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Sweet, a seat! The gate was already packed, and we still had a few hours to kill before boarding. It was going to be a full flight. Loaded up with practically everything I owned, minus that which I’d already checked with my big backpack at the airline desk, I made my way through the mountain of bags and feet to sit down.
There was a man with a laptop sitting in the next seat. “Is this seat taken?” I asked, not wanting to steal his wife’s or traveling companion’s spot, in case he or she was in the bathroom. He turned to face me. Well, holy hell! The man was hot. Like crazy hot. I’m such a sucker for stubble and dimples. I felt my face get warm and quickly averted my eyes. But then realizing he hadn’t answered me yet, I had to look back and wait for a response. Why was he taking so long to answer me? Oh shit, did he not speak English? I just assumed everyone speaks English, but they don’t. Especially not in this part of the world, anyway.
He smiled, and I nearly swallowed my tongue. “Uh…no…go ahead.”
“Thanks,” I sighed, dropping my backpack and then my camera bag and purse, letting out a big and breathy huff as I flopped my butt into the seat.
I thought for sure he was going to try and chat with me, hoped he would actually. But instead, he let his eyes slowly slide back to the screen and what appeared to be a very lovely photo of a rather angry monkey.
Two frickin’ hours I sat there smelling that man and his intoxicating scent. Two hours! My mind raced as I pretended, for the most part, to read the book in my hand. While my pulse pounded like a monastery
gong through my veins, I continuously shifted in my seat, inconspicuously watching him edit photos. Beautiful images of scenery and animals, volcanoes, and beaches. Each one more breathtaking than the last, and while I didn’t think they needed an ounce of editing or touch-up, he was meticulous in his craft, tweaking lighting here and a shadow there. He spent nearly an hour alone on a photo of a stunning spectacled owl.
I hated the book in my hand. My mother had bought it for me after Ray had died. Apparently, a friend of hers had recommended it after her husband had passed, so my
mum thought that I would benefit from it as well. You know, because every widow is the same.
It was a piece of damned garbage. Telling me that I would be angry. And that I would blame Ray for his own death. Maybe other women, other people, followed the seven or however many stages of grief, but I didn’t believe I did. I never once felt angry towards him. We both knew the risk of his job and the assignment he was on. If I’m upset about anything, it was that my last words to him had not been, “I love you.” But I could never be angry at my husband for dying out there on that boat. If anything, it’s Mother Nature who I’d like to take to the mat. She’s the one who took him from me too soon, she’s the one who ended my marriage before
it’d even really began. I swallowed hard and put my head back down and read the title of the next chapter: Going Forward Without Looking Back.
For the most part, the book was about acceptance and moving on. Giving me a time frame for how long each stage should last, and that by now I should be well on my way to moving on altogether. No longer thinking of him every day. Missing his very smell, his smile, the way his hair felt between my fingers as we sat on the couch in the evenings and I twirled the soft golden strands at the nape of his neck around my finger. The way he used to lightly cup my butt when he’d walk behind me, or pick me up and gently carry me to bed, after I’d fallen asleep at my desk, having to
studied myself to pure exhaustion in those final months of school. I wasn’t supposed to think about those things every day. Maybe once a week, once a month. But not every day. So, apparently, I was doing it all wrong. I was a crappy widow, a crappy griever because I was taking far longer to get over my dead husband than the book suggested I should.
But I was hardly able to focus on the piece of shit in front of me anyway. I’d catch the odd passage like, “Remove all memories of your loved one from plain sight. Photos, knick -knacks, their favorite items, to reduce the sudden rush of emotions. Purge your space of reminders, and you’ll purge your mind.” Several times I’d wanted to burst out laughing, but I’d catch myself, my lips twisting into a weird grin instead, or a small and unladylike snort would silently rumble through my nose. I still carried a photo of Ray in my wallet. Our wedding photo. And I wore my wedding and engagement rings on a chain that I kept tucked into my shirt. Only I’d left those back home in Victoria because all the guidebooks said if I had anything of value on my person in this part of the world, chances were I’d be robbed in the streets.
So, instead, I watched Mr. Handsome Photographer Man edit adorable baby sloths and cheeky monkeys, while I pretended to read about how awful a grieving widow I was being. I checked my phone briefly and noticed that the battery was getting low, but all the outlets around me were occupied, so
instead I turned it off and picked up my book.
What cologne was he wearing? What was that scent? It smelled exotic, like…warm sand and fresh linen, beachy and clean and incredibly inviting…but also
manly, very manly. What was his name? Where was he from? What were his plans in Lima? Was he single? Was I ready to start dating? The book said I needed to move on, meet people, find happiness again…which was why I was currently in the Panama airport and on my way to Lima. To do what Ray and I had always planned to do, and that was visit Machu Picchu. This would be our two-year anniversary, a belated honeymoon, seeing as we never got to go on one after we were married. This had been our dream, this had been the plan, and I wasn’t anything if not a planner and a promise-keeper.
He closed his laptop, leaned forward and pulled out the plug, stowing his computer in a canvas shoulder bag. I took the opportunity of the free outlet and leaped up from my seat, falling to my knees at his feet, plugging in my phone. And then realizing that my position on the floor, directly in front of him, gave me a much better view of his face, and after I’d been staring at his profile for two hours, I made myself comfortable. Now I got to see all of him. I pulled my book back up and continued to eye-fuck the bejesus out of Mr. Handsome Photographer Man until we were called to board.
We managed to make it forty-five minutes; we’d taxied, heard the safety spiel and leveled out. Hooded glances and coy smiles passed back and forth between the two of us at the gate as we boarded and then, as we conveniently sat across the aisle from one another. What are the chances? My book was poised in front of me like a perfect pretend distraction, while he fiddled with the television on the headrest of the seat in front of him. Come on, dude, talk to me. Say something…please. He pulled out a book of his own, a ragged and ripped old copy of The Ultimate Traveler: South America, so I buried my own nose back in my book,
re-reading the same paragraph about how I shouldn’t be going to places that reminded me of my passed loved one, because it only evoked memories, and memories didn’t allow one to move forward. Bullshit!
“Excuse me.” Yes!
I took my time and turned to face him. “Yes?”
“What are you reading?”
I tried to
stow a smile and then showed him the cover
“And that’s funny?” he asked, skepticism in his voice. Oh crap, does he think I’m some nut-job off her meds?
Maybe I am a nut-job who SHOULD be medicated, who knows? According to the book I was doing everything wrong, so maybe I was off my rocker. I could hardly hide my smile this time and nodded blandly. “To me it is.”
I shrugged. Best, to be honest, I guess. “My mother gave me this book. Thinks it’ll help me. It’s a joke. It’s telling me how I should feel. And how I can stop feeling that way.”
He was quiet. He looked lost. Oh crap, was I
But I’d jumped down the rabbit hole, and there was no sense stopping halfway through the burrow. I had to come out the other side. I shrugged again. “I’ve got a bit of a fucked-up sense of humor. And according to this piece of shit, I’m grieving all wrong. And I happen to think that’s funny. I should probably toss the book out altogether. But to be honest, I’m getting a laugh out of it, and well…” A sudden thought of Ray had tears stinging the backs of my eyes. “I could use some laughs.”
He swallowed. “Oh, well…as long as it’s helping in some way, I guess.”
My head snapped up, and I smiled at him. This piece of garbage was helping me laugh, helping me smile. Was that was it was supposed to do? Was the advice garbage on purpose? “I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thanks.”
He stretched his arm across the aisle. “I’m Derrick.”
Nice hands! Big and tanned, with a dusting of dark hair on the wrist and knuckles, trimmed short nails and thick calluses. I swallowed at the idea of finally getting to touch him. Holy Jesus,
woman, calm yourself! Giddily, I took his hand. “Piper.”
“Nice to meet you, Piper.”
“Nice to meet you, Derrick.”
“So…uh, what are your plans in Lima?”
I closed my book and stowed it in the pocket of the seat in front of me. “I don’t want to spend too much time in Lima. Just use it as a hub to get up to Cusco, Iquitos, Puno, maybe Mancora, if I have the time. What about you?”
He nodded. “Machu Picchu is pretty much the only reason I’m here. It’s on the bucket list. And then I’m going to head to Santiago and fly from there to Easter Island.”
“Ooh, Easter Island, that sounds awesome.”
He nodded again. “Another bucket list item.”
“Cool.” The rattling of the drink cart coming towards us made both of our eyes flash up. I could totally go for some wine.
“So… where uh…where in Lima are you staying?”
I took a sip of my water. “The uh…The Inca Treasure Hostel, in Miraflores. What about you?”
The cart wheeled between us, and I had to wait. I ordered and accepted my wine, pleased and surprised that the Argentinian Malbec they had was actually pretty decent.
“So…” I asked, noticing the beer in front of him.
He popped the tab on his can and looked at me; my whole body was vibrating from the intensity of his stare. He’d stripped me down to nothing but my earrings and my travel wallet with those dark gray eyes of his. He’d slowly relieved me of each scrap of fabric, dragging his knuckles along my skin, feeling it warm and tingle from his touch. And then when I was down to nothing but my panties, which at this point were already sopping wet, he’d shredded those between his big capable hands. Dear lord, the man was handsome. “The Inca Treasure Hostel…in Miraflores,” he said with a wicked grin, as he tipped back his beer.
I took another sip of my wine; suddenly my mouth had become incredibly dry.
“So, did you opt for their free airport shuttle?” I asked, still trying my damnedest to check to see if his left hand had a wedding ring on it or not.
His head bobbed in a nod. “Yeah, may as well, right?”
I smiled. “Exactly.”
He took another sip of his beer, this time with his left hand, and from the looks of things he didn’t have a ring. But then, I chastised myself, that meant very little these days. And he could have just taken it off.
“I guess we’re going to be neighbors, then.”
“I guess, yeah.”
“You uh…you meeting anybody in Lima?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m traveling alone. I’ve got a bit of a bucket list myself that I’m trying to tick off. Just saw the Canal in Panama and went to the San Blas Islands for a week, and now I’m off to Machu Picchu.”
Another sip. Damn how I wished I was that beer can right now. His plump lips sucking and tasting, savoring the flavor. But
instead I just continued to drink my wine, rolling it around on my tongue to distract my brain from it’s current dirty thoughts.
“So…um…would you like to grab dinner, maybe?”
My eyes flew to the book in the pocket of the seat in front of me, sudden feelings of betrayal and unease pierced my heart like a javelin. It’d been nearly two years. He’d want me to be happy. It wasn’t a betrayal; it was finding happiness again, right? I swallowed, suddenly wishing that my drink was something far stronger than wine — I really needed tequila.
I chewed on my lip. “Uh…sure…why not?”
Well, damn, if his smile didn’t make me want to drag his ass back to the bathroom so we could join the mile-high club.
We spent the remainder of the flight chatting. Innocuous chit-chat that would generally take place on a first date. Was this our first date? But whether a first date or a Tinder “interview” before a hookup, we talked about all the usual stuff, where we’d traveled in Central America. Our plans for Peru and where we were from.
It turns out, like myself, he was Canadian. Calgary-born and -raised. A farm boy, but also the black sheep of the family, because instead of raising cattle like his daddy had wanted him to, and his brothers had stuck around to do, he went and became a journalist and photographer. Traveling all over the world and documenting his adventures.
Gorgeous, almost too gorgeous, but not quite…maybe just gorgeous enough, yeah, just gorgeous enough. But he was also not my usual type. Sure, most of the guys I’ve dated have been handsome, but all my previous boyfriends, Ray included, had been blond and buff. I think the blond was more by pure coincidence than anything, but that seemed to be my type. Blond, buff and blue-eyed.
But Derrick, he was dark and tapered, not skinny. His build was slighter, muscles honed from hard work, labor — not hours spent at the gym. Silky hair the color of charcoal and eyes as gray as the stormy skies of Tofino in November.
“So…I guess we’ll be taking the same shuttle,” he chuckled as we shuffled our way down through the aisles after the plane had landed. And like docile little lambs, we followed the ram in front of us and unloaded off into the Lima airport and towards customs and immigration.
“I guess so.” I smiled, unable to deny the stirring of something; interest, anticipation, fear…desire? Coming to life in my belly like a kaleidoscope of butterflies, all taking wing at the same time. Would we go out to dinner, and would one of us end up spending the night in the other’s room? Was this how it went? It’d been ages since I’d done the dating thing. I had no idea how it worked anymore. Let alone, the international dating scene. Did you date while you were backpacking, or was it simply an endless stream of orgasm-filled hook ups? Stamp your passport with as many international delights as you possibly could, before returning home to the boring local cuisine? But this guy was local cuisine, so what the heck was going on? I spent the next several minutes in quiet contemplation, wondering what the hell I was getting myself into. I’d agreed to go to dinner with him, nothing more, right? But did I want more? Was I ready for more? Classic overthink.
“You’re up next.” His throaty chuckle and velvet-smooth voice snapped me out of my lust abroad protocol reverie.
I walked up to the immigration desk and answered all the questions like a robot. No, I didn’t have any drugs. Yes, I was here for pleasure. No, I didn’t have any plant-based materials or animal products. No, I didn’t have over ten thousand dollars U.S. on me. The officer stamped my passport, ignored my smile and
gracias and told me to move along. I did the same thing through customs, and then before I knew it Derrick was back at my side, and we were marching along at a brisk pace towards the baggage claim.
“What’s your bag look like?” The Ultimate Traveler was back out, his eyes scanning across the page. Meanwhile, an enormous red backpack sat at his feet. How the
hell’d he manage to get that so quickly?
I blinked a couple of times. “Uh…it’s blue.”
He looked up at me and snorted. “Anything else distinctive about it? At the moment, I can count eight blue backpacks on that belt.”
I felt my cheeks grow warm as I looked up into his beautiful eyes, while lashes a camel would be jealous of fluttered back at me. That gorgeous smile was back too and causing me to struggle with my words. Suddenly I spotted my bag and, without saying anything, lunged for it. But, of course,
because life, in general, has a twisted sense of humor, no one moved over enough for me to get in and grab it, so I only managed to grab a dangling strap. But when I got hold of the strap and pulled, the stupid bag wouldn’t budge. It was stuck!
I don’t know why I didn’t just let go and wait for the bag to come back around. That would have been the wise decision, the smart decision. But I didn’t let go and was instead hauled through the row of people standing with their knees knocking the carousel, and up on to the belt, landing with a painful
oof on top of an oddly-shaped cardboard parcel.
“What the heck are you doing?” Derrick called, having swung his monstrous bag up onto his back and even now elbowing his way through the endless sea of mindless, bag-waiting drones, following me as I went around on the belt.
“What the hell does it look like?” I snapped, clambering up off the parcel, a flurry of skirts and hair, getting right down next to my bag to try to uncover where it was stuck. I felt around underneath, and sure enough, the thicker end of the strap was caught on a snagged piece of exposed metal on the belt.
“Senora!” The thick Spanish accent of what I could only assume to be airport security interrupted my frustrated grunts. And then a slew of too-fast-to-comprehend Spanish came flying at me. I didn’t bother to look up but just continued to try and free my bag. I could see their military-type uniforms out of the corner of my eye. Their voices were getting stronger and their tone less forgiving and more “we’re going to throw your white ass in jail unless you get the fuck off the belt NOW!”
“Ah ha!” I cheered, falling back on my butt from the force of having finally freed my bag strap. Big tanned hands came up and under my arms, and suddenly I and my bag were being hoisted into the air and then tossed onto the floor. When I finally looked up, two very unhappy Peruvian men, who looked like they’d just stepped out of the rainforest after setting up landmines and fighting guerrilla forces, glared back at me, more Spanish vitriol flying from their lips.
Suddenly Derrick was at my side, and in poor, butchered Spanish that I’m sure made both camo-clad men cringe, he managed to subdue them. Within a minute, they were both nodding, eyeing me up with vague interest and, if I wasn’t mistaken (because at this point in my life, I knew the look well), pity. And then they finally smiled at me, nodded, and were on their way.
I gaped at my hero. The hero who, not five minutes ago, I was mentally calling a “stamp” on my orgasmic passport. “What the hell did you just say to them?”
He helped me put my backpack on, and with a warm, firm hand on my elbow, he led me towards the front door. “I told them that you’re a psych patient who was just released from the mental hospital after a nervous breakdown. Your one and only wish
was to see Machu Picchu, and you thought your dead grandmother was inside your backpack. I told them I’m your caregiver and I needed to get you to the hotel quickly so you could take your anti-psychotic meds.”
The humidity and heat of the city hit me like a grimy slap to the face when we burst through the airport doors. But that didn’t stop me from tossing on the brakes, jerking my elbow from his grasp and rounding on him. “You said what?” Not entirely sure what emotion I was feeling at the moment.
God, that smile. “Nothing. But I had you going for a second.” His chuckle was diabolical, while that devious grin sent a zing of need straight to my lady parts. “I told them you’re bringing your deceased grandmother’s ashes, which are in your backpack, to Machu Picchu. Because it was her life’s dream to climb it, but she was never able to make it before she passed. Not quite as entertaining as you being a psych patient. I kind of wish I’d gone with that one now. I said you started to panic about the ashes and you got pulled onto the carousel. Which was true. Your book gave me the idea.”
Holy shit, that was more accurate than he knew…only they weren’t my grandmother’s ashes.
As hard as I tried to fight it, I couldn’t help but smile. Quick thinker, and funny. He just kept ticking all kinds of boxes. “Well…” I punched him in the shoulder. “Thanks…I guess.”
He pointed to a man with a sign that had both of our names scrawled on it, and we started to walk towards him. “You can buy me dinner as thanks.” And then, as if we hadn’t just met three and a half hours ago, on the airplane, he grabbed my hand and pulled me towards our driver.