Strangers on a Plane
I boarded the plane heading for Tallinn around 8am. I’d never been to Estonia before. It bordered the Baltic Sea. That’s pretty much all I knew about it. I sat next to a petite Asian girl heading for New York who was in Vegas partying for a bachlorette party. I judged her merely on that alone and assumed she was a vapid party girl without any substance… I was wrong. She was a dancer and graduated from Juilliard School, the prestigious performing arts center in Manhattan. I didn’t feel like talking or listening and wanted to get some sleep so I put my headphones on. It’s the polite way to say, ‘Leave Me Alone’ without saying a word.
I woke up a few hours later and had to pee. Juilliard was sleeping, she looked peaceful. I didn’t want to wake her but I had to, my bladder was calling and I had a window seat. When I came back I felt guilty for not being my normal friendly self, to make up for it I asked her if she had a good time in Vegas. For about 45 minutes she told me her life story. I honestly didn’t mind. She was interesting and pretty to look at when she spoke. She called herself a starving artist. All she wanted was to land a gig on Broadway and she’d be set. She was accustomed to rejection at auditions, but didn’t let it kill her spirit. She knew she’d find a role eventually. Her father was a doctor and advised her to become a college dance instructor instead. “He doesn’t understand what it is to be an artist,” she lamented. She told me about her recent breakup, and her father calling her ex a psychopath. She told me about her greedy ex-boss who underpaid the dancers, ballet, a shitty theatre in Beijing where she performed and had to sweep glass off the stage, cat fights with fellow dancers, true love, and how stressed she was about finding a new roommate for her overpriced Brooklyn apartment. She wasn’t sure why she was telling me all this. I didn’t either. But it happened often. Maybe it’s because I listen and look attentive. It’s become a skill. I like being courteous. There are times I zone out and my mind goes adrift. It all depends on the person and how into their story I am. If I’m having a hard time following, usually my eyes glaze over and go into la la land. It looks like I’m still listening, but I assure you, I’m not. My sister always catches me the second I mentally check out. Venting is therapeutic. She kept telling me, “Everything happens for a reason,” and that this was a transitional phase in her life that would lead to another path. She let it all out — I liked her, she was honest. When we parted ways I felt like her priest who eased her sorrows, in a unique airplane confessional experience.
There’s a certain therapy in divulging personal information to complete strangers. A comfort and openess felt with someone you’ll never see again, whose name you never asked or can’t remember. Strangers open up to me a lot on planes. Everyone needs someone to talk to. Someone to care and comfort them. We all need love, and have a story to tell.
THE WEEPING WIDOW
I was on a plane heading for Kansas. I walked down the aisle looking for a seat next to someone interesting I’d want to sit beside for the next few hours. I spotted an adorable 90-year-old lady who looked polite. She was a widow living in an elderly home and was accustomed to doing all the listening due to her yappy neighbor Geraldine, who preferred doing all the talking. Once it was her turn to talk and she had the microphone, she opened up to me about everything. Her drinking problem that almost ended her marriage. The affair that would have ruined her life. And most poignantly, her daughter’s death that sent her into a downward spiral. She told me all the gruesome details. Her daughter was murdered by famed serial killer Ted Bundy in Washington while attending college. I felt strange hearing such tragedy about someone’s life. I felt privileged yet sorrowful for her situation. She was so frail and vulnerable. There she sat, this sweet old lady with nicely manicured nails, spilling her guts out to a complete stranger. I didn’t know what to say to ease her ever-present wounds. There was silence for a while when neither of us knew what to talk about. That’s when I decided to cool the air with some music. I asked if she wanted to listen in on my headphones and she obliged. I played Clinic and The Strokes, and asked who she liked and put on Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra for her. She was pleasant, but her heart was full of sadness. It hurt to know what she’d been through. When we landed I felt honored to be in her presence as we deplaned and I faded into the crowd.
THE GYPSY WOMAN AND THE FORGOTTEN FIANCÉS
My favorite stranger on a plane would probably be the woman I met on my way to Chicago a few years back who told me an unfortunate love story about leaving her fiancé for another man while vacationing in Hawaii. We talked for hours. She lived a gypsy lifestyle with her husband and two kids. They traveled the world together. They’ve lived everywhere. They met at a cafe. He was photographing a particular lookout spot, and she knew exactly where it was. She must have been bored or thought he was attractive, ‘cause without thinking, she offered to escort him there. She told him if she explained where it was he’d get lost. She trusted him. They talked about Turkish history and Moors, a subject matter she enjoyed and didn’t get to discuss as often as she’d like, for not many knew on the subject matter. In the few hours they spent together she realized the chemistry she felt that was missing from the man she was going to marry. She called off the engagement and began dating the photographer, who coincidentally was also engaged. I asked if they ever told their fiancés the truth. She said something that stuck with me, “I think it’s important to be kind. Some things are better left unsaid. Love comes when you least expect it, while you’re alone at a coffee shop and someone asks you to pass the sugar. Love isn’t supposed to hurt people, but sometimes it does. You have to be careful and considerate in matters of the heart.”
WELCOME TO ESTONIA
We were all pretty jetlagged when we arrived to Estonia. I looked outside my window at the landscape, a church, whimsical castle and 15th century artillery tower turned museum. I felt happy to be in another country. I heard a knock at the door, it was room service with a surprise. A fruit platter and assorted chocolates. It was their version of Holiday Inn’s welcoming warm chocolate chip cookies to make you feel at home. The pear was shaped like a star and made me feel special. I gobbled it up, passed out, and went to work when I awoke.
The next day we picked out our bunks on the tour bus and headed for Latvia. I met the crew boys. I was ready for the journey to begin. Ten countries in nineteen days.