In the gay community, we take care of our own. We do it in big, political ways—on picket lines, in legislative chambers, and at lavish fundraisers. But sometimes smaller, more personal acts leave a large impact too. Especially when they happen somewhere unexpected: like the inside of an airplane, flying high through the clouds.
Earlier this week I was returning from a Memorial Day mini-vacation. My boyfriend and I had spent a few days in the Florida Keys. It was my first trip there, and I loved it. Something about the place reminded me of the mid-Cape in the 1980s—before it started getting overbuilt and clam shacks were torn down to make room for CVS-anchored shopping plazas. Plus there were a lot of jovial grownups wearing turquoise jewelry and drinking tiki drinks, souvenir shops filled with (un-ironic) neon t-shirts, and stringy-haired bar musicians playing hair band ballads. The air was thick with childhood.
On the flight back, we took our seats in the “emergency exit row,” the one where you get extra legroom if you solemnly nod assent to help evacuate the plane in case of calamity, as if we wouldn’t all be dead on impact to begin with and Oh my God why do I let myself fly in these tin cans anyway? I took note of one of the flight attendants that breezed by. He was a handsome 40-something (or well-preserved 50-something?) who looked like an actor I couldn’t quite place. He was also gay, which I knew because he was a handsome, well-preserved 40- or 50-something flight attendant who looked like an actor. Follow along.
At takeoff, Mr. Flight Attendant Extra From Law & Order took his seat in the little crew member-chair that unfolds like a card table from the cargo hold of peanuts. So now he’s facing us, me and my boyfriend, and there’s that awkwardness you experience sometimes in elevators or especially small dentist waiting rooms, when you start to gauge whether half-smiles suffice or pleasant conversation is required.
Mr. Flight Attendant Guy From NCIS decided it would be the latter. “Where’d you get those tans from?” he asked us with a smile. It was something to that effect, anyway. I was still busy looking at that little triangle where his eyes, nose, and cheekbone meet, and rifling through a mental Rolodex of IMDB.com photos.
We were in the Keys, we responded. His eyes lit up; he knew them well, and had even lived there for a while. I learned that much before it was time for him to unbuckle and get back to work.
It was a turbulent flight. Things got bumpy, and the cabin shimmied like it was a shoebox riding on a washing machine. So at a couple points, the pilot called for flight attendants to take their seats. Each time, Mr. Flight Attendant Dude Who Might Have Been a Waiter in a Julia Roberts Movie sat down across from us. Each time, we chatted a little more immediately and for a little bit longer.
I learned little things, like the name of a favorite brunch spot in Key West. I noticed small stuff, like the wedding band on his finger. I pieced them together and filled in the gaps with creative license. I constructed a profile of a really nice, cool guy. A nice, cool guy I wouldn’t have met if he hadn’t taken a shining to us because – well, I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because he deals with a lot of assholes and we seemed like friendly faces. Maybe because he deals with a lot of different people and it was nice to recognize that we had something in common. Maybe because he gets tired of taking care of people all day, and our tans and relaxed faces and linked fingers reminded him of a trip he once took with someone special.
It was a late flight, and toward the end the lights dimmed so people could doze. I resisted the urge to be the jerk that uses the overhead spotlight to read a hardcover. The Flight Attendant Whose Name I Now Knew stopped by our seats. “Would you like a glass of wine?” he asked. We solemnly nodded our assent to serve and protect the integrity of the emergency exit armed with Chardonnay.
He brought over two glasses of wine, giving my boyfriend and me a chance to toast our trip. He breezed by a bit later, wordlessly splashing our glasses back to the top.
Another flight attendant, an older woman, smirked in our direction as she passed by. “You must know someone,” she whispered.
I don’t know him, I thought to myself. But I do.
Finally, before the flight landed, he came by one last time. “Something for tomorrow,” he said, passing me a lump wrapped in a small, gray plastic bag. I felt it, peered inside. It was an unopened bottle of wine. Red, this time, which for some reason made the gesture seem even sweeter. (Open this one together, boys.) I smiled and mouthed “thank you.” My boyfriend was sleeping, so I hid our perfect present between his slumped arm and my hip.
As we stepped off the plane, we said our goodbyes. They were quicker than I might have liked: no time for swan songs when Jane America is trying to shove by you with her Kate Spade carry-on. Plus, there’s only so much to say. These are the situations I wish they had Hallmark cards for. You could buy them in advance and pass them out as needed. The front would say something like, “You’re a really nice person and I hope it’s not weird to say I’ve enjoyed this cursory instance of getting to know you.” (Inside: “I would invite an act of God or coincidence that would allow us to meet again, but since that’s unlikely just know I’m thinking it and you are a sincerely liked human.”)
On the way through the airport terminal, heading toward our baggage claim, another passenger made a casual comment about whether we enjoyed our flight. “Saw you got some wine,” he remarked, almost impressed. “Figured you must have been bumped from first-class!”
Oh, you’re not far off, sir. In fact, there are a lot of places in this country where my boyfriend and I are firmly regarded as second-class citizens. In many places on Earth, we’d be lucky to rank even that high up.
But up in the sky, things became a little different. And there, like everywhere, we’ll find a way to take care of our own. We always find a way.