He was a writer, that much he made certain I knew. A poet.
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, more than a decade later, I do not remember his name or enough about the book to find out whatever happened to him or it.
The two of us were passengers 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 a wadded-up sheet of paper’s direct flight across the aisle from me.
Sometimes I am a tense passenger, one of those fliers who grips the armrests so tightly that I may as well finish the job and break them off, pocket them, and carry them home as souvenirs from the journey just completed. But sometimes I am almost 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 change. For me, it has not yet become a natural mode of transportation like being in a car or a train or on foot. (I think I prefer being on foot.)
I have experienced emotions in airplanes and in airports that I have not encountered elsewhere in my life. Once upon a time in an airport, (during my flying-to-and-from-Iowa years) I realized that I had fallen in love with a woman about sixty seconds too late for this love to effect any permanent change in my life. More correctly, the thought crossed my mind that I ought to have gotten the phone number of the woman with whom I had been chatting from Logan Airport in Boston to O’Hare in Chicago, a two-and-a-half-hour flight. (She looked like Sandra Bullock and we completed the New York Times crossword together.)
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 a broken-hearted gaze 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 for a moment 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, not really regretted, even in the moment.
(In the life I live now, any so-called missed opportunities are now perceived as having been opportunities themselves. Each one was the opportunity to live the life I now have, and the fact that I sometimes at random moments 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 forever 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 particular window and there was only ground out his window across from me, which is a vehicular angle that planes often hit but buses and cars and trains do not—not without terrible trouble, anyway—a common in-flight experience that I happen to vertiginously detest, 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 nary a glance at his book or out either window, until we landed.
He was young, bearded, an earnest hipster a couple of years before this was a thing. (Three decades too late or a decade early can be an admirable thing.) Perhaps he was the very very first neo-hipster. He was as serious as those who believe things are serious can be. Gosh, he was unrelenting. This was just what I needed in my 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. Well, they looked like poems; there was a lot of white space around them. He watched my eyes as they moved across each line and down the page. I could not pretend to read them. I exaggerated the movement of my eyes to look like a cartoon typewriter. “Ding!” None of the poems ended with a word that might rhyme with “Ding,” which I was happy about.
He did not offer a second page until he could confirm that I had consumed the first. Oh, they were poems. Indeed. Each poem was loudly violent, with “pleas rejected” and “eyes unfeeling” and “thoughts unsmelt.” They could not have been less interesting. Thus, for me in that moment, 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, the proof sheet of the cover.
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 not a pause in his monologue and then he 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 Ms. Sandra Bullock of O’Hare Airport, I remember more about my encounter with Mr. Poet-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.
* * * *
This is a reworking of a column from 2014.
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