Trail.

One hot August day on the trail, Mr. Portland Maine snapped her out of her reveries.

He approached from behind, holding a small piece of plastic and saying he thought it might have broken off Jane's headset.

Instantly, her heart took flight. She was breathless. The man at her side was tall, lean, athletic and "incredibly handsome, according to what I consider handsome." He seemed to be about her age, too, with light brown hair and the air of someone who enjoyed the outdoors. He wore hiking shorts and a T-shirt that were still wet from a dip in the Gunpowder River. He did not wear a wedding ring.

"No," Jane said, the piece of plastic was not from her headset.

But the conversation did not end there, and instead of picking up the pace and walking ahead of Jane, the man stayed with her through the next several road crossings. "I was hoping he'd walk all the way to Pennsylvania with me," Jane said.

The conversation stayed outdoors -- Mr. Maine seemed to know a lot about the environment and about bees, in particular -- and never went inside.

"He didn't give up much of a personal nature," Jane said. "He said he lived in the area, maybe someplace like Monkton, and that he spent half the year in Portland, Maine. I didn't get the impression he had a full-time job, but that he might be a ... freelance something. We walked and talked, and I enjoyed him so much."

And while she sensed that Mr. Maine felt the same way, she did not push for more information. She was open to a new relationship and wanted a man in her life again -- especially a man to whom she was instantly and electrically attracted -- but she was too shy to pry.

And Mr. Maine did not make personal inquiry easy. During 90 minutes of hiking and talking, he provided no openings for that sort of thing and didn't ask Jane personal questions, either.

He never suggested that they get together again, though as the hike ended, he asked if she was thirsty. He had some water in his car. Did she want some?

"And like a dummy I said, `No.' ... We parted when we reached his car. I was too shy to ask him for his name or if he would like to meet sometime for another walk. It was an awkward moment."

As soon as he was gone, Jane groaned with the regret of not having asked questions: What's your name? Would you like to meet on the trail again? How is it you know so much about bees?

She walked away thinking about how she might have spoken up, how she could have been more assertive. "Chance meetings are not chance," she would write later in an e-mail to me. There's a reason such things happen, why some attractions are more powerful than others. You have to be ready for them. You have to recognize them and act on them. What have you got to lose?

She finished her hike, her head full of these thoughts, got into her car and drove out to York Road for the ride south to Baltimore. As she drove along, she spotted a man by the side of the road. He appeared to be examining a car for sale. He appeared to be Mr. Maine.

Jane wasn't sure. She turned around on York Road and made another pass. And this time she was sure. It was Mr. Maine, standing tall on the roadside, a relationship waiting to happen. She had been given another chance to at least pursue the potential.

She turned around again and made another pass.

But by then Mr. Maine had pulled back into the traffic of strangers.

She drove home, groaning with regrets, absorbed by those feelings known to all who have felt their heart take flight then fall as an opportunity slipped away -- the "what if," the coulda' and shoulda' and woulda' of life.

She made the signs. She posted the signs. She hiked the trail. She hasn't see Mr. Maine again, though she still pictures his face and imagines his voice. She wonders about him. She knows he's out there somewhere. She's studying the fine art of longing and the mystical craft of what might be called spirit transmission -- the sending of a message of desire into the universe of others in the hopes that Mr. Maine finds it.

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