"Do you believe in God?"
"What?" She walked a little faster. If they hadn't been sitting across the aisle from each other for five hours, he wouldn't have risked it; she'd have run away.
"Wait, please. While we walk to the baggage carousels, can I tell you something? A story? There's nothing to be afraid of; we're in an airport."
She looked worried; who wouldn't? But curious. He shifted the weight of his carry-on; he matched her pace. They were approaching the moving walkway.
"In St. LouisI saw you in St. Louis, before we boarded. I pay attention to people. I'm a writer. I usually know why I pick people outan accent, a bit of a conversation. Hair, a piece of clothing, what they are reading."
He shrugged. "I watch for details. What's unique about her voice, the way he stands."
They stepped on the walkway, him a little behind her. She moved to the right, stopped. They moved along together. She was not looking at him, but she was listening. He was encouraged.
"My attention kept coming back to you. First at the end that long line, then as you got closer to check-in. I switched to something elsetwo Iranians discussing the time, but everything except the numbers in their language. When I looked back, you were at the counter, gesturing at the hall behind you. You and the clerk nodded together, as if you'd agreed about something, and you walked away.
"I imagined offering you my business-class seat. It's something you'd do in a story." He paused, shook his head. "Well, some people would do. I worked through it. What a stupid thought. She would wonder what I wanted in return; she would refuse it, just to be safe. And of course, she'd be right; I did want something. I wanted to talk to you. But how would that work? You'd be in my seat, and I'd be back there in yours. Really stupid."
He smiled to himself, walking.
"Once I thought about it, I realized that you looked a lot like a woman I had loved a long time ago. She could have been your mother. Don't worry."
The walkway would end in a few moments. A mechanical voice droned on about standing to the right. He watched the end approach as he continued.
"You reminded me of her. There isn't all that much resemblance, but that's what I thought it was, the thing that kept pulling me back. And I wanted to talk to you. A way to talk to her. I know. Strange, but not crazy, more like... symbolic. I haven't seen her in a long time."
They stepped onto solid ground, her first. She did not move quickly away. He was encouraged.
"I wanted to talk to you. I got on the plane, took my seat, right up front. Then: There you were. I allowed myself to really look at you. The resemblance slipped quite a bit. And you stopped; I studied you while you put your bag in the overhead, and you caught my eye and smiled. And you sat down across the aisle. Not next to me. Across the aisle."
"That was my seat."
"Oh, yes! I know. Precisely. I'm explaining." He glanced down the hall, at the second walkway, ahead in the distance. "I'm almost done." He paused. "I'm explaining why I believe in God."
He did not tell her it was the shoes. He hadn't known it was the shoes until she had fallen asleep, an hour after they took off, after her long, animated conversation with the big guy beside her, who had told her about his wife, his dog, his job, what the temperature and time would be when they landed.
It was the pale purple shoes, he had realized with a shock like recognition. Lavender. Madeleine had just such a pair of shoesflats, suede, just like them. Not Gwen, the woman she did indeed look a little like, from twenty years ago, but Maddy two years gone, magicked back by a pair of sensible shoes, sensible sexless lavender flats. They had nothing else in common, Maddy, this woman. He didn't tell her about the shoes, because that would make her think, perhaps even say, "Too weird."
"I was telling you why I believe in God. I really wanted to talk to you. For no reason, literally no reason except that I wanted to. No agenda, no plans, just for its own sake, like looking at an unfamiliar picture that brought back an odd and pleasant memory. And you were one seat away, across the aisle, so I couldn't. Not ten rows back, not even on the other side of that fellow in the next seat over. Right next to me, but across the aisle, and engaged in conversation with that man, whom you didn't know any more than you did me."
"You see. You would have talked to me. Maybe I would have frightened you, but there was nothing intense about what I wanted, so I don't think so."
The second walkway was coming up.
"No need to be afraid here, anyway. I'm done. I just wanted you to know. Why I believe in God. That's all," he said, glancing at her beside him. "Really all, I mean. Not a come-on or anything. I just wanted to tell you what happened. Or rather, didn't happen, I guess." He looked toward the walkway.
He began to walk faster, moving away from her, leaving her behind. It was the only proof he could think of. How ironic, he thought, that he had talked to her, but for a reason, not for no reason after all. He felt like singing. He did not look back at her. He didn't even consider it; it would be pointless and foolish, and they were done, anyway.
He stepped onto the second walkway, to the left, walking briskly.
He felt like singing. Not like Gene Kelly, joyful in the rain. Like a priest, in solemn procession. He smiled, walking. To sing. Like a head floating downriver to the sea.