Flying Solo

I boarded the plane and settled into 26A, a window seat next to an empty one. And that’s the first time I felt it in my gut—the uncoupling—even more pronounced than at 4:00 that morning when I reached across the queen-sized bed and was startled at the vacancy. But as I sat there preparing for my flight, the empty seat seemed right somehow, not only an apt metaphor, but a chance to practice being alone. Which is why I was doubly surprised when, just before the doors shut, 26B arrived in a jumbled rush.

I rearranged myself to make space, feigning interest in the activity outside the window when, really, I felt poked by a sharp sense of him. The fine grain leather briefcase that he stuffed into the overhead. The breadth of his shoulders as he leaned back and exhaled the stress of almost missing our flight.

When I glanced over, we exchanged the quick half-smile of seatmate strangers. His familiar eyes and good teeth projected American. I turned away and pressed my forehead to the glass, trying on takeoff to ignore him and orient myself with the Alzette River and the Grand Place in Luxembourg Center. I searched for my apartment on rue Blochausen, as if futilely looking for a single puzzle piece amongst thousands. But before I could find it, the airplane nosed higher until the city lines rearranged themselves into a distant mosaic.

I turned back to Mr. 26B with renewed interest, a twinge of longing. I hadn’t been single in five years, and the feeling was as thrilling as a new country in which every tiny thing seems exotic. I was even fascinated by his fingers on the peanuts when he plucked the foil package from his tray table and gave it two crinkly snaps. Without turning my head, my eyes slid to the right when the honey-roasted nuts spilled like game pieces onto his cocktail napkin. He gathered them into a mound and began popping them in his mouth. When the airhostess served him his beer, he reached for it with his left hand. No wedding band.

I curled my own fingers—also ring free—around the small bottle of white wine I had bought for five dollars. I seldom drank on airplanes, but in that moment I craved that heady buzz of escape, and a deep sleep after years of restless worry over where I belonged. I filled my plastic cup and sipped, letting the roar of the engine enclose me, showing me how my life in this moment was utterly different from even an hour ago when I still lived in Europe, with him. I stared through the tiny square window at the brightness, a relentless blue and recalled the last drink I’d had: cognac in one of the brandy glasses bought five years ago to mark our engagement. We were going to drink from them on our wedding day.

I shut my eyes, before springing them open them again and looking down fast, as if I could hold onto something slipping out of my grasp. But the ground I wanted was a distant blur, nearly gone.

26B sipped his beer and opened his English newspaper. I tried to distract myself with the in-flight magazine, but every gesture was magnified by our proximity; I could almost feel the coolness of his Tank watch glinting beneath a starched white cuff. Instead I pretended to read about the sculpture gardens of Montreal and Duty Free offerings, resisting the urge to flirt, to flex my freedom in that moment of detachment from so many years of uncertainty and waking each day wondering if I would finally have the courage to leave. One reckless night the week prior, my body had made the decision for me. When my fiancé caught me in an act of infidelity, the end came as a relief.       

I tucked the magazine back into the pocket and folded my hands in my lap in a what now? gesture. Side-by-side strangers in such an intimate space. I expected it to stay that way for the duration of the flight, but then he surprised me.           

“Coming or going?” he asked. He was indeed American, with that refreshing easiness that I had so missed, along with American junk food and good bagels.

“Going,” I said, “I guess.” I smiled at him. Nice cheekbones. I figured early thirties to my twenty-nine.

“Were you here on business, or—?”

I paused. “More or,” I said, realizing that this was my chance to say it out loud for the first time. Tomorrow I’d be explaining it to friends I hadn’t seen in a year, so why not practice over the roar of a jet engine. “I just left my fiancée and am moving back to the States.” 

He nodded and raised his eyebrows. “Wow. That’s a big deal.”

“It is,” I said. “What about you?”

“Just here on business. Nothing as exciting as your story.” His voice invited me into a longer conversation, and almost any other day I would have eagerly gone. But that day I didn’t. Mr. 26B seemed too grounded somehow. Maybe it was the heavy watch weighing him down.

So instead of saying anything else, I turned to the window again. The sky was starting to blacken into night as we barrelled through the air, thousands of feet above the ground. I hadn’t felt this exhilarated in years. More than I wanted to flirt with a businessman on a plane, I wanted to savor that sense of my first solo flight, my own reckoning with that vague space between the life I’d left and the complete unknown.



Sandra A. Miller’s memoir Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure is available from Amazon,, and Brown Paper Press. Her essays and articles have appeared in more than one hundred publications.                                                                                                                                              

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