My knees were showing.
I adjusted the grey cotton dress, squirming in my seat to pull a hem over the my pale kneecaps . I’m not a dress-wearing, knee-showing girl… a wrong bend, an uncalculated gust of wind and a girl could find herself in a compromising position, like I’d nearly been just minutes ago as I ascended the puddle jumper’s stairs. In fear of flashing the young baggage boy below, I clutched the skirt of my ruffled dress, fighting against a swift summer breeze. Too risky for a small-town Midwestern girl like me. Embarrassed as I recalled the near flash, I drew my rosy cardigan tight , clicked the seatbelt across my hips and gazed sleepily out of the hazy oval window to my right. Pressing my forehead against the foggy glass, the cool felt calming against my head, which had started to spin. I strained, trying to peer through the early morning darkness, but I could see only my reflection in the window.
Who was this girl? The girl who wears knee-length skirts and boards planes at 5am…where did she come from? Was this me? A character that invests in a passport and jets off on an international trip with a boy she’s never met? I couldn’t decide if I liked this girl. She was certainly spunkier, more adventurous than the conservative worrier that had ruled my mind previously. And I’d had nearly forgotten to care what others thought of my newly sprouted spontaneous spirit. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this new mindset might get my heart broken.
The small plane navigated slowly through the maze of red and blue runway lights, then steadily picked up speed until its wheels had softly risen off the pavement and tucked themselves neatly inside the aircraft. My clammy palms unclenched themselves from the elbow rests, the way they always did once I found myself airborne.
You forget how beautiful home is, until you’re hovering above it, speeding in the opposite direction, I thought silently. Several hundred feet below me laid my parent’s small ranch-style house, the one in which I’d grown up, the playground my elementary-school girlfriends and I gossiped in late at night, the empty street where I’d sprawled out, stargazing, with a boy who had broken my heart years earlier. Two blocks and two decades of memories seemed so small now.
“It’s a real small flight, honey, but if you need anything, don’t be afraid to ask, ‘kay?" the flight attendant interrupted my nostalgia. "Where you headed today?” she smiled, as she checked my seatbelt.
“Okay,” I said, nervously stalling. “Um, I’m going to Boston, and then to Ireland tomorrow,”
“Oh my gosh. You hear that?” she called out to the man two seats back. “This lil’ lady is going to Ireland! I’ve always wanted to go. Are you going alone?”
I could feel my face heat. In my younger years I embraced the spotlight, and happily sang, danced and recited lines for crowds of family and friends. But since entering my twenties, spotlights led to anxieties, and my insecurities multiplied the moment I felt eyes on me, as though everyone around was inspecting, picking apart my body and mind.
“Oh no,” I paused. “With a friend.” It was much easier to tell a half-truth than the whole.
The whole truth of where I was headed, and with whom, was long winded and sticky, and had begun six months earlier on a snowy February night. Curled up on my couch in my comfiest and least flattering pair of sweats, I’d spent that Saturday night staring desperately at a set of paints, wishing I felt inspired enough to lift brush to canvas to complete my homework. Blessedly, a phone call from my Californian best friend had interrupted my attempts at self-motivation. Becky was, as always, on a mission. That night's mission consisted of playing Yenta. Her husband’s close friend, Gabriel, was visiting while on leave from Iraq, and she was determined to secure Gabriel a romantic interest before he returned to his base in Baghdad.
“Bec, I’m kind of seeing someone!” I had protested, laughing at the idea.
“Blah, blah. It’s just a friendship, the guy is going back Iraq. Come on. Cheer him up.” she’d teased back.
I’d obliged, and we exchanged information. Weeks passed. Then an email from Gabriel, letting me know he’d returned to Iraq, had meant to write sooner, hoped I was very well. I replied, and quickly we began a pen-pal friendship. He wrote to me during long, dusty days spent at a desk in Baghdad, I wrote him during late night homework breaks from mixing paint colors and washing out brushes.
Short of our mutual friends, we had nothing in common. But, therein laid the beauty. One of us had experienced most anything imaginable, or had interest in most any topic. He was 33, and I 23. He’d traveled the world in the Navy, and I didn’t even possess a passport, but had done my fair share of US travel. He was a tech nerd, and I was a creative spirit. He was raised Catholic, and I Lutheran. Neither of us were easily offended, and we could talk about most everything…no subject too taboo, no answer too embarrassing. And he was the sweetest listening ear over the course of months of emails, reassuring me that recently being thrice-dumped was no reflection on me. I was lovely, and these men were likely dogs. He’d listened as I waxed poetic about my dreams to someday visit Ireland, and possibly live in Europe.
And then, one day…that question:
“What would you say if I offered to take you to Ireland this summer?”
He’d sweetly twisted my arm, promising I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. He would take leave from Iraq and meet me in Boston so I wouldn’t have to stress over my first trans-Atlantic flight to the Emerald Isle. We would just be friends on a vacation, he said, and after all…even if we had an absolutely terrible time…wouldn’t it make a great story? It had been three months since I’d answered yes, and nervously penned a passport application.
The piercing rattle of the plane’s wheels on the runway shook me back to reality, the interior suddenly felt small and pressing. Air from the vent above me slowed and I started to sweat nervously. My stomach, during the course of the flight, had shifted into my lungs, leaving me unable to take deep breaths. Trying to steady my breathing, my weak legs and wobbly emotions, I gathered my things, double-checking my passport pocket as I proceeded up the aircraft aisle, repeating in my head what had become my in-flight mantra: It’s just a vacation. It’s just a vacation. It’s just a vacation.
But, as I turned down the hot August jet way, adjusting my weighty carry-on, I knew it wasn’t just a vacation. He would be there, the man who had sent me several bouquets of flowers, waiting inside the terminal and there was no turning back, unless I'd like to reboard the plane and continue on to Tallahassee.
At the end of the long tunnel, I could see him, my pen pal. And his smiling eyes said it all.