* * * * *
"Is this seat taken?"
I looked up into the deep brown eyes of a woman about my age -- twenty-five. She had long, dark straight hair and was pleasant enough looking. Somehow, in those first seconds, she telegraphed to me that she was as lost as I was at this conference: the 1975 Annual Meeting of the Association of Computer Machinery or ACM. She stood politely waiting for my reply.
I became momentarily lost in her eyes, and then it dawned on me, I'd been asked a question. I stammered, "Oh! Yes! Please sit down. No, this spot's not taken." I gestured to the seat next to me. She dropped into the chair, nesting her conference notebook under her chair.
She turned to me; "My friends call me 'Em.' You can be my friend." She put her hand out, and I shook it automatically. She held it in her hand a little longer than I expected while she studied my face. There was a small current of electricity between us in those seconds.
I stared numbly at Em, her words registering and echoing around inside my head. She was the first person I'd talked to in three days other than a waiter or room service, and even then I hadn't said much. Finally, I gathered my wits and responded.
"I'm Matt Carter -- from Boston. Well, actually outside of Boston. Lexington. I work for Digital Devices. They sent me here for the week. I'm supposed to be soaking up all this stuff, particularly the papers on databases. That's supposedly going to be my project area. I've only been with them two years."
Most of what I'd just shared could be imputed from the nametag I wore on a lanyard around my neck. On it were my name, the company I worked for, and the town. The rest someone could have guessed from my age and, in hindsight, the fact that like three-quarters the male attendees at the conference I wore a pocket protector with a careful selection of pens and mechanical pencils in it.
I tried to read Em's nametag. She turned to me and thrust her chest in my direction when she realized I was trying to read the tag: 'Emma Clee. Verbatim. Palo Alto.' I tried to ignore the landscape surrounding the nametag, although it was hard not to register that Em had curves -- lots of them.
Em was not trying to tempt me. She was female, and I could instantly tell she had the same basic genes that I carried: nerd or geek, depending on your preference. Why else would she have been at this conference? She wore freshly pressed grey slacks and a white blouse. A maroon v-neck pullover sweater topped the ensemble, and brown loafers. The outfit seemed to have been adopted by half of the few women at the conference, and certainly by most of my female co-workers back on the east coast.
I blushed suddenly, realizing that I had been staring at her nametag and peripherally her chest.
Em burst out laughing. "It's all right, Matt. I didn't mean to shock you; I just wanted to make it easy for you to read my tag." She paused at my embarrassment, and then asked, "I'm working the back part of your database area -- high density data storage. Do you know Verbatim?"
I shook my head. I hadn't heard of her company.
"It's six years old. I've only been with them since I got my master's degree two years ago. They specialize in magnetic storage. You know the eight-inch floppy disks your computer center uses for some data storage -- that's us."
"What do you actually do for them?" I asked out of genuine curiosity.
"They have me assigned to the next generation of media. I'm an electrical engineer. Caltech."
I stated, "I didn't know Caltech was co-ed."
Em responded with a smile, "Only the last five years. I transferred in from UCLA, got my bachelors and then did a masters on magnetic storage. I didn't think about it at the time, but I really narrowed down my job choices." She paused and probed, "How about you?"
I said, "Nothing so exotic. I drag-assed through an EE undergrad at Rensselaer Poly in upstate New York, and then was lucky enough to get a slot in the MIT masters program. Two years ago I'm out and worried about getting drafted for Viet Nam. Digital hired me and got me an occupational deferment because they were doing work for the Air Force and I had been rated crucial to that effort. Ha! Three months ago, I got sidelined on this database program, and, well, here I am."
Our conversation went on from there. I found it easy to talk to Em, and I know she felt the same way about me. She told me so. She wasn't blunt, however, her remarks were direct and she didn't mince words. I had the feeling if a thought crossed into her head, I heard about it seconds later.
More attractive than her candid personality was that she sparkled from within. Not that she was a beauty, but Em was a genuinely happy person. Her voice had a lilt to it. She turned a negative comment I made about the conference around into a positive attribute. She laughed easily and smiled a lot. She touched me on the arm or shoulder too, unafraid of how I might respond. Deep down, I felt she was a free spirit, albeit one that had also mastered the rapidly changing field of electrical engineering at probably the best technical school in the country.
Lunch arrived amid a flurry of waiters and waitresses that scurried through the one thousand attendees sitting packed ten to a table in the huge ballroom at the Los Angeles Sheraton. As we finished the lunch, the emcee for the event stood and called the luncheon meeting to order. After a few remarks, he introduced the keynote speaker -- Jerome Wiesner, the President of MIT. I'd seen him once before, at my last commencement, and had since learned of his august reputation in the technical community. Wiesner spoke for forty-five minutes about the future of the computer. I paid rapt attention thinking of the positive implications for Digital Devices -- my company.
At one point Wiesner mentioned something called Moore's Law -- summarizing the performance of integrated circuits as doubling every eighteen months. Em nudged me and whispered, "Moore spoke at Caltech; he's an alum. He heads Intel now. Good guy." I nodded.
After the luncheon keynote, the meeting broke up. Em grabbed my hand as we stood and said, "Come on, let's go outside. I need to get some sun. I'm wasting away inside all these windowless rooms." Holding onto my hand, she led me with long purposeful steps from the ballroom into the grand hallway, and then pulled me out a side door into the outside world.
The blinding sunlight of the California sky made me wince as we walked toward the hotel's swimming pool. Em continued to hold my hand as she walked us with authority into the pool area. I was touched and my heart actually raced at the physical contact.
"Let's sit here," Em announced next to a couple of the plastic pool loungers. Most of the pool area was empty except for an increasing number of conference attendees strolling by. Near the shallow end, a couple of families enjoyed the water attendant with squeals from some children as they splashed around.
Em pulled her sweater off over her head, leaving her in a white blouse. She was braless, a point I noticed immediately and then tried to ignore just as rapidly. Much to my surprise, she also unbelted her slacks and proceeded to step out of them. Underneath, thank god, she wore the briefs of a light blue bikini that seemed to call attention to her shapely legs. I swallowed hard. There was no doubt the curves were real.
"You worried me for a minute," I stated flatly.
Em laughed at my momentary discomfort. After tossing her sweater and slacks over a nearby chair, she lay back on a lounger. I stretched out next to her, although I felt uncomfortable about being in the pool area with clothes on. In response to a question, she told me she'd learned about getting outside at her last conference so she'd come prepared to this one.
She said, "Just let me soak up some rays for a few minutes and I'll get dressed again. If I embarrass you, you can go, but I like your company. You're cute."
'Cute' was not a word ever used to describe me. I was an engineer, standing a solid six feet tall with long shaggy hair and a fair complexion. I'd been on my own since I was eighteen, the oldest and most mature of three siblings. I acknowledged that I was socially dense compared to many of my cohorts. I'd had several girlfriends through high school and college, and had most recently been narrowing my rare dating down to one girl my age -- Megan Winston. Neither Megan nor any other girl I'd ever dated had ever called me 'cute.'
"Cute?" I exclaimed, not sure I wanted the moniker. "Why cute?"
"Well, you're so 'engineer.' You need to loosen up and be daring. Instead of hiding behind the technology, you need to get out in front of it. Technology is useless without people: people creating it; people building it; and people using it. You need to focus on the people and not just on the technology." She let the remark sit for a minute. She added, "I'm working on the same thing -- being more social. I called you cute, because you blush easily. This is the seventies -- everything is free and floating. Opportunity." She swung her arms around and said, "Somewhere else, I might actually go topless ... or even nude."
I was speechless. I think my jaw may have actually hung open at her last remark. I sat on my lounger, all too aware of Em's long and shapely legs, and the shadows under her partially unbuttoned blouse.
"Do you have a girlfriend?" Em asked. She was lying with her eyes closed basking in the sun. I could almost hear her body absorbing the early summer sunshine.
I thought about how to answer that. Finally, I said, "Yeah, sort of, I guess; back in Boston; her name's Megan. We're starting to get serious."
"Good," Em said. "I like that you have a girlfriend. It's sort of like to you come out to California and meet me 'pre-approved.' Are you exclusive?"
I understood the question, but stammered in my reply, "I don't know ... I mean ... the subject has never come up." I paused and looked at Em; she had a slight smile on her lips.
"Do you guys have sex?" She asked in a matter of fact tone.
Now, I was nonplussed. This girl was getting very personal. Directness had its limits. I didn't think engineers were even supposed to know about sex. It wasn't a subject ever discussed in my childhood and rarely amongst the guys I worked with. I decided to tell the truth; I said, "No. We've messed around, but that's all. I guess Megan wants to take it slow."
After a silence, I asked, "Boyfriend?"
Em said, "Yeah, sort of. I haven't known him very long." She smiled enigmatically again and added, "He's from back east. Boston area."
I didn't catch the drift of the conversation, so I asked, "Oh, really. Where's he work?"
Em chuckled and said, "Digital Devices. It's you, dummy." She cranked one eye open and looked sideways at me, and then closed her eyes again and went back to her sun tan.
I was stunned. I remember looking at my watch and thinking I'd only know Em for a little under two hours, and now she declared I was her boyfriend. I studied her and tested my own feelings. I wasn't averse to the idea. She was nice enough: friendly, outgoing, not bad looking, conversational. Plus, she thought I was 'cute.'
I countered, "You're kidding, right?"
"No, not really -- and I'm not crazy. I'd love to have you as a boyfriend, but no strings, no exclusivity, no ownership, no requirements other than to just be you. Oh, and lose the pocket protector; it ruins your image." She snickered.
I looked down at my coveted vinyl pocket protector. I plucked the white vinyl case from my pocket and deposited it into my conference portfolio, making sure it wouldn't fall out. I'd worn the damn thing for seven years. I remember thinking that maybe it was time to give it up. I seldom thought about what I looked like.
"Well, just to be clear, Girlfriend, I have to catch a plane back to Boston on Saturday morning. I can't offer much of a relationship beyond that."
After a silence, Em asked from behind her closed eyes, "Do you think you'll come to more conferences like this one?"
I thought for a while, before carefully answering, "Yeah, probably, but my boss and his boss have to approve my attendance -- my travel. This time, they sent me. I've never been to anything like this before except when it was local -- in Boston."
Em seemed to accept my answer. I wasn't sure what she was thinking. In fact, I thought she was playing with me, teasing me still about being her boyfriend. I knew I was naïve and susceptible to such teasing.
After a moment, Em asked what papers I was planning to attend the rest of the afternoon. I rattled off a couple of names and titles from memory. We kicked around some of the alternatives, and Em said she wanted to come with me to my sessions. I accepted her choice, glad to have her company.
A few minutes later, Em redressed into her slacks and light sweater and we went inside. She seemed rejuvenated from her time in the sun. She spoke of a session she wanted to attend the next day with great enthusiasm, even talking me into going with her.
We sat close to each other as we listened to a young professor from Texas drone on about normalizing databases, and optimizing search operations. As we sat, Em went out of her way to be in physical contact with me; not much, just our elbows touched -- or hips -- or shoulders. She made the moves intentionally. When a profound point was made, she'd put her hand on my arm. I enjoyed the physical contact. I felt more alert and more focused on Em as the session and our touching continued.
I bought us both Tabs at the mid-afternoon break. Em rushed us both outdoors again to capture some more of the sun, although she remained in her conference attire this time. After the break, we sat through another presentation by a guy from Intel about computer memory optimization. He ran late and we didn't leave the conference room until five-thirty.
As we walked down the hallway, Em asked, "What are you doing for dinner?"
I shrugged and waved my arm expansively at the hotel that I'd found had three different restaurants in it, and then I told her, "Last night, I did room service."
She said, "Do you like Tex-Mex?"
I gave her a blank look. I wasn't sure what she was talking about.
Em put her hands together with a gleeful expression and said enthusiastically, "Come with me. We're going out. I saw a place when I was driving around last night that looked good." She took my hand again, and pulled me out a side door and towards the large parking lot for the hotel. She held onto me all the way to her rental car, often looking at me -- studying my reaction to our handholding. It was comfortable holding hands with her. I could tell by her smile that Em liked the contact too.
Soon, we joined a line of rental cars fanning out from the hotel in different directions. Em drove us about fifteen minutes and pulled into the parking lot for a Mexican restaurant called Casa Blanca. I turned myself over to her, since she knew the cuisine. I'd never had Mexican food before, and the prospect worried me. The table filled with chips, salsa, queso, and two plates of burritos, enchiladas, and tacos.
We shared, we laughed, particularly as I tentatively tasted everything. I choked until tears came to my eyes over my first hot jalapeño. Em rolled around on her side of the table with laughter as I rejoined the ranks of the living, although I was sure I'd seared the inside of my mouth. Later, she ordered us both some sopapillas and vanilla ice cream for dessert. The combination of cinnamon, warm crisp pastries, and the ice cream was wonderful.
"How did you know I'd like vanilla ice cream?" I asked between bites.
Em smiled and said, "Easy. You're an engineer and male."
"Are we that predictable?" I jested back at her.
Em got philosophical again. "In this case, yes. I'd love to see you be less predictable. You'll go further in your career if you're more spontaneous and outgoing. At least you have the makings of a good sense of humor. Nurture that." She smiled warmly at me, and my heart took a little jump. She had a knack at boring in on little things that seemed to make a difference to me. Nothing she said was malicious. To the contrary, I felt her suggestions were aimed at my self-improvement, both personally and professionally.
We were both staying at the conference hotel. Em drove us back to the hotel the long way, giving me a 'drive by' tour of Los Angeles and Hollywood. I'd never been in the city before and appreciated the guide service. She told me how different this was from Silicon Valley, where she lived and worked.
Back at the hotel, Em asked me to take a walk around the hotel grounds with her. I readily agreed. She pulled my arm over her shoulder and put her arm around me, and we sauntered very slowly through the parking lots and gardens of the hotel.
Em stopped at one point and guided me in front of her. She was about six inches shorter than me; however, she looked up at me and then pulled my face to hers, and we kissed. I'd thought of kissing her earlier in the day, when she'd been on the lounger in fact, but chalked that fleeting thought up to male hormones.
She kissed me very tenderly and carefully, almost as though I'd break. She didn't stop at only one. I certainly didn't either. After we'd explored quite a bit, she whispered, "Boyfriends and girlfriends should always kiss each other. A lot. I like the way you kiss."
I whispered back, "I like the way you kiss too. Plus, you make my heart beat fast."
"Me too," Em said. We kissed some more, and then walked until we found a secluded bench next to a small faux waterfall and poi pond. We sat for over an hour and explored each other with lips and tongue. We were proper and both of us were panting for more at the end of the hour.
Em reluctantly said, "I need to turn in. You do too. Will you still be my boyfriend tomorrow?"
I affirmed, "Absolutely. Can we meet for breakfast?"
She nodded and we agreed on which of the interior restaurants to meet at and a time.
I escorted Em to her door. After checking the hallway to be sure we were alone, we kissed madly again, and then I left her to find my own room on another floor.
The next morning, Em and I found each other and ate together. We became inseparable, taking turns going to each other's sessions throughout the day. We maintained a sense of decorum throughout the day, although Em often held onto my arm and squeezed it affectionately during the sessions. Em took her luncheon sun session beside the pool again; this time I took my shirt off and stretched out on the lounger next to her. She looked pleased.
In the afternoon session, Em got visibly bored. She took my arm into her lap and rolled up my sleeve. With her ballpoint pen she made a careful heart on the inside of my forearm. After she was through, she kissed her fingers and then touched her artwork. I was touched by her affection.
After the Thursday sessions ended, Em asked if I'd be willing to take a drive to Marina Del Rey for dinner. She'd never been there and wanted to see it. We crawled along the new I10 for a while until we reached the picturesque area. We walked along, arms around each other, until we found a beautiful restaurant right in the midst of the marina. We got a table and then sat and shared some time together over a glass of wine. We held hands across the table.
After dinner we walked around the marina area some more, and then headed back to the hotel. We hugged and kissed a lot in the car once we reached the hotel parking lot. I could tell something was on Em's mind. Finally, she said, "Come up to my room. We can be more comfortable there."