Much like a book or a movie begins with individual storylines which eventually draw together, so every experience I’ve shared has laid the invisible rails to bring you here: Russia.
What I’m about to share with you has waited a fair amount of time; not because it needed to gain flavor and depth by simmering, not to guard myself from the emotional barbs, but to protect those who entrusted me with their secrets.
These secrets were shared with me once upon a time, in a place suspended between heaven and earth when the world was asleep.
CHAPTER 1: Flying the Far East, Russia
It is in the most unexpected moments that new beginnings arise, often cloaked as chance encounters, daydreams or detours from the ordinary. The seeds lie undetected in slight variances of routine until a new rhythm develops, creating a space for it to become.
The warmth enveloped me. My body drifted, rising and falling with the swell of the tide.
Bliss. Except… that annoying sound, likely one of the catamarans headed out to sea on another voyage of tourist libations.
The horn continued, incessant.
I turned my head, intent on flipping them off. Asshole.
Instead, I’m greeted by something much, much worse than a drunk sea captain–
A flashing red alarm clock reads: 6:00pm.
“Noooooooooo….” literally the first words out of my mouth. It’s going to be a great night.
* * *
I’m flying my first all-nighter to Magadan on the east bank of Russia and it’s a full flight. The pillows are gone, the blankets have been nonexistent ever since we donated them to a third world country following a natural disaster.
You’d think people would buy that story with a warm smile and a spirit of altruism; instead, they grumble about expensive fares, cheap airlines and pop the overhead back open to ransack their belongings for a coat.
At least, I assume that’s what this man is grumbling about.
It’s an interesting mix of businessmen seeking riches from untapped resources, religious missionaries, dot com adventurers and Russian nationals who are either diplomats or former Russia KGB.
This man looks like the latter. He probably doesn’t speak English, easily bests me by 200 lbs. and has a permanent snarl that might be a harelip. I can’t tell under all that hair.
Would it help if I mention fare wars and on-time statistics negate the ability to wash and replace natty blankets between flights?
I do, then flash a winning smile. I’m met with a grunt.
Nailed it. He doesn’t speak English and if he does, not enough to care.
I’m closing the overhead bin when I hear, “That smile’s enough to keep me warm all night.”
I turn around and nearly trip backward.
He’s so close, it startled me.
Well, that and he’s handsome. Like get-tangled-up-in-my-own-feet-look-at-those-eyes-did-I-just-drop-a-suitcase handsome. In a rugged hasn’t slept for days kind of way. Which I find even more attractive, given I have a strange magnetic pull to male projects.
Maybe this magnetism will reverse itself as we fly closer to the north pole, which is never going to happen while I stare at this man like I forgot English is my native tongue.
“I’m sorry, I startled you.” He’s talking… What did he just say?
“Yes… No… I’m just surprised to hear someone speak English.” Gaah, I’m an idiot. Why did I say that?
And why the hell am I still so close to him?
I smiled and stepped back and aside, so he could pass. And I could breathe.
He winked and continued on, brushing by me with broad shoulders.
I don’t remember when I started breathing again. It wasn’t during the safety demo when he looked up and caught my eye. It was somewhere after take off I think, when I noticed he was asleep.
Homeostasis returned. Six hours to go.
Betty Lou Stew works main cabin with me. She’s not particularly thrilled to fly the Russia route as she’s done it enough times to know better.
We’ll run out of Vodka no matter how much extra is boarded and passengers will light up like they did in the 70s and still do on Aeroflot.
Even as we point to the No Smoking icon, the smokers shrug, “Я не понимаю.”
Which is exactly what I will do when they ask for more Vodka.
Service over, the cabin is dark save a few lights hanging on like stars in a city skyline. Everyone’s asleep.
Betty Lou has already lit out for the front to chat with first class attendant, Abagail Freshé. She’s an acquired taste for most attendants but she and Betty are classmates from the 80s. They’ve got at least a decade of seniority on me; even so, I get along with Abi just fine, probably because we each have a dark streak of humor that comes at the expense of others.
Both are married with children. Much as I enjoy their company, not enough to sit through a pound of family photos winging to Russia.
I pulled the curtain across the MD-80 galley and grabbed an ice bin out of one of the carts, then flipped a serving tray over the bin. Pulling my winter coat about me, I took a seat, adjusting it just enough so I could lean back against one row of carts and prop my feet up on the other.
Aside from the cold seeping up through the tray beneath me and the galley door next to me, it was pretty damn comfortable.
I cracked open Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. The reviews from its debut last year were stellar but it wasn’t the reviews that hooked me, it was the title.
It was 1995, the Cold War was over, the Wall had been down less than a decade and I was fresh from heartache, winging my way to the Russian Far East on an ice bucket. It struck me as a compelling life metaphor.
And I needed something compelling for the next four hours.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t be the book.
Before I even turned over Chapter 1, the curtain pulled back and a shadow fell across the page.
“Talk you out of a cup of coffee?”
It was him.