It was the license plate frame--"I TO PARTY"--that first caught Bob's eye that day on the Costa Mesa Freeway.
And when he pulled up alongside and got a look at the attractive young woman behind the wheel, "I thought, it looks like she's having a party now. She was just sort of bopping along, listening to music. So I smiled at her and waved. She waved back, and we paced each other along the freeway for a while, smiling and waving.
"So after awhile, I yelled to her, 'Give me your phone number!' And she yelled it out and I wrote it down."
A few hours later when he called, Bob identified himself the same way he does with every woman he meets on the freeway.
"Hello," he told the woman's answering machine, "this is the Freeway Flyer." But by then, the encounter had slipped out of the fast lane. She didn't return the call.
Most of us barely acknowledge each other when we're crowded together on the freeways, shying away from eye contact almost as much as we avoid touching bumpers. But to some drivers, freeways are more than just a way to get from one place to another. They're also a great place to make moves of a different kind. And for some, being alone in a car makes it easier to forget about the family waiting at home.
Bob isn't looking for a relationship, however; he has one already with his wife of more than 25 years. Nor is he looking for extramarital sex; the closest he has ever come to that--with his freeway friends, anyway, he says--was some steamy conversation over lunch.
"I like people," he says. "I like smiling at them; I like waving at them. I've gotten to meet some very attractive women this way. But other than that, there's no goal. It's just something to do on the freeway. You're stuck in traffic. Why not have a sexual fantasy? It's a good way to spend time."
Bob insists freeway flirting is harmless, and maybe he knows what he is talking about. He is, after all, a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. and a successful practice.
But Eileen, a marketing consultant who lives in Orange, disagrees vehemently. After more than two years of freeway flirting, she stopped a few months ago because she realized it was risky. "All of a sudden, I became aware that I was very vulnerable and there could be consequences," she says. "If I didn't flirt back appropriately, the guy could ram my car or pull a gun out."
Because of another kind of vulnerability--they don't want their spouses to find out--Bob and Eileen agreed to talk about their secret pastime only if their real names would not be used.
Bob, 50, says his wife would probably react "hysterically" if she knew about his highway habit. And Eileen says her husband "would think it was really stupid, because of the risk-taking. But he wouldn't have seen it as a threat to the relationship."
A woman doesn't have to be driving a fancy sports car to attract Bob's attention. "It's more their appearance, their behavior, not the kind of car," he says.
"I just look over and smile. If they smile back, I wave. Then I just keep driving and then kind of keep pace with them." If he has time, he might pantomime taking a drink from a cup, a signal that he would like to get together for coffee or a drink. Sometimes it works, but he admits, "I don't get that many people off the freeways."
But then there was the time he was stuck in traffic on Coast Highway in Laguna Beach on a hot summer afternoon. "Nobody was going anywhere, maybe 100 yards an hour. I was gagging and choking on exhaust fumes, and there were two attractive ladies in the vehicle next to me. I said, 'Tell you what, I'll buy you a drink.'
"They said, 'Sure. Where?' And I looked around and pointed to the first bar I saw. We went in there, and I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon and evening with these two ladies. We had drinks, dinner together and ended up going to one's apartment. We had a good time. But nothing sexual happened," Bob says.
Did he expect it to happen?
Does he think they did?
Does he tell these women he's married?
"If they ask. If they don't, I don't volunteer anything. I think probably if you talk to me, the aura is around me. The ring in the nose, the hangdog expression."
Another time, when Bob noticed that a woman he was flirting with had a phone in her car, he wrote his number on a note pad he keeps on the front seat and held it up to the window. "We were moving a little too fast to shout numbers at each other," he says. She copied it down, and "Lo and behold, an hour later when I got to my office, she'd called me from her car phone. We met for lunch, and had lunch a couple of times. It was a pleasant thing. I met someone nice. That was it."
Bob says only once did he seriously consider becoming involved with a freeway date. "She was an attractive young woman, 33, very blond and very pretty. We exchanged numbers and went to lunch. Then we met several more times. She was coming out of a relationship, and we talked about getting together.