Conversation I overheard on a plane…

I eavesdrop on conversations. Not in a “plants a microphone under the hotel lamp” way. More in a “Pay attention to those two people talking loudly in a public space” way. I listen, I make mental notes, then I make physical notes (editing and shaping as I go) and sometimes this inspires a play or something.

Once in a blue moon I overhear or observe a conversation, a story, a moment, an event, the turning point of a life, that begs to be preserved. I was on an airplane recently and I heard one such conversation. It may be the only conversation I’ve ever heard that begs to be transcribed as accurately as possible. To try and edit or invent any part of it would only cheapen it. Normally, I would listen to these conversations with an ear toward adaptation – “How does what I’m hearing reflect something that’s going on in the culture right now? How can I edit the conversation to make this clearer.” But this particular square peg of a conversation would never allow itself to be forced into that round hole. So right now, I’m going to try to tell this story as accurately and truthfully as possible. I have no idea whether or not I’ll be able to convey the feeling I had while listening to these two people for two hours, particularly during the final thirty minutes in which I felt my brain slipping to the front of my head while two people’s worlds were turning inside-out.

I’m on a plane. I have an aisle seat. I’m getting ready to put on my headphones and listen to a podcast. Across the aisle from me is a man – mid-30s maybe? – and next to him is a woman – probably in her 70s. Someone recently asked me to “cast” them with familiar faces so that in the telling of it, the listener will have a better image of these two people. That’s tricky, but if I had to cast it, I’d say the man looks like Ron Livingston in the movie “Office Space” and the woman looks like the older version of the log lady from “Twin Peaks” as played by Catherine Coulson.

A lot of people seem to know the man. People from all over the plane are saying hello to him as they pass. They are getting up from their seats to converse with him. It dawns on me that perhaps he’s a celebrity. I don’t recognize him, which means he could be an athlete of some sort. He’s not buff. He’s more of a nebbish. So, I’m thinking baseball pitcher. The woman next to him is actively knitting – probably a sweater or something. At one point, a woman walks down the aisle and stops in front of his seat. She looks at her boarding pass.

“Is there a problem?” he says.
“Ummm…that’s my seat you’re in. I think. But you know what? I’ll sit over here. It’s okay. As long as there’s an empty seat.
“Thanks,” the man says. “I just wanted to sit next to my mom.”

The knitting woman smiles. I can’t explain how I know this, but when the man calls the woman his mom, I know he’s lying.

There’s more chatting. More handshaking. It dawns on me that this man is not a celebrity. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. I gather that he and all the people chatting with him have just met today, prior to boarding the plane. Perhaps there was an event of some sort – a flight delay? – something that bonded them. There is a sense of excitation and intimacy between them all – an acknowledgement of how rare it is that a group of solo travelers would find one another and genuinely enjoy one another’s conversation and company. But now the plane is about to take off and they are once again separated, isolated by their assigned seats.

Except for the man and the knitting woman who is not his mother. They are seated together.

I put on my headphones and listen to a podcast. Thirty minutes in, I become very aware of some unusual gesticulating coming from across the aisle. It’s a small plane, ergo, it’s a small aisle and the man’s waving arms are flying perilously close to my head. I think I smell alcohol. I spot a small, airplane-sized bottle of liqueur on his tray table (Is it Maker’s Mark?). His drunkenness is exacerbating his gestures and his voice is growing louder. I take off my headphones. The first thing I hear is this:

HER: …I don’t know for sure, but I’ve always been told I’m part Indian.
HIM: You’re from India?
HER: No, no, no. Indian. American Indian. Cherokee.
HIM: Cherokee?
HER: Yes.
HIM: (sighs) Oh my…Cherokee???
HER: Yes. What’s the…why are you so…what are you doing?
HIM: Nothing. I’m just…Listen to me. Are you sure? Cherokee. Are you sure?
HER: No. I’m not sure. It’s just something I was told. Maybe.
HIM: Because I…Okay…I’m gonna tell you something. I’m gonna tell you something right now.
HER: Okay.
HIM: My grandmother. My. Grandmother. Was sold.
HER: Sold?
HIM: What?
HER: Your grandmother was sold?
HIM: Yes. To the Cherokee Indians.
HER: Someone sold your grandmother to the Cherokee Indians?
HIM: Yes.
HER: For what?
HIM: Horses.

The knitting woman laughs. Does she know he’s lying?

HIM: This is true! I’m part Cherhokee!
HER: How are you part Cherokee? I mean if she was sold that doesn’t make her Cherokee.
HIM: Listen…!

He stops. He stares at her. She stares at him. He leans in close.

HIM: She was sold to the Indians for horses.

He sits back, faces front. The lie (and the alcohol) have exhausted him. She smiles at him over her glasses. She knits.

HER: She was your father’s mother?
HIM: What?
HER: She was your father’s mother? Your grandmother.
HIM: Um…yes. She was.

They sit. He stares. She knits.

HIM: What was your father like?
HER: He was nice enough to other people. He didn’t love us. Me and my brothers. He didn’t love us. We spent a lot of time in foster care. Most of when we were kids, you know. Mostly in foster care with other families. No, my father didn’t love us. I didn’t talk to him after I got married.
HIM: You’re married?
HER: I was. He died. My husband died.

He turns to her. He leans in close. His hands are out of sight. Is he touching her?

HIM: How?
HER: He had a motorcycle. Used to looooooove riding that motorcycle. He had an accident. Killed right away.
HIM: My father died too.
HER: This was my husband that died. Not my father.
HIM: I know.
HER: My son wants to ride it now, you know.
HIM: The motorcycle?
HER: Yes. What are we talking about? Yes, the motorcycle. He wants to ride it now. I do not want him to. I don’t know why I even kept the motorcycle. It was damaged but my son repaired it. He hasn’t gotten on it yet. He’s scared. I am too. But he wants to ride it because it was his father’s and it’s how his father died. So now he wants to ride it. I hope he doesn’t, though. I hope he doesn’t ride it or anything. I get scared thinking about it.

He leans in closer to her. She is still talking, but lower now. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but she’s telling a story. She’s whispering. She says “baseball.” She used to play baseball. It was hard being a young girl back then playing baseball. She was really good. One time she accidentally hit the ball so hard it went in the stands and hit her best friend’s mother. The man laughs at this. She laughs as well.

But girls didn’t play baseball. Her father that didn’t love her wouldn’t let her play baseball. Eventually she stopped playing. But she still has a baseball from when she was a girl. She kept it. She takes it out and looks at it sometimes. She doesn’t know what to do with it.

The man is emotional. He’s waving his arms, as if trying to shake his jacket off.

HER: What are you doing?
HIM: It’s hot in here. It’s so hot.
HER: Take off your jacket.

He does. He turns back to her. I see him take her hands this time.

HIM: Listen to me.
HER: Yes?
HIM: I want to tell you something.
HER: Okay.

There’s a very long pause.

HIM: I want to tell you something.
HER: Okay.
HIM: Let it go.
HER: What?
HIM: Let. It. Go.
HER: The baseball?
HIM: Listen to what I’m telling you. Let it go.
HER: The baseball you’re talking about. You want me to let go of the baseball.
HIM: Just…
HER: …
HIM… let it go.
HER: Okay.
HIM: Listen. You have to let it go.
HER: I will.
HIM: Let it all go.
HER: Okay.
HIM: Just…
HER: Let it go.
HIM: Let it go.

He’s exhausted again. He sits back and stares ahead. He’s flushed. She may be flushed as well.

HIM: I’m so tired.
HER: Well why don’t you close your eyes?

He does. He closes his eyes and tries to control his breathing. She continues to knit.

HIM: I wish I smoked. I mean I used to smoke.
HER: I did too.
HIM: You did?
HER: I still smoke.
HIM: You do?
HER: Yes.
HIM: I wish I smoked.

She reaches into her bag and takes out a small change purse. She covers it with one hand, looks around, then opens it. There is a pack of cigarettes inside. He laughs.

HIM: Oh, shit!
HER: Want a cigarette?
HIM: No!
HER: We could go in the back of the plane. We could go in the bathroom.
HIM: No! Put that away!
HER: We could smoke in the bathroom!
HIM: No we can’t! Put that away! Oh my God!
HER: Okay, okay…

They laugh. The don’t talk for a while. She is no longer knitting. He is holding one of her hands between his. Tightly. He is staring ahead. She is not looking at him. She is looking out the window.

HER: I used to smoke. I used to do everything. I was a bar dancer.
HIM: You used to dance on bars?
HER: In bars. I mean not professionally or anything. I’d go to bars and dance. All the time. I was out with some people from work a couple of weeks ago and I started dancing and everyone said “You’re really good!” See they don’t know how much I used to dance. They’re a lot younger and I don’t talk about myself. So I guess it was hard for them to imagine that I could dance. But I did and they were so surprised.
HIM: You remind me of my mom.
HER: I do?
HIM: She was awesome. Like…wicked awesome. You’re just like her.
HER: That’s so nice.
HIM: My mom didn’t smoke, though.
HER: I shouldn’t either. It’s how I lost my teeth.
HIM: What?
HER: When I was twenty-nine I had to get all of my teeth pulled. All of them. I was always in foster care and places like that, like I said, and I was malnourished all the time. Plus I smoked. And that ruined my teeth. So when I was twenty-nine the dentist said I had to have them all pulled. The teeth I have now are fake teeth. They come right out. Want to see them?
HIM: No!

They laugh. She does not pull out her teeth.

HIM: I’ll bet you’re a good mom.
HER: I’m okay.
HIM: You just have the one son?
HER: And a daughter. She travels a lot. She speaks French. Fluently.
HIM: I speak French.

He’s lying.

HER: Say something in French.
HIM: I speak French really good.
HER: Say something.
HIM: I can speak like…if I went to France I would know all the time what everyone was saying.
HER: Say something in French. Anything. Say just one word in French.
HIM: My wife speaks French.
HER: You’re married?
HIM: Yes.

They stop talking.

HIM: She’s Indian.
HER: Cherokee.
HIM: No! No! Indian.
HER: But like what kind of Indian? From India?
HIM: I don’t…She’s Indian!
HER: Why are you getting upset?
HIM: My wife is Indian.
HER: Tell me about her.
HIM: Tell you about what?
HER: Your wife.
HIM: She’s Indian.
HER: Does she have to wrap her head all up? Tell me about her.
HIM: That’s…what do you want me to tell??? She’s Indian!
HER: What I’m saying is, when she goes out, does she wrap her head all up?
HIM: I’m married!

They don’t talk for awhile. The plane has been in the air about two hours. The man is starting to calm down and sober up. The knitting woman is staring ahead. He is holding her hand. Now he is stroking her hand. The plane is now over Oklahoma. We will land soon.

HIM: I’m rich.
HER: You are?
HIM: Yes. My father left me a lot of money.
HER: He died.
HIM: Yes. And I’m really wealthy. I’m like…beyond everything. Beyond everybody.

He gestures out the window.

HIM: I own all of this. It’s all oil fields. I own all of this.
HER: I hope you’ll stay in touch with me.
HIM: Why?
HER: Because you’re nice.
HIM: Why?!
HER: Don’t yell.
HIM: Why?
HER: Because you’re nice. I’ve never met anyone like you before. I hope you’ll call me.
HIM: What is happening?
HER: What do you mean?

He leans in close.

HIM: What is happening?

They stare at one another.

HER: My son is supposed to pick me up. Maybe you’ll meet him.
HIM: I have to call.

While the plane is still hovering, he takes out his phone and dials. I’ve never seen anyone do this before – make a phone call in the air. He begins talking. He tells someone the plane will land shortly. He tells them he’ll see them soon. A flight attendant appears seemingly from nowhere.

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Are you making a phone call???
HIM: I –
FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Terminate that phone call right now! Right now!
HIM: Sorry.

He hangs up. The flight attendant walks away. The man puts his head in his hands. The knitting woman puts her hand on his knee. He turns to her.

HIM: What is happening?
HER: I don’t know.

They look at one another.

HIM: What is happening?
HER: I don’t know.

They look at one another.

HIM: I love you.

He kisses her. She kisses him back. I can tell by the sound that they are kissing one another on the lips.

HIM: I love you.

He kisses her again. She returns the kiss. They look at one another. They kiss again for a third time. They sit back. He is staring straight ahead. She is smiling, look at him.

HER: We gave the people around here an earful, didn’t we?

He laughs.

The plane lands. I get my bags and start down the aisle toward the exit. The man gets up as well. He asks her if she’s coming. She says no, she has to wait for someone to bring her a wheelchair. On my way out of the plane, I see the wheelchair. It has her name on it. It’s an unusual name. I google it later but the only match I find is a poet who died over a decade ago.

In the baggage claim area, I see the knitting woman in her wheelchair. She is alone. The man is not with her. She doesn’t appear sad. The veil is lifting. The dream is beginning to fade. People don’t fall in love on airplanes. 70 year old women and 30 year old men don’t fall in love with one another.She knows they won’t see one another again.

But maybe he calls her. Maybe they stay in touch.

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