He chose the seat next to me on a very empty plane.
Who does that? I wondered. That’s like using the stall nearest to someone else when there are 100 others to choose from. Did West Point teach him nothing?
I knew he was a West Pointer immediately. When you’ve dated one before, you become conditioned to visual cues, like a specific posture and haircut. Or the cautious yet confident way they move within their environment. But, of course, the glint of his class ring was the dead giveaway.
Then I saw his face.
I got butterflies much in the same way I do when a security dog sniffs me at the airport, though I know without a doubt that I’m safe from the dog or from nefarious suspicion.
It was a 6 a.m. flight. I hadn’t had coffee yet. I went through my normal routine: Put the phone under my knee. Squeeze a water bottle into the seatback pocket in front of me. Find my pen and take out the airline magazine for the crossword. Use a hardback book as a table during takeoff. Plug my earbuds into my phone and switch to my sad songs playlist.
Because sad songs make me happy.
But Chatty Chuck wouldn’t let me read my book or listen to my music or do my crossword. Part of me wanted to slap him square in the that square jaw of his. And the other part wanted to grab his hand and take him with me wherever I went.
He was an extroverted bundle of anticipation, returning home after his first deployment in Iraq. His joy and overall sense of wonder belied the horror he had left behind. He was childlike. Giddy. Sweet. I imagined his time spent chasing women had been dramatically reduced by his service to the greater good, and I was a captive target.
We talked nonstop for four hours, quite possibly irritating everyone around us who just, for the love of god, wanted to sleep. He filled me in on the intricacies of secretly dating down rank on a base in the middle of a foreign desert where it seemed like everything was trying to kill you.
When we gated in Manchester, we were yanked out of our bubble by the dulcet tones of the overhead announcements. The Paula Deen doppelgänger in front of us threw herself over the seat and demanded he get my contact information.
Then we got a standing ovation.
That was seven years ago. We’ve seen each other through a lot of life since then. The death of his friend. The time my dad was on life support. Another deployment. Our health scares. Job changes. Life changes. Uncertainty. Fear. Moves. Breakups. Loneliness. Joy. Sadness.
Falling in love with him was as subtle as a wrinkle forming slowly over time. It was so subtle, actually, that I didn’t realize I had until we’d missed our chance, a small window of time in which our hearts were ever so briefly on the same emotional plane. We evolved from friends into lovers, back to friends, and now, perhaps inevitably, faraway acquaintances.
Maybe it’s as simple as a difference in maturity. Perhaps it’s a matter of too much space and not enough opportunity. Throughout all these years, we’ve never lived in the same place, but we’ve visited six states and 10 cities together. I will always be most grateful that he taught me how to vacation properly. Trips with my parents as a kid consisted of one or two scheduled activities with rest in between. His family of four, meanwhile, maximized every last waking moment of a manic few days. After doing it his way a few times, now I can’t vacation any other way.
Recently, I tackled a solo trip to Quebec City as if we were doing it together. I moved about at breakneck speed, checking off sites and events and walking and eating and drinking my way through a magical winter wonderland. I didn’t miss a single thing.
Except, maybe, him.