A gentle sea breeze caresses me as a light appears in the distance, piercing the dark night. Some time later it is directly abreast; I see the ship glowing with lights and hear the faint sound of music. I spot a person waving at our ship—maybe even at me. Minutes pass and the light turns to a glow in the distance and then disappears.
I reflect whether that waving person could have been the one—my best friend, my lover, my world. I will never know the answer—we were two ships passing in the night.
Yet, at unexpected times, in the right place, at exactly the right time, with the right two people, a tiny spontaneous spark ignites an emotion. Whether that tiny flame instantly vanishes or becomes a roaring fire of love is in the hands of the gods... and in ourselves.
Kai Tak International Airport in Hong Kong was even worse than its usual disaster—crowded with people perspiring from the heat they had just left, or the stress of arriving late. The floor was dirty from the thousands of people who had walked its floors. The smells from oils and strange spices used in the food kiosks added to the ugliness. The picture was complete when you mixed in the incredible noise from announcements and people shouting to one another.
I was first to board the giant Boeing 747 when they finally made the announcement. I turned left into the first class section and found my window seat on the right side of the cabin. The flight attendant took my coat and offered me the choice of champagne, white wine or orange juice. I politely passed and quickly took off my shoes and put on the slipper socks supplied by the airline, grabbed my book, and settled into my seat.
My name is Dave Williams. I'm five-foot-eleven, brown hair, brown eyes and weigh about 180 pounds. My job required a lot of traveling. Fortunately, when I received my last promotion I negotiated the deal that I would travel first class as part of my compensation. In a moment of weakness my company agreed and henceforth I rode in the front of the bus.
The noise of the first class cabin filling was background clutter as I started reading the first of the five paperback books that I had bought to escape the boredom of the thirteen-hour flight back San Francisco. I felt the seat shake as another passenger sat down next to me.
Shit! I was really hoping the seat would stay empty.
I refused to look at my fellow passenger. From past bad experiences, I knew that if you were too friendly up front and your neighbor was a talker, you could be in for a miserable, torturous flight.
The cabin door closed in preparation for the push back, and a stewardess swished by in the aisle toward the front of the cabin for the safety demo. I looked up, not for the demo, but to check out the female giving it; however, my eyes never made it to the front of the cabin.
My nose had caught a whiff of some tantalizing perfume, and instantly I knew that my fellow passenger was a female. From what I could see of her, and trying not to get caught staring, she was absolutely beautiful.
You asshole—old Mr. Unsociable, sitting next to a beautiful woman, and not even knowing it. How dumb can you be?
I guessed this beauty to be about five-foot-seven, short-cut blonde hair, high cheek bones and slim legs. She had on a pants suit that must have cost in the hundreds. The stewardess had taken her coat; she sat there in a white blouse with the top two buttons undone so just a touch of skin was showing. Her breasts pushed against the silken blouse and teased at what pleasures the material was hiding.
She must have sensed my staring as she turned to me; green eyes—beautiful deep emerald-green eyes that left me stunned—and said, "I hope we aren't delayed. I've been in this monstrosity of an airport for over two hours and it was absolutely horrible."
I answered, "I think we're in pretty good shape. This airport is really small with only the one main runway, so once they push you back they really want the plane to leave quickly to free up space for incoming planes."
She nodded her understanding and went back to reading her magazine. I sat there trying to calculate some way to restart the conversation when the stewardess approached our seats. Looking at her sheet she asked, "Mr. Williams? Would you like a drink after take off?"
I answered, "A very light screwdriver would be great."
Again checking her sheet she said, "Mrs. MacMillan? What can I get for you?"
She answered, "Just a white wine; whatever you have open."
The plane had taxied to the end of the runway and was slowly turning to get into position for takeoff.
"This is the Captain ladies and gentlemen. After take off I will be speaking to you about our trip to San Francisco this afternoon. Right now I want to mention that we are going to execute a 'full power' take off. It's a perfectly normal procedure we use when we are at maximum weight.
"The runway length at Kai Tak is within legal tolerance, but just a little bit short of what would be ideal. To get us in the air faster, I'll be applying power to the engines while keeping the brakes on. As we approach full power, I'll disengage the brakes and we'll be off. Please settle back and I'll be talking to you again in a few minutes."
The engines ran up and after a few moments I felt the plane bounce forward as the pilot released the brakes. Regulations state that a runway must be long enough so that when the wheels lift, there is still fifty percent of the runway left so that if the plane has engine failure, there is enough room to set it back down. Hong Kong had somehow pulled a pass. From experience I knew seventy-five percent or more of the runway would be behind us before we left the ground. The plane gathered speed, raced down the runway, and finally lifted.
I watched the nearby apartments that border the end of the runway gradually become smaller as the 747 made a soft bank to the left. Just as I was about to return to my book, I heard a bump.
"Heard a bump" is a strange phrase to use to describe an event in a large jet aircraft. You might "feel" bumps during a flight, but you do not "hear" bumps when flying in a safe plane. I looked up instantly and saw the nearest stewardess. Her face had turned white. My fellow passenger asked, "What was that noise... is something wrong?"
I answered without taking my eyes off the stewardess, "We heard a bump; I think something blew on takeoff." Looking outside the window quickly I continued, "And we aren't going up any more; we should still be climbing."
Just then the pilot came on and said very quickly, "Please be calm everyone. We don't have a major problem... yet. I will be back to you shortly."
The "yet" did it. One of the other woman passengers started to cry. Then I felt someone grabbing me. I looked at my seat companion and saw absolute, complete terror in her eyes. She was gripping my arm and pulling it and gasped, "I hate flying... I hate it. Why do I ever get on one of these things when they scare the hell out of me? Are we going to crash?"
I replied, "I think we're all right so far. We obviously have a problem that the pilot is trying to fix, but the main thing is that we aren't going down."
I didn't mention that, on the other hand, we weren't going up either. My left arm was still inside her right arm, and she had not released my hand. I squeezed her hand and said, "I'm guessing we'll know what's up pretty quick."
I could feel her breast push against my arm as she frantically clutched me. We might be seconds from death, but my body ignored the danger as the feel of her soft breast made me instantly hard. I decided to enjoy it—I knew that there was no way she was going to let go of someone who was able to be somewhat calm in a situation where death was a distinct possibility.
We sat in silence for about three minutes. When a bit of turbulence bumped the plane, she yelped and pressed harder into me—she was terrified.
The pilot finally came back on the intercom and said, "Well folks, sorry about that problem. We are safe, but here is the situation. We blew one of our four engines at about two thousand feet. The bump you heard was the engine exploding. We immediately turned it off and reconfigured the plane to fly on three engines, which it is fully capable of doing. Actually, this 747 could still fly to San Francisco if we had no choice. However, safety regulations and common sense dictate that we return to Hong Kong and repair or replace the engine.
"Unfortunately, we are fully loaded with fuel. If we landed right away, there is a good chance the wings would snap off from the weight of the fuel. So the solution is that we will circle for about three hours dropping fuel, and then land back at Hong Kong. Our representatives will meet us on arrival and take care of you from there. So relax and enjoy three hours of circles. Obviously, the no smoking sign will be on until we land."
I looked at my hand-holding seat companion. She finally realized she was still clutching my arm and hand. She let go and stammered, "I'm sorry to be such a wimp. Flying just scares the hell out of me, and every time I'm required to fly, I'm still petrified. Thanks for being my hand holder. My name is Jill MacMillan."
"I'm Dave Williams. I enjoyed holding your hand—feel free to hold it some more if you want to—but can I ask, if flying upsets you so much, why do you fly?"
Jill gave me a sheepish, little grin and answered, "Money... sometimes my job requires flying; if I don't fly, I don't make any money."
I asked, "What job forces you to fly?"
Jill looked at me and said, "I just want to talk. If I talk, maybe I won't think that this plane is going to crash, although I know this plane is going to crash. Now I'm starting to babble—just tell me to shut up if I talk too much.
"I'm a head hunter who specializes in financial derivatives. Derivatives are the thing in the financial world right now, and every bank has to have a financial derivatives department. Between the banks and the hedge funds, the demand for people who really know what they are doing is much bigger than the supply, so salaries keep going up. When I find a good person and they get hired, I receive an amount equal to thirty percent of their annual starting salary as my compensation.
"Actually, that's not quite true. I have a partner in New York who is the bird dog. He goes to the banks and funds and becomes friends with the top people in each derivatives department. They go drinking, partying, whatever, so when an opening comes up, we get the placement. He gets twenty percent of my compensation."
"Are salaries that high in derivatives?"
Jill answered, "Five years experience is probably worth $175,000 to $275,000 depending on what kind of experience. Thirty percent of $200,000 is $60,000 which is why I'm on this damn plane. We have two openings for one of our clients in New York. I know by reputation two excellent traders in Singapore and three in Hong Kong. I came out here to talk to them and see if they might be willing to switch companies. I was lucky this time—three of them agreed to fly to New York for interviews.
"It could be a big payday for me, if I'm still alive to collect my fee. I was thinking of taking a week off if they hired at least one of my recommendations, but after this fiasco, I'm taking the time off no matter what."
I asked, "How did you ever get into that field?"
"I started as a derivatives trader in a New York Bank right out of college. I was a pretty good trader, but not great. One day I was asked to go to the Ivys to interview the seniors..."
"Ivys?" I interrupted.
"Yes, the Ivy League schools—Yale, Dartmouth, Harvard—the bunch. Though I was a good trader myself, it turns out I had an even better ability to gauge the trading potential of other people. After a few of my picks were put on the fast track, my company convinced me to switch into full time recruiting. After five years of recruiting for my company, I went on my own. It was a friendly parting. My old company is one of my best customers."
Jill stopped talking and looked at me. "I've been doing all the talking. What do you do?"
I answered, "Jill, nothing as glamorous as you. I am the chief of operations for a private aircraft maintenance company. We go to various airlines and offer to give turnkey maintenance to their fleet of planes. And no, my company doesn't service this airline.
"Anyway, China has a terrible maintenance problem as their planes have a better chance of crashing than any country other than Russia. I went with our sales rep to visit my counterpart in China and see if he would give us the contract for their fleet."
"Did you get it?" Jill asked.
"Don't know. The last meeting I had was with the top guy—his name is Mr. Choi. He had no body language and didn't speak English, or pretended not to, so it was impossible for me to read him. Of course, he kept hammering me that our price was too high. Finally I had to go into the heart surgeon routine."
"Heart surgeon routine?"
"Yes, there are various versions of it, but the one I used through the translator was that Mr. Choi was to think of himself as having an extremely serious heart condition and needing immediate and very delicate surgery. I would call ten heart surgeons in Hong Kong and ask what their price would be for the operation. Of course, I would select the doctor who had cheapest price, and he was the one who would operate on Mr. Choi.
"Mr. Choi and I both know that if only one plane goes down every five years because of poor maintenance, the financial damages—even after insurance—and the loss of reputation would overwhelm any price difference between my company and the cheapest one he could find. So the only encouragement I received that we might get the contract was that after I told that story, I finally got Mr. Choi to laugh."
The plane continued to circle, and Jill and I continued to talk. After a couple of hours I finally approached a delicate subject when I asked Jill, "Won't your husband be worried when you don't get home on schedule?"
Jill hesitated and then said, "MacMillan is my maiden name. My husband and I split about a year ago. He didn't like my job, and my traveling. Actually, I think he was also a little jealous that I was making more money than him. It was probably both our fault, but I finally faced up to the fact that whatever relationship we had was gone, so I divorced him."
Jill sat quietly quiet in thought; I obviously had triggered an unpleasant memory. She gave me a sheepish grin to hide her discomfort and asked, "What about your wife? Won't she be worried?"
I thought how to answer that question and then decided on the truth. "Six months ago I came home a day early from a two-week trip. A strange car was in the driveway; a strange man was in my bed. I asked for a divorce and she asked for a good lawyer; she got seventy-five percent of the money and the house."
Jill took my hand and looked at me. She whispered, "I'm so sorry."
The pilot came on again, "Folks, we finally dropped enough fuel and we're going to land in about fifteen minutes. Once you get off the plane, our representative will tell you what is going to happen. I apologize for this inconvenience."
The plane landed without incident, other than my hand being numb from Jill squeezing it. The plane was directed to taxi to a maintenance area, so we were forced to exit by going down outside stairs that had been pushed against the plane. As we descended, I looked at two mechanics peering at one of the engines. One of them was on a tall stepladder and had already opened the engine cowling. The one on the ground yelled, "What's it look like?"
The one on the ladder yelled back, "This baby ain't going to be flying soon."
He was right. All the passengers gathered in a large room where the airline representative briefed us, "Your plane cannot be repaired quickly, and we have no spare plane in Hong Kong. All the other airlines that had planes going to the US have already left, so we are flying one of our surplus planes here, but it won't arrive until tomorrow. The airline has booked rooms for all of you at a nice hotel, and the shuttle buses will be here in minutes to take you there. Your luggage will arrive at the hotel shortly after you. Of course, your hotel meals, if you eat where you are staying, will be on us. Are there any questions?"
After a few complaint questions, the shuttle buses arrived and we boarded. Jill and I stayed together... she was still a little shaky, and I knew that I didn't want to leave her. I was also happy to see that the bus was leaving the area around the airport known as Kowloon City—it was not a place for Westerners at night.
When we arrived at the hotel, airline representatives were there to greet us. Three tables were set up based upon the first letter of our last name. We each went to our designated table and gave the airline representative our name; he checked a sheet and gave us our room keys. They had pre-checked all of us in. Jill and I were both on the sixth floor, but far apart. I was in room 602 and she was in 648.
We were not in a bad section of Hong Kong, and it was mid afternoon with no luggage. I turned to Jill and asked, "We have time to kill. Do you want to take a walk around the neighborhood, window shop, and see the locals?"
Jill grinned, "Good idea. No luggage and an empty room isn't too much fun."
We walked up and down the streets of Hong Kong. It's a funny world. In Russia, the business people are friendly and the people on the streets are rude. In China, the business people are rude, but the people on the streets are friendly. Many young adults and children came up to Jill and me and practiced their English—always grinning. It was a fun hour walk seeing the stores and practicing English with the people.
But then our luck changed. Three blocks from our hotel, a mid-day shower hit us hard. It was a torrential downpour for fifteen minutes, and Jill and I had no protection for five of those minutes—we were soaked.
We ran dripping into the lobby. Suitcases were neatly arranged, and I quickly found mine. Jill wasn't so lucky. Her suitcase wasn't there. She went to the airline representative who checked his notes. He told Jill that her suitcase had been misplaced and was still at the Hong Kong airport. He assured her that it would be delivered in an hour or so.
So there we were. Two lost souls in the middle of a lobby, dripping wet and getting cold from the air conditioning. I said, "If you want, come up to my room and take a hot shower. We can wait in my room until your suitcase gets here."
Jill didn't hesitate, "I accept. I'm cold, I'm dirty from the flight and the walk, and I just want to be warm."
We went to the room which turned out to be quite nice. Jill quickly went into the bathroom and shortly afterward I heard the shower start. She was in the shower for at least fifteen minutes. Then there was silence for ten minutes, and the bathroom door finally opened. Jill came out in a long hotel robe. She looked at me and blushed, "I couldn't put on the wet clothes after that shower."
I knew Jill was nervous so I said, "Just sit down on the couch and relax. Can I give you a glass of white wine from the mini bar?"
Jill flashed me a grin of relief as she sat down on the couch. We were quiet for a few minutes as she sipped her wine and I sipped a beer. Finally Jill asked, "If this is too personal, just say so, but did you love your wife before you caught her cheating?"
I answered immediately because the same question had come up in my mind many times, "Yes, I don't make friends easily, and when we married, she was my friend—my best friend—as well as my wife. I guess my job paralyzed my brain, but I never saw it coming. All I remembered were the good times; there were no bad times. And then she cheated. I still don't know why or what caused it. But, I'm a dumb male and maybe that's what happens to us."
I was a little embarrassed talking so openly about my failed marriage and tried to change the conversation back to her—"Was it the same with you, Jill?"
Jill answered, "Just the opposite. I knew I was stronger than him, and I knew he resented it, but the sex was fine and I deliberately ignored all the bad things. It was like a Greek tragedy where you know the ending will be terrible, but you continue on to the tragedy—you can't help it.
We stopped talking again. The silence was not awkward; it was comfortable. As I sipped my beer I looked at Jill. Her legs had separated and I could see her legs up to her knees before the robe started. She saw me looking but made no effort to change her position. I reached for the phone again and called the lobby. Her suitcase had finally arrived and was being taken to her room.
I asked, "After you get organized, I'd like to take you to dinner?"
Jill grinned, "I'd like that a lot."
Jill dressed quickly and left. I called the concierge and asked if there was a nearby Chinese restaurant that would treat tourists nicely. He suggested one about two blocks from the hotel but warned me that it was a little pricey. I asked him to make a reservation for the two of us at seven o'clock. He also told me that the airline was delivering a memo under each door saying that the replacement plane would take off at noon tomorrow, and that we would be taken to the airport at ten o'clock.