I flew to Charleston in the smallest plane I’d ever been on, an Embraer ERJ-140. A private jet for some people but for American Airlines, a vessel capable of packing in forty-four passengers, one peroxide blonde flight attendant of German descent and exactly one lavatory, the existence of which seemed so implausible that I did not visit it once during the three-hour flight from Dallas. My seat was 9B, an aisle seat and as I approached found 9A occupied by a pretty brunette. She was covered from the neck down by a red fleece blanket from the airline. She wore glasses and had her hair back in a low ponytail.
“This is the smallest plane I’ve ever been on,” I said, taking my seat. I buckled my seatbelt and took out my phone, taking a photo before turning it off.
“Are you taking a photo?” she asked.
I nodded, though was disappointed by the results. Even with a small frame I couldn’t capture the claustrophobia-inducing cabin and was deleting the photos when the red blanket moved towards me.
“Where are you from?” her voice was friendly, filled with genuine curiosity.
We began an easy chat about our backgrounds. I was from California on a stopover in Dallas on my way to Charleston where a friend was playing in the Spoleto orchestra. She was a college student on summer break, en route to visiting her retired parents who had moved to a beach house in Charleston when she, the youngest, started college three years ago.
“So you’re almost graduating,” I said. She shook her head not a little glumly.
“I’m just behind,” she said wistfully, “I wasn’t so comfortable in the beginning, when I first started college.”
After hemming and hawing between psychology and pre-med at Westminster University in Salt Lake City, Utah, she finally decided to pursue a nursing degree. She was dating a senior who from the sound of it, wants to flee small-town life and make it big as a filmmaker in Hollywood.
I shrugged and told her I could relate. About the hemming and hawing, I clarified, not about the boyfriend, though that was cool, a filmmaker.
“He won a big award at school a few weeks ago,” Leslie said proudly, “And he’s only applying to the best graduate schools for film. NYU, USC, and this one in Toronto, but I forget the name.”
She peppered me more questions about school, happy to know that I really had taken my time meandering through academia and in awe of the fact that I’d gone to Berkeley, which she knew was a “really really really good school.”
“I wish I’d gone there,” she said, “But I don’t think I would have done well there.”
“Did you apply?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Then how do you know?
She looked at me then with a kind of wide-eyed surprise, and I think asked herself why she didn’t at least try. We chatted for nearly an hour, much of which I spent asking about life in Salt Lake City, which she didn’t like at all, and Charleston, which she did like, but was not so familiar with. She spent just a few weeks at her parents’ home each summer before summer classes began and was mostly looking forward to lazing on the beach reading, taking walks with her parents, and playing with her puppy.
“I like small towns,” she said.
“So I guess you’re not going to follow your boyfriend to any of those big cities if he gets in to any of those schools,” I suggested.
“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head resolutely, “We’re good now, but honestly, I don’t think it’s anything serious. I mean, he’s leaving soon. Or…he’s going to leave soon and….so….yeah.”
“Oh you never know. A lot of people make long distance work,” I said. It sounded like the right thing to say.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Are you married?”
I wanted to put my left hand up and do that “single lady” hand movement Beyonce gave to the world along with her hit single, but instead just shook my head.
“Not yet,” I said, “not for a long yet.”
She smiled, seeming relieved. I asked if she was Mormon. I felt it was the next logical question. She shook her head, eyes widening.
“They get married crazy early and just start popping out babies!” she said loudly, then became aware of her volume and immediately added, “which is fine for them but would never work for me.”
I was fifty-percent unconvinced by her statement. She was twenty-one, and because of a good upbringing by conservative parents seemed paradoxically, depending on what we talked about, both older and younger than her years. Wide-eyed. Naive. Strong-willed with a sturdy moral core. All those adjectives that apply to girls of that type – girls with bright, cheery smiles and kind, earnest hearts accompanied by high, friendly voices; girls who end their sentences with a certain upward intonation that signals true curiosity rather than vapidity or false courtesy. Her ponytail was secured by a scrunchy, a scrunchy! for the simple, direct reason that it does the job and if you were to point it out disdainfully and laugh, she would have the confidence to say, “Oh shush.”
She was that kind of girl and it’s not a bad thing. I searched her face for signs of a younger me; did I ever come off like that, to anyone? Probably, but it was a rare and well-calculated thing, down to the diameter of my irises.
As the plane took off she asked me a strange question.
“Are you a vegetarian?”
I shook my head slowly, eyebrows raised in worry.
“Do I look….anemic?”
She laughed, “No, you look very… earthy.”
I was barefaced, wearing a beige linen shirt and had my hair in a messy bun. I probably looked anemic.
“I don’t eat much meat,” I said, “and was a vegetarian many years ago, for about two years.”
“Oh!” she said, “I was too! Why did you go back?”
“I got really fat.”
She nodded excitedly and I noticed her hands moving underneath the blanket – if she hadn’t been covered I think she might have grabbed my arm. “I got….(she couldn’t, for some reason, quite make herself say the ‘f’ word, and said instead:)…that too!”
We bonded over a shared sweet tooth which, when we ventured into vegetarianism, erupted into an insatiable monster that told the gut who told the brain, “No meat? More sugar then. Sugar sugar sugar.”
“It was not good,” she said, “I would would rather eat a little meat than go back to that.
She liked Asian cuisine, she said, and the other night, cooked Thai food for Graham (her boyfriend), but “it was so awful” and Graham didn’t shy away from his criticisms either.
“This is baaaad,” he had said, drawing out the ‘a’. She replied, “Well, you don’t have to eat it!”
He shrugged and looked around what I assume was his empty kitchen, “I don’t have anything else to eat.”
They were taking a trip to Big Sur this summer, just the two of them, flying into San Francisco, renting a car, and driving down to what Leslie heard were some of the most beautiful American coastlines she’d ever see.
“It is gorgeous,” I said and she seemed relieved again, “I think you’ll like the area. They’re smallish towns all along the coast, filled with nice people and good food.”
She nodded and looked out the window.
“That’s cool of your parents to let you take a trip with your boyfriend like that.”
She smiled, “Yeah, they like Graham, and he’s graduating and we’ve been together for a little over a year.”
I sensed that she wanted to tell me something else but she said simply, “I’m excited.”
She was quiet after that and my watch told me there were two hours left in the flight. I moved lower down in the seat and closed my eyes.
“Are you going to sleep?” she asked.
I looked at her, “For a little bit.”
“Okay. I’ll sleep too then.”
I was oddly endeared to her then.