My friend Sally hails from a prominent southern family. In her father's Charleston home hangs a portrait of her relative fondly referred to as 'The Major.' It is the polite way to note the south still won. A confederate flag would be too gauche amongst period piece antiques and Miele stainless appliances.
In mid-April, I stood before that portrait. I was in town for work, meeting with some sales reps and calling on some schools. It was a trip I had been planning but intentionally booked to overlap with Sally's visit home from Los Angeles.
"All ready," she said as she stepped back into the formal living room. "Let's go next door!"
We strolled out to the street, walked ten feet, and entered into the neighbor's home where a small garden party was about to begin. Most attendees were in their seventies. The men all wore navy sport coats and Hermes ties. Tailored silk draped across the bony shoulders of the women. Suddenly my strappy sandals, the ones that arch my foot just so and display brightly pedicured toes, felt incredibly risque.
To my left stood a former diplomat, to my right a one-time CEO of a luxury hotel chain. But never once did someone lead with such status. I was asked about my provenance, my education, my profession. It was only through casual conversation, genuine inquiry, that details of the distinguished guests trickled out above the chime of ice clinking against crystal highballs.
At a certain point, I escaped to the back of the courtyard. The absence of air conditioning inside, the tightness of the space outside, left me claustrophobic. The periphery of the gathering would give me time to breathe, escape pleasantries amongst strangers.
"I'm Pete," the gentleman to my left said with an outstretched hand.
"Paige. Are those your daughters?" I asked with a nod toward two elementary aged girls in head-to-toe Lily Pulitzer.
"Don't tell anyone I'm admitting this but I think they are more at ease amongst all of these people than I am. Incredibly poised," I offered before raising my drink to my lips.
"Thank you," he said with a smile.
We spoke further. I learned he lives in Connecticut, working as a fund manager overseeing investments for academic institutions. He visits Atlanta a few times a year, and apparently Georgia Tech serves the most horrendous food at those quarterly meetings.
"Well the next time you're in town, you should allow me to make culinary suggestions," I said.
"Deal," he said as he reached for his wallet, passed off a business card.
The conversation continued, revealing things like his familiarity with where I grew up thanks to a childhood hockey habit. It turns out we both spent summer vacations splashing in the frigid Atlantic waters off Nantucket. There was an ease between us. Silences felt comfortable and appropriate instead of awkward and long. Eventually the crowd thinned, Pete returning to his father's home a few doors down. There were burgers to be cooked, after all.
Knowing his Atlanta visits were quarterly, realizing he'd be south-bound in June, late last Tuesday night I pulled Pete's card from my wallet, sat down at my computer and penned an email. It was witty but reserved, flirty but proper. Just shy of midnight, I clicked send and crawled into bed.
The next morning I set off for the airport. Work was taking me west. I breezed through security. I napped on the plane. And when I landed in Los Angeles, I turned on my phone and scrolled through emails. There, between a promotion from Saks for the new Chloe collection and an announcement from my manager, was a response from Pete.
Of course he remembered me, the woman with a beautiful smile who easily laughed at his mediocre jokes. He was just in Atlanta, he noted. In fact, he had been there the previous week. And he cursed himself the entire visit. How stupid he was, he confessed, to not have asked for my number at the cocktail party. "But I have it now," he said. "I plan to put it to good use."