It’s like I’m the filling in a reverse Oreo, chocolate crème jammed between two vanilla cookies, two mismatched vanilla cookies. They were both wearing jeans but my friend (I dare to call him that) and his enemy (probably how he thinks of him) couldn’t be more different, like separate ends of the same social spectrum. They probably both consider themselves entitled and right. After all they are men. And here I am stuck in the middle between them, the volunteer peacemaker, or should I say self-appointed. Maybe I’m a little self-righteous too.But these days a ruckus can get you thrown off a plane. Let a flight attendant cry foul and you can find yourself without a plea. I didn’t want that for my friend and his enemy didn’t deserve it either, just because they had a misunderstanding. God—men are so bad at communicating. But just let them posture, puff up their chests the way a peacock spreads out his feathers, now that’s their forte. It’s like the male species is hard-wired for it or something.
But I’m on the side of my friend. I’ve known him longer, right? Plus he’s cuter. I steal a fast look at him. His eyes are closed. He has luscious lashes, dark and dreamy. But right now he’s not sleeping. It’s obvious. His lips are pursed to the point of being a thin pink line, and he breathes deeply as if to calm himself. He’s still gripping the arm rests with his neatly groomed long muscular fingers. They probably didn’t get that way from using his computer keyboard. Maybe it’s from pushing his wheelchair. Do you use your fingers for that? He probably uses his arms and hands for a lot of things that most of us use our legs and feet for.There’s no wedding ring on his left hand, no jewelry at all. Although that doesn’t have to mean anything. People live together all the time. There’s even a category for it: Life Partner. My upstanding parents, especially Mother, would die of shame and maybe take me with them if I did that. But then again maybe not. They might be getting a little desperate about my marital delay and so they might accept anything at this point. Besides it’s not like they don’t know that their little girl is a full grown woman who has had her share of boyfriends, as well as sexy sleep-overs at his place and at mine. Mother and Dad just don’t talk about it. I guess it’s their way of not claiming it in church jargon, true or not. It doesn’t make me a slut if I am open to new experiences even if there have been more Mr. Right-Nows than Rights, more frogs than princes.
My friend’s red flush from the confrontation, if you can call it that, has faded back into a swarthy beige. I’m really getting into his beard, even the dark dusting of his mustache. Usually I like my men clean-shaven but the beard works for him. It gives him an air of intrigue, gravitas. Like a rakish duke in the romance novels I read when no one is looking.The plane taxis down the runway in preparation for take-off. My friend’s enemy is looking out the window, keeping his back to us. I guess we must be an us to him. The whole situation is pretty awkward. And it will be that way for two hours. He doesn’t know why my friend wouldn’t—couldn’t stand up, and I can’t tell him. Maybe he’ll never know. And soon we’ll—they’ll—have to go through it all over again. Next time keep your mouth shut, Lorna. It’s none of your business.
I sit back as the plane’s increasing velocity presses me into the seat. The nose lifts. The wheels come up. Then we’re climbing up towards the clouds. I’ve done it plenty of times but it still amazes me that humans can fly, that something so enormous and filled to capacity with people and their luggage can soar like a bird; that it’s now as routine as riding a bus. It’s just Physics. Science. And yet they can’t make my friend’s legs work. Humans can fly but he can’t stand.It would have been nice getting to know him a little, I sigh. When he realized we were going to be seatmates, he didn’t seem to mind at all. Maybe there was even a little connection. He really does have this magnetic way of looking at you. His glasses were gone by then, and when I looked into his ebony eyes I got butterflies. Oh well. So much for convivial conversation. I’m not sleepy anymore but I might as well try to.
We get the indication that we are free to move around the cabin, along with the admonishment to keep our seat belts securely fastened when we are seated. Of course everybody can’t move about the cabin. I think about that. I’m glad I skipped the coffee this morning, and I hope that the man in the window seat has done the same. Tammy always tried to pee on a schedule. I’m guessing my friend does too. A few people do enter the aisle making their way to the lavatories. The man in seat A finally sits back and does what he can to stretch in the cramped space. I panic a little thinking that he’s going to want to get up but thank God he doesn’t make that move. It’s none of my business but I cannot seem to take myself off guard duty.Assuming she’s just checking the temperature of things, I’m sort of not surprised when the flight attendant from before comes back to Row 24.
“Mr. Baxter,” she says. “We stowed your bag up front.”That was nice of them, I think.
“We have another seat closer to the front too,” she adds “If you’d be more comfortable.”Wow.
“That’ll work,” Mr. Baxter replies eagerly, grabbing his grungy backpack from beneath the seat.
That’s one way to handle it, I say to myself, separate the bears. I notice that they don’t give my friend the option of moving because of course he can’t. There are no sky-caps. I glance over at him. What would happen if there was an emergency? Would he be left behind, left for last? He’s silently staring at the back of the seat again with a blank expression. Mr. Baxter squeezes his way out of our row and follows the attendant up the aisle without further incident. Apparently I’m not the only interventionist on the plane today, but at least the flight attendants are paid to do it. I wonder where they came up with the extra seat.Mr. Baxter’s departure leaves me with choices to make and I don’t know what to do. Obviously I can move over to the window, and I should be thrilled to do so, but I don’t actually want to. It could give the wrong impression to my friend, like I don’t want to sit next to him either when nothing could be further from the truth. I’m ready to construct this whole fantasy encounter in the ninety minutes or so we have left together. Mr. Baxter moving sort of gives me my big chance.
With the arm rest on my left now up I do scoot over a tiny bit. It’s weird if I don’t. We’re not together, I remind myself. Bending down I pull my tote from beneath the seat. If ultimately I am going to move over it should move with me, and in the meantime at least I can take out my Kindle and read. It is way passed the time for me to let this obsession go.“Think that guy’s an air marshal?” the man in the aisle seat asks.
I don’t hide how surprised I am that he’s speaking, and to me.“What?” I respond kind of stupidly.
“An air marshal,” he repeats. “They usually travel undercover.” He’s looking at me very seriously. “This is a flight to D.C.”“I-I don’t know,” I stammer.
“You might have saved me from getting arrested,” he continues.Finally he flashes his gorgeous smile. He’s making a joke. I sit there holding the tote bag in my lap.
“Surely not,” I manage to say.“Good thing,” he replies. “They could have kicked you off too, you know, thinking that we’re together.”
His smile draws out mine. I can feel it spreading over my entire face. I resist it, worried that I’m looking goofy.“There’re worse things,” I say surprising myself, and then as if that was too much I put my head down and resume digging around in the bag for the Kindle.
“I think I’m flattered,” he says. “Just barely.”This time I can’t help but to laugh. He laughs too, and I fall for the way it sounds. It’s full of base notes like his voice, and authentic, like he has a sense of humor about himself. I’d very much like to assure him that I meant it as a compliment, but I pump my brakes. It’s just a flirtation and I’ll never see him again but I want to leave a good impression. I do not pick up men on planes.
“Okay,” I is all I say because I can’t come up with something else.This guy flusters me, and from the moment I first laid eyes on him. The laws of attraction are more mysterious than Physics.
“Okay,” he says back.Retrieving my Kindle at last, I return the bag to the floor, cramming it back under the middle seat. As I do so, I catch a glimpse of his feet, handsomely disguised in the brown suede Oxfords. Minus the footplate you’d never know they weren’t normal. When I sit up again I find him watching me. Suddenly there’s that tiny tell-tale vibration between my legs; and I’m the one who can’t move, even to the next seat.
“I can’t believe they had a free seat,” I say attempting to get a hold of myself.“Emergency reserves,” he replies.
“Looks like,” I say, and finally scoot over into the window seat.I really have to. It’s the proper thing to do, but a faint frown briefly shadows my friend’s face. I get another one of those vibrations.
“Seems I behaved pretty badly,” he confesses.“Oh no,” I say. “I mean he just didn’t know that…about your, uh...”
“Handicap?” he finishes for me.
I nod. Maybe that’s not the right word. In the office we say disability. But mainly we don’t say anything at all unless it’s disability awareness month.“Lucky for me you do,” he says. “Or things might have gone south pretty quickly.”
Like this conversation. Tammy used to have a short fuse too. I would ascribe it to frustration and maybe exhaustion, physical and mental. During their awareness month the message is all upbeat and positive, like having a disability is something to celebrate as if it were an ethnic heritage.
“Not that I was about to kick his ass or something,” my friend says with a new smile, indicating that he’s making another joke.“Shush,” I whisper playing along with the jest, my fears relieved. “We don’t want an emergency landing.”
“Right.”Then there is a lull in the conversation. It would turn out to be brief but it is long enough to make me think I need to do something with my hands. I open my Kindle and turn it on, setting it to airplane mode. The flight attendants have brought the drink cart into the aisle. We are at cruising altitude. The last thing I want to do is read but it’s what I should do so I do it.
“Thanks for intervening,” he says after a time.These words kind of come out of left field at this point, but I know his reference, so I feel forgiven again.
“I hope I wasn’t out of line,” I say, now that I know it was okay.“You were,” he informs me matter-of-factly.
The blunt confirmation of my former fear drops like a rock to the pit of my stomach. I’m silent. What good does it do to say I’m sorry?But then he adds, “I owe you one.”
Now I’m really confused. Is he mad or not?“All’s well that ends well,” I say faking coolness.
“We’re already at the end?” he asks.My façade melts in the heat of his gaze. Another one of those vibrations stirs my core.
“No,” I reply in a husky voice.The goofy grin returns to my face.
“I’m Eli,” he says turning in his seat to offer me his right hand.“I’m Lorna,” I say accepting it.
We touch in the empty space of the middle seat. His grasp is firm like I imagined. It’s warm and strong around mine. I don’t let go. Neither does he.