The third time my carry-on suitcase doesn’t quite make it over the lip of the overhead luggage compartment and slams down on my head, I blink back tears. I have already been en route 14 hours, rising at dawn on the east coast to make a flight to LAX, where I’ve waited out a seven- hour layover before boarding this flight, which will be another 13 hours to Auckland. I no longer have the strength to hoist the bag over my head and am quickly losing my grip on not being a crazy person, the kind who sees no reason to put her shoes back on after clearing Security, or once, and I actually did this, hisses, “Get out of my way,” at a woman changing direction innocently but abruptly in front of me on a crowded concourse.
Passengers already seated watch me struggle with placid disinterest. I’m getting hot and the line behind me is beginning to bulge when a handsome bald man in Ray-Bans lifts the suitcase as if it weighs nothing and deftly tucks it in the bin. “I was going to cry,” I tell him, but what I mean is, “Will you marry me?”
“I could tell,” he says, and he’s gone.
People you meet while traveling are assigned to you by fate, like neighbors, but travel is a transient neighborhood which makes for fast alliances, quick disclosures. And like neighbors, those sharing your journey are willing to help not because of any chemistry or history, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Like the time I flew to Bermuda because my midshipman fiancé was crewing on a Swan 44 in the Newport- Bermuda Race. Unfortunately I landed while the fleet was still 100 miles offshore and the guesthouse where I’d be staying didn’t acknowledge my reservation. I was young. I’d paid with cash at a shaky travel agency in Norfolk. There were no vacancies anywhere.
A clerk put me in a taxi and sent it to his “friend’s” house. The friend was Rocky Thompson—a tall, inexplicably generous Bermudian– and Number 22 Running Back for the New York Giants. Rocky owned a beautiful cliff-side home he often made available to team members. I explained my predicament as the taxi idled and Rocky said I was welcomed to stay at his house—no need to compensate him. He’d stay with his girlfriend in town. Looking back, I am stunned by the magnitude of this man’s generosity. I remember being grateful, but was I grateful enough?
My fiance’s yacht, Shadow, crossed the finish later that afternoon. We celebrated on the grassy lawn of the Royal Bermudian Yacht Club where tan yachtsmen wore shorts and knee socks, bejeweled women wore floral dresses the color of coral and the sea at noon. We spent a week in a beautiful residence where 122 wooden steps led down to a private beach.
I’ve been told the universe always offers assistance in times of change (which I interpret as stress,) and travel would certainly qualify. I never saw the compassionate clerk, Rocky Thompson, or the kind man in Ray-Bans again and I’m haunted by the sense I didn’t thank them. Surely I did; instinctively, wholeheartedly, but I wonder. We were so young. We were still learning how to be good citizens of the world. Fortunately, we met three people who showed us how.
Write about a time you or a character took a trip–anywhere. To the grocery store, the dentist, California, Manhattan. Write about one small exchange between you or your character and someone else that helps that person get where they are meant to go. Make the destination both concrete and metaphorical.
(This essay first appeared in Annapolis Lifestyle magazine.)