I'm sitting on the plane, book in my lap, with a finger holding my spot. The plane is filling up, and I'm hoping no one is going to sit next to me. But then a guy stops at my row, looks at the seat numbers, looks at his boarding pass stub and stows his luggage in the overhead compartment. He's middle-aged, with thinning curly hair and a rumpled overcoat. He settles himself next to me and I settle back into my book.
"Hello," he says.
I look up, in that did I hear something? way, look over at him, half-smile, mumble "hello" and go right back to reading. Although now I'm not really reading I'm staring at the page, trying to look like I'm reading because I can't really concentrate on the words, I can only think, leave me alone...please.
But he doesn't.
He asks me what I'm reading.
I hesitate because for a moment I can't remember what I'm reading. I have to turn the book over and show him the title. Unfortunately it is not a conversation ender, it is Invisible Man, and so he says, "Oh, I read that. Pretty freaky, huh?"
I know by this response that he thinks I am reading The Invisible Man and that he is most likely an idiot. I choose not to clear up his mistake and just give a half-smile and look back down at my book. I try to shout with my body posture that I want to be left alone.
But he is an idiot who cannot hear body language. An idiot with open floodgates and I can't seem to get him to dam himself no matter how many times I look back down at my book during the odd moments that he takes a breath. He comments about the flight attendants: bouncy; current political climate: also bouncy; wine: too expensive; airline cushions: too cheap. He leans in close to me and whispers in an odd and inappropriate tone:
"So what do you?"
Clearly my mother raised me too well and with too much Southern hospitality, because although every inch of my being wants to tell this man that I do not want to talk to him, that I do not care to know anything about him, I tell him what I do for a living. Then he tells me what he does. He is a textile rep and I don't know exactly what that means and I am not going to ask but he must see a question in my eyes because he proceeds to tell me what a textile rep is. (Which may interest you to know is a sales person for a fabric manufacturer, which I'm sure is as stimulating to you as it was to me.) At this point I am done pretending. I close my book and lean my head back in a classic sign of airplane companion surrender. He has won. He knows it. He visibly relaxes and starts making little comments about other people on the plane, like "did I see the woman with the really long nails?" (yes) and "doesn't that guy in the third row up from us look like Bobby Brown?" (no). It's not until he asks me if I am married that I think he might actually being flirting with me. I'm not really sure. He's probably twenty years older than I am and I've never been hit on by a guy his age so I don't know if this odd meandering way of talking is pick-up-old-dude-ese.
It's a long flight, Chicago to Los Angeles, and after about an hour I realize I'm enjoying his company. He's funny and he's harmless and he's not really bothering me. So that's why I let him buy me another drink and why I am touching his arm in that way I have when I am getting deep into a conversation. Really who knew that after 300-thread-count it's all bullshit? It's at this point that he tells me, with a small sly smile that he could tell right away that I didn't want to be bothered but he had decided he was going to talk to me anyway. I feel oddly flattered.
When the plane lands he gets up and blocks the aisle for me so I can get out and not have to stand with my head tilted in that uncomfortable overhead-storage-cabinet lean. That's when I notice how short he is -- a full six inches shorter than me -- and I feel embarrassed for him. I grab my paisley garment bag and he tries to wrestle it from me.
"Here, let me," is what he says, in a very gentlemanly way, but this is too odd now. I can't let him carry my bag. First off it is so heavy I can barely lift it, and since he is so much shorter than me, how strong can he be? And, secondly, I don't actually know him and he could be an ax murderer -- or an ax bagger. Third, he, well, we are really doing a tug of war here and it seems silly and I don't know how to gracefully, graciously say no, and perhaps I shouldn't have had that third drink and so I let go of the handle which allows him possession of my bag and the full, overloaded, heavy, weight of it almost tips him over. But he keeps his balance and doesn't even joke about how heavy the bag is. He starts down the aisle and I trail him like a goose (because even a puppy would be smarter than I am at this moment).
We both have baggage to collect in baggage claim and this comforts me because it eliminates, or at least decreases, the possibility of him running off with my garment bag. Walking slightly behind him I feel a little like a second-class citizen, unworthy of walking abreast or ahead. From my vantage point I can tell how heavy my bag is for him. His muscles are straining and he is leaning left to compensate for the weight pulling down his right side. I'm glad we're not walking next to each other because it is a bit disconcerting for him to have to look up at me like I am an Amazon queen.
As we approach the baggage carousel a little girl approaches us, dragging a woman by the hand. "Daddy!" she squeals.
My curly-haired, short travel companion bends to say hello to his daughter. Before he moves to give his wife a kiss I pull my bag from his hand.
"Thanks," I say, moving away. He looks at me, slightly confused, as if he had forgotten my bag, forgotten me.
"Oh, sure. No problem. Nice meeting you." This last he says so clearly, as if he was talking to an autistic child, and I blush like second-grader. I look at his wife and she's not looking at me at all, she is just staring at her husband and looking, what? Resigned? Sad? Angry? Disgusted? I can't name the look, but it feels hot and uncomfortable. The three of them walk to one side of the baggage carousel and I move to the other. A group of passengers stands there looking at the unmoving luggage track until there is a loud buzz, a light flashes and the first bags arrive.
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