Single serving friends are strangers that fill in the gaps left open by our stressful lives, our colleagues, friends, family, acquaintances and lovers. We meet them on planes, bars, crowded buses, restaurants, and just about anywhere where strangers gather for any length of time. Some of them serve us coffee in the morning, or annoy us with conversation on a long flight.
This is the story of a single serving friend who I met during a two hour flight from San Francisco to Phoenix.I was sitting in the waiting area of the departure gate attempting to read Michael Crichton’s Timeline when I saw him. He was tall and broad shouldered, wearing a gray wool sweater and well-worn jeans. He had a gigantic duffel bag slung over one shoulder that was so heavy it would have crippled most people.
We had all been told at check-in that the plane was filled to capacity and all oversized bags needed to be checked in. This guy was a rebel. I smiled to myself.
When I looked at him I found myself wondering if we were going to sit next to each other. Actually, no, that wasn’t quite it. I somehow knew this guy was going to wind up next to me.
He was one of the more interesting people waiting to board the plane, and as I looked around I couldn’t stomach the idea of sitting next to any of the balding businessmen chattering loudly about servers and e-commerce or the thin, flaky-skinned blonde, or the older woman with the drag queen make-up and the ear-piercing voice.
Although I knew a single serving friend was going to be assigned to me, deep down, I wanted a good match.
I put my book down and eyed the hulking rebel. Yes, I told myself, the guy with the bag is mine.
Within minutes I was stuffed into a seat too small for a toddler, never mind an adult. An empty seat separated me from an older man traveling to Indianapolis. We made some small talk, but it was definitely not a single-serving match made in heaven. My best hope was that the seat next to me would remain empty but that was wishful thinking on an overbooked flight.
Again, I picked up my book, and again, the rebel with the oversized bag distracted me.
He was standing in the isle and had switched seats twice in a matter of minutes. In one had he held a styrofoam food container and in the other a Pepsi cup filled with what smelled like–beer. He was causing a commotion, and I could tell he was not the type to care. He had a happy-go-lucky attitude that I found refreshing.
Sorry and a charming smile were the only thing anyone got when his bag smacked them in the face. I suppressed a chuckle.
I watched him search for an overhead bin to stash the bag while I waited for the occupant of my adjacent seat to arrive.
Then, she came, hobbling down the isle with a look of distress on her face. She was an older woman with a whiny voice and a bad hair do who was quick to tell me her woes. Without as much of a greeting, she asked me to give up my window seat and switch with her husband a few isles ahead. When I said no, she asked the business man from Indianapolis–who also refused.
While this tiny airplane seat drama was unfolding, the guy with the bag had finally settled into a window seat two rows ahead of me. Needless to say, I was thoroughly annoyed at the turn of events, but what could I do?
Then, I saw it, the empty seat next to the guy with the bag. The solution was obvious. I felt in control. I turned to the woman next to me and pointed to the empty seat. “You see that guy over there, sitting by the window?” I pointed. “Ask him if he wants to switch with you. That’s not his real seat, he’s been switching around for the last fifteen minutes. That way you and your husband can sit together.”
When the woman hesitated, I panicked. I urged her once again assuring her that she still had a few minutes before the plane took off.
Finally, she got up and asked hulking bag viking to switch with her. Without fuss, he got up, walked to my row and plopped down in the middle seat next to me.
A sense of relief washed over me. It was going to be an enjoyable flight.
The first thing I learned about him was that he was Russian. His name was Alexander and he was returning to Chicago from a skiing trip in Tahoe. His cup was indeed filled with beer.
As we got to talking, I relaxed. Alex had an honest openness about him–a what you see is what you get sort of appeal–that was contagious. To make matters worse, he was handsome in a Medieval, rugged kind of way with a muscular physique, sun tanned skin, and piercing green eyes.
As the plane took off, Alex and I got into a conversation about relationships. He vented about his ex-girlfriend who had gotten cold feet a month before the big day and left him. I confided that my fiance and I had broken up, that we were still living together, that the whole thing was causing a lot of pain and confusion.
We went back and forth, covering boyfriends, what we did for fun, the type of music we liked, our reason for being in San Francisco, the lameness of airplane pretzels.
Time was flying faster than we were.
Alex and I were guessing really uncanny things about each other. We shared interests, situations and woes about growing up in communist countries. For two hours we were cocooned in a sort of fuzzy, happy bubble that we felt sure was never gonna burst.
Then came the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re beginning our descent into Phoenix International airport, please fasten your seat belts and place seats in an upright position.”
Phoenix? It felt like we were in the air for no more than twenty minutes! We were landing already? Impossible.
Stunned, Alex and I sat quietly for a moment.
Our single serving time was coming to an end–fast. We both knew, that once in Phoenix, we would part and go our separate ways. We would never see each other again.
In spite of having shared only two hours of my life with bag rebel, I had to admit, I felt attached. My single-serving friend was vibrant and full of life and seemed genuinely happy to be spending time with me.
When Alex turned to me and looked at me with his beautiful green eyes, my heart skipped. For a moment he didn’t speak, then, with a voice that was tender and hopeful, he popped the question. “Do you want to get a drink with me before your next flight?”
My cheeks felt like they were on fire. “Sounds good,” I said. It was the understatement of the century.
After the plane landed, it took us about twenty minutes to make our way to Fox Sports on the opposite side of the concourse. We took a seat at one of the bar tables and smiled at each other, not really knowing what we were supposed to do next. Luckily, the waitress came over.
Alex ordered a fruity drink made with vodka and I ordered a Cuba Libre. Alex was worldly enough to know it was a rum and coke.
“Fancy,” he said, chuckling.
“Fruity,” I countered.
The pressure was on. The air between us sizzled.
Alex’s gaze lingered on my lips a tad too long. He lit a cigarette, made a casual comment as to how he wished we had more time in Phoenix.
Half-way through our first drink we were only too aware that our time to make something more out of our single-serving friendship was slipping away. Alex ordered another round of drinks and scribbled his phone number on a napkin. I gave him my email.
Buzzed by the alcohol and the situation, we laughed awkwardly, then glanced at the clock.
It was 6:30 PM and both of our planes were departing in ten minutes.
“Oh shit!” The statement was said in unison.
If we wanted to be on those planes we needed to hurry.
Alex and I picked up our stuff and ran out of the bar. Everyone and everything seemed to be getting in our way. The world devolved into a slow motion comedy.
Alex could have easily outrun me, but he stayed with me. Hallways became a blur. A23 and A25 were nowhere to be seen.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, we found his gate. The doors were already closing.
“Wait,” he shouted.
I watched, transfixed, as Alex bolted for the corridor. Then, the unexpected happened. Alex dropped his bag, turned, and rushed towards me.
My heart stammered as he crushed me into a heated embrace and pressed his lips to mine. The kiss was tender and sweet, with an urgency that melted my insides. The electric pull between our bodies turned into a raging inferno.
Breathlessly, Alex broke off the kiss. Then, ignoring the warnings from the airline personnel at the gate, he kissed me again. Desperate for connection, we devoured each other’s mouths. I clung to him. My knees turned to jelly.
Then, with a last, searing look into my eyes, Alexander turned and ran. The doors closed.
Elated, barely able to breathe, I ran across the hall, towards my own gate. I was the last to board.
As I sat in the dark cabin of the plane taking me into the arms of a fucked up relationship, a home that didn’t feel like home, and the chronic pain of emotional devastation, I realized that I would never call Alex nor would he ever write me.
It had all been an illusion.
I ordered another Cuba Libre and closed my eyes. My need for affection had transformed a guy with an oversized bag into a larger-than-life Hollywood hero coming to my rescue. And while Alex would have looked great in full plate, he was just another stranger on a plane.
All we would ever have of each other was a sloppily scribbled napkin a great kiss and a buzz–and maybe, just maybe–that was enough.
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