Airports are a strange place, a place of waiting, a place of change, a place of passing, a place of chance encounters. Round as a temple, like a wheel, doorways open at the ends of spokes, and through them people pass, in and out, touching down and taking off. Airports are hubs. They remind me of taverns, wayside inns, except we’ve forgotten how to use them—for meetings, for exchanges. We don’t use them for chance encounters. We see hundreds of people, and some of them look familiar, like an intersection in your hometown, where you frequently stop, look both ways, but never stay, like someone you should know. But we keep our heads down, noses pressed to books or phones or i-devices, and we don’t talk expect to those we came with. We talk to no one if we came alone.
Planes are even stranger. You’re delegated to a small seat that you’re only allowed to leave during certain periods when everything else is behaving as the pilot would have it. Often you can only stand by disturbing someone else. The staff decides when and what you eat, and its usually overcooked and determined to be subpar by those who know. On longer flights, the staff decides too when you should sleep and when you should wake. Rules dictate behavior, and your seating partner becomes your only companion.
Too frequently we ignore our cellmates in the airplane as much as we ignore the other pilgrims in an airport. We miss the chances. We take the earbuds that our wardens provide us, and we plug ourselves into the small screen that is all that we can see if we look ahead. We look ahead instead of looking sideways at those with whom we bump elbows. If we look sideways, our eyes are captured by others’ screens.
And we forget about others.
I looked left.
The screen was still stuck on its homepage.
And I was greeted by a shy smile.
His black hair fell a bit toward his dark eyes. His teeth were white.
Haltingly, in a language that was not his first, he introduced himself, and I gave him my name, and we made small talk, exchanged destinations and where we’d been and why we were traveling.
That might have been the end of it, but we had eleven hours with only each other to talk to, and the entertainment provided by the plane was not in his language and did not cater to ESL.
So when the plane leveled out and we’d found that our eyes watered from staring at a screen too near and our feet hurt from our confinement and our knees ached with no where to go, we turned to each other again, and we began again to exchange stories in that stuttering English, where we ended sentences with the climb of a question, and we supported our meanings with our hands.
And somehow the hours passed. And somehow his face became familiar, and his smile more easy, and the conversation, the way his face and hands moved more engaging than the latest action films with which the plane tried to lull me, with which I was meant to be distracted, which were meant to fill my head with prescribed fluff.
They meant to tie us down, to keep us grounded even as we sought the clouds.
Together, we flew higher, Huan and I.
My sincerest apologies to Bek, my readers, and myself. I first wrote that first line in an airport at early o’clock in the morning and then next at slightly later o’clock in the morning after a heavy sleep and before running off to work. I didn’t notice till I was typing it up again that it was grammatically incorrect. Nevertheless, Bek took it and ran with it, and you should check out “Traveling Woes” on her blog, BuildingADoor, to see how she overcame my clumsiness. I really like her piece and you might too.