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L.A. Affairs: A romance that began on a plane didn’t survive the landing

Illustration to go with Natalie B. Compton’s L.A. Affairs column.
 
(Veronica Grech / For The Times)

It would have been the worst excuse of all time: “I’m sorry I missed my flight, I was eating pizza.” There would be angry people I’d owe lots of money to for such a mistake, not to mention the shame. Travel writers are not supposed to miss flights.

I’d kept pushing the time I’d call for my Uber to LAX so I could stay at my family’s pizza night a little longer. My brother-in-law was on top of his pizza game, making his famous New York-Neapolitan pies in the backyard. The sun was setting over Silver Lake. I was lingering for one more slice and to finish my glass of Sicilian red.

Way behind schedule, I tumbled out curbside at Tom Bradley International Terminal and barreled toward the Latam check-in desk.

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Flight 601 for Lima, Peru, was boarding. I had a middle seat, next to a man with dark hair who turned out to be friendly and funny, and a little neurotic. Conversation came naturally. The plane took off and I learned he was a 30-year-old cinematographer/cameraman based in Los Angeles and traveled as much as I did. We were both on our way to South America for work; he to film something for Netflix in Buenos Aires, me to write about Inca trails in Peru. The more we talked, the more we seemed to have in common.

I flew 100 flights in 2018, and this was the only time I’d ever wanted to continue a conversation with a stranger beyond a head nod or “hello.”

The cabin lights dimmed and passengers all around us began to sleep according to red-eye routine. We kept talking, about travel, about Los Angeles, about food. He was almost aggressively honest, seeming to say whatever popped into his head. We’d blown through small talk and were on to heavier things, fantasies, goals.

It felt like a date, albeit a weird one, spent mostly facing forward staring at the seat back in front of me. I’d occasionally turn to my pseudo-date either to make eye contact or examine his profile. He looked very different at different angles in the blue-tinted darkness. I was 70% sure I was attracted to him.

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Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean near Central America, he took the flimsy plane blanket and draped it over his lap. He pulled some over my legs. “We can share,” he said. I felt my knee melt into his knee. He grabbed my hand like it was part of a routine and held it. It was bizarre and exciting. Two frequent fliers faking intimacy at 30,000 feet.

He leaned on my shoulder, and I rested my head onto his. I napped fitfully, too riled up to actually rest. Before long we were landing.

We reached the point where we’d part ways for baggage claim and connecting flights. Under the unforgiving fluorescent lights, we stood across from each other and mentioned meeting back in L.A.

Between our schedules, I knew the odds of us actually seeing each other again were good but not great. I’ve lost count of how many well-meaning plans I’ve made to reconvene with men I’ve met abroad. Logistics get in the way. Time passes and absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder. He took my phone and added his number. We embraced and then continued on our way.

Our flight hadn’t been long enough to foster the kind of relationship sustained by text message. But we tried, trading restaurant recommendations and condensed accounts of travel encounters. And then the stars aligned and we were both back in Los Angeles, and we finally made a plan to meet again.

When his car rolled up in front of my house, I felt like I was in high school again — although I never dated strangers I met on airplanes in high school. It seemed so formal to have a man pick me up at home, so much more official than the painstakingly casual dates I’ve arranged by apps like Tinder or Bumble.

My plane mate turned out to be much more handsome than I’d remembered. In the car, the awkwardness of the situation was palpable, but the banter came back easily as he drove us to the Arts District to his favorite sandwich place.

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We ate at a picnic table under an umbrella on the patio, talking about work, travel and traveling for work. His favorite ice cream was a convenient walk nearby, so we got scoops. It was a classic day date, albeit one where every once in a while he said something off the wall that made me rethink our compatibility. After a few languid hours eating, talking and eating again, we drove back home to Silver Lake. More like a high school date, it ended with an intense make-out session. I went back into the house feeling confused and ecstatic. Fantasies of a future together played out in my head.

The next date wouldn’t come for a long time. I went out of town for an eternity, then he was buried in work. Months and months went by without much contact. Then we were both back in town, and he asked if I wanted to go to a museum. I did.

When I walked up to the Museum of Contemporary Art ticket window to greet him on a sunny afternoon, I felt a distinct shift in our chemistry as soon as we hugged. It was platonic. The rest of the date felt flat. His jokes didn’t land, neither did mine. It felt over.

Still, we texted. And on one uneventful night at home, a few days after he’d sent his last text, something compelled me to ask him to dinner. He said yes, and we met in the Arts District yet again. Maybe we only work on planes and the Arts District, but the spark was back. I told him how I felt after the last date, how I’d gotten a completely different feeling from him and figured that was the last time we’d see each other. He said he’d been in a dark place, and in hindsight that made sense. The warmth between us came back, and it was a joy to connect again.

I didn’t start replaying the fantasy of a future.

I started to appreciate this weird thing for what it was.

Just two people who rarely have time to see each other, who aren’t quite right for each other, who enjoy each other’s company every once in a blue moon. We ate scallops and drank wine and had a great time. In his jarringly honest way, he asked to kiss me at the table. We didn’t then, but we did after dinner when he walked me back to my car.

In a few days, I’d be leaving for a three-week trip in Nepal. While I was on my way home to California, he’d be leaving for a three-week trip in Nepal.

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The author is a travel journalist. She is on social media @natbco.

Straight, gay, bisexual, transgender or nonbinary: L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for love in and around Los Angeles — and we want to hear your story. You must allow your name to be published and the story you tell has to be true. We pay $300 for each essay we publish. Email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com.

MORE L.A. LOVE STORIES …

I’m black. He’s white. Here’s what happened

I went on a bunch of blind dates with total losers

I was sleeping alone in a stranger’s bed — and falling for him

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