Dustin woke up 20 minutes before the plane was to land, jarred from a dream by a boy's clammy hand brushing his lips. The lad's target had been Dustin's nostril, but a bit of turbulence bumped him off course. Dustin twitched when he awoke and his sudden shudder startled the boy, who hurried to explain why he was all but sitting in Dustin's lap.
"You know you have a little thing in your nose that wiggles when you exhale?"
The sound of the word "exhale" used in the same sentence with "a little thing in your nose that wiggles" and spoken in the voice of a cartoon lion cub threw Dustin more than the question itself. He mused over the paradoxical mixture until the woman sitting on the outside of the row turned her attention away from the aisle and exclaimed, "Alexander! Leave that man alone!"
Still bewildered from being awoken with a hand in his face and instantly subjected to such a puzzling interrogation, Dustin shrugged his lips and settled his head back against the window. Alexander spouted earbuds linking him to a little white music box twice as big as his hands and settled back into his seat with his eyes closed. The woman leaned over him and touched Dustin's sleeve.
"I just want to apologize for my son's atrocious behavior." Stuck in the disjointed and sluggish spell of his in-flight dream, all Dustin could manage in reply was to wave his hand and nod. She looked at him, appearing to expect more, but he just rolled his head back to the window, tried to find his bearings in the landscape below, looking for the landmark park in the center of the island. They weren't there yet.
"How far are you willing to go to meet your true love?" the website yelled at him in bold letters. "Your chances of making good matches increases the broader the geographical parameters you choose" it continued in regular type. Dustin clicked the box that sent his profile all over the country.
The website also strongly suggested – after Dustin had paid and filled out the questionnaire that generated a profile for him – posting a photo, but the only digital photos Dustin had of himself pictured him with a beard or 60 extra pounds.
The most recent photo was two years old, taken six months after Terri had left. His face was heavy and sullen; he looked like he was about to fall into a bottle of vodka, burst out crying, or both. And when he signed up for the service he was still sporting a nasty scab on the left side of his face, a souvenir of a tumble from his bike. Still he had his friend Josh snap a photo, under the guise of wanting to document his injury. When Josh needled Dustin into telling him the real reason for the photo, he tried to dissuade him from posting it.
"Dude. These chicks have their pick of, like, hundreds of dudes. They're not going to go for Scarface – put it this way: you don't want to go out with a chick who would go out with someone looking like you look right now. Save your money. Wait a month."
Josh, who had never dated anyone for any longer than it took her to introduce him to her parents, was still the closest Dustin had to an expert opinion, so he believed him. But Dustin had already signed up, and his profile was already out there in the mix, and when he went back online to cancel his account he had a note from a woman in Manhattan named Nanci whose likes (food, art, outdoor sports) and dislikes (smoking, insecure people, party animals) were so like his he couldn't not reply.
Nanci had posted four photos. The first was a little trite – she was smiling and leaning against a tree – but she looked attractive enough. And hey, scab or no scab, Dustin had to admit he was not one of any magazine's 50 most beautiful people. In the next photo Nanci was playing a violin and looking at a music stand. Dustin couldn't tell if she was playing a recital hall or just at home. The background was unclear.
The last two photos drew Dustin deeper. In them he sensed a sexiness about her that was absent from the other two pictures. One showed her sitting on a set of outdoor bleachers, her elbows resting on her knees, a tennis racquet in her lap. The shine on her face showed she'd just finished playing. The photographer seemed to have caught her between heaving breaths. Her smile said she'd just won the match.
In the last shot she was walking away from the camera, looking back over a bare shoulder, a beaded bag in one hand. Her bright red mouth was slightly puckered, and her eyes were saying, "Put down that camera and follow me."
Dustin hadn't expected anything to come of his subscription, and certainly not this fast. His trial run in the dating scene had become a real game, and he didn't have the requisite equipment. He was sure he'd be disqualified.
He and Nanci exchanged notes for a couple days, learning more common interests: She had grown up in the Midwest too, and he was often in New York on business; they both liked unknown films and bands; neither had ever been to South America but wanted to go. Then the question came.
"Say, one friend of mine says maybe you're a famous actor and that's why you haven't posted any photos; you want me to know the real you. Another says you're probably on the lam from a bunch of other women and can't afford to be recognized. Which one is right? There's a dinner riding on this."
Dustin sent Nanci the picture Josh told him not to share along with the sad sack shot and emptied everything into the email that accompanied them: The woman he proposed to said no and he sank into a cheeseburger- and booze-fueled depression that ended only when he saw that picture, didn't recognize himself, and started running and riding his bike — the bike which, two months ago, he fell off of training for a triathlon.
"And she bought it?" Josh's skepticism grew in proportion to Dustin's hope. "Dude. I'm telling you, beware. She's not the chick in those photos. Listen. She's crazy — she invited Scarface to stay with her for crissakes."
"Josh, we're staying in a hotel. I don't know exactly where she lives or where she works—she's not giving it all up."
"Of course not! She's untraceable! Man, you are so not seeing this."
"What, you afraid I'm going to pick up and move to New York?"
"I'm afraid you're going to die in New York, man, lose all your money, your dignity, get killed in New York before anyone can think about moving anywhere."
Something Dustin couldn’t tell Josh: Someone already had killed him. You don't die that way twice.
His sister Carrie answered all of Josh's fears when Dustin repeated them to her.
"Don't make decisions for people, Dustin. You don't know if she's going to want to you move to New York—you don't know if she's even going to want you to stay the whole week. Nobody really knows for sure what they want until they have it — and then most people realize they don't want it after all.
"Come on — what a great reason to go to New York. Even if it's a spectacular failure, what have you lost? You get a week in the greatest city in the world. And hello, look at it from her point of view: she's taking a chance on some klutz from the rust belt who doesn't have a decent picture of himself.
"No matter what happens, it will make a great story — one I can't wait to hear. Go!"
Dustin had been dreaming of Nanci, dreaming of her meeting him at the gate—which of course people can't do anymore; Dustin even told himself so in his dream. The dream Nanci was an amalgam of all four photos and also a new Nanci, all in one. He recognized her immediately, and he smiled and waved, but she didn't see him. She was studying the face of each man who passed her. When Dustin finally approached her, she gave him the same expectant look, but spent no more time staring into his eyes than she had with any of the others, passed on to the man following him. He walked on by, didn't stop or reach out to her or even call out her name.
That's when he awoke, to a hand on his mouth that smelled like pretzels and grape bubble gum.
"You look tired." The mother wasn't done with him yet. "Have you been flying for business? Are you going home?" She didn't wait for him to answer. "We're going to visit my mother. In Brooklyn. She just moved there. Can you imagine? Moving to New York City at her age." The woman pointed to Alexander as if her mother's age were inscribed on him somewhere. "For a man, no less." She turned to look at Dustin squarely. "Are you married?" And immediately retracted. "I'm sorry. None of my business. Flying makes me nervous and when I'm nervous I blab."
Dustin excused himself to go to the restroom.
As he approached the lavatory Dustin began to see that the Nanci in his dream had also looked like that woman too. But that's the way with dreams: they incorporate the waking life — especially napping dreams, when the mind can't fully escape the outside world.
So why hadn't the boy figured into it, too, the sticky, smelly hand right under his nose? Josh's voice argued with Carrie's voice and the two of them wrapped a net of words around him and he stood in the john until a gentle rap on the door startled him and a voice guided him back to his seat to prepare for landing.
Alexander had scooted into Dustin's window seat and his mother had moved over beside him. Dustin buckled himself in on the aisle and wondered if he was up to this after all. He fell back into a daze and the world buzzed around him.
When they reached the gate and the warning lights went off and the cautions about shifting baggage had been given and the connecting gates had been read, Dustin let his seat-mates leave, then sat for a minute before collecting his things. When he entered the Jetway he moved to the side, let those who knew where they were going pass him, took his time getting wherever it was he was on his way to.