Checking his boarding pass, the man slipped into seat 3B, alongside the woman in 3A who held an open book on her lap. While looping the seatbelt around his waist, he turned toward the window. Their eyes met momentarily.
Hers were shimmering discs of burnt umber amid crisp white and were unlike any he had seen before, except for those hidden deep in his hazy memory. He felt he knew them, but not her. Only after the transatlantic flight was airborne for an hour did that faint recollection reveal itself.
He waited until the woman with hair the color of pewter looked up from the page before saying, “Excuse me. Are you Carmela Carrera?”
Those piercing eyes riveted into his.
Perhaps he was mistaken.
“Yes.” Her answer was neither inviting nor dismissive.
“Nice to meet you,” he said pleasantly, trying not to sound overly familiar with the only child of one of the twentieth century’s leading artists, Jose Luis Carrera. A man, who before he turned forty, had been crowned by some as a creative genius, challenging even his fellow Spaniard, Pablo Picasso.
“Likewise,” she smiled with another closed answer and returned to her book.
He wondered if too many flying companions looking to become something more had taught her to be guarded.
“I don’t wish to bother you, but I never thought I’d have the chance to tell you this in person. Thank you,” he said. A tight-lipped grin punctuated his comment.
The woman turned in her seat. “Excuse me?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but you were a big help to me when I went through a rough time.”
Locked on his eyes, hers asked the unspoken question, which he answered.
“When you were eleven, no twelve, your father painted a series of portraits. At the time he denied they were of you.” He paused to gauge her response. Sensing a modicum of interest, he continued, “I always believed those paintings were of you. But, I’m sure you’ve heard this all before.”
“Yes. Much was made of it at the time, but now, few people care.” Her accent, born out of a youth spent in the south of France, Montpelier to be exact, came across as a warm Mediterranean breeze.
“I saved every picture of those portraits I could find in magazines. Art News, Time, Life, Newsweek.” He swallowed, then bared a deeper secret, “In fact, I still have them all.”
“They hung on my bedroom wall when I was twelve. Then, I put them in a scrap book.”
“My parents divorced when I was eleven and my father wasn’t handling it well. Actually, he didn’t handle anything well back then.”
She said nothing to encourage nor discourage his confession.
“For some reason, the eyes of those paintings brought me comfort. They had a wonderful calming effect. I called them laughing eyes.” He turned away; gazing at the empty aisle, “I really needed that back then.”
“I’m sorry about your difficulties,” she smiled, then bowed her head as though in silent prayer. When she looked up, her eyes glistened.
“Everything worked out, eventually,” he added while swallowing the emotion that had bubbled up in his throat.
“What is your name?”
“Stephen. Stephen Harlan.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Stephen.” Carmela Carrera closed the book she held.
Stephen Harlan had told this perfect stranger his secret most thoughts about what helped him through a traumatic adolescence; something, he divulged to no one else, including his wife, now nine years divorced.
Embarrassed by his candid admission, Stephen said, “I’m sorry I bothered you.”
“You didn’t. If you had, I would have asked to be left alone.”
Recognizing a gentleness in her voice, not unlike that which, as a boy, he found in her eyes, Stephen responded appreciatively. “Thanks again.”
“You’re right you know.”
“What?” he said while pivoting in his seat.
“About the portraits.”
“But,” Stephen said, “many art critics of the time noticed it immediately. It was in every magazine and newspaper. Yet, your father rejected the claims. Sometimes, vociferously.”
Carmela laughed. “He loved making critics look like fools, especially those who dismissed him as a second rate, derivative illustrator. It gave him great joy to tweak their upturned noses.”
“I also remember reading that you never admitted to being the model,” Stephen said.
“That’s correct,” Carmela acknowledged with a perfect smile worthy of the artist’s masterful stroke. “He forbade me to discuss them when I was young. Then, before his death, he implored me to honor my word and not tell anyone about the paintings.”
“So,” Stephen asked. “Why admit it now?”
Carmela held Stephen’s gaze. “Only hours before he died, he took my hand and predicted that one day a stranger would approach me and speak of the laughing eyes. Only then could I acknowledge the truth.”
The remaining four hours to Barcelona passed like minutes. Neither slept.
Over several glasses of Tempranillo, they learned they were only eleven months apart in age; both had endured failed relationships; and, each was now traveling the world alone with no one, other than grown children and young grandchildren, awaiting their return. Carmela filled Stephen’s mind with wondrous tales of life with her father. For his part, Stephen recounted how Carmela’s laughing eyes prompted him to become a portrait photographer.
Though many might dismiss their crossed paths as little more than fleeting serendipity, both sensed it was kismet; a destiny fixed decades earlier when her eyes held his, much as they did now.