ENCOUNTER WITH A STRANGER • by Jacqueline Sessler

I walked down the airplane aisle, feeling good in my favorite blue-flowered dress I had worn to work that day, trying to maneuver my carry-on bag so that it did not hit the people who were already seated. The smug ones in first class with their extra inches and anticipation of complimentary alcoholic beverages. And the parents holding squirming, squealing children who had boarded early; I hoped that I would not be seated near any of them.

I arrived at 14A, the window seat. Settling in and putting my book in the seat pocket, I watched those still boarding and wondered who would stop at the seat next to mine. Then I saw a younger guy, still several rows away with sandy-colored hair brushing his collar, dressed in jeans and a button-down, with a large duffle bag in hand. And I knew it would be him.

“Hi, I think this is where I belong,” he said with a friendly smile as he took the seat to my left.

His blue eyes met mine and we began talking. Soon the plane was racing down the runway and gliding into the air, wheels closing with a bang. Over the din of the engines, I learned that he was 28, married with two kids already, and worked in the oil industry — a booming business at the time. I was 24 and married for one year. He was returning home from a work trip — I was just beginning one. At some point we laughed, realizing that we had not introduced ourselves yet.

The stewardess delivered drinks and snacks and I gave him my bag of chips.

As the engines droned on, our words flowed freely. And somehow, within the short span of a two-hour flight, we shared very personal thoughts. Aspirations, desires, disappointments, and oddly similar visions of an ideal life, daring to think about what might have been. We both professed to be happily married — mostly.

“Where would you live right now if you were free to go anywhere?” I posed after he told me about the dreams he once had about traveling, stalled now with two young kids at home.

“Hmm, that’s a tough one — Australia, I think. I would like to learn to surf and the beaches look amazing. The lifestyle just seems more laid back there. Houston is all about working so that you can keep up with your neighbors, the house, the stuff, and that’s not me. What about you?”

I thought about the opportunity I had turned down to move to Chicago and attend a very prestigious graduate program, instead choosing to get married. About how disillusioned I had been feeling recently. Marriage seemed to have become a series of monotonous workdays and endless weekend chores. I was young and missing the inspiration that life should still bring.

“I love to travel, and in college, I spent my junior year in France,” I responded, twisting the diamond band on my finger that had once belonged to my husband’s grandmother. “For me, it would be Provence. Hanging out in cafes all afternoon laughing with good friends, drinking wine, and writing what I want, instead of the trivial advertising copy I have to write for my work.”

“You’re so easy to talk to, Laura. It would be great to spend time at a cafe in France with you,” he said wistfully.

I was startled at his expression of a yearning that involved us both. I wondered if he might ask me to meet him one day while I was in Houston for coffee or something. But even if he did, how would I respond?

Far too quickly, the plane landed with a jolt and the pilot announced our arrival in Houston.

“So, this is it, I guess, we’re here,” he mumbled softly. It seemed like he wanted to say more but he did not or could not.

“You know, at a different time in our lives, we might have said that it was fate that brought us together on this airplane — but I suppose it could also make a great opening for a novel,” I offered.

“Well, maybe you can still write that story and I’ll read it someday.”

Passengers jumped up and crowded the aisle as the plane came to a lurching halt. He stood and reached to get our bags out of the overhead bin. As he handed my tote to me, his hand brushed mine and he let it rest there for a minute. I felt his warmth and didn’t want to move, but passengers were jostling to get off the plane and I was swept into the teeming throng.

I exited the plane and was walking down the ramp when I heard his voice call out and turned to see him a few steps behind. I hadn’t realized how tall he was when sitting on the plane. I looked up and our eyes met as he said with a hint of melancholy in his voice, “Laura, goodbye. Don’t forget, I’ll be looking for your book.”

Inside the terminal, I saw the hand that had touched mine lift a little girl into his arms, his wife and son surrounding him. And I was left to continue on aimlessly, drifting with the crowd toward a sign that read ‘Baggage Claim,’ wondering what the hell had just happened.

Jacqueline Sessler lives and writes in the small town of Redding, CT. After retiring from her busy career as a Director of Human Resources at Yale University, she pursued one of her earlier dreams by joining a writing group filled with interesting, talented, and supportive friends and now writes both fiction and creative nonfiction.

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