Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pulled by the Red Thread

Deja vu, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"
private collection, Dallas

"An invisible red thread connects those destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break." - Ancient Chinese Proverb

I believe this proverb is accurate, at least partially so. I'm not sure the thread is red. After all, it is invisible. And I'm not sure that the thread never breaks. If, for example, in a pinch you grabbed your invisible red thread and used it to floss your teeth, who knows what might happen? Would you meet the periodontist of your dreams? Or would you break your invisible thread, leaving your destiny dangling between your second and third molars? Despite my digression, I'm a believer in this thread. Aren't there people in our lives, people who entered under unlikely circumstances, people whom we can't imagine having never met? People whose lives have become so enmeshed in our own, it's as though their lives help us create our own lives.

Anyone who has known me for any time at all has heard the story of how I won a round-trip plane trip to San Francisco in 1982. That was twenty-eight years ago and I was twenty-eight years old. Imagine that. I was miserable where I was--Tuscaloosa, Alabama--and I read in the paper that Republic Airlines would be giving away round-trip plane tickets--I can't remember the number (50?) to the city chosen by each winner. All you had to do was show up at the airport on the appointed day--Sunday, March 7--fill in a little piece of paper, and drop it in a slot. Winners would be drawn from a box by a Republic employee. As I read the notice, I experienced a little tingle. You're going to win a ticket, a little voice whispered. Then another voice said, Dream on.

The anticipated Sunday arrived. I drove my Ford Pinto (that was the vehicle whose gas tank was prone to exploding in rear-end collisions) to Tuscaloosa Regional Airport. My spirits were high. The dogwood was blossoming. The kudzu was prolific. I rolled down all the windows and turned onto Airport Road. My heart sank. The road was lined with cars. I realized the unsettling truth: I would be vying with half the county's population for a handful of plane tickets. The odds were daunting. I kept driving past car after parked car lining the road. There were several Pintos, one with a crumpled rear end but no signs (thank goodness) of having burst into flames. I just kept driving past all of these cars, in a trance. A sensible person would have parked behind the last car on the highway and run straight to the airport so as not to be late. But I was in a trance. The little voice told me to drive. It told me I was going to win a ticket!

I turned left at the airport and pulled into the tiny lot, wondering how early the fate-kissed occupants of those parking spaces had arrived. Had they camped out overnight? As I approached the entrance, a car parked in the space nearest the entrance began, unbelievably, pulling out. You're going to win a ticket! the little voice said. Dream on, the other voice said.

I pulled into the magically vacated space, walked into the airport, shaking a little, and elbowed my way through the delirious throng to get my name in the box.

I was a little surprised to find my good friend Glenda standing a few feet away, and even more surprised to find her mother Louise standing beside her. Their faces were flushed with hope. I decided to stand with them. After all, it would be fun to be among friends when my name was pulled from the box. You're going to win a ticket!

A guy from the airlines stood at a podium and made a little speech (while everyone's gaze was fixed on the box), then he began drawing names. He pulled 45 names. My name wasn't one of them. Unbelievable.

Dream on, the hateful little voice said.

Name 46 was "LOUISE JONES." Louise Jones?

Glenda and I looked at each other with this shameful little look that said, How DARE she?

Louise made her way to the podium to claim her voucher. She was elated. How DARE she? Four more names were pulled. Glenda's and mine weren't among them. UnBElievable.

The general mood was grim. The crowd began pleading with the Republic guy in unison--"DRAW SOME MORE NAMES. PLEASE. WE WANT MORE NAMES. PLEEEEASE. PLEEEEEEASE. PLEEEEEEEEEEASE."

He relented and waved his palms at us, kind of preacherly, as though he had in his power to bestow blessings on the multitude. (He did.)

"OK, folks! We didn't expect this kind of turnout. FIVE more."

Everyone applauded. I inhaled deeply.

The Republic official began drawing names.

"LEROY SCOGGINS." Redneck clown.

"TANYA CULPEPPER." White trash bitch.

"BETTY SUE CULPEPPER." For God's sake, who rigged this anyway?

"REVEREND CECIL GRIMES." You have GOT to be kidding.

"GLENDA JONES." Glenda Jones??? How DARE she?

Glenda beamed and elbowed her way to the podium, an athletic little spring in her step. HOW? DARE? SHE?

The crowd moaned. There were tears in people's eyes. There were tears in my eyes.

"OK! OK!" shouted the Republic official. "ONE MORE. But NO MORE after that. Do we all understand??"

The crowd cheered.

The Republic official's hand moved very slowly over the box. He let it hover in a holding pattern. He felt like he was at the Academy Awards. I inhaled deeply. I closed my eyes. I felt like I was at the Academy Awards.


You've won a ticket! the little voice shouted.

A month later Glenda and Louise and I boarded a plane to San Francisco. Technically we boarded a plane in Tuscaloosa, which headed a few miles west, touched down at The Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Mississippi, then turned around to fly east to Atlanta, where another plane took us to Denver, where we boarded another one for Las Vegas, where we had an overnight layover, complete with free accommodations and a complimentary meal in a casino, and a few quarters for the slots, before we caught a flight to San Francisco. The tickets were free, not efficient.

Me, Glenda, and Louise. April 1982.

Just outside the edge of the photo is the invisible red thread. I felt it tugging at my ankle as I climbed the stairs to the plane. In San Francisco the tug was more insistent. Although my friends and I had only a week to explore that city, I knew I would return. Less than three months later I packed my bags and returned for good. I brought no furniture. (I'd sold that to finance my move.) Just some clothing and a few linens, what I could squash into two large suitcases. My mother drove me to the airport. She was wistful and probably a little frightened, but she knew about the red thread somehow, and I knew she knew. The thread pulled me with urgency and I knew that somehow all would work out. It did.

My destiny wasn't in my hands alone. There were other people too, who held the other end of the thread, sitting on the top of a hill in San Francisco, as I boarded the plane. Soon I would be climbing into the air, looking down as the red clay fields of Alabama disappeared beneath the clouds, and an invisible red thread pulled me higher, 31,000 feet into the air, across miles of crops and forests and desert, across the Mississippi River and the Rocky San Francisco...where those who held my destiny's thread had been waiting for me...

How they knew to pull the thread at that exact moment, especially given they were yet to be born, is a mystery, an exquisite mystery...but I believe it had something to do with this one, who held a thread too...