This is her second trip to Kiev, with its challenge of teaching computer programming through translators. She sits in seat 16G of the Boeing 767, the window, and pulls out a Jodi Picoult novel she picked up in the airport. Passengers file by and she gets her hopes up that the seat next to her might be empty, give her room to stretch out. But then a decent looking man, forty-fiveish, nods at her, puts his carry-on in the overhead and sits in 16F. She discreetly eyes his spread, as she calls it; she hates passengers who ooze onto her side of the arm rest. He is thinnish and self-contained. She is relieved.
Three hours into the red-eye, most of the cabin lights are out, passengers asleep. 16F reaches up to turn off his light, pulls the blanket up to his neck, leans his head back, closes his eyes. She has trouble sleeping on night flights and has developed a routine. She asks the flight attendant for some herbal tea, sips the tea to empty, quietly crushes the cup and slips it into the magazine sleeve. 16F is breathing deeply, slowly–how do people fall asleep so quickly? Now she places her two right fingers over the crease in her left wrist– the Spirit Gate of acupuncture, the path to sleep, according to one of her Chinese friends– and applies pressure.
About an hour later—it could have been longer, or shorter—she wakes up, feeling a weight on her left shoulder. It’s the head of 16F, sound asleep. She surveys the invisible vertical shield between their seats—yes, he is definitely on her side. She feels invaded, almost repulsed. Excuse me, she starts to say, and her shoulder tenses as if preparing to toss him off.
At thirty-six she has never had a man fall asleep with his head on her shoulder. She has never been touched before. Not like that. Not by a man. Or a woman. It’s not that she’s untouchable, no one specific thing has taken her out of contention. A bit stocky, though not a candidate for Weight Watchers, with a friendly smile that would benefit from braces. Unpocked skin discretely made up. She dresses decently, not the epitome of style, but thoughtfully and professionally. Plain, is what her mother had called her. Has a good job that takes her traveling. Is a voracious reader. Has friends, mostly women, all of whom she knows have slept with someone, will sleep with someone. Friends who never talk about their sex lives when she is around. She accepts her life without sex, you can’t always get what you want. People learn to live with the cards that are dealt them—limited intelligence, or a suicide in the family, or dreams after a war. Not that she feels like a survivor of something; she just knows that no one will want to sleep with her. Work, friends, books, travel: it could be worse. And it’s hard to miss what you have never had, so unknown.
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His head seems so light. It reminds her of her one-year-old niece, who she baby-sits and rocks to sleep, head tucked in the nape of her neck. She prepares to reach over and tap him on his arm, excuse me, but you fell asleep. This man’s head on her shoulder, so light, breathing quietly in the dark cabin. Her breath falls in step with his. So. This is what it’s like. Not yet, no need to wake him, no hurry to do that. She closes her eyes and lets her head lay back on the seat, feels the lightness of his head. She has an urge to touch his face, just brush it with the back of her hand; but no. She closes her eyes, tries to sleep, but is unable to. Slowly, her head fills with images: of her hand going under his blanket, finding the V in his legs, un-zipping in the dark, his hand finding her. She holds her breath, trying to feel that, and realizes that this is beyond her imagination. But this head sinking into her shoulder now, this is real. She inhales, seeking an odor, something more of him. Yes, some kind of aftershave, maybe a little musk gathered since his shower this morning. She feels a slight dampness seeping through the upper sleeve of her blouse. So: sleeping men sometimes drool, like babies. She closes her eyes and sleeps. Every few minutes she awakes, the head still on her shoulder, the wonder of it; then falls back to sleep; then awakes. So light. The wonder of it.
Six a.m., the lights come on in the cabin, the captain announces they will be landing in forty-five minutes. 16F stirs, rubs his eyes, realizes he has been sleeping on her shoulder. I’m terribly sorry, he says, I hope I didn’t bother you, have I been on your shoulder a long time?
Not to worry, she says, not too long.
Did I snore?
No, no snoring.
Whew, he says, it could have been worse.
It was, she says.
Drooled? Oh no!
Just like a baby.
Like a baby? he says. He glances at her shoulder, takes a napkin and reaches over as if he is going to dry her sleeve. The flight attendant comes down the aisle, passing out hot towels and coffee. 16F holds the towel to his face, turns to her, I’m really sorry. She likes that his teeth are slightly crooked.
No, really, she says, it’s fine.
On the other side of the whirring carousel regurgitating luggage she sees him, waiting for his bags. He has collected one piece, there must be more. He picks up a small second bag, puts the strap over his shoulder. She wants him to look across the carousel, just nod. He looks at his watch, then turns and heads toward the ground transportation sign.
Her right hand reaches over and feels for the dampness on her sleeve.
Mark Lyons has lived in Philadelphia for the last forty years. His fiction has been published in numerous journals and was a part of the "Reading Aloud" series at Interact Theater. He also authored Espejos y Ventanas/Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories Of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Familes. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and awarded Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships in literature in 2003 and 2009. Currently, Mark is co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which works in the immigrant community and with high school students to teach them to create digital stories about their lives.