I consider myself a friendly person. I enjoy interesting conversation and connecting with people. I don’t care much for small talk, though. I much prefer to gain something from a conversation. At a party, I can easily meet a stranger and know her life story by the end of the evening. I think I’m pretty easy to talk to—except maybe on an airplane.
If you’re looking for conversation 30,000 feet in the air, you probably don’t want to sit next to me.
My fear of flying developed in my early twenties. I’d get anticipatory anxiety a week before my flight. I often had panic attacks on the airplane. Once, my body jolted during sudden turbulence and I accidentally hit the woman seated next to me. I could never sit by the emergency exit because I knew I was incapable of assisting my fellow passengers “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”
Fortunately, over the past several years, my fear of flying has diminished somewhat. I can even get some work done during a flight. Can’t say exactly what brought about this change. Maybe I’ve finally become desensitized. Or maybe becoming a parent forced me to put on a brave face for the kiddos. Perhaps the relaxation techniques I learned finally paid off.
Or, maybe it was just those yellow pills.
Whatever the reason, it’s likely that the unpleasantness of air travel will get to me now more than the idea of donning a life vest. Given the current state of air travel, I bet most of us feel this way.
Still, I can never predict my mental state once on board, so I keep my guard. I have certain rituals I need to do during takeoff and landing. I’m very picky about my seat choice. And, I don’t want to talk to any strangers. Fortunately, most people are plugged into their devices or watching in-flight “entertainment”.
So, there I was a few months ago, about to board a 7:00 am flight to Toronto. (Let me just say, I’m not a morning person. ) A well-dressed, older man smiled at me. I smiled, faintly, then looked the other way. He moved closer. “Traveling for business or pleasure?”
I did an inner eye-roll at that original line. “Pleasure,” I answered, hoping my one-word reply would signal that I did not wish to make small talk. But he continued in a chipper, wide-awake fashion. I nodded politely as he gave me the weather report for Toronto. As we began to board the plane, I felt relieved to escape. “Well, have a good trip,” I said.
What were the odds he’d be seated next to me, anyway?
As I walked down the too-narrow aisle, I got an immediate claustrophobic reaction. The plane was smaller than I expected. And, there were only two seats on each side of the cabin. So sooner had I settled into my window seat than Mr. Friendly appeared.
“Well, look at that,” he said, sitting down in the too-close seat beside me.
I ignored him.
I took out my phone and headphones, then put on sunglasses. (Don’t ask. Just part of the ritual.) I plugged into my favorite tunes. After the safety instructions were given, my seatmate asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was. Then he made a joke about the TSA.
I removed my earplugs. “Sorry, um, just to let you know, I’m not a comfortable flyer,” I said. “Especially during takeoff and landing. So, please excuse me.”
He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you need to do.”
I smiled, then put back on my headphones.
“Everything’s going to be just fine,” he announced over my happy music.
Ten minutes later, after we reached cruising altitude, my body relaxed a bit. Immediately, my friendly seatmate continued to engage me. “Feeling better?”
Gee, didn’t he have something to read?
I tried summoning my friendly self. “Yes, I am, thank you.”
He asked if I was from Boston and what I planned on doing in Toronto.
“I’m on my way to a family wedding,” I offered.
“That’s wonderful,” he said, then sighed. “Unfortunately, I’m on my way to a family funeral.”
The juxtaposition of our travel purposes touched something within me. I removed my sunglasses. I listened as he described the loss of a dear cousin.
Before long, I found myself in a thoughtful conversation with this stranger.
He was a hospital physician who loved his work. He and his wife of twenty years had both found each other after leaving long terrible marriages. (His honesty and happy marital status removed any imagined pretense. ) I asked him what he thought the secret to a happy marriage was and he told me. Then he showed me pictures of his family and grandchildren. He laughed that I was surprised by his age–73. I told him that people often think I’m much younger, too.
“Happiness is the fountain of youth,” he said.
Then I heard myself ask: “So, what’s it like to be seventy-three?”
And he told me.
So there I was, in one of my least favorite places, talking about love and loss with a stranger. We exchanged stories about our professions. He asked me what I most liked to write about. I asked him what he’d advise a medical student.
We laughed about the White House circus and made predictions of our new president’s future. He made a joke about Trump on an airplane.
The flight passed by quickly—something that never happens to me. I realized that this man’s company distracted me from the usual worrisome engine noises and air bumps. Still, when the flight attendant announced that it was time “to start our descent” my anxiety crept up.
My new friend sensed this. “Just take a few deep breaths. Go back to your happy place.”
And I did.
Once on the ground, the man gave me a few tips for navigating Customs. He needed to rush out to catch a connecting flight. He wished me well and was on his way.
In that moment, I was sorry to see him go.
During the past weeks, with all the terrible news stories about air travel, I thought about my random encounter with a friendly stranger in the unfriendly skies.
Maybe he thought about me, too.