She thought she’d never see the stranger she met at the airport again. Then they unexpectedly reunited

Christian Friese was standing in the arrivals area in Honolulu Airport, Hawaii, peering at a large airport map.

“You are here,” read the sign above the map.

Christian was assessing the airport layout, working out where she needed to go next, when, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a man wearing a Hawaiian Airlines uniform, walking her way.

Then, the man was at her side – tall, friendly and smiling.

“Excuse me,” asked the stranger, “Do you need any assistance?”

Christian turned to look at him properly and was momentarily taken aback.

“He was perfection,” Christian tells CNN Travel today. “He smiled with his whole face. I couldn’t believe he was talking to me.”

It was summer 2015, and Christian was on a solo vacation to Hawaii. She didn’t usually travel alone, preferring to have a gaggle of girlfriends close by – but this trip was an exception. The previous year, Christian’s mother had passed away suddenly, and Christian had spent several months trying to process this loss.

“It was because my mom had passed that I thought, ‘I just need a break,’’ says Christian.

So she’d packed her suitcase, left her home in Portland, Oregon and flown more than five hours to Honolulu. From there, Christian was set to travel to the island of Kauai – known for its beautiful cliffs, sprawling rainforest and stunning mountain ranges.

But first, Christian needed to figure out how to get to the gate for her connecting flight.

She explained this last part to the tall, smiling man now standing at her side, offering assistance.

“He asked me what I was looking for, I told him, and then he said he could walk me to my gate,” recalls Christian.

Christian obliged, and as they set off together towards the gate, the airport stranger introduced himself as Aaron.

Christian and Aaron pictured at Honolulu Airport, Hawaii, where they met. - Keani Bakula Photography (@keanibakula/
Christian and Aaron pictured at Honolulu Airport, Hawaii, where they met. - Keani Bakula Photography (@keanibakula/

A Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant from the Big Island, Aaron Malulo had actually worked Christian’s flight from Portland, but neither of them had spotted each other on board.

Instead, Aaron first noticed Christian when she was standing by the airport map, looking a little lost.

“I thought that she was cute,” Aaron tells CNN Travel today. “And I thought that I could probably help her – because I’m at that airport every single day, so my chances of being able to offer assistance were really high.”

Christian’s gate turned out to be pretty far away, and it took 10 minutes or so to walk over there. But Christian and Aaron barely noticed the distance, or the time passing – they were absorbed in conversation the whole way.

“We had a really easy, natural conversation,” says Aaron.

As they walked, both pulling wheelie suitcases behind them, Christian explained she’d lived in Hawaii as a kid – her dad had been stationed there in the US military. Aaron, who was from the Big Island, but knew Kauai pretty well, gave Christian his tips on the best things to see and do there.

“We just chatted as we walked to the gate,” Christian recalls. “And then when we got there, we shook hands. And we only got each other’s first names. So he just said, ‘Have a good birthday. Nice to meet you.’”

Christian thought that was sweet – she’d mentioned, in passing, that it was her birthday the following day.

“Have a nice life,” she replied, only half-joking.

As Aaron walked away, the thought briefly crossed his mind that perhaps he should have asked Christian for her contact details – but he quickly dismissed it.

“I just walked away appreciating the moment, instead of second guessing myself about whether I should have done more,” he says.

And as Christian headed to her connecting flight, the same thought crossed her mind.

“I think I was wrapped up in our conversation and was having such a nice time, I didn’t think to even get a last name,” says Christian. “And I didn’t look to see if he was married either.”

Christian didn’t think she’d ever see Aaron again – he said he wasn’t scheduled to work her flight back the following week, so it wasn’t obvious how their paths would ever cross again.

But after briefly toying with regret, Christian refocused on her next flight and the vacation ahead.

She decided to view the interaction as a good sign of what was to come – an unexpected moment of levity, excitement and kindness kicking off her trip, beginning a new chapter.

Reunited on a plane

Christian and Aaron thought they'd never see one another again following their airport meeting. - Keani Bakula Photography (@keanibakula/
Christian and Aaron thought they'd never see one another again following their airport meeting. - Keani Bakula Photography (@keanibakula/

Christian spent the next several days enjoying Kauai. As she relaxed on sandy beaches, swam, hiked and ate well, she reflected on her mother, on their close relationship, on her childhood in Hawaii.

“I spread her ashes too, while I was there,” says Christian. “And so it was cathartic for me, a nice little retreat for myself.”

Every so often, Christian thought about the airport stranger – she remained grateful for his friendliness and she followed all his Kauai tips.

Then, it was time for Christian to head home. She took an early morning flight from Kauai to Oahu. At Honolulu Airport, she just had time to grab a breakfast sandwich before heading to catch her connecting flight home to Portland.

As she walked down the jet bridge to board her flight, brushing crumbs off her clothing, Christian spotted him right away: Aaron, standing at the end of the walkway, right in front of the airplane, greeting the boarding passengers.

Christian couldn’t believe it. First, she was surprised, Then she was flooded with happiness. And then she regretted the breakfast sandwich, and her casual airplane attire.

“I just remember thinking, ‘If I’d known he’d be there, I would have looked cuter, I would have brushed my teeth,’” says Christian, laughing. “I wasn’t expecting it.”

As Christian approached the plane, Aaron spotted her. He smiled – the smile that had won Christian over on their first meeting, the smile that lit up his whole face.

It was true, Aaron wasn’t supposed to be working that day. But then the night before, his work system had flashed up that a flight attendant was needed on that day’s flight from Honolulu to Portland. Someone had dropped out, and someone else needed to pick up the shift.

When Aaron saw the notification, he immediately thought of Christian.

“I remembered that was the day she’d said she was flying back,” recalls Aaron. “And I thought ‘You know, we had such a nice conversation the first time. I want to see her again.’ And so I picked up that trip, that shift – and that’s how I got myself on her flight.”

As Christian made her way down the jet bridge, she wondered what she should say to Aaron when it was her turn to board the flight. In the end, she just said hello, and he said the same back – but it was obvious they were both happy to see one another.

Then, over the duration of the five and a half hour flight, Aaron kept coming over to say hello again, to check in on how Christian was doing, to chat a little about her time in Kauai.

Meanwhile Christian, who’d planned to sleep through the flight, didn’t close her eyes once.

“I just kept watching him, walking around the cabin,” Christian recalls. It was obvious Aaron was popular with his colleagues. Some passengers who were regular on the route knew him on a first name basis. Christian was charmed by this. She already liked him, now she liked him even more.

“And all the while, I was wondering if it was intentional or not, that he’d ended up on my flight, because he didn’t say. And so the whole time I thought, ‘What is happening?’” she says.

Aaron wanted to talk to Christian, to chat properly during the flight. But it wasn’t really the right place. He was working, for one, plus “it’s awkward to stand and have one person be seated and to carry on a significant conversation,” he says.

He realized all the plane journey could be was “a place to touch base and just make sure she’s doing okay.”

As the flight prepared to land in Portland, Christian decided to be assertive – whether Aaron was on the flight thanks to his own doings, or thanks to fate, she didn’t want another meeting between them to go by without them swapping contact details.

So she dug out a business card from her bag. On the front were her contact details, including details on her realtor job back home in Portland. On the back, Christian scribbled a message:

“Thank you for taking good care of me,” she wrote. “It was so nice to see you again.”

As Christian got off the plane, she said goodbye to Aaron, met his eye, and then slipped him the card.

For Aaron, this was a “great sign.”

“I didn’t have a plan,” he says, “And so I’m glad that she took the initiative to keep the ball going by giving me her contact information.”

Later, when he got off work, Aaron sent Christian a message:

“I was hoping you’d be on my flight again,” he wrote.

A football reunion

From there, Aaron and Christian texted a little bit back and forth, but then the conversation reached a bit of a stalemate. Aaron was busy flying. Christian’s out-of-office was no longer on and she was back to her day job, busy selling Oregon real estate.

Then, one evening, Aaron looked Christian up online – her business website was listed on the card she’d given him.

“And in her little bio on the website, she mentioned that she had gone to Oregon State University,” recalls Aaron. “I also went to Oregon State – at a different time. So I decided to send her a message and say that we had that in common.”

As it happened, Aaron’s message came through while Christian was at an Oregon State pep rally. She stared at the message in disbelief – the fact she and the stranger she’d met at the airport in Hawaii were both Oregon State alumni seemed like a huge coincidence. She texted back right away.

“I’m literally at an Oregon State pep rally right now,” replied Christian. “And I have tickets to the Beavers playing Michigan next week.”

The Beavers – Oregon State’s football team – were playing the University of Michigan at Michigan’s homeground. Christian had been planning to go along with an old college friend, but the friend canceled at the last minute. At first, Christian had been disappointed – but now it felt serendipitous: Christian asked Aaron if he wanted to go to the game with her instead.

“Had she not backed out, I never would have invited him,” says Christian today. “But I had the game tickets. And I had the hotel lined up. And so I said, ‘Oh, you’re a Beaver? I’m going to this game. Do you want to meet me there?’ And he says ‘Yes.’”

A week later, Christian and Aaron made their way to in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aaron flew all night to make it there from Hawaii. On the journey over, he felt “nervous.”

“But I was game for a new opportunity and just trying to see what would happen next, and keeping it alive,” says Aaron. “I thought watching a football game would be fun, and a great way to see her again.”

“I felt nervous too,” says Christian. Their text interactions had been fun, but brief. They hadn’t spoken on the phone or via video call. On her flight over, Christian considered that she still didn’t really know much about Aaron, beyond what she’d learned in their 10 minute airport conversation.

“He had no social media presence – I couldn’t look him up or anything, as he doesn’t use it,” she says. “But we both just went into it looking forward to it from the last time we saw each other – which was about three weeks before at the airport. It was exciting.”

And as soon as they reunited, Christian and Aaron’s nerves faded away. The easy connection they’d felt at the airport returned, effortlessly.

The game “was a dud,” as Aaron puts it – Oregon State lost. But the uninteresting game gave Aaron and Christian plenty of time to connect.

“We talked a lot about our lives,” says Aaron.

“We lost the game,” says Christian. “But we won at love.”

Here's Christian and Aaron on their first date, watching their alma mater Oregon State play football. - Christian Maluo and Aaron Maluo
Here's Christian and Aaron on their first date, watching their alma mater Oregon State play football. - Christian Maluo and Aaron Maluo

Over the rest of the weekend in Ann Arbor, Christian and Aaron wandered around, chatting.

“We didn’t have a rental car and so we walked everywhere in the little town – to get food, to go to the game. And so we always had time to talk,” says Aaron.

“I remember thinking he was fun to travel with,” recalls Christian. “And we were both in similar situations – no kids, hadn’t been married before. So we just talked about life, and Oregon State, until it was really late. He’s easy to be around. I really love college football, and he does too. And I’d always wanted someone to share that with me.”

All too quickly Sunday came around and Christian and Aaron traveled to the airport together to board separate flights – Aaron back to Hawaii, and Christian back to Oregon.

“We parted ways at the airport,” recalls Aaron. “I got on the train in the airport – one of the little terminal trains. And that was it – that was the end of our fun weekend.”

As they said goodbye, Christian teared up.

“He was getting on the train in one direction, I was getting on the other train and so we just parted – kind of dramatically,” she says. “I remember crying and thinking, ‘Why am I crying?’ But it just was a really, really nice weekend.”

Christian calls the few days with Aaron in Michigan, “light and perfect.” She wanted to hold onto the feeling she had when she was with him, but she wasn’t sure what the future held.

“I thought maybe this is just our little season – that one, really fun weekend.”

But while they didn’t make any promises to meet again, once they were back in their respective homes, Christian and Aaron “just naturally kept in touch.”

Before long, Aaron was visiting Christian in Portland. And soon, he was staying with her whenever he had layovers in the city.

That fall, Aaron and Christian went to several more Oregon State football games, meeting in Arizona, California and Washington.

The fact Aaron flew around the US as part of his job – plus the fact Christian’s realtor role offered work flexibility – made meeting up relatively straightforward. Aaron and Christian were able to gradually get to know each other over a series of visits.

“I don’t really feel like we talked specifically about how this would work. I think we just started to make it work for us,” says Aaron. “And what I remember that being like was just us spending more and more time together.”

“We didn’t have a label on the relationship,” says Christian. “But I told everyone about him, showed them pictures of us, and they were just so happy for me.”

Committing to each other

Christian and Aaron got married on Oahu, Hawaii in 2018. - Keani Bakula Photography (@keanibakula/
Christian and Aaron got married on Oahu, Hawaii in 2018. - Keani Bakula Photography (@keanibakula/

For the next two years, Christian and Aaron “just had a lot of fun, traveling back and forth together,” as Christian recalls.

Then, in 2017, the two bought a house in Portland together. They decided Aaron would base himself with Christian in Portland, and he could still work for Hawaiian Airlines and fly back and forth from Hawaii whenever needed.

Then, that Christmas, Aaron proposed to Christian while in the kitchen of their new home.

“I knew here in the kitchen was the most perfect place, just us and our cat – he was our witness,” says Aaron.

There was “lots of crying, lots of laughing,” he says.

“I was really surprised. And I felt very happy,” says Christian. She and Aaron had talked about marriage, but she wasn’t expecting a proposal that day. It was low key, intimate and perfect.

Aaron set up his iPad to record the moment, but the video didn’t work – the recording cut out right before the proposal.

“But then I remember thinking that, you know,  that just makes this moment ours,” says Aaron. “So it’s kind of more special.”

The couple's wedding theme was "love is in the air." - Keani Bakula Photography (@keanibakula/
The couple's wedding theme was "love is in the air." - Keani Bakula Photography (@keanibakula/

The following year, Aaron and Christian got married in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu –not far from where they’d first met at the airport.

“The theme was ‘love is in the air,’” says Christian, who took Aaron’s name when she got married, becoming Christian Maluo. “It was a vintage travel-themed wedding.”

Before the wedding, the couple organized a photoshoot at Honolulu Airport.

“We took pictures everywhere that we’d walked that first time that we met,” Christian recalls. “Being that our story was so much about flights and airports, I thought it was just perfect to have a travel-themed wedding.”

The wedding decor incorporated the travel theme too, with airplanes and world flags hanging from the ceiling.

‘All the pieces will fall into place’

Here's a recent photo of Aaron and Christian and their son Cruz, who was born last year. - Laura Santos Photography
Here's a recent photo of Aaron and Christian and their son Cruz, who was born last year. - Laura Santos Photography

Today, Christian and Aaron live together in Portland, Oregon with their son Cruz, who just turned one.

When they got married, Christian and Aaron knew they wanted to have children, but it was a little while before Cruz came along.

Christian calls their son “a miracle.”

“I think something with us is that timing played a huge role in everything all along,” she says. “And the same with Cruz – we were just waiting for him, and he took a long time, and then he seemed to come at the perfect time.”

Christian and Aaron remain avid Oregon State football fans – they often attend home games, and occasionally travel to away games too, with their son in tow too.

“He goes to all the games with us, he has little headphones to block the sound,” says Christian, who suspects Cruz will take after his parents when it comes to a love of travel.

“We’re hoping and looking forward to taking him to even more places together,” she says.

Today, when Christian’s cheering on Oregon State, her arms around Aaron, holding on to Cruz, she sometimes feels emotional, thinking how all this happened “just because I went for a walk with a stranger in an airport.”

She says reflecting on meeting Aaron at Honolulu Airport, in the wake of her mother’s death, is a reminder that sometimes “all the pieces will fall into place, if you just let them and never force anything, just let things roll out in front of you. And it can just be a beautiful story. It just was different than what you were expecting.”

Aaron says that day at the airport, he and Christian were “just two people just trying to keep going forward, and just trying to find what they’re looking for.”

Christian agrees.

“Meeting Aaron just felt exactly what my heart and my soul needed after the rough year. And I just think it was just my life unveiling itself,” she says.

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