Strangers on a Plane
I’m the guy you hate. Maybe not you, particularly, but I’m the guy airplane passengers hate. I’m the guy who strikes up a conversation with whoever is sitting next to me. Here’s a fun fact: I’m talking with you right now. That’s how much I like talking with strangers.
Some of this enthusiasm is an occupational hazard, and often I confess, early on, that I’m a reporter and that I know I talk a lot and ask a lot of questions. Some of this is also the echo of my jumbled youth—I claim with equal legitimacy central London, suburban D.C., and quasi-rural North Carolina as my hometowns. (I was always saying hi.) But mostly it’s the pleasure in discovering not just more about whichever strangers are beside me and the lives they’ve lived, but also who I am to them, who I am with them, and what we can add to our lives in our relatively brief, asymptotic connection.
Once, from Raleigh-Durham to San Francisco, I sat next to a television executive who was reading a speculative script for a show I watched a lot. We talked about the characters and the plot twists and things I’d always wanted to see happen and episodes at which I’d rolled my eyes.
Another time, from Barcelona to Lisbon, I offered to buy some menu snacks on top of my own order for the cute guy next to me. “Airplanes are such strange restaurants,” I said to him. “Flights are such strange dates,” he replied. Well then!
In a surreal moment from Cusco to Lima, I sat next to a young Franciscan monk in full burlap robe regalia. “Isn’t it hot or itchy?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “It’s quite spacious.” He reached under his robe and pulled out—of all things—a bag of M&Ms and offered me some. “Life is full of surprises if you just say hello,” he said.
Sometimes you don’t even need a hello.
On a recent flight from Mexico City to Bogotá, I sat next to a man about my age, maybe a little younger, and we did all the international pantomimes of people who are not quite willing to talk with each other: nods, raised eyebrows, smiles, please-after-you-I-insist hand gestures. We each decided to hide in the plane’s entertainment system, and as we tinkered, we realized we had hit play on the same movie at the same time.
I don’t even remember the movie; it was the kind of this-will-do-for-now schlock that works so well when all you’re looking for is vague prettiness to pull you through the next 90 minutes. It wasn’t as if we watched it together, per se, but we found ourselves laughing at the same moments, sighing at the same moments, shifting slightly forward at the same moments. During a particularly emotional scene, we both reached for our armrest and, not wanting to fight over it, shared it. With neither of us quite realizing it, we ended up holding hands.
I am a crier. I cried at Bridesmaids. I cried at the preview to Brokeback Mountain. Episodes of Scandal or The Big Bang Theory or Octonauts—no matter, I cry. And I cried here too, partly from the emotional surround sound of our little two-person echo chamber of reaction. His eyes had been watery for a while, but mine was the first tear to fall. We looked at each other in that can-you-believe-this-scene nod. Then back to our screens. He pulled his hand away from mine on our armrest.
I became self-conscious. How long had we been holding hands? How embarrassing was all of this?
Then, with the hand he had pulled off our armrest, he did something unexpected: He wiped my tears off my cheek. I remember, searingly, how warm his hand was. And it felt like no man since Icarus had felt such brief, potent warmth on his face.
A few minutes later, the movie ended prematurely. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember what it was—blocked-out fury at the lack of closure. Our synchronized viewing had been poorly timed, and our flight was readying its descent. We were coming back to Earth. We looked at each other and offered whaddya-gonna-do shrugs.
We disembarked. I think we awkwardly shook hands. All we knew of our voices was our laughs and our sighs. And out of either embarrassment or an unlikely satisfaction, that was enough for us.
I took a taxi to the friend I was visiting and immediately told her everything over wine on her balcony. “How do you always meet people like this?” she said with a laugh. “Mostly I just say hi,” I replied. Then I laughed, as I realized the absurdity of it: This time I hadn’t even said a word.