Unfortunately, it is love at first sight. I ignore his lascivious eyes upon me as I fumble to my seat in the crowded economy section of the airplane. I crane my neck in the direction of first class, casting a long, longing glance back to the section I just passed through and then I turn my head in the other direction, casting a longer, longing glance to the rear of the plane, scanning desperately for an open seat—any open seat but mine. In the shuffle, a flight attendant catches my eye and looks at me with a long face; for a moment, she seems as if she is about to tell me there is something she can do.
“I’m sorry,” she shrugs. “There is nothing I can do.”
Nodding, I heave my bag into the overhead compartment, climb over the nine-year-old in the aisle seat who is too engulfed in his cell phone conversation to notice, and sit down. My seat is smack in the middle of Moscow’s delegation to the Little League World Series. Bouncing in the seats all around me are twelve of the cutest, pre-pubescent, Russian Little League baseball players I have ever seen. Bouncing in the seat in front of me is the crudest, post-pubescent, Russian Little League baseball coach I could possibly imagine.
He winks at me. I turn my head and hope that the row of seatbacks between him and me might serve as the impenetrable barrier that will hold us apart despite painful longing for each other. I am wrong.
As soon as the flight is in the air, the coach waltzes up to the aisle seat and interrupts his player, by jerking his thumb over his shoulder and barking, “Von!” The child disappears in a flash. The coach puffs out his chest, smiles at me, slides into the empty seat, and leans well into my personal space. He is a commanding figure, over six feet tall, but athletic-looking, with sandy blond hair, bright blue eyes, and deep ruts in his forehead and cheeks. As soon as he plants himself against me, he flags down the flight attendant and orders two glasses of vodka on the rocks.
“Spasiba!” he thanks her enthusiastically in Russian. “Amerikanka,” he turns to me. “Please. Allow me to treat you to this complimentary beverage.”
“No, thanks,” I politely respond, leaning away from him. “I had a long night last night.”
“I’m Ivan Ivanov,” he politely ignores my refusal. “And you?”
“Kat Vespucci.” I extend my hand and, instead of shaking it, he slips the vodka into it.
“Na zdarovye means ‘to your health’ in Russian. It’s like saying ‘cheers.’”
“Oh,” I answer. I’m not even going to attempt saying it. “Cheers!”
Ivan seems satisfied. “Kat?” he asks me after a long sip. “What kind of name is it?”
“It’s a German name. Short for Katarina.”
“German. I see. But Vespucci, that’s—”
“Ha! I thought so! She’s German and Italian!” Ivan exclaims loudly to the other passengers who are ignoring him. “Someone alert France!”
I roll my eyes and wait for him to laugh it off.
“Is that why you live in America? Because they kicked you out of Europe?” Ivan slaps his knee, really enjoying himself. His face is bright red and scrunched up with laughter.
I look away, hoping to find someone or something that can rescue me.
“I’m sorry,” he says when he has finally calmed down. “By the way, I coach baseball.”
“That’s nice,” I reply.
“You know baseball?”
“A little,” I reply.
“You are an American genius! You know Little League World Series?”
“No! It is impossible.”
“Yes, it is possible.”
“How do you know Little League World Series, Katarina Vespucci?” Ivan asks, wide-eyed.
“Williamsport is not far from where I grew up.”
“Bozhe moy! You are a smart Amerikanka. You even know where Little League World Series is played. We drink again.”
“No, Ivan, I appreciate it, but I really don’t want to drink.”
“Nonsense! Who doesn’t want to drink?”
“If that’s what you want, then I drink two. Okay?”
“Stewardess!” Ivan bellows.
The flight attendant in the gangway rolls her eyes to the ceiling and the drink cart back over to our aisle. This time Ivan orders three Bloody Marys.
“Spasiba!” he thanks her enthusiastically, and hands one to me.
“I thought you were drinking mine?” I hand the Bloody Mary back to him.
“That’s where you are wrong, Amerikanka.” He hands the Bloody Mary back to me. “I said, I drink two. But you must still drink one. A man cannot drink alone. You are very smart, Katarina Vespucci, but you have much to learn.”
“Spasiba.” I say, resigning myself to a long flight. Ivan orders drink after drink and hands them to me. I pass them on to the Little Leaguers sitting to my right, who obediently drink them.
Eventually, it is time to eat. I am eager for a respite, hoping that food will occupy Ivan’s mouth and allow me to have some peace and quiet. I am not so lucky. Ivan is so drunk by dinnertime that he continues talking, waving his fork in the air, sending missiles of salmon and capers sailing throughout the cabin. Disaster strikes when Ivan tries to open his salad dressing packet. I debate whether to assist him, but I am secretly enjoying watching him struggle with the intentionally well-packaged condiment. The confrontation ends when Ivan brings his fork down squarely in the middle of the packet, launching the oily contents onto his lap. It is a direct hit, and the victorious blob of oil, vinegar, and Italian seasoning seeps gloatingly into his Armani slacks.
“Don’t worry,” he grabs my arm with a look of serious reassurance. “I’ve been in this situation before.”
“I’m not worried.”
“I know how to handle it.”
I try to ignore him.
“I bet you think water is the best way to clean up a mess like this, don’t you Katarina Vespucci?” Ivan prods. I scrunch my brow. I have never thought about the best way to clean up salad dressing from the lap of a Russian Little League coach sitting next to me on an airplane to Berlin before.
“Yes, Ivan, I suppose I think water is the best way to clean up a mess like that.”
“No! It’s not. It’s not water.”
“It’s salt!” he bellows. “Salt is the best way.” Ivan orders the inebriated outfielders to stumble around the plane collecting salt packets from surrounding passengers. They hold their alcohol surprisingly well for pre-teens and are able to deliver the goods. Once Ivan has a handful of packets, he opens them up and, one by one, pours the white grains onto his lap. When he is done, he has a mini-Matterhorn.
“Just wait, Katarina Vespucci,” Ivan says. He pats me on the arm, “There is nothing to worry about.” He lets the mound sit for ten determined minutes and then with one glorious swoop, he brushes the pile off into the gangway. Sure enough, there is no stain left. The salt has absorbed the moisture of the salad dressing, and his Armani pants are clean.
“Well, how about that?” I am actually impressed.
“We drink to celebrate!”
At some point, when the food is cleared away, the lights have been turned off, and a movie dances silently on multiple screens throughout the plane, I manage to fall into a light sleep. This is not before Ivan suavely offers me his salt-sprinkled lap to use as a pillow and is genuinely hurt when I do not accept.
“American girls!” he comments, shaking his head, “Ya ne panimayu.”
Instead of asking what that means, I close my eyes and pretend he isn’t there. Five minutes later, I open my eyes and discover that he is indeed there, staring, only inches from my face.
“You awake, Amerikanka?”
“I am now.”
“You want a drink?”
“You know what, Ivan? Fine. I’ll have a drink. Make it a double.”