He had veiny pink cheeks, cloudy brown hair, a faded red t-shirt. His knuckles were whited on the armrest, his feet planted wide apart. I stowed my carry-on and tucked a book conspicuously into my seat-back pocket, universal symbol for “I have better things to do than chat with you” — a safety precaution. This year of excessive travel had brought me an array of seatmates, but none of the good ones had started out by occupying a third of my seat. I eased myself in, unable to avoid eye contact or thigh contact.
“Hey. How’s it going?” The scent of beer, with a bourbon side note, wafted out on his nervous giggle.
“I’m all right, I just hate to fly.” He turned to the window and gave the tarmac a searching glance.
Great, I thought. One of those. I’m slightly contemptuous of aviophobia. Most sufferers don’t have any qualms about driving, even thought they’re safer in a plane than in a car. But phobias are by definition irrational, so perhaps what’s most irrational is my contesting them with reason.
“What about you?” he asked. “You fly a lot?”
“This year, yes.”
“Live in Toronto?” He clearly did; he pronounced it “Tronno.”
“Arkansas, eh!” He had a hoser accent; his shirt had a Maple Leafs logo, or maybe Molson Canadian.
“Yeah, eh,” I said. “But I’m Canadian by birth.” I had pulled my book out — the conversation didn’t seem fated to get better and I couldn’t decide if his breath nauseated me or made me want a drink — when we started to roll back.
Sweat beaded on his forehead. “Don’t think I’m being fresh if I grab your knee when we take off, eh?”
Uh-huh. I opened my book: Us Conductors, about the inventor of the theramin, an instrument played by stroking electrified air. I didn’t want to be dismissive, but my seatmate’s fears couldn’t become my problem. I had left my family behind. I didn’t want to think about what scared him.
“Whatcha going to Tronno for?”
I took a few seconds before I looked up, marking my place with a finger. “I’m doing some events for a book I wrote.”
We started to taxi. His muzzle tightened. “Oh, yeah? Cool.” Using conversation to distract himself. “What’s your book about?”
Freeze. I couldn’t answer.
I’ve never been good with strategy in conversation. I can’t steer toward or away from certain topics; I can’t subtly orient personal dynamics. I can’t flirt. I can’t lie. So the only thing that came into my head was my standard response to this question: that my book imagines some possible consequences of a real-life airline bombing — an Air India jet blown out of the sky in 1985.
“What’s it about?” he asked again, then emitted, at lift-off, a strangled, lilting noise, much like a theramin, shifting electrified air.
Plane bombing! I could be arrested for saying those words here. I recalled the scene from Lillyhammer when the Elvis-impersonator cop is escorted off the plane by guys in haz-mat apparel, for making a terrorism joke.
I tried to look at my seatmate, but I got a weird muscle pull in my neck and had to face forward. “I can’t tell you what it’s about.”
I could have said it was about a physics professor, the disciple of an Indian guru, who suffers a crisis of faith. Totally true. I could have said it’s about a psychologist who gets wrapped up in a family he is researching, compromised by their secrets and forced to reveal his own. Also true. But because I was on a plane and forced to comfort this guy, all I could think was “Plane bombing!”
“Why can’t you tell me?” He had totally forgotten his fear. He should have been grateful.
“I can’t tell you why.” I opened my book again.
I didn’t answer. He looked out the window and muttered. He turned back, interrupting my reading, to chat about other things — our kids, our spouses, reading in general. Every time he cracked a joke, he would slap my left biceps with the back of his hand. He thought he was pretty funny. My arm got pretty sore. His favorite jokes were about how he wasn’t letting me read. But he also asked, every half-hour or so, what my book was about. Every time, I would seize up and tell him to not to ask.
Why didn’t I lie? Because I have been trained not to. Why didn’t I give some other description? I can’t say exactly. Maybe because, if I did, it would quickly lead to other questions — he was, if nothing else, curious — and so I would be painted into a corner one way or another. I wish I could say I thought through all that, but the fact is that my mind simply refused to yield alternatives, even under duress.
Something similar happened again, at customs and immigration, as I was leaving Canada. A border official asked what I was there for. Book tour. What’s your book about? I drew a breath. Blank. Even less justifiable the second time — why hadn’t I rehearsed an answer? Because I never thought it would happen again.
“Okay.” I leaned in. The border guard leaned in. “I’m only telling you because you asked me.” I whispered. “It imagines some possible consequences of a plane bombing.”
He leaned back out. “You write books about plane bombings?”
“Shhh.” I frantically waved my hand to lower his volume. “Only one,” I said, as though this was under the lifetime quota.
He raised an eyebrow. “I ask a lot of questions. I get a lot of answers. But that’s the most interesting one I’ve heard in a long time.” He slid my passport back. “Is your book for sale?”
“Sure. I mean, not here, though. My first book was in airport bookstores.” I smiled at him now that he could understand. “This one, not so much.”
I yearned to give my curious seatmate such an answer but I just couldn’t take the risk. What if he had a panic attack? Could I trigger his oxygen mask without an emergency landing? I held my tongue for his own good.
“You’re a snob,” he said. “You don’t think I’m good enough to know.”
“That’s ridiculous. I want everyone to know, but I can’t tell you right now and I can’t tell you why I can’t tell you so stop asking.” I pushed the flight attendant bell to query whether there was an empty seat elsewhere on the plane. When she arrived, though, I chickened out and asked for a ginger ale. “I’ll tell you as soon as we land,” I told him again, a note of supplication in my voice, and reopened my book.
“You’re reading because you think I’m not good enough to talk to.”
“I’m reading because this is a good book. Now be quiet.” He was driving me nuts, but I also had a twinge of affection. I resist intimacy so I feel a reluctant gratitude toward people who impose it on me. My filterless seat mate — would I miss him when we parted?
“Are you ashamed of your book? Is that why you won’t tell me?”
“Oh, my god.” I leaned my head back, sweat pooling in the hollows of my closed eyes.
It was a crazy landing, bumpy, screechy, not one of those where passengers applaud. I faced my ashen seatmate. I told him to listen hard because I didn’t want anyone else to hear this. He looked serious. And I told him.
No memorable reaction or moment of connection followed, no apology or thanks or discussion even. The only task remaining was to disembark.
Image Credit: Flickr/Yuichi Kosio.