This piece was published in literary magazine Here and There.
When I was seventeen, I boarded a flight to New York and sat next to a man. It was the first time I’d traveled this far on my own, but I was excited, wearing my favorite miniskirt and actually doing my hair for the day.
I kept to myself, reading something by Hemingway I think, when the man spoke to me. I hadn't yet diluted the Kansan in me and thought it was perfectly normal to tell a stranger about yourself on a flight. So I explained why I was going to New York, I’m pretty sure I also mentioned that I’d just graduated high school. For the sake of all that’s polite, I reciprocated some questions. He’d been gone for a bachelor party and worked in some industry I had no interest in. I continued to read my book.
Something was wrong with our plane. In hindsight, perhaps I should have taken this as some sign of the universe to just shut up. But we deplaned and I found a seat in our new gate and called my parents. Then the man came back, giving me a water bottle he’d bought -- Smart Water, not one of the cheap ones like Dasani -- I thought it was, paternal, something my father or brother would do in a heartbeat. So I smiled and thanked him.
We re-boarded and for the duration of the flight, I politely answered questions, slept for an hour or two, and continued to read a book that I don’t remember. Then it happened. I understood for the first time, that there’s a certain age where men start to see your innocence as something to get under, something they can take from you and never give back.
As we de-boarded the plane, he asked me if I’d like to go to dinner with him while I was in the city and held out his phone, waiting for my phone number. My face was warm and I choked on my words. I’d never had a real boyfriend, let alone been asked out by a middle-aged man. I stumbled, trying to come up with something, anything. I finally told him that my manager was making my schedule for the week and I could give him her email if that helps. He felt my embarrassment and said it was okay. I laugh thinking of this now, because the whole thing kind of makes me sound like some super shy call girl. But in the moment, standing next to a man I’d just rejected, I felt scared, realizing that I had crossed the threshold from something the world tried to keep safe into something it wanted to conquer.