It began at dinner.
Most of the meals I ate during the Society for Neuroscience conference were in one of two hotel meeting rooms, where we ate the same salad with the same dressing, followed a main course with the same side of oily asparagus, all washed down by the same glass of water or iced tea. Thankfully, this particular dinner was celebrating one journal’s 30th anniversary, and so the venue was a real commercial restaurant where we would (presumably) be served considerably more exciting food.
Tables inside the restaurant were arranged to seat six, so the marketing manager and I sat down together at one table (we usually sat together at these events) and were eventually joined by three other gentlemen. The two gentlemen across from me were Korean and Japanese, respectively, and the man to my left was French. While we made a valiant effort to shout across our appetizers to one another, the Korean man, the Japanese man, and I eventually gave up at attempting to hold a conversation and settled for those sitting closer: for them, this meant the marketing manager; for me, this meant the Frenchman.
Although we had asked that the board members not bring guests, this Frenchman—let’s call him “Alex”—was just that: a guest. He had no official affiliation with the journal, or even with our publishing company. Consequently, instead of being a graying, wrinkled old scientist, Alex turned out to be a 30-something world traveler. He worked as a scientist and had his own lab, but he spent more time travelling to other labs around the world to consult on various scientific projects.
Throughout the dinner, we chatted about our various travelling experiences. I mentioned my study-abroad trip to England and told him of my twenty-four-hour excursion in Paris. He described his work in countries all over the world and told me he would be visiting New York City in early 2011. I enthusiastically told him that he should email me before he comes, and I will offer suggestions for what to see and where to eat. He thanked me graciously, and we finished the meal with further discussion of our jobs and our travels.
After dessert was served and everyone seemed to be starting on their final glass of wine (these scientists could drink!), I pulled my purse from under the table and extracted a business card for Alex. “My email address is on here,” I told him, “So just email me before you come and I’ll send you suggestions and stuff.”
This was when it happened. I don’t know what it was about that business card (it was plain white with simple black lettering, so basically as boring as possible), but his eyes lit up and he clutched it as though someone had just handed him a $100 bill. He thanked me as he stood and inserted it into his jacket pocket, reiterating his excitement to come to New York . . . and then he sat down in his chair and pulled it right up so that our knees were nearly touching. “Perhaps we will see each other when I come,” he added.
That should have been my red flag. I had mentioned having a boyfriend throughout dinner, but always in a broad way in a larger conversation. The marketing manager had been talking about football, and I had mentioned my boyfriend likes the Cowboys. A few of us were discussing Americanized Chinese food, and I had mentioned a restaurant that my boyfriend and I had yet to try, near our apartment, that had several rabbit dishes on the menu. I had not, however, brought R___ up in direct conversation with Alex. So, it was possible that he had missed those other comments. Or, alternatively, perhaps he simply wanted to see a familiar face in a foreign land, and so he now perceived me to be his “New York contact.” I could not fault him for that. If I went to France or Greece or China, I would much prefer to have a native show me the sites, whether friend or acquaintance.
So, as I tend to do, I gave Alex the benefit of the doubt and went with the latter presumption that he was just hoping for a local tour guide for his trip to New York City. We chatted a bit longer, with me inching my chair away little by little, and finally I got up in order to say my goodbyes. After I had shaken a number of strangers’ hands and given my regards to both my boss and the journal’s editor-in-chief, I grabbed my purse and slipped out the door. Even though I was giving him the benefit of the doubt, I felt that it was in my better interest not to say any special good-byes to Alex.
I had made it about halfway down the street when I sensed someone on the sidewalk behind me. Again, I consciously decided that it could be any board member who had left at the same time as me, and since all of the hotels were in approximately the same area, it made sense that we were walking the same direction. This assumption was ruined, however, when the steps behind me quickened and an arm was suddenly thrown over my shoulder.
“Where are you going?”
I shrugged off Alex’s arm and continued my brisk pace. “Back to my hotel.”
“Oh but it is so ear-ly.”
“I’m kind of tired. Still on East Coast time—you know. And I have to get up early for a breakfast tomorrow, so I’m just going back.”
“But you are so young! Come have a drink.”
“No, I really do have to get up early tomorrow.”
He sighed. “I will walk with you back to your hotel, then. Where are you staying?”
It turns out he was staying in the exact same hotel as me, right beside the conference center. I was terrified that he was going to try to walk me all the way to my door, but thankfully we were staying in different towers, so we parted ways at the entrance. Heaving a sigh of relief, I locked my door, turned out the lights, and fell asleep imaging how I would recount this story with maximum hilarity for my friends the following day.
The next morning, I woke up and checked my work email account, just to make sure no one had sent me anything urgent. There, in the sent box, was a message from Alex.
I am still working in my computer and I was thinking of you...It was a very pleasant dinner and I hope that you will have more time to discuss today evening about life, arts and more.
I deliberated on how to respond for the entire half hour it took me to get ready for the editorial board breakfast I was about to attend, and in the end I shut the lid of my computer without writing anything. I did have dinner plans, and going out for a drink after dinner (his second proposition in that email) was not a good idea, because it offered me no “out”—that is, no tactful way to say, “Sorry, gotta go.” I decided that if I saw him during the day (which was unlikely, considering that 40,000 people were attending this conference), I would just tell him that I had not checked my email.
The next morning, I wrote him a reply, apologizing for not seeing his email the day before and suggesting coffee between the end of the conference and the dinner I was scheduled to attend. When I checked my email later that morning, I had not received a reply, but just before noon, Alex showed up at our company booth.
“I leave today,” he told me, “So I am not free for drinks.” We shook hands, and he said that he would hopefully see me in New York.
But that was not the end. Over the next few days, I received two more emails, one of which I thought summarized the experience most appropriately:
I hope everything is fine for you. I don't know yet when I will come back in New York but I hope before next summer... My thoughts flashed back to the last time we met when I tried to chat you up! It was fun but not a real success....
There went my wistful hope that ours had been an innocent interaction. Upon recounting the incident to various friends, I was advised not to reply, and so I have not. I guess this means I’ll have to befriend someone else if I want a native tour guide in Paris, perhaps a Frenchwoman. . . .