I had quite forgotten Garcia Marquez’s short story ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane’ as I made my way to the Concorde lounge at JFK on a cold December day. Nor was I thinking about Lava Falls, although hardly a day had passed since August when I hadn’t relived that adventure.
No, what filled my mind as I strode down the crowded airport corridor was currency trading. I was headed to London to meet with a potential new client about his dispute with a big Swiss bank. Not my thing at all, but still, it was business, and I did like London, especially if I could manage to get a rush ticket to the theater. The client wanted to see me as soon as possible and said he’d pay for me to fly over on the Concorde. So why not? But I had only the flight time to study the book I was clutching, The Idiot’s Guide to Foreign Currency Trading, so I wouldn’t appear like an idiot at the meeting.
It was only when I sat down in the Concorde lounge and looked across at the woman sitting opposite me that I remembered ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane.’ In Marquez’s story, the narrator tells of noticing “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen” as he waits in the check-in line at Charles de Gaulle, and watching her disappear into the crowd in the terminal. Then, after being delayed nine hours by a snowstorm, his flight boards and, mirabile dictu, there is his Beauty in the very next seat! Naturally, all manner of fantasies swirl through the mind of Marquez’s smitten traveler. But, alas, his accidental companion immediately dons her sleep mask and, though all he craves is one hour awake by her side, “so that I could recover my freedom, and perhaps my youth,” her sleep is “invincible” all the way across the ocean. She awakens exactly on touch-down, promptly deplanes, and then melts into “the Amazon jungle of New York.” He never sees her again.
The woman I was looking at across the Concorde departure lounge may not have been the most beautiful I’d ever seen, but she was gorgeous. Slim, tanned even in December, short dark hair cut in a perfect bob. Black cashmere sweater and tan slacks, black topcoat casually thrown across her lap. Little or no makeup that could be seen, small diamond stud earrings but no other jewelry. Piercing blue eyes that didn’t look down or away but, oh my God, returned my gaze. And then a smile, not flirtatious, but exuding confidence. As my pulse raced, I was the one who quickly looked down to the book on my lap. But I couldn’t read. Instead, I thought about the last time I had felt such a thrill – at Lava Falls.
Lava Falls was the culmination of the whitewater rafting trip in the Grand Canyon I had taken with my college-bound daughter that summer. Who knows how I came up with that idea; no one in our staid family had ever done anything like that before. But maybe that was the point; maybe I was looking for a brief escape from an increasingly dull law practice and a pedestrian marriage from which I’d never strayed.
We’d camped out, sung folksongs and told stories around the campfire, drifted past glorious canyon lands, hiked up side canyons to crystal-pure waterfalls, and heard coyotes at night as we looked up at the stars – more stars than I had ever seen – eerily framed by the jagged edges of the canyon. I grew a beard. And we rode the rapids.
Jeff, the tanned, sinewy guide who expertly piloted the large pontoon raft, had explained that Grand Canyon rapids are rated 1 to 10 according to the height of the waves, the width of the passages through the rocks, and the turbulence of the water. The higher the rating, the greater the thrill. According to the brochure he gave us, a 10 rating promises “large, complex, gushing rapids, twisting, and spinning to deliver the consummate adrenaline rush.” Lava Falls Rapids, he said, was a 10.
By Day 6, I had somehow found the courage to claim my turn on the front pontoons, and was ready to challenge the fury of Lava Falls – and something roiling inside myself. As the raft approached the rapids, I saw in an instant that it isn’t called Lava Falls for nothing. We had been down dozens of rapids in the past five days, but they were nothing like this. It wasn’t rapids, it was a goddamn waterfall – a little Niagara. As our raft neared the top, I looked down from my front-row perch and all I could think was, “We’re going down that?”
And then we did. Shooting most of the rapids up to then had taken seconds, maybe a minute or two. But this ride seemed to take hours – hours of gushing, and twisting, and bumping, and falling into huge holes I wondered if even Jeff could steer out of. To my true amazement, I managed to remain aboard, clinging to the ropes, all the way to the pool at the bottom. My heart still pounding, I looked up – way up! – to where we’d started, and heard Jeff announce, “Well, folks, that was a ten plus. You could even call it an eleven.” Consummate adrenaline rush just didn’t capture it. This was the most thrilling thing I had ever experienced. For those few minutes, I had become someone new. I doubted I would ever feel so exhilarated again.
I was suddenly transported from the raft by the sound of an English-accented voice announcing British Airways Flight 004 to London. I closed my unread book, glanced at the now-empty chair across from me, and boarded. And there she was, right in the seat next to mine, exactly as Marquez had foretold. Was I in for another thrilling ride? Or would she, like Marquez’s Beauty, quickly melt away?
Another confident smile, showing that, yes, she recognized me from the departure lounge. Again, I could feel my pulse accelerate. But without even waiting for the safety briefing or her glass of champagne, she pulled down the window shade, curled up against the side of the plane, and closed her eyes. No eyeshade needed: she was clearly at home on the Concorde and she, too, meant to sleep her way across the pond. I noticed that she had very long eyelashes. But they were real.
As our Concorde reached its cruising altitude of 56,000 feet, while she slept, I had a drink, then another, and tried to concentrate on my currency trading primer. But nothing could be more soporific, so soon I also dozed off. And yes, I did dream of her – of riding down the Colorado with her in a small raft, piloted by me.
The next thing I remember – how could I forget? – we were both awake. The flight attendant offered champagne and, again giving me that confident smile, she accepted a glass for each of us. Soon, we were chatting like two about-to-be friends! She asked me what I did in life; I described a law practice much more interesting than mine really was. Why was I going to London? I embellished the currency-trading dispute to make it sound James Bondish. We disparaged the British Airways champagne. And, of course, I told her about Lava Falls. But I didn’t mention my wife.
Then it was my turn to ask the questions.
“I’m an actress,” she said.
“Really? What do you act in?”
“Well, I’ve been in a few movies. But you probably haven’t seen any of them.”
“Try me,” I said. I had seen a lot of movies. So she mentioned a couple of teenage comedies, and she was right – I hadn’t seen either of them. But I was sure my daughter had, so I sounded impressed and, with some more bad champagne, she enthralled me by describing her supporting roles in this film and that. Now, she was en route to filming her first leading role on location in Morocco, but was “stopping off in London” for a couple of days of shopping and a visit to her Covent Garden hair salon. And I was smitten, just like Marquez’s traveler. But, unlike him, I felt that maybe I had recovered my freedom, and maybe also my youth.
I could have listened, and looked at her, all night. But this was supersonic travel, and before we knew it, the plane was descending to Heathrow, and we were told to fasten our seatbelts and return our seat backs to the upright position. Was it over? Was now the moment when she would, after all, disappear into the mist?
No. Lava Falls was still downriver.
Still chatting, we deplaned together, and walked side by side down the exit ramp, and through the endless maze of corridors that lead to the Heathrow Customs Hall. The upcoming scenario began to take shape in my mind: we’d go through Customs together, and then share the long ride into Central London in a black cab. By the time we reached our hotels, we’d have made a date for dinner the next evening. And then, who knows?
But at the entrance to the Customs Hall, there stood an officious young man in a B.A. blazer, who greeted her by name, took charge of her coat and carry-on, and began leading her away toward a wormhole through Customs reserved for VIP’s. Before I could feel the explosion of my dream, she turned over her shoulder, flashing those blue eyes that had hooked me back at JFK, and whispered, “Tomorrow evening, six-thirty. Claridge’s Bar. See you there.”
My memory of the night at my hotel is a blur. All I remember is canceling my theater ticket and thinking blissfully about Claridge’s Bar – and what would come after. But I must have absorbed at least some of The Idiot’s Guide, and was able to fake the rest, because I came away from my meeting with a retainer to commence a lawsuit back in New York against the huge Swiss bank. And that had me feeling especially virile as I nursed my Dewar’s on the rocks on the red leather stool at Claridge’s.
I had arrived at 6:15, and chosen the stool at the far end of the Bar, so I could see her enter from the hotel lobby, take note of how she looked and how she was dressed, and calm myself in the seconds it would take her to cross the bar and join me. I would ask her about her day in London, and pick up where we left off about her upcoming filming in the desert. I wouldn’t mention currency trading, but hoped she would ask how my meeting went. And we’d take it from there.
Six-thirty came and went, but I wasn’t discouraged. After all, she was a budding movie star, so she had a right to be late. By 6:45, I was glancing at my watch as much as staring out into the lobby. Still, I knew this was going to happen.
Then I saw her. But she wasn’t heading into the Bar. She was walking quickly through the lobby toward the hotel entrance. I was more puzzled than devastated. She had said the Bar, hadn’t she? So I slid off the stool and went into the lobby after her.
As he entered the lobby, she greeted him with an affectionate kiss, hands around his neck. Then they both turned to face me. He was a film actor anyone would recognize.
Again, she smiled at me with those piercing blue eyes. But this time the smile was one not of confidence, but embarrassment, telling me she hadn’t expected him to show up in London – at least not that evening. And with it, a shrug. “Oh well,” her smile and shrug said. And then they were gone.
I can’t say I never saw her again, because I did. Several times — on the screen. Her career went from supporting to starring roles. She eventually married the actor I’d seen her with in London, and as far as I know from occasional perusal of People magazine, they’re still married.
Over the years, I’ve told many people about my ride down Lava Falls. But I haven’t bragged about the night I climbed to 56,000 feet and slept with a movie star. Until now.
STEVEN B. ROSENFELD is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School, a retired lawyer who has been writing for over 40 years — but not fiction, until this past year.