The spectre of the Summer of 2000, during which the pilots and (mis)management team of our airline locked horns in a labor dispute that made a mockery of our daily operation and nearly flattened the airline, still haunts the memory of anyone who was subjected to its capricious whim. It was a summer of week-long “three-day” trips; of “Chicago” layovers at hotels in Indiana and Wisconsin; of sitting on the tarmac on a hot 727 for longer than it would have taken to fly to your destination and then returning to the gate in order to cancel. Waiting in line at the Crew Desk for reassignment, flight attendants lay down with pillows and blankets and slept, sometimes through the night. We encountered almost nothing but irate people, passengers and coworkers alike. There was ranting and crying and probably more passing out than was strictly necessary, but not a lot of fellowship and scarcely any Goodwill toward Man.
Heading home from one such trip, on like Day Five of a Three-Day, I worked with my friend Phoebe. A perky, married blonde with a pixie haircut, she presented a squeaky-clean, Olivia Newton-John image that made her hilarious tales of loving and leaving a string of smitten pilots that much more scandalous. She got hit on everywhere we went, and it was quite natural for her to assume that the young, single dad traveling with his mother and son was flirting with her. All smiles and shamelessly suave, he was definitely flirting with somebody, and the presence of the kid did rather hint at a preference for women; he had obviously been with at least one.
But he was awfully friendly, and something of a winker. He was definitely flirty with Phoebe, it’s not like she was imagining things, but he was laying it on pretty thick with me, too. And so, bored, cranky, and too long away from home, we naturally turned it into a competition. “He’s flirting with me!” she would insist.
“You’re dreaming!” I would reply, eyes rolling. “He’s obviously gay.”
“Right. And I’m dreaming?” And so on.
As if this guy was anything worth fighting over. He’d gotten on the plane in his undershirt, for Pete’s sake — a tight, white tank top that clung to his wiry frame and kept few olfactory secrets. His skin was rough and over-tanned, his hair floppy and overgrown, and he had the teeth of someone who maybe snacked on gravel instead of popcorn. The overall effect was that of someone who had driven to the airport in his home.
But he was inordinately charming; perhaps the only passenger of that entire summer to display any manners whatever. He smiled. He joked. He was sweet with his son and funny with us. He insisted on eye contact, and the spark in his eye jumped into mine, warming me just the littlest bit. And it wasn’t an act, at least not completely. You could tell he was a genuine feel-good guy, ‘cause even at six, his son was the same way. From deep within his window seat, the kid shouted out questions and play-by-play observations as only a six-year-old can, eager to befriend both Phoebe and me.
“We’re going to San Francisco cuz it’s my birthday!” he declared as we passed by his row of seats, each trying to look our cutest while picking up trash for the hundredth time.
I stopped, as much to bask in Dad’s smile for Phoebe’s benefit as to ask, “Oh yeah? When’s your birthday?”
“Saturday!” he said, so proud.
“No way.” I said. And then, because it happened to be true, I winked at the dad and said, “Saturday’s my birthday, too!”
“Really?” asked the incredulous Junior.
“Really,” I said.
“Really?” asked Dad, face alight. And Phoebe, eyebrow raised.
“Really!” I affirmed, brandishing as proof the airline ID badge emblazoned with my date of birth.
Dad jumped out of his seat and into the aisle, turning his back on Phoebe to put his hands on my shoulders. To my great surprise, in front of his son, his mother, and a planeload of disgruntled strangers, he planted one smack on my mouth. It was a good kiss, too: hot and strong; I stumbled when he pulled away, my startled lips abuzz.
“An early birthday present,” he explained, sitting back down.
Phoebe had turned and stalked away. Gracious even in defeat, I could tell by the way she was shaking her head that she was laughing.