The guy in the seat next to me leans in. Well, the seat next to the seat next to me. He’s leaning real hard.
Must be important, I think.
He looks like Shaggy from those Scooby-Doo cartoons. Tossled blonde hair, scruffy facial hair, skinny surfer body. Laconic, slightly glazed eyes that seem to be saying, “fuck it, man, whatever.”
“What’re you drinking?” he asks.
I know what he means. He means alcohol.
“I dunno,” I answer. My heart is racing. I’m talking to a stranger on a plane. On a scale of one to shitting my pants, this is about equivalent with a guy at the urinal next to me asking which horse I’m betting on.
“Get a drink with me,” he says. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
I’m so flustered. “I mean, I don’t want to spend the money…,” I mumble. I’m flying to Orlando for a New Year’s vacation. I’m going to spend hundreds of dollars on booze down there. But I don’t want to spend seven bucks on a drink on the plane? A chill passes through me at this realization.
“Nah, don’t worry, I’ll spot you. What d’you want?”
Oh, a free drink. Now the man is speaking my language. Despite my fear of interacting with strangers, friends, family, loved ones, myself – I will never pass up a free drink. He’s found my weak spot.
I nod the affirmative. “Sure, I’ll have what your having.”
“Great!” The guy’s grin broadens as he turns to the flight attendant. She’s just reached our row in a plane that’s only two-thirds full. The guy, all charm, asks for two Woodford Reserves.
Bourbon! I expected maybe a Heineken. But no, this laid-back seatmate of mine wants a sip of something southern. My estimation of him rises slightly. Maybe I’ll bother to attempt to communicate with him, rather than slam back the shot and plug in my headphones.
The guy cracks his drink and sighs softly. Have we even introduced ourselves? I can’t remember. The first moments of this interaction are a terrifying blur, like looking back on the seconds before a car crash. Only minutes ago, but I’ve already sealed that dark chamber of memories.
I’m here now, I think, with a drink in my hand. Focus on the now.
I take a sip. Yep, bourbon. I’m barely half a year out of college, so any liquor besides gin tastes like fluid from a cat’s anus. But it’s free, so I take a second sip.
“I love flying,” the guy says. He’s still here! I immediately make a point of paying attention.
“Taking off, soaring over the world, the whole experience is thrilling,” the guy continues. “But what I really like is how ephemeral it all is. How we’re all together for just a few hours at most, trapped in this tiny cocoon, unlikely to see each other ever again.”
Whoa. Not what I expected. I take another sip of liquid tire fire.
“Nothing matters up here, I guess. We’re free, y’know? Like I can talk to you, I can talk to her, I can talk to anyone, and it doesn’t really matter. I’m never gonna see any of these people again. But I can make some memories, make some connections, while it lasts. Why not, right? Nothing to lose.”
The man is clearly drunk already. The entire objective of air travel is to seal yourself off from those around you, to find your safe place and build an invisible wall around it maintained by dense headphones and focused lack of eye contact.
“It’s like practice, really. Practice at talking. Practice at meeting people. Practice at living outside yourself.” The guy raises his tiny bottle, beckoning for me to match him. “Because we’re only gonna be each other’s memories once we’re on the ground.”
Our bottles clink. He slams his back, I take another small sip. Have I spoken yet? I’m listening, at least, I’m focused. Maybe the guy is right, maybe this is my chance.
I never talk to people on planes, I never talk to people on buses, I never talk to people at the pool, in hallways, in my office, in my apartment. My default mode is silence to point of nonexistence. Blend into the scenery, move through the world unnoticed. I think of myself as the living embodiment of the leave no trace ethos.
But maybe this guy is right. Maybe I should take more chances. Maybe I should put myself out there, especially when I know that the only real outcome will be to leave a brief impression on someone’s memory of a flight, whether it be a good impression or a bad one.
This guy can hop off the plane thinking, Hey, I met a cool dude and bought him a drink and we laughed for an hour on the way to Disney World. Or he can think, Hey, I met a weird dude and bought him a drink and wow, he said absolutely nothing for one hour and twenty-eight minutes, sitting there with his book and my drink like a goddamn page-turning squid.
Either way, I’m a memory. Something he’ll tell a friend about. Cool dude or weird dude, just another story. But if he never talked to me, never bought me that drink, there wouldn’t be a story at all, good or bad.
He’s right. He’s absolutely, goddamn right.
I open my mouth, words forming like a golden ooze in the back of my throat, but he catches me first: “Hey, man, it’s been great talking to you, but I think I’m gonna head to the back row.”
I turn to look. In the back row sits an attractive young woman, two open seats beside her. She stares down at something in her lap, clearly unengaged with the rest of the plane’s inhabitants.
“Now’s my chance, right?” the guys says with a wink. He’s already standing, slicking back his hair, adjusting his shirt. On the prowl. “Never gonna see her again, so why not?”
Why not indeed. “Good luck, dude,” I say, finally speaking. But he doesn’t need my luck. This guy has it all figured out. And maybe I’ve figured out a little something too.