The woman next to me on the plane was in acute distress. She did not tell me this herself, but she appeared to me to be bearing a weight of grief and/or worry. I did not know what the source of upset was. She checked and re-checked her watch, and kept shifting her weight in her seat but kept herself leaning forward like an intense talk show host. She picked up the Airfone (this was in 2000) and considered doing something with it but returned it to its cradle. She picked it up again. She put the mandatory flight nuts in her handbag and did not accept a soda or water.
I am a dunderhead when it comes to feelings. With some experience in public speaking, I find that I can read a room more accurately than I can read an individual. Furthermore, I can tell when someone is ticked off at me far more capably than I can tell if a person is happy about something I have done or said or even if they are happy I am in their life. I need a lot of positive reinforcement.
On the plane, I knew that my ego wanted me to be this woman’s white knight and to be an attractive shoulder for her to lean against, but because I knew that this was what my ego wanted (or believed it wanted—what if she had leaned against me and actually wanted to talk and cry?), I knew I should simply keep reading my magazine. I did.
Anyone in a relationship knows their partner well enough that they can tell from a “Hello” text message with no other words or punctuation whether their partner is happy, upset, or confused by something. Or all of the above at the same time. Usually, not always, but usually, my girlfriend and I avoid the confusion that texting or other quick modes of communication can bring, and, when one of us detects something is off, we turn it into a phone call. We keep matters open and clear. I am grateful that we have not had many fights, but our worst fights have come when one of us did not phone and the communications got snarled and then so did we.
Was the woman beside me trying to get my attention with all her huffing and not-quiet sobbing? Anyone’s attention? Was she with the people across the aisle? They appeared to be a couple. Was she with them? No. Definitely no. There are ways to have a private moment in public spaces and then there are ways to have private moments in ways that may earn, well, the legitimate sympathy—and even empathy—of strangers. I do not profess to know that I can identify the difference between these two types of moment, in the moment. This fellow passenger on a flight from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Newburgh, New York, was proving to be a test of my ability to read a human being.
If I do not know my own emotions very well, which is something I started to write about recently (“For Crying Out Loud!“), I am not going to be able to correctly interpret another complicated human being’s complicated emotional displays. And I did not know my emotional inner life very well back in 2000; I did not know how complex the palette of emotions on display can be.
It may be that the woman beside me on the plane had brief moments of wanting to pour her heart out to me separated by moments of unapproachable grief or whatever she was suffering, but my default facial expression resides somewhere between poker-faced and perturbed by a distant sound that only I hear. (Look at my portrait accompanying this web site.) I probably looked as unwelcoming as possible, and then confused things when I would attempt to look welcoming, “just in case” she wanted to talk. I asked, “Are you okay?” and her shoulders replied with a surprised shudder and nothing else, no look in my direction, no words.
The landing was suspenseful, which is to say that technically it was uneventful but each sound from outside the plane, each bump of turbulence as our plane dropped into the thicker air, was audibly registered by the passenger beside me. Perhaps she was merely a nervous flyer? No. On the ground she took or placed (I do not remember which) a call on her cell phone to get a hospital address. She rushed to the front of the plane with no words to me or anyone, without waiting for the go-ahead from the air stewards.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 17 asks, “Are you a good judge of other people’s happiness? Tell us about a time you were spot on despite external hints to the contrary (or, alternatively, about a time you were dead wrong).”
There will be no column from The Gad About Town tomorrow, September 18, as I will be attending a television show taping in NYC. Yay, me.