I slid into my assigned window seat and closed my eyes. Dear airplane gods, I silently prayed, please, please, please leave the middle seat empty for the next 15 hours. I was still begging the universe for this travel favor when I felt someone settle in beside me. Too bad, I thought. Then I opened my eyes on my dreamy new neighbor.
“Hey there,” he said. He had an Australian accent. His blue eyes and unkempt blond curls were coupled with the kind of three-day old scruff that makes me want to move somewhere mountainous populated by men who chop their own kindling.
“Hi,” I said.
While two flight attendants prepared us for impromptu water landings and oxygen mask use, he told me his name was John and that he was on his way home after six months in the U.S.
“I was working on a farm,” John said. “My family owns one in New Zealand and I was doing a sort of apprenticeship in Missouri.”
“You’re a Kiwi?” I said.
“Uhh, pretty certain,” he said.
“It’s just that you seem so… Australian.” I’d spent a lot of time around Australians and New Zealanders and prided myself on being able to tell them apart through subtle differences ranging from the linguistic (fact: Kiwis pronounce the vowel “e” so it sounds like “i,” which makes for really entertaining conversations about anything deck-related) to the stylistic (observe: Aussies generally have shaggier haircuts and deeper tans).
“How many Kiwis do you know?” John said.
“Well, I just got done being married to one, so quite a few.” I tried to keep my tone light.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” John said. “Even our glorious country produces a dud here and there.” Then he actually winked at me.
The comment should have made me cry. Martyn and I had only been separated for a month and I felt like I’d spent that entire time in tears. Instead, I laughed. It was an unexpected relief to let a stranger dismiss the last five years of my life because he knew nothing about them. I had gotten used to being treated like I was fragile as old bones—and I was–but John didn’t know that.
Martyn and I had met eight years earlier in an Irish pub in Peru. I was a 22-year-old backpacker just returned from a trip into the Amazon. My Australian friend Carly and I had been traveling for four months and so I was in that unique open space engendered by constant exposure to new experiences. Yes I will bungee jump into a canyon. Yes I will eat that questionable street meat. Yes I most definitely will fall in love with a New Zealander on his way to live in London.
Martyn was blue-eyed and blond-haired, like John. He was tall and funny and emanated an easy-going confidence. He asked me what I knew about New Zealand.
“Not much,” I admitted.
He took my left hand in his and turned it wrist side up, then gently bent my ring and pinky finger back into my palm. He touched my two extended fingers. “Up here, in the north, is Auckland. It’s our largest city,” he said. “A little below that is Hamilton, where I’m from.” He drew a line to my wrist. “Here’s Wellington, the capital.”
He moved down my arm into the South Island, tracing cities as he went: Nelson, Christchurch, Queenstown, Invercargill. It was the best geography lesson I’d ever had.
Once my first unexpected laugh burst out with John the Kiwi dairy farmer, there were more behind it. We talked about family and work and travel. We talked about everything but what mattered most—that I was escaping to Australia for six weeks to grieve for my failed marriage. I was going to live with Carly, the same friend who had been with me when I met Martyn. She was four months pregnant but her Colombian fiancé was stuck in his home country awaiting a visa. We both desperately needed a distraction.
As we talked and read, John kept touching my arm flirtatiously. Once he playfully squeezed my knee. “You’re awfully forward,” I said, setting my magazine down and raising an eyebrow in mock admonition.
“I think you want me to be,” he said. “Do I make you nervous?”
“What? No! Of course not!” I said.
“You haven’t turned the page in 15 minutes,” he said. It was true. I had been reading the same sentence over and over again, my eyes zoning out on black ink while my brain indulged in less high-brow material than The New Yorker offered.
“So you’re a writer,” he continued. “You must be pretty clever then.” He caught my gaze and held it. “I’m pretty clever, too.” My cheeks flushed but I didn’t look away.
The first time Martyn and I had sex was in a grimy Peruvian hotel where Carly and I were staying. We’d been hanging out nonstop for three days and I’d been trying to get him into bed that entire time. I’d never had a guy refuse my advances but Martyn politely did.
“I like you,” he’d said. “But I’m moving to London. If I sleep with you I’ll like you even more and I’ll still be moving to London.” A day later he solved the dilemma by asking me to come to England with him. “Yes, yes, yes,” I said, peeling off his ugly alpaca sweater.
On the plane I tried but could not fall asleep next to John. I was too wired from talking and flirting. In the midst of all the crying these last months, I’d forgotten that some fun might actually be waiting for me on the other side of my sadness. I tucked myself up, knees to chest. John offered his shoulder and I settled into him, my racing heart eventually slowing down as I dozed off.
Martyn and I went from a weeklong romance in South America to declarations of love and me moving to England. Because we were from different countries and neither of us could work where the other was living, we spent a lot of our time on planes. The whole first part of our relationship felt like an extended vacation. We were great travelers together: calm, open-minded, and endlessly curious. It was only after getting settled on the ground that we found ourselves in trouble.
We probably married too quickly. Martyn needed an American work visa because we had run out of money and patience for hopping back and forth between countries. Despite knowing each other for several years, we’d only spent around six months in the same physical location before getting hitched. Only after we’d said our vows did we realize how different our ideas were about relationships and kids and money—and that was just for a start.
When we landed in Sydney, two airport signs pointed John and me in different directions. I was headed for customs and he was catching a plane to Auckland. He pulled me into his arms and I stayed there for what felt like a very long time.
“Can I…?” he said.
“It was really, really lovely meeting you,” I cut in.
Was he going to ask for my email? My last name? To kiss me? I ran off before finding out. Despite its ultimately PG rating, the 15 hours John and I spent together had been intense and intimate. I knew I wasn’t ready for anything more just yet. I needed to be on my own these next six weeks and possibly for a long while after that.
A part of me wonders what would have happened if I had walked away from Martyn like I did from John. What if we had chalked up our international romance to a wonderful fling, the kind of encounter one reflects fondly upon later in life with a wistful smile? Still, I’m not sorry I took the leap because I know for certain that I would have regretted it if I hadn’t. We took a risk and we failed, but there was plenty of joy on the way down.
I know John wasn’t my next great love, just a flirty pick-me-up possibly sent by sympathetic airplane gods who couldn’t deliver an empty seat. Yet I know, too, how easily a chance encounter can become a life together. But getting divorced has made me stop treating love like it exists in limited supply, and at 32 I’m willing to do something I never could in my impatient twenties when I was determined to experience everything life had to offer all at once: I’m willing to wait.
Photo via sergeyalifanov/flickr.
Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure. She’s written for The New York Times, BUST, and Bitch, among others. She’s a contributor to The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals and The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 9.