I watched him walk down the airplane aisle — squeeze, really — bashing a bulging Amoeba Records bag against the shoulders of passengers already seated. “Excuse me, pardon, sorry bout that.”
I smiled. I’d seen him earlier, cruising through security while I was having my purse disemboweled in search of non-existent weaponry. He had on cowboy boots and a flannel shirt, a scruffy beard, and a swagger that definitely wasn’t American Macho. In short, he was cute. Now he was on my plane. From my seat in the last row — next to the funk of the lavatories, of course — I could see him fumble with his boarding pass and check seat numbers. He kept walking, walking, until eventually he stood at the open seat beside me. Our eyes met. He smiled. And sat down.
It’s like the beginning of a bad porno, right? Or a Lifetime movie (which is basically porno for housewives). Or that Gabriel Garcia Marquez story about a dude creeping on an Ambien-coma-ed hot girl beside him. But it couldn’t be real life. At least not my real life. I’d traveled enough to know this wasn’t my luck — which is why I’d taken my contacts out and washed my face, and was sitting, blotchy-skinned, wearing eight-year-old frames with my hoodie already pulled tight against the assault of air-conditioning. No need for pretense on a cross-coastal red-eye.
I also knew it wasn’t my life, because I’d just been dumped, by someone who was by all definitions not supposed to dump me. Mike was twenty-two, a barista, living on his friends’ sofa. I was… older, a writer, about to travel to Southern Italy to cover a street-art festival for a hip magazine. When, a few weeks earlier, Mike had left the country with nothing more than a text message at five a.m., it’d been a low blow. I’d looked at myself in the mirror — the map of encroaching wrinkles, the tits that weren’t so perky anymore — and thought, “So it’s come to this.”
And now Indie Rocker Nationality-Ambiguous Dude had been seated beside me, where he’d remain for the next 3,000 miles. “There is a God,” I thought. “And clearly, He’s fucking with me.”
I could feel my cheeks already beginning to turn red, as the guy settled into his seat beside me. From the corner of my eye, I could see him tuck his records bag under the seat and find a little wedge of space for his feet. I stole a quick glance at him. “Hello,” he smiled. He’d caught me.
“Hi.” I snatched my eyes away and looked down. The safety announcement started. We sat in awkwardness as potent as the lavatory odors. This was ridiculous; I was ridiculous. I turned to him, and nodded at the bag of records, “Go shopping, did you?”
He grinned. “Yeah, well, this was the thing, the one thing I told myself I could really go crazy on: records. What you can find in the States, there’s nothing like it. Even if I could find this stuff in Europe, it’d be so expensive.” He leaned forward, lowered his voice. “Actually,” he raised his eyebrow and a few wrinkles creased across his forehead, “I’ve already shipped a full crate back to Zurich.”
I smiled. I liked him.
Sebastian was a music geek with a vinyl fetish, and he’d finally made it to the U.S., after years of fantasizing and saving. He’d spent five weeks, mostly in New York, New Orleans, and California. (I assured him he hadn’t missed much.) He was now headed home, after spending his last week in San Francisco.
“I saw some great shows — some fucking great shows — here.”
“The other night, this band Ty Segall.”
I blinked. “On Wednesday? At the Rickshaw Shop?”
I laughed, “I was totally at that show!” The plane angled sharply as we rose in the sky, the blinking lights of everything I called my life disappearing beneath the fog.
It turned out we both had a ten-hour-layover in New York, before heading off to our respective European destinations. “What were you going to do?” Sebastian asked me.
I shrugged. “I dunno, but sitting at JFK sounded pretty lame. Thought maybe I’d cruise into town, get some food, chill.”
He nodded and smiled, and the skin around his eyes crinkled. “That was my plan too.” He had on a necklace. It was hidden beneath his shirt, and I could see only the black string of it, roped around the back of his neck. It made me want to touch it, pull it out, feel the cord in my fingers and see what all hung on it. But I didn’t. We chatted a bit more, then pulled our thin blue blankets up to our chins and fell into our separate, neck-jerking sleeps.
The next morning, Sebastian and I stood groggy-eyed on a Bedford Avenue street corner. The sidewalk was nearly deserted, and most of the shops were shuttered. It was seven a.m. I pulled out my iPhone to find a decent café that was open. Scrolling through Yelp, I exclaimed, “Holy shit, there’s a Blue Bottle here now?”
“Yeah, it’s around the corner,” a girl walking tossed over her shoulder.
“Sebastian,” I turned to him, “did you have Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco?”
He shook his head, “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, you,” I poked him gently in the chest, “are in luck, my friend.”
When the cabin lights had come on two hours earlier, we’d made a plan to spend our layovers tromping into Brooklyn together. There was a record store Sebastian wanted to go back to — “my last chance,” he’d said bashfully.
I’d hightailed to the bathroom, fluffing my flattened hair and putting on whatever scraps of makeup I had in my carry-on. I squinted into the mirror: passable, I’d determined. In the airport, we’d stopped by left luggage and dropped our bags — his records and my laptop — together. I’d wondered whether the clerk thought we were a couple.
Outside Blue Bottle, we sat on a sunny bench and drank three-dollar cups of coffee, watching the Sunday morning street awaken — dog walkers and strollers and hip kids in their morning-after chic.
Sebastian told me about the restaurant he’d just quit, before his trip. He’d been the head chef and had worked seventy-hour weeks (“I didn’t know you guys did that in Europe!” I exclaimed). He told me about his apartment, his balcony, the walls of records; he told me about moving to Zurich with his ex-girlfriend, and how he’d stayed after they broke up, and how he didn’t miss Germany.
I told him about freelancing and waiting tables and traveling every time I could scrape together enough money. I didn’t tell him about Mike; I didn’t tell him about the dateless months before Mike; I didn’t tell him about the way I’d stared in the mirror after Mike had left, and how undesirable I’d been feeling since.
The record store still wasn’t open when we finished our coffee, so we strolled around Williamsburg. The buildings got more industrial and street art began to bloom up the side of the brick walls. I pulled out my camera. “Oh shit, that’s a Roa! That’s Faile! Oh, check it out: C215!” It was my turn to nerd out.
We went back to the record shop; we ate bagels; we sat and smoked on someone’s stoop until they shooed us away. I kept waiting for that moment, when a hand would hover or a gaze would linger, when he’d lean in close beside me. I waited for it with a kink in my stomach, both wanting and not wanting it.
It never happened. We kicked it like bros all day, until it was time to get on the subway and head back to JFK. We sat next to each other, and he started showing me pictures on his camera. I leaned in, cupping my hands around the viewfinder: bands and burritos and sweeping vistas of the California coast. On the rattling train, our shoulders bumped. Every time they touched, I felt a twinge of electricity, a flutter in my stomach.
But I felt no urge to edge in closer, to look up, to meet eyes and kiss. For what? I thought. To make out on the L train? In the American Airlines departure lounge? I realized that as cute as Sebastian was and as much as I enjoyed his company, I didn’t want to kiss him.
It was enough — meeting a random dude on an airplane and spending a ten-hour layover with him. It was enough to laugh and talk and drink coffee on someone’s stoop. It was enough to meet a guy and feel liked — not desired, but liked. And it was enough to just like someone back, without all the lust and romance. Sitting beside Sebastian on the L train felt oddly simple, and sweet. I’d forgotten that could happen — in my life.
Back at JFK, we picked up our left luggage and passed through security. I accompanied Sebastian to one of those jokey airport restaurants, where we sat at a bar blaring football games and he indulged in the last American hamburger of his trip. He took a bite and juice squirted down his chin. He grinned and through a mouthful of ground meat, garbled “It’s so good!”
I laughed. “Sebastian, you are by far the coolest person I’ve met on an airplane.”
He grinned. “I’m glad we hung out.” We hugged goodbye and exchanged emails.
We’d never write each other. I’d find him on Facebook a few weeks later, when I was back in California, and his profile would say he was in a relationship. For a moment I’d indulge in the is-that’s-why-we-didn’t-suck-face rash of thoughts, but then I’d think, what did it matter? We’d had one day together, and it’d been enough. It’d given me the small dose of faith I’d needed.
I turned back, waved at the sight of Sebastian, hunched over a sloppy plate of burger and fries at the airport restaurant. Then I walked off, towards my own terminal and my own destination.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.