Fool for lust

A woman named Rita inspires a flight attendant to woo her halfway around the world -- on standby.

By Elliott Neal Hester

Published May 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In January 1990, having grown tired of working the sometimes-not-so-friendly skies, I secured a temporary leave of absence, hung up my flight attendant uniform and used my employee discount to buy a one-way ticket to Sydney, Australia. Those were the happiest two years of my life. I spent most days at Bondi Beach, rubbing sunblock lotion on near-naked women who lay sprawled on the sand like survivors of a shipwreck. At night I wrote articles for second-rate magazines and poured drinks from behind the bar at a funky Sydney nightclub.

Intrigued by all the fun I was having, especially the fun at the beach, my good friend Rick came to visit from New York. Like me, Rick was a New York-based flight attendant. Like me, he traveled often and impulsively. Like me, he loved women more than life itself. Armed with about 86 tubes of sunblock lotion, he showed up on my doorstep with a suitcase and a grin.

But Rick never made it to the beach, at least not with me. Immediately upon his arrival, he took a liking to my platonic flatmate, Rita. Rita was a hair designer, a 31-year-old double-divorcie who smoked too much dope and blasted Vivaldi on her stereo before stumbling off to work each morning. She was the proud owner of three passports -- Australian (country of origin), Canadian and British (acquired in marriage from hubbies one and two respectively) -- and was not bashful about the fact that she was looking to own a fourth.

From the beginning I'd felt there was something suspicious about Rita: a certain calculation in the eyes and in the semi-automatic smile she used to get whatever it was she needed at the time. But she had offered to let me share her luxurious apartment, and so I gratefully accepted and kept my mouth shut.

Rick took an immediate liking to Rita and she responded in kind. That first night, the three of us drank Tasmanian beer in the Soho Bar on Victoria Street. Rita told stories about growing up in the Tasmanian rain forest with hippie parents who shunned electricity and lived off the land. Rick and I took turns telling airline tales about wacko passengers and drunken layovers in Barbados. We drank and laughed and drank some more until finally we staggered back to the apartment and fell asleep.

Later that night, I was awakened by strange noises. I crept into the hallway and shot a glance toward the living room. Rick was missing from his designated spot on the sofa. I heard Rita giggle and moan from behind her bedroom door. Then she released a delighted shriek. The sound repeated itself over and over and over as her headboard bumped rhythmically against the bedroom wall. I shook my head and laughed, and went back to bed.

For the remainder of his stay, Rick and Rita were inseparable. They spent long days exploring the city, sampling great restaurants and drinking vodka tonics at the Soho Bar. Each night, the headboard bumps grew louder.

When the time came for Rick to leave, he pried himself away from Rita's bedroom long enough to tell me he was in love. I was sitting at the kitchen table, choking on my very first Vegemite sandwich, when he shared the news. I looked him dead in the eye, spit out a wad of Vegemite and laughed. "It's the long-distance thing," I told him. "You'll get over it."

Three weeks later Rick was back in Sydney. Had he been required to pay the astronomical full-fare ticket price, I seriously doubted he would have flown back so soon. I doubted that anyone would, even if they had the money. Sydney was 10,000 miles from New York, impossibly far for a long-distance relationship -- unless, of course, you were an airline employee who knew how to rearrange your work schedule. But even as a savvy airline employee, this is what Rick had to endure: flying six hours from New York to Los Angeles in a center seat on a crowded airplane, then getting bumped from the connecting flight to Sydney and having to pay for a Los Angeles hotel room, returning to LAX the following night to wait at the ticket counter for his name to be called (knowing there was a real possibility he'd be bumped from the flight again) and being elated to get a coach center seat for the 14-hour flight to Sydney, and finally worrying that on the return trip he might get bumped again and arrive home late and miss his work trip -- thereby getting fired and losing the great privilege of flying cheap and on perpetual standby.

Despite all that, Rick was back, wide-eyed and horny as a Labrador retriever on Viagra. Rita's headboard immediately sprang into action.

This time he stayed for a week. I hardly saw the guy, only clues that he existed: swim trunks drying on a bathroom towel rack, an extra suitcase on the floor in the hall closet, a half-hearted note saying, "Maybe we can all have dinner on Thursday" and of course, the omnipresent thunder from Rita's room.

The night before his departure, he stopped me in the hallway as I was leaving for work. "I really think I'm in love," he said. I just shook my head and laughed. "It's the long-distance thing," I told him before walking out the door. "You're so far away from Rita that when you're back in New York, all you can do is think of her. Right?"

"Well ... "

"Trust me," I continued. "The farther away a woman is, the more desirable she becomes." I told him that all the classic love stories had been written about love lost, denied, forbidden or far away. Not about love around the corner. "If Rita lived in New Jersey instead of Australia, you'd be complaining about not having enough space."

Despite my warnings, Rick flew back and forth between Sydney and New York three or four times within a five-month period. He became an antipodal yo-yo, a 20th century Odysseus jetting halfway around the world to hook up with the woman he loved. But in this case the woman was a bored Australian divorcie who wanted a green card to add to her document collection.

In the sixth month, Rita flew to New York. A couple of days later I received a phone call. Rick and Rita were both on the line. "We're getting married tomorrow," they said in unison. "What do you think?" For a moment I was speechless. Then I said, "Don't you think you two need to spend more time together? You've only known each other for five or six months. And in that time you've spent, what -- maybe six weeks together?"

"Yeah, but we love each other," said Rick.

"Six weeks!"

"Relax," he said. "I'm sure about this. Never been more sure about anything in my life." I could hear Rita laughing in the background. To the untrained ear, that might have sounded normal -- the laughter of a blushing bride-to-be -- but to my ears it was the laughter of a cat who had swallowed the canary and would spit it out when she was good and ready.

They married. They moved to the States. They experienced major marital problems almost immediately. As Rick's wife, Rita now enjoyed the same airline flight benefits as he (I wondered if this had been part of her plan all along). Together, they flew to Jamaica and London, to Honolulu and Spain. Occasionally they enjoyed each other's company, but mostly they argued. According to Rick, after only one year of marriage the headboard rarely bumped against the wall, and when it did, there was hardly any noise.

By this time my leave of absence had ended. I was back in the States, living in an apartment only six blocks from Rick and Rita's. On the rare occasion when Rick came to visit, it was mainly to voice a complaint. Rita is a bitch. Rita is jealous. Rita is impossible to live with. It took every ounce of restraint for me not to say I told you so. I just listened and tried to give support.

Four years, three cities, two countries and more than 100,000 air miles later, Rick finally ran out of fuel. Next month his divorce becomes final. Rita, soon to be a triple-divorcie, resides in Arizona. She still smokes dope and blasts Vivaldi in the morning, but her employee flight privileges have been ceremoniously stripped. Me? I vacation in Sydney almost every year. And I still hang out at Bondi, rubbing suntan lotion on near-naked women who lie sprawled on the sand. Rick hasn't made use of his employee travel privileges lately, but on my next trip to Sydney, he's agreed to come with me. And we're spending all our time at Bondi Beach.

Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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