by Susie Hara
It's not that I'm afraid of flying. It's that I'm petrified.
There I was, on the red-eye, at one o'clock in the morning, with four more hours to go. Everyone was asleep except for me. Actually, the guy next to me was awake, but he was a dud.
I had done my best to follow the advice of Kicking the Fear Habit, a book I had mysteriously inherited from a former housemate or husband. The author had an entire chapter on fear of flying, his main theory being that you need only move your preoccupation with the plane crashing over to some new obsession, like food or sex. I had dutifully brought pralines, Brie, and chocolate-covered cherries, and was holding off on eating them, so I could obsess on them. I had also brought, according to instruction, a few erotic potboilers, which I was satisfied were femino-centric and sex-positive, as I had purchased them at Good Vibrations for the occasion. The only thing the author of the self-help book suggested that I hadn't done was flirt outrageously with anything that moves, because no one on the plane was moving, they were either asleep or just too square to contemplate.
At exactly one o'clock in the morning, the plane started dipping and jerking, as any aircraft seems destined to do whenever I force myself to fly. "OK, Belle Green's on board, it's time to freak her out," the phobia gods say, rubbing their hands with glee. I felt the familiar spider-fingers of panic in my gut. My breath was coming in short supply, I was sweating, and my heart was going boom-boom-boom. I reached in my bag and grabbed the first book I touched. Andrea at the Center had a scantily clothed, nubile looking woman on the cover, her wetly glossed lips parted. I started reading, desperately trying to ignore my rising feelings of dread. Andrea was kidnapped on the first page, and taken to a kind of high-class sexual prison/paradise/retreat center whose sole purpose was to pamper and enslave the abductees with every sort of experience imaginable.
My neighbor put his Newsweek down, looked out the window, and then looked at me for the first time. I had already pegged him as your typical, conservative, boring, all-American businessman guy. He could have been attractive if he wasn't so buttoned-down. He took a small tin out of his pocket, opened it up, and offered it to me. The inside was covered in black satin, and the round white mints seemed to glitter on their dark bed. "Care for some harbor lights?" he said, or at least I thought that was what he said.
"Thank you," I said, and took a couple. "What did you call these? I didn't quite catch that."
"Harbor Lights," he said. "I like to call them that because of the way they glitter on the black background. They remind me of the harbor lights in Beirut."
"You've...lived in Beirut?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "I grew up there." And then he smiled.
"Oh," I said. So much for reducing my fellow human being to a stereotype. As I brought the candies to my mouth, they sparkled and caught the light. The plane lurched. I remembered the advice of the self-help book. I sucked on the Harbor Lights and looked deep into my neighbor's eyes. Even in the dim light, I could see his eyes were the unfathomable green of a rainforest.
"My name is Kurt," he said.
"I'm Belle," I said, still with the lockdown eye contact. Maybe just this one time I could break my No Republicans rule. "What do you do?" I asked.
"I'm a developer."
"What kind of a developer?"
"Oh, uh-huh," I said.
"What about you?"
"I'm...I'm a therapist," I lied. If I told him the truth, I'd be stuck having to talk about real property for the next four hours, with no hope of rerouting my phobic obsession to something more tantalizing. What is the truth? OK, I'm a real estate agent.
"Right...I'm afraid of flying," I blurted out.
"I gathered," he said. "Look, I've got just the thing to take your mind off it."
"Yes?" I said hopefully.
"Cards," he said, taking out a pack of playing cards from his pocket and opening our respective fold-down trays. "Are you game?"
"I'm game," I said.
He took my book, which I had let fall to my lap, and put it underneath the seat in front of me. "You won't be needing that for now," he said. He put the cards face down, into two equal piles. "This is my favorite game," he said. "It's called Every Little Kiss."
"Sounds like a song from a 1940s musical," I said.
"Are you nervous?" he asked. As he looked up from the cards, I saw that his eyes had turned steel-gray.
"No. I mean, yes."
"Good. Here's how it works. It's just like Slapjack -- you know Slapjack?"
"I remember it," I said.
"It's just like that, but instead of slapping the card, you have to kiss yourself before the other person kisses himself...or herself."
"Kiss...your...self?" I said. This guy was full of surprises.
"Yes, that's right," he said. His eyes gleamed, or at least, I thought they did. The plane lurched again, but this time I didn't care; I wanted to see what was going to happen with this game. Kurt was looking better by the minute. His closely cropped black hair was threaded with silver, and it glittered like a jewel box in the night. His hands, deftly shuffling the cards, looked like he would know how and where to use them if called to action.
We started playing. When I saw the jack, I lifted my hand toward my mouth to kiss it, but before I could get there, he grabbed both my hands and held them by the wrists. "I forgot to tell you," he said, "No hands," and then he tilted his head to the side, lifted his shoulder, and kissed it!
"No fair!" I said. "You didn't tell me all the rules."
"Life isn't fair," he said, and gathered all the cards together into one stack.
"Aren't we going to keep playing?" I asked.
"Of course. But since you lost the first round, I get to do whatever I want to you. If and when I lose, you get to do whatever you want to me," he said, smiling.
This was some cockamamie card game. All of a sudden I realized something. The absence of something. I looked across Kurt and out the window into the darkness and I felt no fear! None! I was completely calm.
I looked into Kurt's eyes, which were now, somehow, blue, and said, in the huskiest, come-and-get-me-no-holds-barred voice I could muster, "And what is it that you're going to do to me?"
He slipped his hand under my skirt as slow as could be, and moved it up my thigh. He rested his hand at the top of my thigh and traced his finger along the edge of my panties. "What am I going to do to you? I'm going to make you play cards...all night long."
I held my breath. Was he going to slip a finger under? We were both still for an eternity. He withdrew his hand. "Your turn," he said.
I let out my breath. I put the cards into two even stacks. We turned the cards over slowly at first, but as the game progressed we flipped them faster and faster. There it was, a Jack, and quick as could be, I kissed myself on the shoulder. He went for his shoulder, but too late.
"Aha!" I said. "Now."
"Uh-oh," he said. "Please don't hurt me."
The plane took a dip, and started shimmying. I unbuckled my seatbelt and maneuvered myself onto Kurt's lap, sitting astride him in the cramped space. I put my hands over his eyes. The light came on overhead and we heard the flight attendant's voice over the system, "We are encountering some turbulence. The captain has advised that you keep your seatbelts fastened."
"What are you going to do?" Kurt asked.
I grinned. "I'm going to make you play cards...all night long."