By: Brian Vowels
Iuliia sat and wept in the window seat of Row 25 on one of the almost daily Aeroflot flights from Guangzhou to Moscow. The airplane was, on the whole, empty and she had the entire row to herself. The timing was good because she longed for some personal space for the ten hour flight toward home. Her mother had told her that on both of her trips to see her in Guangzhou the flights were jam-packed with Russian and Chinese businessmen so Iuliia feared the worst.
A week before her departure she had packed up most of her belongings and she shipped them home inside of two cardboard boxes. She sent most of worldly possessions via China Post and she hoped that someday she might see again the miscellaneous knickknacks she picked up from her sole year in Guangzhou. She knew it was a gamble to ship them via the post from China to Russia but she thought it less expensive than paying the excessive baggage fees the airline charged. She checked two bags with the airline just the same and in those bags were her favorite clothes. Those were the items she was certain she didn’t want to lose.
Iuliia headed home to Russia despondent from a mixture of defeat and atypical unhappiness. She had high hopes for her time in China but it was not to be. Upon her acceptance into her hotel’s internship program, she had set a lofty goal, as was her wont, to reach a prominent managerial position with the famed American hotel chain. Her goal was an ambitious one, but for the young, beautiful twenty-four year old woman with two advanced degrees and a masterful command of the English language, lofty goals were not outside her norm. Iuliia had always set admirable goals and she had a history of reaching them.
When she didn’t receive an offer for the position she coveted, she felt like a failure. The hotel offered her an assistant manager position in the same hotel in Guangzhou but it wasn’t what she really wanted. She wanted to be the manager and not just an assistant. She also wanted out of the Food and Beverage department but that wasn’t all. Even more important to her was to obtain a transfer from Guangzhou to a city more to her liking – say Hong Kong or Beijing – anywhere but Guangzhou where she had had a difficult time of assimilation. She longed to work the front desk where she could meet people, practice her English and not have to serve and clean up food. She tired of that. The folding and refolding of napkins bored her to tears.
At the hotel she never fit in with the other employees in her department. She never understood why, but her co-workers shunned her like a pariah. Being a smart woman, she developed working theories as to why her fellow employees ignored her, alienated her and were downright rude to her. She reasoned it was mostly because of money. Even as an intern, Iuliia made more money than the regular, permanent employees and, to boot, she had subsidized housing at a nearby dormitory. Language was a barrier and she knew as much but it was difficult to gain any working knowledge of the local Cantonese language without an ability to interact with friends. Language learning was never a problem for her until she arrived in China. She spoke her native Russian, held a translator’s certificate in English, and spoke a smattering of Finnish and Lithuanian. The latter languages were learned through some romantic interludes before she moved to China. But, with Cantonese, it was much too difficult for her and she had little motivation to learn given the poor reception she received.
She spent most of the previous night in tears disappointed in herself, disappointed in China, disappointed in everything. She was lonely and she wondered how that could be surrounded by 13 million souls in Guangzhou, but she was and she couldn’t deny it nor did she want to admit as much when she faced her friends back home. Her destination wasn’t really home though it would seem like it. She accepted a job at a hotel in St. Petersburg, the same hotel in which she worked before accepting the Guangzhou opportunity. She was thankful she left St. Petersburg on good terms so that when she contacted them to inquire about an opening, they accepted her back with little negotiation. It was good she didn’t burn any of her bridges. Despite her tears, she was happy about the prospects of seeing old friends and being closer to her hometown, Arkhangelsk, and having more opportunity to see her beautiful, youthful mother.
Her tears stayed with her throughout her sleepless night and even into the airport. It wasn’t until she got on the plane and the plane had ascended high into the clouds could she finally sleep. She slept from exhaustion but it wasn’t a restful sleep by any means. She had snippets of dreams from her past two years with fleeting images of her ex-husband haunting her. Iuliia felt like karma punished her for her past behavior by pushing onto her loneliness and despair. Images of Hong Kong and the clubs and the people she met floated through her dreams, as well. She woke to the nagging thought of having to explain to her friends why she was back in Russia. She didn’t want to tell them the truth. When she woke, the tears rolled down her cheeks all over again.
Sitting two rows behind her and across the aisle was a young French businessman who typed feverishly into his Apple MacBook. He too, had an empty row of seats at his disposal and he sat in the middle seat using both the window and aisle seat on either side of him as a makeshift desk. He was heads down into his work and he, too, was thankful for a nearly empty cabin.
He stopped his work to take a deep breath. He was in the middle of catching a fleeting thought before it escaped him entirely. It was too late. He bit his lip and decided he needed a break. They were three hours into their ten hour journey and Robert needed to walk through the cabin to stretch his legs. He closed up shop in his temporary office by packing away his folders, binder and laptop into his briefcase, latched the tray tables into the back of the seats in front of him and he walked to the front of the cabin. On his return back toward his seat, he noticed Iuliia sobbing softly into an airline pillow. She had tried to avoid any notice but with so few people on board, each and every person got noticed. It was difficult not to notice the crying young woman, with long, flowing brown hair peppered with remnants of blonde streaks toward the ends. She stared out the window and she didn’t see him make a couple of passes by her row.
Robert walked to the rear of the cabin to find three bored flight attendants chatting away in Russian. Robert didn’t understand any Russian but it mattered little as the three young women stopped their conversation and the tallest of the three approached him.
“Can I help you,” she said in English. Her nametag said her name was Nika. She was very striking in her red uniform. Nika also had a matching red scarf tied loosely around her slender neck and a beret that covered her short blonde hair.
“Yes, please,” Robert replied in his halting but practiced English. “Can I please have two cups of tea? One is for me and the other is for the young woman that sits near me.”
“Ah, girl who cries,” Nika said in a deep Russian accent.
“Yes, that is her,” he confirmed.
“I bring her coffee and she say no.”
“I will try again for you,” Robert said. “She needs something to drink and also she needs tissues.”
“I will bring you.”
“No, merci. Please, I will them take to her.
Nika and one of her fellow flight attendants poured the tea, gathered a packet of tissues and arranged the paper cups on a beige plastic tray. He got a bit nervous thinking about carrying the hot beverages through the cabin but he was again thankful the plane was nearly empty and the flight was thus far smooth. There was nary a bump or a jostling since their departure from Guangzhou.
Just after Nika handed the tray to Robert, she announced over the intercom, first in Russian and then in English, for the passengers to lower their window shades so that people could watch the in-flight movie. From his vantage point at the rear of the plane, he was able to tell who spoke Russian and who spoke English and who spoke neither. He saw that the crying woman spoke Russian as she was one of the first passengers to lower her shade. He was a bit relieved because he was awkward around women and if they couldn’t speak to one another, then he was off the hook in any follow up to his thoughtful gesture. He started his short walk up the aisle in the near dark cabin. His walked unhurried and deliberate.
Robert reached Iuliia’s row. He stopped and looked down at the young woman. Since the announcement to shut the window shade, she lost her ability to stare out into the vast Chinese landscape so Iuliia closed her eyes once again and to Robert it appeared as if she was asleep. Tears no longer trickled down her lightly freckled, high cheekbones. He pondered his next move. He decided to flip down the aisle seat’s tray table and he lowered the serving tray upon it. He would leave the tray for Nika or one of her fellow flight attendants to retrieve. He reckoned that by the time she woke, the tea would be cold, but it was the thought that counted.
Iuliia wasn’t sleeping however; she rested her stinging eyes with some light meditation. When Robert lowered the tray table, his less-than-graceful release just above the tray’s natural resting position caused a clank that startled Iuliia. She opened her eyes to find a strange man holding a tray of beverages. She at first thought him a flight attendant but he didn’t wear the uniform so his presence confused her.
He didn’t know how to address her in Russian so with one free hand, he waved hello to her. Iuliia’s instincts suggested a possible language barrier so she went immediately to English – a well-practiced habit from her travel industry career. “Thank you,” she said and with her eyes, she looked at the tray table as if to say it was fine to place the serving tray there. Robert understood her non-verbal acknowledgement.
Robert spoke English well enough to function in the business world as it was the language of choice at work in Guangzhou where his telecommunications company kept an office. His was a multi-national office with employees from all over the world but mostly from the United States and China. He was the only Francophile despite his company being French owned.
“I brought this tea for you because I thought you might need it.”
“Thank you,” she said again.
Iuliia looked at the tray and she noted there were two cups so she questioned his motives. That was the case until Robert reached down to the tray and picked up one of the cups and he rotated his body as if to head back to his seat.
“There are tissues, too.”
She nodded, now too embarrassed about her crying to say anything else.
At this point, Robert made the assumption that the young woman was heading back to Russia to deal with the untimely death of someone close to her. He thought it tacky to meddle further.
He nodded in response and he walked back to take his seat where he unpacked his laptop and files to continue his work. Almost an hour had passed before it was his turn to be startled, finding his damsel in distress looking down upon him with her large, brown eyes. Her long hair draped far down her left shoulder. She had one of the tissues crumpled in her hand but she no longer cried. She extended her hand as a way of introduction.
“My name is Iuliia.”
“Robert,” he replied using the French pronunciation with the silent t.
Iuliia pursed her lips, twisted her mouth to the right and looked to the ceiling of the plane’s cabin. That was the look she gave when she searched the deep recesses of her memory.
“You are from France,” she said. “Ro-ber.”
“Oui,” was his reply hoping she spoke some French as well as she did English.
“I don’t speak French,” she said, not completely ignoring the invitation to speak his language with her, but said in such a manner as to cutoff any further attempts. “Russian, English, and a couple of others, but no French.”
Iuliia continued to look down upon Robert and his jumble of papers and folders and she struggled for something to say. “I just wanted to say thank you again for the tea and tissues. It was very kind.”
“You are welcome. I felt your loss so I wanted to do what I could to help you.”
“My loss?” Iuliia again twisted her mouth.
“You are very sad about something and I imagined the worst. I am sorry.”
Iuliia responded to Robert’s sincerity with a chuckle. “The only thing I have lost is my self-respect.”
“Your English is much better than mine.”
“That’s because I am a certified Russian-English translator.”
Iuliia didn’t appear to be going anywhere as she continued to stand over Robert. She looked over his mess and he got a little nervous. He started to straighten his scattered materials when he decided that it might be nice of him to offer her a seat. To do so meant repacking everything away and then moving to the window seat. So he did and Iuliia accepted his offer to join him but neither said a word for several minutes.
Finally, Iuliia broke the silence with a direct question, repeated from earlier. “Why did you bring me tea?”
“I thought you might want some.”
“Because of the tears?” She pointed at her right cheek.
“Yes, because you were crying and I thought maybe a friend had died or something.”
“It was very kind of you, thank you.”
With the third thank-you from Iuliia, Robert tired of saying, “You’re welcome” so he didn’t. Robert made circular motions with the pads of his index fingers and thumbs, rubbing them together. It was a nervous habit he developed as a young boy. Iuliia took the time to study the man. He was older than she but not by much, maybe by four or five years. He seemed to her important and focused by surveying the amount of work he had before him and the complicated nature of it. He was an average looking man with a very French nose and shaggy, long brown hair in which he habitually pulled back over his ears. Iuliia noted he had several nervous ticks about him. He was not her normal type of man. She liked her men outgoing, tall and athletic. Robert was definitely different then the most recent men in her life, but recent was a relative term. She hadn’t dated anyone in over a year.
Robert felt awkward with the silence. He had to say something so he asked her why she cried.
“It is stupid.”
“It can’t be stupid if it made you cry.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she said then she pursed her pale red lips again, searching for a way to explain to a complete stranger her feelings of failure.
“Okay,” he replied, sensing her not wanting to divulge the reasons for her despondent emotional state. He turned away from her and stared ahead at the latched tray table in front of him.
Iuliia didn’t like that he didn’t pry further as she longed for a deep, meaningful conversation even with the unknown Frenchman, so she blurted out, “I am going home to Russia a complete failure.”
Robert raised an eyebrow and gazed downward to his blue jeans. He brushed some crumbs from an earlier snack off his right thigh.
“How is it you failed?” he asked.
“I quit my job in St. Petersburg and I left my friends, and so on, to take what I thought would be a good position with a major American hotel company. They assigned me to work in Guangzhou and it was a horrible experience.”
“How long were you there?”
“Hmm,” he said, confused. “I don’t see where you failed.”
“It is complicated and so on.”
“That is fine, you don’t have to tell me…I am sorry but I forgot your name.”
“My name is Iuliia,” she said with her gaze now pointed to the ceiling again. “I am embarrassed to say why exactly. Bad relationships and so on.”
While the few passengers on the jet either napped or watched the in-flight movie, Iuliia and Robert chatted away. They discussed his job in Guangzhou and how he, too, was there temporarily. He had a few more months left until his assignment was complete and he could return to Paris. Iuliia discovered that Robert was not married nor attached to anyone. He joked with her that his work was his wife and mistress. She was impressed by his work ethic and devotion to the job and she felt a kindred spirit in Robert in that regard as they were both highly driven and goal-oriented. They chatted away nonstop for the next hour before Iuliia excused herself.
“I will be back in a few minutes,” she said. “I need to use the restroom and stretch my legs. I am not used to sitting for long periods of time.”
“Okay,” he replied and he was left alone with his thoughts for a few moments. When she returned she placed her purse in the aisle seat and she took the middle seat next to Robert.
“I hope this is alright, I think that if we are going to talk, we should talk quieter.”
“That’s fine by me,” he said to her.
Shortly after her return, Nika brought them each a glass of white wine and Robert looked at the flight attendant with a puzzled look.
“How much for the wine?” Robert asked Nika.
Nika looked down at Iuliia and smiled.
“Spasibo,” Iuliia said to Nika who then whisked back down the dimly lit aisle. Robert transferred his puzzled look from Nika to Iuliia.
“When I was back by the restroom, I thought I would say thank-you with a glass of wine. I took care of it for us.”
Iuliia said nothing in return. She sipped her wine and rested her head on the seat back. Robert, for his part, swirled his wine in his small glass and when he looked over to Iuliia to ask her a question he found her asleep. He knew she was asleep this time because her lower lip was jutted out and it twitched. Her breathing was deep and rhythmic. She was, in a word, exhausted.
Robert watched her sleep and he wondered about her life. In their earlier conversation she asked most of the questions and all he knew about her was that she was in the process of returning to St. Petersburg, in her words, a complete failure. He doubted that about her. She was younger than he was but he sensed she lived a more fruitful life. She was a free spirit. He determined that by the glimpse of a tongue piercing when she spoke. She told him she left Russia to advance her career but she also mentioned that she wanted to leave behind a bad relationship. He worried about that circumstance and he hoped she didn’t return to a relationship either abusive or doomed for failure.
He admired her beauty like he had no other woman before. She was not like the women he knew back in Paris. There was a tomboyish quality to Iuliia he somewhat liked. He sensed she felt more comfortable in the company of men who thought of her as a friend because there was much less drama and competition. He thought this because she was forthright with him whereas a Parisian woman, ever enigmatic, would never make the approach she made. She smiled, too, a lot for a woman who cried for a couple of hours before their introduction. He liked that characteristic.
She was so naturally beautiful. Her sleeping face was so close to him and if she wore make-up of any kind, he couldn’t tell. He resisted the urge to brush stray strands of her long, lustrous hair off her freckled face. He wanted to run his fingers over her arched eyebrows. While he watched her, she grunted, cleared her throat and she then rested her head on his shoulder – still asleep. There she stayed for the next four hours, snoring softly into his right ear and Robert stayed as motionless as he could so that he wouldn’t disturb her much needed rest. Iuliia didn’t wake until the flight attendants came through the cabin to prepare the passengers for arrival.
When she woke, she didn’t act startled or embarrassed as one would imagine after having fallen asleep upon the shoulder of a total stranger. She straightened her clothes and smiled at Robert.
“How long was I asleep?”
“Just a little while,” he lied.
“Sorry,” she said and she smiled at him. “Why are you going to Russia? I meant to ask you earlier but I forgot.”
“I am visiting my friend, Alain. He lives in Moscow. We work for the same company but in different cities.”
“That will be nice.”
“Yes, then I will fly to Paris on Saturday morning.”
There was a period of silence between Iuliia and Robert that was eventually broken with an adieu mannered well beyond their years. Iuliia stood from her seat and looked down at Robert. She said as a way of parting, “I better go back to my seat now and pack up my belongings.”
“It was nice speaking with you,” Robert returned.
“I wish you luck in everything you do. Thank you for listening.”
He spent the remainder of the flight lost in thought. He thought about how to tell Alain about his encounter with Iuliia. How would he describe her to him? He would most certainly talk about her beauty – especially her hair. He would say something about her free spirit, her ability to be comfortable in her skin about how she ended a lot of her sentences with “…and so on.” Robert imagined Alain comparing experiences with Russian women with the women of Paris. Alain had talked of a few encounters with female Muscovites and he said there was something to be said for the Slavic beauties that walked through the markets and along the streets, but his friend often described them as dour and serious. Iuliia was different from that portrayal. She was both beautiful and outgoing. He liked that about her. He liked her.
Robert cursed his fate just as the wheels touched down in Moscow. Iuliia and Robert lived in the same city for several months but when they finally crossed paths, she is leaving Guangzhou behind forever to be in St. Petersburg.
“Merde,” he said aloud and shook his head as he and his fellow passengers deplaned. Iuliia was just ahead of him as they made their way to Passport Control. He thought to speed up to catch her. He wanted to say one more thing to her before she left his life for good.
“Iuliia!” he called.
She stopped at the sound of her name and he saw that her frown had returned. Being closer to home meant she had to face again her feelings of failure. Robert understood this immediately.
“I don’t normally do this.” He handed her his business card. “My email address is on the card. I hate that we can’t talk more.”
Iuliia looked at the card and she put it into her purse.
“Au revoir, Robert, I will send you a note when I get settled again.”
“By the way, Iuliia, your year in Guangzhou was not a failure. It was a valuable experience that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. It was good for you to focus on you and your needs. All anyone has to know is that you had a plan for your career, your life and you worked it.”
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