One day, Grace Stevenson stopped coloring her hair. All those hours and all that money spent trying to keep aging at bay, and John had gone off with a younger woman anyway. What was the point? At seventy, she thought the gray made her look refined, worldly. That’s how she wanted to feel. Like she’d arrived at a certain stage in her life where her choices should be respected.
She knew she wasn’t fooling anyone.
Look at this trip, for example. Jeffrey meant well. Their only child, he’d taken her side in the divorce all those years ago. He believed his father 100% to blame for the failure of the marriage. Of course, Grace knew that wasn’t true. Nothing is ever that one-sided. She’d tried to explain that to Jeffrey, to give him a more even-handed perspective. But he couldn’t take it on board. The evidence of John’s betrayal, in the form of then thirty-year-old Bridget with the naturally blond curls, had been too overwhelming. Jeffrey’s attempt to step up and take care of Grace, to compensate for absence of husband by being uber-son, was infantilizing. And it was only getting worse the more dependent she became.
“Mom, you can board now.” With a firm hand on her shoulder, Jeffrey guided Grace over to the business class line. A dozen well-heeled travelers waited to present themselves for the flight to Los Angeles. Men in business casual, women in trim khakis. No screaming babies like in the long line that Jeffrey, Donna and the kids were about to join.
“I don’t know why you bought me a business class ticket,” Grace said. “I’m perfectly fine sitting in coach with you. I would’ve preferred it.” She sounded ungrateful, but she felt like an imposter sitting in the luxurious section of the aircraft. She imagined herself waited on hand and foot and felt queasy.
“I was happy to be able to do it,” Jeffrey said. “This way, you’ll get some rest and arrive refreshed. Aren’t you glad I suggested you pack only the carry-on? You’ll be able to just walk off the plane and you’re all set.”
Grace had been annoyed about the carry-on too. The word “suggested” hardly conveyed the directive Jeffrey had issued regarding her luggage. But, she’d complied, as usual. What would her linen dress look like after it was crammed into the small suitcase for all those hours? Anyway, it was silly. She’d have to wait for Jeffrey and his family to exit from their seats in practically the last row of the plane, and then wait again at the baggage claim for their luggage. It was typical Jeffrey. Only thinking things halfway through. A trait he inherited from John, not her. Her ex-husband had thought Bridget through only halfway. She’d left him after a couple of years for someone younger and more successful. Grace was a planner, a list maker, a worrier. She didn’t do anything without thoroughly considering all the ramifications.
Jeffrey drew his mother into a fierce hug. “Remember, don’t talk to strangers,” he said, grinning. It was an old family joke, one of the few that had survived all the unhappiness because it spoke a truth about Grace and John that couldn’t be denied. John had loved flying, whether on his own for business or on vacation with Grace and Jeffrey. He looked forward to meeting his “stranger,” the person lucky enough to occupy the adjacent seat. John was a charmer, curious about everyone and everything. He and his stranger would while away the hours talking. A connection that would last only as long as the flight, but a real one nonetheless. Grace, in contrast, took a vow of silence when she got on a plane. Her “stranger” would remain just that, someone unknown and unknowable.
“No real danger there, even if you mix with a better sort in business class.” Grace patted Jeffrey’s cheek. He was a good boy, if overzealous. “See you in L.A.” She waved at Donna and her grandchildren, two slightly sullen teens who barely looked up from their iPhones, and handed over her ticket to the woman manning the gate. She wondered if “manning” was still an acceptable term in today’s gender conscious world.
“Seat 3B. Enjoy your flight.” Grace tried to return the chipper smile bestowed upon her by Delta’s friendly personnel, but a polite nod was all she could manage. She rolled her carry-on down the gateway.
She stepped onto the plane, and took the unaccustomed turn to the left. The curtain separating business class from coach taunted her, exposing her apparent need to be coddled. What was she doing here? It was a ludicrous waste of money, Jeffrey’s statement that Grace was too frail to fly with the rest of the family in the seats designated for normal people. Now, instead of being bored by her daughter-in-law’s gripes about the wedding preparations or benevolently ignored by the youngsters who had downloaded a month’s worth of inane television shows for the six-hour flight, she’d be forced to sit next to a stranger. A rich, entitled, always-fly-business stranger, who’d be able to tell right away that Grace didn’t belong.
The unintended consequence of taking the carry-on was that it was stuffed full and heavy. When Grace went to put it in the overhead compartment at row 3, she couldn’t lift it high enough. So much for the exercises she’d so diligently done to avoid wobbly grandma arms. She turned to look for a flight attendant to help when her stranger stood up from 3A.
“I’ll get that for you,” he said. Before she could protest, he’d lifted her bag and placed it next to his. He closed the bin with a satisfying click and returned to his seat. Grace had enough time to register tanned arms, an expensive looking watch, and a bit of a paunch in a crisp buttoned-down light blue shirt. She sank down gingerly into her seat, opened her purse, and pulled out Grisham’s latest. She’d boycotted him for years for the sole reason that his name was John, but lately had relented.
“Are you a fan?”
Grace was tempted to pretend she hadn’t heard him speak, but that seemed juvenile.
“Not really. His books are quick reads, good for travel. When I’m finished, I leave it in the hotel lobby with a note to pay it forward so I don’t have to carry it home.” She spoke as though she vacationed often and deposited Grisham novels around the world, neither of which was true. She was amazed she’d gotten that whole sentence out, and more amazed when the stranger chuckled.
“I’m Michael,” he said, reaching his hand over the wide expanse of his seat to shake hers. Now they had gone from talking to touching; what would Jeffrey say?
She hoped that would put an end to the encounter. She turned to her left, away from Michael, and saw the flight attendant come slowly down the aisle. When she reached their row, she offered water, orange juice, or champagne.
Michael smiled ingratiatingly at the woman in Delta’s new Zac Posen-designed purple uniform, who introduced herself as Savannah and reminded them to please let her know if they needed anything. He took a glass of champagne from the tray. Grace was struck dumb by the very notion that she was being offered bubbly in a real glass flute while the masses in the back of the plane were allowed to choose one snack, either pretzels or Cheese-its.
“I’ll have champagne too,” she said, lifting one carefully so as not to spill it.
Michael titled his glass and touched it gently to hers.
“Cheers,” he said.
“What are we celebrating?” Maybe just sitting in business was enough, and that’s why they served champagne.
“You tell me,” Michael said.
His cheekiness was youthful, but he was probably as old as she. His watch was the only jewelry he wore, a wedding band as conspicuously absent on his hand as on hers. Of course, she was wise to that; many men didn’t wear rings these days. Too limiting. Still, although his precise age was hard to determine, he exuded confidence in a way that was both manly and mature.
“I’m on my way to my granddaughter’s wedding in Los Angeles,” Grace offered.
“Wonderful! That definitely calls for a toast. To the young couple’s happiness!” He took a hearty sip, his Adam’s apple working overtime.
Grace tried to smile, to match Michael’s enthusiasm. Something in her eyebrows gave her away.
“Uh, oh. Trouble in paradise? You have concerns.” He put down his glass, apparently waiting for her to explain.
“No, it isn’t that. She’s just so young to be getting married.”
“How old is she?”
“Hmm. That is young. Especially from our vantage point,” Michael said.
She should be insulted; this man had called her old. But really, she had a twenty-three-year-old granddaughter. That had to make her at least in her mid-sixties. Besides, he’d put himself in the same boat.
“The boy that she’s marrying is older, just turned thirty. He rescued her, really. I should be grateful. I am grateful.” Grace finished her champagne and thought about waving Savannah over and asking for another. But she remembered John saying that altitude increased the effects of alcohol. She hated when his words of wisdom filled her head, after all this time. Still, she sometimes listened.
“Rescued her from what?” Michael asked.
“That’s probably too strong a word, and a sexist one at that. Allyson came out to L.A. last year after she finished college. She wants to be an actress. But she’s naïve. People take advantage of her. Men in the industry, or who said they were, told her they could help her. It was a scene, and Allyson had no idea how to navigate it. Greg took her away from that.”
“Ah. So this marriage sounds like a good thing.”
“I suppose. But she won’t be an actress now, most likely. I think she has talent. It’s sad to see that dream die.” Grace realized with a start that she’d exposed her beloved granddaughter to this utter stranger. She clamped her mouth shut and opened her book. She pressed what she thought was the button for the overhead light, but accidentally summoned Savannah.
“What can I get you, Mrs. Stevenson?” Grace startled at the sound of her name. In business class you were no longer a passenger in a particular numbered seat, but an individual with an identity, a story. Maybe that’s why she had opened up to Michael. There was an illusion of familiarity, intimacy, fostered by the airline to make you feel special. She’d let down her defenses. It wouldn’t happen again.
“Nothing, thank you. My mistake. Everything is fine.” Grace turned back to her book.
Thirty minutes passed and Grace had cruised through nearly fifty pages. At this rate, the book wouldn’t get her to California. She folded down the corner of the page and put it on her tray table. She closed her eyes. When she glanced at Michael a few minutes later, he’d taken off the glasses she hadn’t noticed and was studying her intently. She could feel herself blush, which made her blush more.
“What?” she said, when she couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Sorry. I was just thinking.”
“When you said it made you sad that Allyson was giving up her dream. It made me think that maybe you had a dream that you gave up.”
Grace wondered who this man was and what he wanted from her. Was this the type of conversation John had with the strangers seated next to him all those years while she sat quietly on his other side, sipping her ginger ale, attending to Jeffrey’s needs? Or waiting back home for him to return? She felt the pull of the conversation again, the cocoon enveloping them in the quiet hush of business class. She succumbed.
“I had a lot of dreams. The biggest was that my husband and I would grow old together. Instead, we’re each growing old alone.”
“Twenty years. Almost as long as we were married.”
“Bachelor. I had several serious relationships over the years, but only one that really mattered. I walked around with a ring in my pocket for a month, but just couldn’t pull the trigger.” Michael looked at his entertainment monitor, where the map of their flight route showed their progress across the country. “Maybe that’s why I was so pleased to hear about your granddaughter. I wish her well.”
They sat quietly, Grace, and perhaps Michael too, ruminating on love lost. Then Savannah arrived to set their tray tables with white cloth napkins and silverware, offering wine or another beverage with their dinner. It felt like a date, and Grace almost said so, before she remembered herself. They ate in companionable silence.
When they’d finished and Savannah had returned to pick up their trays, the pilot came on over the address system.
“Good evening, folks. I hope you’re enjoying our smooth ride to Los Angeles this evening and that you had a pleasant dinner. We have about four more hours to go, so we’ll be turning down the lights now and the flight attendants will do their best not to disturb you. Please get some rest. I promise we are wide awake here at the controls.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?” Grace asked.
“I guess. When I was a little boy, my father always asked the pilot as we boarded the plane whether he’d had a good night’s sleep. He usually got a smile. I wondered if one day a pilot would admit to being totally bushed.”
“Your father sounds like he was a character.”
“Still is. Ninety-four and going strong. He’s why I stay in L.A. Refuses to move to Arizona or Florida where I’d like to retire. Says he has friends in the city. How many friends could he have at this point? Stubborn as they come.”
Grace couldn’t imagine having her parents with her. They’d been gone so long. Was it good to get that old? She imagined watching her friends die off, her grandchildren move away. Grace thought another ten or fifteen years would do just fine, especially if she didn’t deteriorate too much. Even that long seemed like a lot sometimes when she tried to think of how she’d fill her days.
When the flight crew dimmed the lights, Michael pressed the button that slowly transformed his seat into a completely flat bed. He fluffed his full-size pillow and spread the soft blanket over himself. Grace sat upright, watching this surprising maneuver. So this is what Jeffrey had meant! She wondered how he knew.
“Can I help you, Mrs. Stevenson?” Savannah stood ready to press buttons and fluff pillows.
“No, Just digesting a bit before I lie down,” Grace said. Did Savannah realize Grace had just discovered her seat’s fantastical capabilities? Although she wasn’t tired yet, she pressed the button to avoid further interaction.
When she had settled into her bed, she lay just an armrest’s width away from Michael. Reclining, she felt closer than she had sitting. It was the first time she’d been “in bed” with a man since John left her all those years ago. She felt wistful and shy, a young bride on her honeymoon. Michael’s voice brought her back.
“These beds are surprisingly comfortable, aren’t they?”
“Yes. A person could get used to flying this way.” There, she’d admitted it. Grace felt a wave of relief. She no longer had to pretend.
“I hope you get some rest. You have a big weekend ahead of you,” Michael said. As if to encourage her, he closed his eyes.
Grace tried to doze but couldn’t. She inclined her head slightly toward Michael. He was still awake.
“What was her name?” she asked.
“The one who got away.”
“Alice.” Michael shifted slightly and moved a glass and an empty can of orange soda that rested on the console between them. She could see him without obstruction now, green eyes in the near dark of the cabin.
“What an old-fashioned name,” she said.
“More so than Grace?” A small smile played on his lips. “Anyway, she was old-fashioned. It was one of the things I most liked about her.”
“What did she look like?” Grace couldn’t fathom her own curiosity, but nor could she tamp it down.
“I thought she was beautiful. Her looks were unconventional, though. She had an oval face, widespread brown eyes and very long eyelashes. She’d a look of wonderment about her, as though whatever someone said or whatever we did together had the potential to delight her.”
Grace had never heard anyone speak the way Michael did. She was jealous that Alice had been so lovingly observed. What would John have said about her if someone asked? She shuddered to think of it.
“She sounds wonderful. I’m sorry that you hesitated,” Grace said.
“Me too.” Michael pressed the button on his seat and raised himself up slightly. Grace felt self-conscious lying flat, so she did the same. Now it was as though they were propped up in their bed. Grace thought to suggest they watch the same movie on their individual monitors, but swallowed back the words.
“Did you move on? Jeffrey says I still haven’t moved on, after twenty years.” Grace felt the prickle of tears in her eyes, and shut them tight for a moment to hold them back.
“Moved on? Well, I never married, or had children, so in some sense I guess the answer is no. But I’ve gone on. You have too. I think every experience, big and small, transforms us in some way. We go on every day, trying to figure out the best way we can live. We go on.” Michael turned to his right and slid the window shade up, revealing nothing but blackness outside and stared out for a moment. Then he pulled the shade back down.
They sat without speaking until the pilot came over the loudspeaker.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I trust you’ve been enjoying our journey to Los Angeles. I’m afraid we have a little bit of turbulence coming up, so you’ll see that we just switched on the seatbelt sign. Thank you.”
“I didn’t think they’d have turbulence in business class,” Grace said. She was only half kidding.
The plane lurched from side to side, dropped and steadied, dipped and rose. Each sharp movement made Grace gasp. When Michael offered his hand to hold, Grace didn’t resist.
They talked for hours. When the captain came over the loudspeaker and announced that they were beginning their descent into the Los Angeles metro area, Grace reluctantly let go of Michael’s hand.
“Are you a Sinatra fan, Grace?”
“Of course. I’m a seventy-year-old Italian woman from New Jersey.”
“Then you’ll understand. I’ve had more than a few regrets. I won’t survive another one. We can do something big here, our way. Let’s not blow it because we’re too afraid to take a chance.”
“What are you suggesting?” Grace wondered who this beautiful man was with the soulful green eyes who’d taken her stranger’s seat.
“Come with me,” he said.
What did she have to lose?
She typed out an email to her son.
I’m going to spend a few days with my stranger from seat 3A. His name is Michael and he lives by the ocean and takes care of his ninety-year-old father. If he’s the gem he seems to be, I’ll bring him to the wedding on Saturday. If not, I’ll see you then, alone. Please don’t worry and don’t come after me. I feel more alive at this moment than I have in twenty years. And don’t call the police. Serial killers don’t sit in business class.
Grace hit the send button when the plane landed, Jeffrey safely trapped at the back of the aircraft. Then, just as he’d said, she took her carry-on bag and simply walked off the plane and out into the Los Angeles sunshine. Hand in hand.