I sat in the Seattle airport facing west, toward the sun making a last go at the day. Light poured unbroken through the glass face of the building, turning the people in front of me to silhouettes and halos. We draped over chairs in a lethargic kind of limbo, and the late sun brought out the details of our waiting. It shone through unexpected avenues and made mirrors of strange surfaces. The woman across from me was a lighthouse – lip gloss exploding, her hair fine blonde and on fire. The icing from a Cinnabon was a sticky glow on a boy’s face. Sugar. Licked over by light. In one corner a young woman and her iPod scrunched away from the glare, but the silver of her earrings shot twitching discs across the carpet. Light and shadow, on strangers in a room. The younger version of me paused. Took in a moment, at a time when I was so good at missing them.
I went back to reading. But a tall man with dark sunglasses and a CD player began to grab at my attention. Another stranger. He sat with the slouch and quietness I found so attractive in my early twenties. A grunge I wanted to snuggle up to, hide in. A loose stocking cap covered his head but wisps of golden brown hair escaped unchecked. Those few strands were the only color I saw on him. Mostly it was just the dark outline of his shoulders against the light, and sometimes, when he turned his head, the edges of still features under a five o’ clock shadow. He was pleasing, wholly dark, and somber. But again, I turned back to my book. Until the orange juice.
In an interstellar burst
I am back to save the universe.
I wasn’t even watching him anymore when he bent to reach into his bag, but the unexpected rupture of gold drew me back. The setting light made the liquid a sister, glowing stunningly through the bottle attached to a tan and now sunlit hand. The rest of him still in shadow, it was like that arm had been dealt some kind of cosmic power, holding light and color in a grip not quite human. The glow moved to his lips, and he tipped back the juice and drank like his life depended on it. Maybe it did. I imagined behind his sunglasses he was closing his eyes. Like he might after hanging up from a difficult phone call. After smelling morning’s first coffee. After loving. His arms were smooth against his white t-shirt, and I couldn’t help thinking how, for just that moment, I’d like to sit next to him. Not alone with the book I was now pretending to read, not alone with the doubt and fear I held hard in my gut, ready to fly back to a home and a life I no longer wanted to wake up to. But it seemed if I could just sit beside him for a bit. Quiet, and slouching, and waiting, next to him. With some orange juice and eyes on the sun. Surely, it would all be better.
But I went back to the goddamn book. In earnest I read it. I knew not to get enamored with ideas of men and glowing moments, it only leads to glaring awareness of being alone. At least when reading I could stay in that nice middle ground of other peoples’ feelings. And it kept me from drinking. Sometimes. So I read while the sun set. I read through the annoying conversation happening behind me. I read until they told me it was time to stand and walk to the plane. Out on the tarmac, the sharpness of the evening had gone, leaving a last flush of color and long, misshapen shadows. I said good night to Seattle and boarded, ready to read my way home at last.
But as I shuffled to 17A, I saw there was a man already seated in 17B. A man with sunglasses, a CD player and an orange juice.
Before sitting I smiled to myself. Just for a moment, then it was all stowing bags and putting on the seatbelt, getting out the book. I wondered if I got to count this seating arrangement as a sign of some kind. A nudge to pay attention, to take notice. Maybe. Maybe not. I hesitated over where to place my elbow. On the arm rest, off the arm rest, on the arm rest…what if mine touched his? Do I say hi? Nod a bit? No, I decided, no. He tucked his orange juice in with the in-flight magazine and closed his eyes. Pretty sure he wasn’t wondering where to put his elbow, or if it affected his fate. Still, when I opened my ever-loving book I had to smile again, because I could hear the music through his headphones. One of my favorite Radiohead songs slithered out, yet another piece of his presence that pulled at me.
I am back to save the universe
And then I did something completely normal, more perfect than I knew I needed. I sat next to him. Reading. Calm. I liked sitting next to someone that I found strangely interesting and comforting. A man I would probably never speak to, but I knew I’d like to. A man who listened to nice music and tapped his fingers slowly. I thought about what it would be like to have a shoulder like his to touch my cheek to. I sat and read and imagined it was possible to look him in the eye, that we maybe thought about the same things sometimes. It was a comfort, a slow easing into hopefulness. Then the orange juice, again.
In a jackknifed juggernaut
I am born again
As we reached speeds for take-off, he grabbed his half-empty juice bottle from the seat pocket and took two life changing gulps. With his sunglasses off, I glimpsed that he did indeed close his eyes for this. But it was the sigh afterward that really struck me. He sunk into his seat, as I already had, and the plane lifted. His eyes stayed closed and he pulled the hat tighter down over his headphones. As the air vents poured coolness over us, he breathed out in one rush and I could smell oranges. As we rose higher I saw golden dusk and I smelled oranges. The mixture of sweet breath, subtle men’s cologne and the sight of him pressing into his seat made me close my eyes. I wanted to kiss him and lick the juice off his lips. I wanted to kiss him and taste the coolness it had left on his tongue. I wanted to breathe out oranges, sink into a seat, and sleep. Next to a man who liked Radiohead.
In an interstellar burst
I thought of that for a while. No more than that. The plane leveled in the sky, the murmur of passengers settled and soon a flight attendant rolled toward us offering drinks. I ordered wine to still my imagination. Close it up again. He sat forward, eyes open, and politely asked for an orange juice.
I am back to save the universe
Hannah Heimbuch is a freelance journalist and commercial fisherman from Homer, Alaska. She is currently working toward her MFA in creative nonfiction through Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop. She seek a life based upon the simple staples of words and fish.