I never looked for his book online or in a bookstore. He showed it to me, or he showed me a galley proof of it. And now, a decade later, I do not remember his name or much about the book.
We were on a plane, and 98% of my personal air travel history dates from the years 2000 to 2004, when I moved from upstate New York to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and twice a year I returned home for holiday visits. The typical route was Eastern Iowa Airport to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport to Stewart International Airport (or sometimes Logan in Boston), because there are no direct flights between Iowa and anyplace else I have ever lived. The book author was across the aisle from me.
Sometimes I am a tense passenger, one of those who grips the armrests so tightly that I may as well pocket them and carry them home as souvenirs. Sometimes I am relaxed and almost human.
Air travel offers an intensification of experience; one deals with emotions not often felt on the ground, from the fear of permanent change to the excitement of temporary reunions. For me, it has not yet become a mode of transportation just like any other.
I have experienced emotions in planes and in airports that I have not encountered elsewhere in my life. Once upon a time, I realized that I had fallen in love with someone 60 seconds too late in an airport. More correctly, I think that the thought crossed my mind that I ought to have gotten the phone number of the woman with whom I had been chatting from Boston to O’Hare, a two-and-a-half-hour flight. (She looked like Sandra Bullock.)
When she and I parted, when she said she was heading to her next terminal, and I realized that I was already at mine, we gave each other a look I have not seen since. It wasn’t broken-hearted exactly, but it was leasing a condo in heartbroken’s neighborhood. After all, we had enjoyed talking with each other nonstop and now our time together was permanently over which is an awful lot like forever … and we both knew it, unless one of us would simply say or do … something. That was the look. Neither one of us did anything. It was a stare that two people who had proved themselves glib and witty did not have words for.
I almost missed my next flight in indecisively wandering around O’Hare while debating whether I should run after her “just like in a movie” to the terminal that I thought was the one she had told me her next flight was leaving from. (If you do not know this, O’Hare is too large an airport to be indecisive in.) The quotation marks around “‘just like in a movie’” were quotation marks in my mind even then, which is a good indication that my indecision was not regretted, even in the moment.
(In the life I live now, any so-called missed opportunities are opportunities themselves. Each one was the opportunity to live the life I now have, and the fact that I sometimes say “Thank you” to my girlfriend and she gets a quizzical look on her face and asks, “For what?” maybe says something about this. I did not treat my opportunity to see Jen again “just like in a movie.” It was better than any movie.)
The book author across the aisle from me first attracted my attention because he was reading the “9/11 Commission Report,” which had just been published and which did not strike me as an enjoyable in-flight time-waster. (My personal in-flight reading is limited to happy stories of enjoyable things that happen to contented people on the secure ground, ground that is described clearly and with a lot of detail about how it rests under sunny skies and nowhere near cliffs, volcanoes, or airports.) He replied to my glance at the book cover with a statement-question: “I want to learn everything I can, right?”
I nodded with no change in my facial expression at this. “I’m a student and I study everything,” he added. I looked out my window.
There was only sky out that window and only ground out his window across from me, which is a vehicular angle that planes often hit that buses and cars and trains do not—not without trouble, anyway—a common in-flight experience that I happen to hate, so I made the snap decision to completely enjoy this one-sided conversation with the self-declared student of everything who studies it all. I was only going to look at him, with occasional glances at his book, until we landed.
He was young, bearded, an earnest hipster a couple years before that was a thing. Perhaps he was the first. He was as serious as those who believe things are serious can be. Gosh, he was unrelenting. Just what I needed in a moment of panic.
Pages materialized out of a briefcase. “I’m a writer,” he told me. “With a book coming out.” On the pages were poems. He watched my eyes as they moved across each line and down the page. I exaggerated my gaze to look like a cartoon typewriter. “Ding!” He did not offer a second page until he could confirm that I had consumed the first. Each poem was loudly violent, with “eyes unseeing” and “pleas rejected.” They could not have been less interesting. They were perfect. And they were being published in a book with an actual price on a real cover–which was another sheet he made sure to show me.
Perhaps the fact of his imminent publication did it. I got a little jealous. I found myself in the psychological and social trap of trying to include myself in someone else’s monologue. With him not asking me anything about me, I informed him that I was a writer, as well, which at the time I was: a professional technical writer. He nodded with no change in his facial expression at this and then told me about his publisher’s plans for his poems.
My one sentence, “I’m from New York but I live in Iowa now,” yielded five sentences of his ongoing explanation about how Capital L “Life” works and why people do not understand the importance of it all. Five to one was the ratio through the entire conversation. I have the sneaking suspicion that, as with Sandra Bullock of O’Hare Airport, I remember more about the encounter with Mr. Across-the-Aisle than he does.
I no longer feel the defensive need to insert myself in other peoples’ monologues when I am near them.
A friend in recovery once told me that when he was early in his recovery and it was time for him to tell his story to another human being, “to do his fifth step,” he was on a flight to South America. When he discovered that he was seated beside a person who did not speak English and that they were going to be beside one another for several hours, he knew he had found the person who was going to hear him tell “the exact nature of his wrongs.”
Perhaps I received the hipster poet’s fifth step that day. Ah, well, I never looked for his book, anyway. (My writing rhymes sometimes, unlike the poems I chose to be forced to read that day.)
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This is a rewrite of “The Story so Far,” from March.
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