A Chance Encounter Can Change Everything. If You Let It.
I first saw her in the security line at O’Hare. We were shuffling through the shoeless gauntlet of hectic humiliation, and we shared a giggle over the general awkwardness. I noticed her again when she asked my business colleagues where they’d bought the beers they were holding. The third time I saw her, I was actively avoiding all eye contact, settling into my window seat, anxious to exit the realm of social interaction via a long-craved podcast binge.
(You’ve been there, right?)
My fully drained introvert battery was in serious need of recharge after a long day of business meetings. The last thing I wanted was an airplane conversation with a stranger. But there she was, dropping into the seat next to me.
Three encounters in one huge airport was just too many to not acknowledge, but I was still hoping for at least an hour of staring blankly out the window, so I kept my shoulders turned slightly away as I looked up and smiled. “Well, hello again!” We both laughed at our chain of chance meetings.
“Did you find the beer?”
“I did,” she said.
There was something about her. She seemed both gentle and strong. Her smile was quick and easy. She had the look of a friend. Slowly, I felt my shoulders turning a bit further. This time, toward her.
An hour and a half later, we were still talking, the plane was landing, I hadn’t looked out my window once, and we both had tearstains on our cheeks. I now knew more about her—and she me—than many people I’ve known for years. Maybe it was our shared, shoeless vulnerability in the security line earlier. Maybe it was the cushion of white noise that enveloped our seats in the very back of the plane. Maybe our souls were vibrating on the same wavelength.
Whatever it was, a connection had happened. And it was both comfortable and inspiring.
We started with the basics. Where are you headed? What do you do? But as our plane soared over Wisconsin’s farms and meadows, she heard about my kids. She heard about the mixed feelings I’m holding as I careen toward an empty nest and my 50th birthday, both one year away. I shared my pride in being a single mom, and my longing for a companion. She heard the details of more than one heartbreak. And I learned she’d buried the love of her life several years before. Not metaphorically. For real. The man she adored, who treated her like a queen, had died. I saw the pain well up in her eyes as she spoke the words. It was immense. It felt sacred that she would share something so tender and tragic with me. I learned that she’d grieved and moved forward, as best she could. It had been hard. She had eventually tried dating again, but nothing came close to what she’d had.
Then I learned that ours was not her first, or most moving, airport encounter.
In fact, the very reason she was on this plane with me was because of another chance encounter in the airport security line, a year or so earlier. On that day she’d been traveling to a Colorado vacation—just hours after deciding she was done with dating. It wasn’t working. It would never compare. She would simply focus on herself and live her life, grateful to be alive. She’d called a dear friend to say it aloud. She felt at peace. She went to bed and got up early for her flight to Denver. But as she entered the winding security queue, she bumped eyes with a man. They looped around and it happened again. And again. When she finally had her shoes back on and exited the security area, there he was. Waiting for her. He had to meet the girl with the shining blue eyes.
Somehow (ironically? miraculously?), these two airport strangers were booked on the same flight to Denver. They switched seats to be next to each other, and I imagine there were similarities to my own experience in that moment. They talked the whole way. They felt impossibly close for having just met.
But wait. It gets better.
This flight to Minneapolis—the one she and I were sharing—was the first leg of her journey to spend the summer with this airplane man. Her airplane man. They’d been dating long-distance since the day they met in the airport, and now it was time to see if their relationship could thrive without any airports between them. As a teacher, she had three free months to do so.
“What I love most about him,” she said, “is his compassion,” her eyes welling up again.
He was a good man, and in a few hours, she’d be with him. She was excited. But she was also afraid. (Thus, the earlier beer.)
I understood. I think she knew I did.
We both knew the pain of losing love, so we both knew the risk of loving again. There was magic in her story, yes. But this was no rom-com. The stakes were real. I felt a kinship with this brave woman who was hurtling through the air to stare her fears in the face because she knew that was the only way she could also look into the face of the man she loved. I didn’t have a magical airport man (yet?), but I was doing my best to move through life—and airports—willing to look possibilities in the eye. Ready to engage. Aware of the risks, but moving toward love. My airport friend was living a few chapters ahead of me, but she allowed me a glimpse into how it can look to take a broken heart into the very riskiest places—with courage and vulnerability. She may never know how much that encouraged me.
As we parted ways that evening, I knew for certain her story would be beautiful, with or without the magical airport man. Because no matter how her summer went, she had gotten herself on that plane. Fear had not won.
And that was pure magic.
Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and well-intentioned mom who has almost never remembered to send lunch money to school. She’s perpetually the chilliest person living in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at shortsandlongs.net.