The first time Krystina Burton met Gabriel Solberg, she rolled her eyes.
Burton, a then 30-year-old dancer living and working in Los Angeles, was waiting at JFK to fly home following an audition in New York. It was early in the morning. The terminal was mostly empty, so she had a row of seats to herself.
When a man plonked his bag on the floor and sat right next to her, Burton was irritated.
This was Solberg, then 34 and on his way back from visiting family in Europe. Bleary-eyed from an airport overnight layover, he was paying little attention to his surroundings.
“This guy doesn’t have spatial awareness,” Burton recalls thinking. The two strangers were sitting so close that Burton could see the seat number printed on Solberg’s plane ticket. She realized he had the plane seat next to her, and internally groaned. She wasn’t in the mood to spend six hours sat with someone who didn’t understand the concept of personal space.
This was July 2018. Reflecting on the moment now, Solberg is quick to defend himself, and remembers things slightly differently.
“That’s her perspective,” he tells CNN Travel, laughing. “When I went to that terminal, it was packed, it was full of people, and I just grabbed a chair that was empty. I only sat there for like five minutes.”
Burton says Solberg only sat down briefly because he jumped up the minute boarding was announced, only confirming her suspicions about his arrogant nature.
“I know that since we’re sitting next to each other, we must be in the same boarding group. But he’s already escaped, and he boarded the flight with a random group,” Burton tells CNN Travel.
When Burton eventually boarded the Alaska Airlines flight and saw Solberg already settled in their row, she tried to put her headphones in quickly, to avoid any conversation.
“But I’m not fast enough, so he immediately engages me.”
Solberg hadn’t really noticed Burton in the terminal, but he spotted her as soon as she boarded the flight, walked up the aisle and approached his row.
He says he was blown away by her smile, and then something twigged.
“Hey, weren’t you sitting next to me in the terminal?” he said, grinning.
“You were sitting next to me,” responded Burton, still smiling.
Burton’s first impression of Solberg as arrogant and self-centered melted away, and the two started chatting.
“I feel like the banter was immediate,” Burton recalls now. “As soon as I got on the plane and was getting to my seat, I feel like it just changed — there was no annoyance.”
The captain announced over the speaker that the plane was delayed and likely wouldn’t depart for another couple of hours. Burton and Solberg were in the middle seat and the aisle. The passenger by the window fell asleep almost instantaneously, so it soon felt like they had the row to themselves.
As the aircraft remained on the ground, Solberg and Burton made conversation, segueing from small talk to bigger topics.
“We talked about everything,” recalls Solberg.
They recall discussing their jobs, where they were living, why they were traveling to Los Angeles. They also bonded over a love of travel — Solberg is half-French, half-American and grew up in Germany, so spent his life jetsetting. Burton’s job as a dancer took her across the world, from stints performing on cruise ships to tours across the US.
When the flight eventually took off, it felt like Solberg and Burton had known one another for years. They watched a couple of movies in tandem, but chatted and laughed the whole way through them.
“I told her how terrible her movie choices were,” says Solberg.
“We’re trying to watch ‘Planet of the Apes,’ which I think is a good movie,” says Burton. “But he was like, ‘This is the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen.'”
Burton was charmed by Solberg’s directness and sense of humor. It was obvious he was kind, underneath the jokes.
Over the six-hour flight, there was room for more serious conversation too. Burton and Solberg talked about spirituality and religion, and their respective outlooks on life.
It was, says Solberg, “just a really organic conversation.”
When the flight landed, their seat neighbor woke up to a surprise.
“Clearly, when we all first boarded, nobody knew each other. And then the guy fell asleep for the entire flight. And at the end of the flight, we were basically sitting on top of each other and this guy wakes up at the end of the flight, like ‘What’s going on here?'” recalls Solberg, laughing.
The connection wasn’t just clear to the man in the window seat. It was obvious to Solberg and Burton too.
Still, they were wary, each for different reasons. Solberg had broken up with a long-term partner about five months prior. He had been spending the summer visiting loved ones in Europe, and when he met Burton was on his way to Seattle to visit family. He says romance was far from his mind.
“My stance on relationships was, they’re not for me. Basically, I was like, ‘I’m not looking, not interested,'” he recalls.
Burton says she wasn’t searching for anything either.
“I’d never dated anybody before,” she says. “I was fine living my single life with my best friend in LA.”
Burton and Solberg’s eight-hour airplane “date” was a surprise to them both. It wasn’t, they say, an instant infatuation. It just felt natural and easy to be in one another’s company.
“It was more of this calm, like it just kind of made sense, kind of feeling, which is very different than I’ve ever experienced in the past,” says Solberg.
When the flight landed and the passengers disembarked at LAX, Solberg and Burton prepared to go their separate ways.
“I told her, ‘Hey, there’s something going on here. So I’m coming back in a week and then we’re going to see what this is about,'” recalls Solberg.
“I personally didn’t think it was gonna happen,” says Burton. “I knew we had some kind of connection because I could just feel it, but I was like, ‘Oh, sure, you’re going to just come back to LA and hang out with me? That’s going to happen.’ I just was not convinced.”
As Burton’s ride pulled up, Solberg gave her a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek goodbye. And even though Burton figured she might never see Solberg again, she immediately texted her sister and her friends to fill them in.
“This is a meet-cute,” she remembers thinking.
“I knew I was coming back,” says Solberg. He texted his brother as he walked away.
“I met the girl of my dreams,” he wrote.
A week passed, and Solberg did come back to Los Angeles. In the intervening days, he called Burton to make plans.
“We spent like two or three hours on that phone call,” he says.
Solberg remembers thinking how strange the situation was — he had just talked on the phone to someone who was still essentially a stranger with the ease of someone he had known for years.
And now he was about to fly across the country to visit her.
“It’s very strange, it’s like we had just known each other forever,” he recalls.
“I usually don’t like to talk on the phone. But it was just so comfortable,” agrees Burton.
On the call, they mulled over what they could do when Solberg was back in town.
Burton suggested dinner and a movie. Solberg said they should do something more exciting, especially if he was flying all the way across the country. He suggested they rent a cabin in Topanga Canyon, in California’s Santa Monica mountains.
“I was like ‘Oh, this is nice. We can just hang out here and it’s not a long drive to the beach, and it’s not too long to get to LA.'”
Burton, meanwhile, says she wasn’t convinced by the idea of a “murder cabin.” She was excited to see Solberg again, but her friends and family were genuinely concerned at the idea of her traveling to an isolated spot with a man she had just met.
Before traveling, a friend gave her a set of brass knuckles to take with her, in case Solberg had ill intent.
Despite the accommodation being more rustic than Solberg anticipated, the two had a wonderful time in Topanga. They easily picked up where they left on the plane, enjoying drives along the coast, eating out and deep conversations.
On the day Solberg was supposed to fly back to New York, the two went out to brunch and discussed where things would go from there. The prospect of parting ways again was tough to swallow.
“We both were feeling down,” recalls Solberg. The two decided that rather than saying goodbye, Burton would fly out with Solberg to New York to continue the adventure there.
“There was one empty seat left next to me, on a flight I’d already booked, and so she just booked it and came back to New York with me for a couple of weeks,” says Solberg.
In the rush of excitement and romance, Burton completely forgot about the brass knuckles in her bag.
“It all truly felt like a fairy tale but as we all know every story needs a little drama,” she says now.
While going through airport security, her bag set the alarm off. The TSA agent pulled out the brass knuckles and immediately took Burton aside.
“It was so terrible and embarrassing. And I’m not or I wasn’t a very emotional person — and especially just meeting him — I was just so mortified,” says Burton.
The police were called and Burton was threatened with a potential court appearance.
Solberg could see Burton closing off to him.
“I broke her out of it, I got her to share that with me, where she was at,” he says now.
“I’m not going to just let you close up,” he recalls saying. “That’s not how you communicate, it doesn’t work.”
He encouraged Burton to be open with him about how upset she was. The situation was resolved, and Burton and Solberg were permitted to leave security, board their flight, and she never had to go to court.
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