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You ever have a F2F? In Internet-speak that's a Face-to-Face: that first meeting with somebody you've connected with through email or an on-line chat room. It's one of the main oddities of doing business on the 'Net, that you usually don't have a clue what somebody is going to look like, unless they've sent you a picture. You can be utterly off-base about their age, race, looks, size -- sometimes even their gender. Which is what makes the F2F so revelatory. Oh, not about THEM. About yourself, and your expectations, the way you imagine people to be.

Well, I travel a lot so I've done a lot of them. I make a conscious effort to meet people over a cup of coffee and chat them up if I've liked them on-line. What I've discovered is that in most F2F's there's this little moment of adjustment while you revise your mental photo, but usually no huge surprises, and even if there are, you can recover in a minute or two.

Usually. Until the afternoon I look up from the menu in a café in a Sunbelt city and the physical reality of Trudy knocks me half out of my head.

Trudy. Funny how even from a name, you form a picture. The one I'd been carrying around was of this hearty middle-aged feminist colleague, the one with the sensible salt-and-pepper wash-n-wear 'do. Nope. Instead there's an awkward shock -- when I realize that all this time, through all the months of networking and info-sharing, I'd been talking to this extraordinarily beautiful girl. All right, not a girl, exactly, but oh so heartbreakingly lovely, young enough to have a white neck like a swan's and a tumble of copper curls and creamy perfect white shoulders out of a Pre-Rafaelite painting.

But hey, I'm a pro. On most days I can do the schmooze with the best of 'em, after so many years the performance is almost second nature. So I gulp, carefully rearrange my face into a professional but sisterly smile, and shift into Standard Networking Mode.

And off we go, talking as usual about agents and contacts, festivals and conferences, doing the Name-Swap Tango -- but for some reason, I can feel wires crossing. My words are getting all scrambled in my mouth. They're piling up like a traffic jam, because my eyes keep drifting over to her neck, the line of her shoulders and throat. It's summer and she's wearing a strapless top, not a particularly sexy or revealing one, but nevertheless in it she seems to be nothing BUT shoulders, they're looming at me across the table like the White Mountains.

And I feel like a jerk, like one of those gawking construction apes who can't keep his mind on a friendly conversation because he's staring at a woman's tits, not her face. And I wonder whether she can see my eyes tracing the curve of her neck.

So I try to get back on track -- blah blah contracts oh yes that publisher ba-dang ba-dang -- but her neck keeps arching and it keeps getting more and more beautiful the longer I stare. I push on, and that's a mistake. See, when I get nervous I always get louder. And more blunt, more full of opinions, oh how the opinions come crashing out of me like ocean waves battering against a white seacliff, until I am hopelessly self-conscious about this as well.

And for a moment I think: what if I just stop, interrupt, apologize and say -- "Sorry. I didn't hear the last eight sentences you said because your shoulders have got me addled." But I have learned from experience that this is the kind of thing you don't say this to straight women, no matter what kind of feminists they think they are. For one thing you don't want them knocking over their latté on you, as they dart for the door. And she knows too many of the people I know, I can't stand the gossipy awfulness of such an admission, the scalding hunger of it. Because frankly there's something pathetic about the way I feel in the presence of her shoulders. They make me feel hulking and ungainly and vulnerable, not to mention grayer than Methuselah, so I don't bring it up.

Instead I sip at my cappuccino -- well, more like gulp at it, trying not to spill the whipped cream all over the shelf of my own breasts, but of course when I get flustered I do. So now I look like a sloppy idiot, a loud sloppy opinionated idiot, one who can't even manage a simple conversation, who is only capable of relentless ranting monologue.

So I try another tack. I start asking her questions, and as she answers, a bit shyly, I try in vain to look other places. My eyes are darting around the room, I'm looking at the crack in the faux adobe wall and the wrought iron chairs and the prices of the drinks on the menu, I'm shifting about in my chair trying to get something, ANYTHING, in the range of my vision that does not include the overwhelming sight of these shoulders. And she gets this worried-sad look in her brown doe-like eyes, one I can suddenly read like a thought balloon floating over her head: "She thinks I'm boring". Hooboy! Of course I don't think she's boring, actually I want to hear about her work and her aspirations and I'd even listen to her talk about her boyfriend for crying out loud, if only I could stop looking at her shoulders!

So I try to imagine a giant STOP! sign hanging around her neck, but that only makes things worse. All I can see then is all the women whose necks I never touched, a long line of swans like the chorus in Swan Lake, all dancing away from me. But then I think, get a grip, you don't really want this woman, even though her heart-shaped face and Botticelli curls are pretty spectacular, what would I do with her at this point in my life anyway. All we both want is a friendly chat and an exchange of information about contacts, and I'll bet she's gotten plenty of them, she's certainly gotten more than a FEW things in her young life because of those curls and neck and all, no wonder her stuff is in print already, says a green-eyed demon in me.

I am suddenly stupefied by the ugly turn of my thoughts. And I wonder about a woman's beauty, and how in the fairy tales it is so often a black magic gift, like a poisoned apple or a face that turns people to stone. Maybe it gets in her way as much as it helps. Maybe hardly anybody will do her work because her face and neck and shoulders stops them cold. They begin to think of her as an object of beauty instead of a voice, and it's her voice she wants people to hear.

And then I understood, for the first time in my life, why some Muslim women might not be lying when they say they love the veil. And why we sit at our computers, hour after hour, peering at each other through those glowing blank screens -- like clairvoyants scrying in a mirror, or a basin of water. We hear each other's voices so much more clearly that way.

And though I didn't regret this F2F, I could sense that we'd both be relieved when it was over. That we'd look forward to feeling our shapes recede and melt into those electronic mists -- 'til we could meet again, safe -- on that blind, shimmering shore.


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