I was thwarted in love while sitting on an airplane
from the Autumn 2008 issue
Some folks fall in love gradually; for me it always happens in an instant. I was at the airport in Albuquerque, headed for California, when I saw a beautiful and sweet girl dressed in white, maybe 23 years old. I watched her at the check-in counter—she was sad but radiant, and she moved and spoke delicately, like an Arctic bird on a fragile bit of ice. With her was a grumpy guy in a hot pink NO FEAR t-shirt. He was pestering the lady behind the counter with questions about the plane: was it a 747 or a 767? The lady had no idea, but he was determined to pry an answer from her.
It seemed inconceivable that this guy was the boyfriend of my sweet girl, and yet I knew the world was filled with strangenesses, so it was hard to say. The pair finished their business at the counter, and to my delight said goodbyes and headed off separately. I was startled to see that the girl walked with a slow, struggling flopped-leggedness, a condition I’d never quite seen before. This effortful gait combined with her sad glow twisted something in me, and my heart hurt, and I was in love.
It’s been my peculiar blessing that every time I see a beautiful girl in an airport, she ends up sitting next to me on the plane. This has led to a number of thrilling flights filled with excited conversation, followed by an exchange of e-mail addresses at baggage claim. But what do you e-mail to a girl who lives in Jacksonville, or Vancouver, or Dublin? Ships crossing. It never adds up to much. So it was no surprise but a kind of painful wonder when I got on the plane in Albuquerque and found myself sharing a row with the sweet flopped-legged girl in white. She had the window, I had the aisle. Between us, her purse and my backpack shared a seat, gently caressing.
Our plane rocketed into the sky and the girl looked sadly out the window. I waited for her to glance my way so I could begin the conversation that I guessed would end painfully when we parted ways in San Diego, but she was so lost in her thoughts that she never turned from the window, even when the beverage cart rolled past with pretzels and Coke. To busy myself, and because it was the only other thing on my mind, I pulled from my bag the long story I’d been working on for three weeks and had just finished and printed out that morning, and went through it making little changes, turning the pages loudly in hopes that the girl would peek over.
It hurt to have her so close yet oceans apart. Her lips were pursed; her eyes cut at the clouds. In a way, she was too nicely dressed for my tastes, but that bland elegance was exotic to me, made me hunger for her more. I looked back at the typed pages in my hands—I was still in that fleeting honeymoon phase you’ll sometimes have with a just-finished story, where for a moment everything about it feels perfect and snugly in place. Finally I said to the girl, “Hey, what’s your name?”
She smiled at me, which was a surprise. Her name was Kara. She was a student in Seattle. I asked about her boyfriend’s interest in planes. Boyfriend? At the check-in. Oh, no, she explained, that was only her cousin; she’d been visiting family in New Mexico. I’d thought her sadness would make conversation lurch and buckle, but everything sailed smooth as could be—she acted oddly grateful to me for the small talk, and she seemed to occasionally hold my gaze for an extra sixteenth note. But how could I parlay this chance meeting and warm chemistry into a lasting love? I told Kara I’d be right back, and took the riddle with me to the back of the plane.
Among portholes and strange cabinets I stretched my legs and listened to two male flight attendants tease each other about some misadventure involving a motorcycle and a birthday gift. I needed to give Kara something that would keep us in contact, but what? Then I knew at once—I’d give her the printout of my story. It would communicate something of me, and, more importantly, it would give her something to respond to, a reason to stay in touch.
I glided back down the aisle and took my seat again. Kara laughed, “Wondered if you were coming back.”
“Got held up in traffic,” I said. “Listen, do you like to read?”
“Reading, do you like to read?”
She paused and thought about it. Granted, it was a stupid question, but not a complicated one. At last she said, “No.”
“No? You don’t like to read?”
“No,” she said. “I hate reading.”
“You hate reading.”
“I just don’t like it.”
“You just don’t like it.” I laughed. She clearly wasn’t kidding. All I could do was repeat after her like an idiot child.
“Sometimes I read magazines,” she offered hopefully.
“Sometimes you read magazines.”
“But only sometimes. Mostly I look at the cosmetics.”
Sadly, shamefully, pathetically, I forced my story on her anyway. I tried to explain what it was about, but the crashing down of my fantasies made me tongue-tied and weary. I wrote my e-mail address and my cell phone number at the top. “In case you want to let me know what you thought of it,” I said.
Kara smiled brightly and folded the story carefully into her purse, as though it was a sick mouse. Later, I imagined, she’d rid herself of the thing in the ladies’ room trash can. Still, her eyes seemed to express to me that she wasn’t ruling out the possibility of staying in touch.
In San Diego, I was headed for baggage claim and she was off to catch her connecting flight. We hugged. She had no scent at all. I knew—for that reason, somehow—that I would never hear from her. “Keep in touch,” I said.
“I will,” she said, as her face took on the dark look she’d had when I’d first seen her. She turned and I stood watching as she shuffled away down the long corridor until at last she disappeared out of sight.
Davy Rothbart is the editor of Found and the author, most recently, of The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas.
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