I don’t have too many random interactions with strangers where we talk about my queer experience, but it does happen at times. My most unexpected encounter with such a situation happened with the 15-year-old boy I acquainted on the 8-hour flight back home.
I boarded the plane with the last handful of people waiting to get on. My seat was third from the back and I could see all the overhead compartments overflowing with carry-ons. While I searched for a place to stuff my suitcase, a middle-aged woman behind me pointed to the few empty spaces I saw left, telling her kids to put their luggage in that compartment. She could tell I was traveling on my own, and she told her son to help me put my suitcase in the compartment when we finally reached it. I think she probably assumed I was much younger than I actually was. (I have no lack of experience when it comes to people underestimating my age.)
When we got settled the boy struck up a conversation in a way maybe you’ve encountered with plane passengers before. Hi, my name is so-and-so. Did you enjoy your time here? Etc. His name was Nate. He was 15. He was on a European cruise trip with his family for a good chunk of days, which he really enjoyed.
“Were you here for fun, then?”
I nodded, quickly gauging the situation. He had a freckled face with ginger hair a darker red than mine—it looked like his whole family did. His age puts things on the safer side. “Yeah, I was visiting my girlfriend.” I glanced out the window, seeing mostly green below. The earth became unskilled patchwork beneath us.
Nate shifted in his chair. “I’m sorry if this is rude to ask,” he started.
I knew his question before he asked, shaking my head gently and clarifying, “As in the girl I am dating.”
We hung in a silence. I waited for him to ask more questions, but they didn’t come as I expected they would.
“When I was 13 I was dating this girl. She’s a lesbian now.” I almost laughed, but luckily I restrained. “I mean I don’t know if she’s a lesbian, but she’s dating a girl.”
To be honest, I was touched already at this sensitivity, at the distinction between lesbian and dating a girl. I haven’t met too many cishets actively take note of a difference there, or at least the possibility of one.
“I feel bad sometimes,” he confessed. “I don’t know if it was my fault.” Nate halfway smiled, but the corner of his mouth turned down.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I assured him. “She might not’ve known. I didn’t know at 15, let alone 13. Or she’s bi. It’s not your fault.” He seemed to appreciate this, nodding and continued talking to me. When our meals came, we bonded over airplane food. We reached a consensus: ice cream cups were the best onboard snacks they had to offer.
After a few hours of chatting, he started a movie and I fell asleep. He woke me up when they came around with ice cream, though. “Sorry if you wanted to sleep, but I saw they had ice cream and didn’t want you to miss it.” It was vanilla with a chocolate swirl.
He asked me some more about my trip, what did I see, what did I do. “Does your girlfriend live in England or is she just there for school or something?”
“No, yeah she lives there.”
“That must be so hard,” he told me. His head shook slowly, his eyebrows rising up to his hairline when he started talking. “I’ve only been gone for ten days and I miss my girlfriend like crazy.” I smiled at him a little bit with tears brimming in my eyes. I was already missing her. I already sobbed at the airport before and after we’d said our goodbyes. I dried tears in the security line, trying not to look back too many times and see her crying too.
Nate pulled his phone out of his shorts pocket. “She’s so beautiful, I’ll show you.” I looked down to see a ginger and a blonde, just like Jas and me. He swiped through pictures to show me selfies on beaches, smiles touching eyes, arms over shoulders. It could’ve been us in the photos.
“She is really pretty, what’s her name?” We talked about our girlfriends, smiling and laughing. I showed him pictures we took together over the past two months. (“Wow, two months? That’s awesome you got to spend so much time with her!”) I showed him our hike up the Wicklow Mountains, the best pictures from Warner Brothers Studio Tour, and dancing to S Club 7 at a pride event.
“How did you meet her?”
I’d been asked this question so many times, but answering it never got easier. “Online, actually. We skyped for a few years before this.” I made a tense gesture out the plane window.
Nate’s eyes grew wide looking at me. “You must love her a lot.” I relaxed in my seat, catching goosebumps from how much his response touched me. I’d never had someone respond like that before. Completely free of judgment. “I don’t know if I could’ve flown by myself,” he told me.
“I didn’t think I could at first either.”
“But you did.” He smiled.
I nodded. “But I did.”
“When are you going to see her next?”
“Probably next summer.”
He constantly smiled while talking to me. All the questions, every answer, just smiles. A smile of wonder, of learning, of disbelief, of amusement, of curiosity. “That’s…inspiring,” he finally said. Inspiring. “I can’t image how hard—how much love. That’s love.”
We parted in line to get our passports checked. It was really nice to meet you. I smiled at Nate before he became a memory. I wonder if he ever reflects on this moment like I do. I assume probably not. I think about how Nate is doing now sometimes. How is he doing with school now that he’s coming up to his last year? How is his girlfriend? Do they still take selfies at the beach?
I’m never ashamed of my relationship. I love her, I love me, I love us. I’m just scared. I have a fear that’s lessened over time but is never quite gone. But when I get scared, I remember this plane ride with Nate.
Inspiring, he told me.