From time to time, life hands you just what you need. The cousin who’s just around the corner. The good friend who offers you a place to stay. The sweet friend who stays with you. The old friend who’s there just when you need her. The new friend who needs a friend, too. The best friend who says it all without a word. The stranger who knows just what to say.
* * * *
I’m in my fifth line of the evening as I wait to board the 7:14 to JFK. This week has been hell. I am sleep deprived, stressed out, my feet hurt, my neck is killing me, and my shoulders bear the weight of nine and a half years worth of heartbreak. I am not who I was a week ago, but I am more myself than I’ve been in a long time.
That’s when I smell…him.
Glancing over my shoulder, I note the bearded dude who moments earlier insisted that I step in front of him in line because, “We’re all going to the same place” and he didn’t have any bags to stow, anyway.
The smell. Motor oil and musk tinged with beer and B.O. I flip my judgement switch and toss my hair like I do when I’m on guard.
I sit. I watch. I cringe as Jeff Bridges sits down next to me.
Because it’s not Jeff Bridges. It’s the bearded dude who I soon rename hairy dude – as his sweaty, bristly arm brushes against mine. Who needs armrests, anyway.
He’s about 6’4″, big, and drunk. Armpit hair protrudes from his cut off t-shirt and a number of indecipherable tattoos cover his leathery arms.
“Glad I let you go in front of me!” he chuckles as I scoot closer to the window.
“Gah…so you from New York?”
“Uh. Jersey, actually. But I live in Charlotte.”
“Ah. Gotcha. I’m from Upstate.”
“Live in Gastonia, though.”
Ok, that’s funny. I giggle. “Whattt?? It’s not so bad.”
“Nah. It’s not that bad,” he laughs.
Silence. I breathe – through my mouth to avoid the smell – finally an escape from the stress of the past week. I watch as my worries turn to specks outside our window.
“I love Jet Blue. Lots of legroom,” I say.
But the dude doesn’t respond immediately. His jaw is clenched; his paws dig into the armrests.
“Mhmmmm…yeah. I usually ride my bike up when I go home but it’s uh it’s a 10 1/2 hour ride and I’m only going for the weekend and uh…I have to transfer in JFK. Transfer in JFK and then to Buffalo. My buddy’s gonna pick me up and we’ve got like an hour drive and then we’re hitting the bar, man. My favorite place in town and…” he pauses as the plane takes a slight dip.
“Mm…yeah. I don’t fly often,” he smiles. “You’re right, though. Lots of legroom.”
“You’re a tall girl.”
“Yeah. Five foot ten.”
“Nice!” he says in a tone that’s more congratulatory than creepy. “So, you meeting friends in New York?”
“My brother and his fiancé. I’m going to look at wedding dresses with her tomorrow. Should be really fun.”
“Nice! Your brother picking you up, then?”
“Nah. Gonna take the subway.”
“Nicccceee… You are braver than me, sister. You know, I lived in New York for most of my life and I have never been to the city. By choice – country life for me.”
“I mean…I live in freakin’ Gastonia.”
“Haha, yeah.” I smile. I feel better than I have in a week. He belches.
“Sorry,” he says in a tone that says, What did you expect.
The plain dips and he grasps my arm, just for a second.
“Sorry,” he says. And he means it.
“So, the subway?” he continues. “Damn…you are brave, girl.”
“Nah, I’ll be fine. Just gotta take the E train to the 6 train and then I think it’s just a quick walk to my brother’s place,” I puzzle. “Plus I’m a black belt. Anybody messes with me, I can take ’em.”
I stare out the window for a moment and then turn back to hairy dude, who’s shaking his head.
“Five foot ten AND a black belt? That’s scary. I mean – that is scary, sister.”
A few minutes go by and I grab my headphones. “I think it’s time for some TV.”
The dude abides.
I flip. I flip. I stop at that stupid movie – the one with McLovin’ or whatever his name was – and watch for just a moment. I notice that my new friend is watching Tosh.0 and flip again until I find that channel.
The next hour passes and “Jeff” and I laugh and laugh until we both have tears in our eyes. Sometimes there’s something calmingly familiar in that which seems so strange.
The second episode finishes and hairy dude turns to me. “Man. Love me some Tosh.”
“I know, right? I really needed a laugh this week.”
“Yeah, me too, man.” We smile. “Hey, nice talking to you, sister. You have a good time in the city. Enjoy the wedding stuff. Try on some pretty dresses while you’re at it.”
“Maybe I will,” I smile. “Nice talking to you, too. Enjoy your next flight.”
We land. I walk I walk I walk until the city envelops me.
The streets that know me by name. The stale air where, strangely, I can breathe. The crowds that see me and don’t see me. The streets and avenues and boulevards and alleys where I can vanish and where my problems and troubles ooze into the ambiance. The subways and byways and ways and days that pause my tears. New York, you are a beautiful kind of ugly. A familiar kind of strange.
The friend who knows me without knowing me. The countless blessings in the midst of heartbreak.