Mysterious Lover


By Lisa Johnson


“City Slickers” ran on television recently, a story of city guys who go to a dude ranch for a cattle drive. It starred Billy Crystal as the main city slicker and Jack Palance as the guide of the cattle drive. A scene near the end struck me profoundly. Billy and Jack stop their horses to stare out at the horizon while Billy reminisces about love. Then, at Billy’s urging, Jack tells his story, of a time, years before, riding over the plains. He came upon a small ranch house where a young woman was hanging clothes on a line. “I hung back, among some trees, unseen, watching her for some time,” Jack said.” She was lovely, long red hair, shapely figure under a thin cotton dress.” When Jack abruptly stopped, Billy asked, “What happened then?”  “Nothing,” Jack answered. “I rode on.” Dismayed, Billy couldn’t let the story go. “But she could have been the love of your life,” he insisted. “She is the love of my life,” Jack said.

Before I retired, I worked for a major airline for many years. One of the perks of the job was free travel, based on seniority and space availability. Employees were required to adhere to rules on behavior, attire and appearance. I usually wore a conservative pants suit or a skirt with a plain blouse and medium heels. I travelled a lot in my thirties, after a brief marriage, usually alone. (In retrospect, I think I was trying to outrun loneliness.) I spent vacations in Asia or Europe, plus many weekends in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson or Denver, cities within a two to three hour flight from the San Francisco Bay Area. But New York, though a longer flight, remained a favorite for its variety of theaters and museums.

On one such trip to New York, a Friday night in early autumn, I was allowed to board early, assigned a window seat in first class, a sign that first class was not full. The flight, commonly called a redeye, departed SFO at 10pm, arriving JFK around 6am. I had taken this flight before, liked it. I could enjoy a couple of cocktails, read a little, sleep. I felt especially fortunate as the seat next to me was vacant; I would have space to myself, no obligation to carry on a conversation.  It seemed that way, anyway, until just before the cabin door closed, a last minute passenger, a male, entered, took the seat next to me. 

The man acknowledged me with a soft hello. Tall and lean, in faded jeans and a worn brown leather bombardier style jacket, I knew from his casual attire that he was not an airline employee. His mustache and his thinning brown hair showed streaks of white; but his blue eyes sparked with youthful mischief. I tried not to stare, tried not to look at all as he placed a bag in the overhead bin, but I could not resist. He seemed to embody the image of a middle aged Clint Eastwood or Sam Elliott, not a handsome face, exactly, but an interesting one. I wondered if he might be an actor, or, at least, one of those stunt men used in Westerns. He must have sensed my gaze; he returned an amused, gaze back at me. Embarrassed, I swiveled abruptly to the window, to the lights of the terminal buildings. A fine rain was now falling. Finally the plane taxied down the runway. 

A flight attendant recited and demonstrated emergency procedures, checked seat belts. Then the plane lifted and was soon absorbed in darkness. I kept looking out the window, the view now an abyss. Then I took the paperback novel I’d brought and used it to avoid conversation. But this proved unnecessary as the man didn’t seem inclined to talk to me any more than I to him. He retrieved his brief case, lowered his tray table, took out some papers and began scribbling in the margins with his left hand. I watched discreetly out the side of my eye, thinking perhaps he was a screenwriter rather than a stunt man.

When the flight attendant came around, I ordered a Bailey’s Irish Cream over ice. I had not taken time to eat dinner and this seemed a reasonable choice. I expected the man to order a brand name whiskey, like Jack Daniels. Instead, he ordered tequila with orange juice. He drank distractedly, lost in his papers. I pretended to be absorbed in my novel. The flight attendant reappeared and we both ordered a second drink. Quite relaxed already, I snuck glances at his hands as he scribbled, as he lifted his drink, long graceful fingers like a pianist, nails clipped and clean. With his second drink finished, the man returned the papers to the brief case and shoved it under his seat. He turned his overhead light off and leaned back. I switched my overhead light off as well, to show consideration, although now I really needed to read to distract me. I leaned back, closed my eyes, tried to sleep. I was wide awake now and wanted another drink. The first two went down like soda pop. But I feared looking like a lush. I have always been concerned about my image.

After an uncomfortable expanse of time, likely an hour of pretending to sleep, my bladder refused to let me be. At last, unable to stand it another second, I quietly unbuckled my seatbelt. As deftly as possible, I rose and crawled awkwardly over the man, trying not to wake him, trying to keep my rump out of his face. With a sigh of relief, I stepped into the aisle. I made my way up to the front of the cabin, to the restroom next to the cockpit. In the tiny restroom, after relieving my bladder, I took supplies from my purse and freshened up: brushed my teeth, smoothed a vanilla scented lotion into my hands. My mass of brown hair that I’d pinned up, I unpinned, let it hang loosely around my shoulders. I looked into my pale face, green eyes, red and gritty from tiredness. It had been a long day. I worked as a secretary for an engineering department at the airline’s maintenance base. I looked at my watch: only two hours into the flight.

As I emerged from the restroom, I nodded a greeting to the two flight attendants reading magazines in their jump seats near the galley. The rest of the cabin was dim and silent, passengers dozing, reminding me of tombstones in a small cemetery. I crept softly, as not to disturb anyone, back to my seat. My seatmate was still sleeping, his long legs extended in front of him. Tentatively, I lifted one leg over the man’s legs, and thus straddling him, attempted to pull the other leg over. I lost my balance and plopped squarely into his lap. I was mortified. The man didn’t startle but placed a hand gently on my back. “So nice of you to drop in,” he said.

With as much grace as I could muster, I righted myself and fell into my own seat. “I’m so sorry,” I mumbled. “I was trying to get over you without waking you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping. Just resting my eyes.”

“Sorry I disturbed you.”

“You’re quite a disturbing woman, so how could you not?” He said this in a low seductive tone. I wondered if I had heard him correctly. Was he flirting? Was he being condescending? “Apparently you can’t sleep either,” he murmured. I managed to mutter no.

“Want to make good use of the time?”

I stammered, “Uh.”  He laughed, apparently amused at my girlish stammering. His laughter encouraged me to relax. ‘I’m suggesting gin rummy,” he said. “Or, did you have something better in mind?”

I knew by his question that he was referring to the infamous, “mile high club”. I’d never known anyone who had the audacity to claim to belong. Just imagining it, with him, made me blush. Without a doubt, I’d be fired if caught. But, of course, he was teasing, and enjoying my reaction. “Uh, sure,” I said. “I mean, no.” Again I sounded like a silly school girl. “Gin rummy would be fine”, I said.” I haven’t played in years. I’ll be a bit rusty.” He gave another of his wonderful, deeply amused laughs.

“No problem,” he said. “I’ve heard it comes back to you. Like riding a bicycle.” He switched on his overhead light, scooted his briefcase from under his seat, produced a deck of cards. He lowered his tray table and we began. “Loser buys breakfast,” he said.

Slowly the game came back to me. The flight attendant brought us freshly brewed coffee as we played for the next two hours. His hands often brushed against mine and I’d feel a tingle of excitement shoot up my arm. He made amusing little remarks that made me laugh. What’s more seductive than a man who entices a woman to laugh? When the plane began to descend, the flight attendant asked him to fold his tray table and so he put away the cards. I pulled on my heels that I’d slipped off much earlier, felt him watching. We still had not exchanged names. I had been on the verge several times of volunteering mine and asking for his. But I had hesitated, afraid of breaking the spell, the web of magic that seemed to enclose us. What were names anyway but a tag, a tie? What if he had a name I didn’t like, though I couldn’t imagine that as a possibility. My own, Cora Mae Wickersham, sounded like a character out of Dr. Seuss, not a romantic heroine’s name. Once, during a game he’d called me Sweet Pea. Sweet Pea, a pet name I would forever cherish. But, I would regret, soon enough, that I had not asked his name. Nor asked what he did for a living.

As the jet hovered, readying for landing, he took my hand and squeezed it, leaning toward me. I leaned in, meeting him, as our lips brushed, then lingered. At this point, I could have flown without a plane. I was the loser at gin rummy but I was a winner at love.   

What followed seemed total confusion. In deplaning, he stepped into the aisle to let me out ahead of him. Passengers were streaming in from coach for the exit door through first class. He must have become caught in the crowd. As a gentleman, he would have let women and children ahead of him. I was pushed slowly forward by passengers eager to deplane. I kept glancing backwards, trying to locate him. Once inside the arrival area, I watched, trying to locate him among the deplaning passengers. My bladder felt about to burst from all that coffee I’d consumed while we played cards. I assumed if he didn’t see me in the area, he would wait. We would then leave together, for breakfast. I found a restroom a short distance down the hall. I rushed, took at most five minutes, rushed back to the arrivals area. A few last minute passengers were still dribbling out. But I did not see him among them or in the waiting area. Still, I waited, thinking that perhaps he, too, had gone to the restroom. Suddenly, it occurred to me that he might have gone to baggage claim. I rushed there, searched, rushed back to the arrivals area. I felt panicky.

Two hours later, exhausted, I gave up and took the shuttle into Manhattan, to my hotel. I needed sleep, I wanted badly to weep, but I forced myself to put on a front for myself. I left the hotel, went to the top of the World Trade Center for the view, the bracing breeze; then on to the Metropolitan Museum, slowly moving, moving from exhibit to exhibit.


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