I’ve been drowning in nostalgia this evening. There are a lot of reasons for it – my birthday and the close proximity to Valentines day usually put me in an introspective mindset – but I’m also on the cusp of some pretty big changes (to be described when finalized). I’ve dredged up a lot of memories but one in particular has popped forth with a clarity that I haven’t previously experienced.
A few years ago I was exploring options for employment in the San Francisco bay area. Over the course of a month or so I made three different flights down, none of them lasting more than a day or two. I can’t recall which trip in particular this was but given that I was awake I’m guessing it was a flight into the area rather the return on which the events occurred.
I was on a 6 across seater of some variety – I have no interest in planes. It’s enough for me to say it had wings and was moderately comfortable. The plane was shaping up to be full. I had managed to get on fairly early and find my aisle seat the seat next to me remained empty well into the boarding procedure. I thought that maybe I’d get lucky and not have a neighbour. One of the last folks to get on board however made his way to my row and to the seat next to me.
It was a US military man of some variety. I apologize for not knowing the specifics – he was in green camo though so I’m guessing it was army or army reserve? At any rate, he was clean cut and polite and other than his initial quiet “excuse me” we never exchanged a word the entire flight.
And yet, we spent the entire flight together. Immediately after takeoff I took out my iPod Touch and started playing Bookworm (one of my very favourite games.) I was positioned such that the screen was facing in his general direction and it was being held on nearer to his seat than the aisle.
At some point not too long after I started I got the sense that he was looking at me and the game. I was a bit self conscious (a defining characteristic) but I was stuck on selecting a word I was happy with so I hazarded a glance in his direction.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I mean, I’m usually weird enough that people often stare at me but I’m not really used to them doing anything other than looking away when I acknowledge them. Rather than look away he reached out and touched the screen, completing a word.
I kinda just sat there frozen for a bit. I felt like maybe I should say something but, well, that’s not really my forte. I looked at him and made an effort to smile. I went on to complete a word of my own and I then allowed myself to pause, looking in his direction. He took the invitation.
Without saying a word we sat there together playing a game that was entirely based on words for the better part of three hours. There were lulls in the gameplay and it wasn’t exactly us interleaving our turns – each of us grew bored or stuck on occasions and would rely on the other to play for several turns in a row – but otherwise we played un-interruped and utterly silent.
Eventually we got the word that we were landing. We concluded our game in much the same way as we played, with a glance.
After we landed we departed the plane without acknowledging each other. I’d say I lost sight of him but the truth is I didn’t even look back.
I can’t express what an odd and uncommon situation this was for me. I don’t ever connect to strangers like this. I mean, I doubt many folks connect with strangers in this particular way but more generally I just don’t connect with strangers on any kind of level. It takes a lot for me to warm up to folks but in a lot of ways I feel like this man and I slipped almost immediately into a very intimate and well understood arrangement without speaking a word.
I’ve thought back on this encountered off and on over the years but I’ve never really told anyone about it. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of it and I’m not entirely pleased with how I acted. I’m always hard on myself for how folks interact with me but really I’ve crafted these defences because I’m terrified of real connections. This man was bold enough and savvy enough to find the EXACT path through and connect with me on something I really enjoyed and I just… let it all pass by.
I could have/should have spoken with him. Not only would it have been the polite thing to do, but goddamnit, he reached out! It’s profoundly screwed up that I can kvetch about folks not doing that and then pass it over when it’s presented so PERFECTLY to suit me. I’m still kicking myself for not being the person that I always find an excuse not to be.