Recently, I found myself with some extra time before a flight at the Detroit Metro Airport. I passed by one of those mini spa boutiques that offer chair massages and overpriced nail services. I paused to look around inside and gauge how indulgent I felt on this mini vacation.
Was I really going to spend twice as much to get a manicure than I would pay at home?
It was a quick mental calculation. Nah, I wouldn't.
While I was having this minor internal debate, I noticed the toes of a woman standing next to me. More specifically, the warm beige-pink color of her pedicure caught my eye.
"I love that color," I said, looking up and realizing I was probably talking to a model. She towered over me, was super-thin and had perfect skin and hair.
"Thanks," she said, adding that it was her favorite shade and she wore it all the time. She started looking through the display of polishes in front of us to see if she could find it for me.
Alas, they didn't stock OPI's Samoan Sand. Before I had a chance to make a note of the color in my phone, this stranger says to me, "You know, I have a bottle in my bag. Just take it."
Did she really just offer me her favorite nail polish? I weakly objected, but I didn't walk away, or stop her from rummaging in her makeup bag. When she couldn't find it in her purse, she opened her carry-on luggage and looked through her clear bag of products.
Eureka. She held it out like a precious gift.
Humbled and a little embarrassed by her generosity, I opened my own cache of traveling essentials.
"Let's make it a trade," I said. "Take this blush. It's my favorite." (For those playing at home: MAC's Warm Soul.)
"Sure," she said. "I'll try it tonight."
We swapped cosmetics and walked out of the airport spa, each in opposite directions. We didn't exchange names or Twitter handles. Maybe we recognized a kindred spirit in one another that travelers sometimes stumble upon.
It reminded me of an incident on a flight 20 years ago.
I was flying from Houston to London, and was seated next to a British man also in his early 20s. We were in the last row and struck up a conversation. He was hilarious in that dry British way, and I was boisterously friendly in that Texas way. We laughed for much of that transatlantic flight, even after they dimmed the lights and the other passengers fell asleep.
He was launching a new product line in an elite hair salon in Los Angeles. I asked for recommendations for my hair, although as a graduate student I was too poor to afford such things. We parted ways, and I marveled at my good luck for having traveled with such an enjoyable seatmate.
A month later, back in the bitter winter of Chicago, a package arrived at my door. It was filled with dozens of hair products and a note from that stranger thanking me for the great conversation.
I probably sent a thank-you note or email, but we never communicated again after that exchange.
For years, I held onto those bottles of hair gel, styling cream and volumizer, probably worth a few hundred dollars. It was a tangible reminder of the kindness of strangers, of meaningful exchanges that might only last minutes or hours, of bonds forged in that limbo space of going from one place to the next.
When I told my children about this latest unexpected airport interaction, my daughter said it sounded like the kind of thing you see happen in movies.
It kind of felt that way, too.
I'll treasure this bottle of polish as much as that hair gel.
Cosmetic products that remind me of what's truly beautiful in life -- who you encounter on the journey.