Tuesday, 22 October 2013


“Planes are just not my scene, brother.”

It wasn't the beer talking. Going by the stories I've heard, and there are a million,

I belong to the small and therefore elite clique of unlucky airbenders. In fact, the only fairer-sexed company I’ve been graced with in the air, happened to be flying
into her wedding. So, resigning myself to the inevitable, I continued sipping
on my half-empty-for the-last-half-hour bottle of lager, engaging in conversations
drowned out by muffled high-intensity EDM. I had a flight to catch the next day
and much needed sleep before.

I picked 6C because it was the unreserved aisle seat closest to the entrance.
I had discarded my fascination for window seats long ago, when I gathered
the inside of an aircraft offers more than the outside promises (refer Aerodynamics).
5E was free, but it was middle. The universally scorned middle seat, a solo traveller's nightmare, seldom occupied by choice, was forever out of question.
Although, I have employed the maximum probability argument to fuel my optimism,
each of the many times I have been subjected to one. The results have been grossly
and consistently disappointing.

The first to occupy my half-row, I was an eager gatekeeper anxiously awaiting the arrival
of two unknowns who would determine the course of my flight. But, my unfailing
anticipation died a fast death when seconds later, I found myself semi-standing,
wedged between my seat and the rotund middle-aged woman hastening her way
to the window, completely oblivious to the existence of my feet, and me.
To prevent further damage, I stood up and slid out to allow her husband in.
Resigning myself to the inevitable, a second time in 16-odd hours, I pulled out
my notepad and pen. Suddenly, there was precious work to be done and precious little
to finish it in. I had all but written my first words when the attendant announced,
“Boarding complete.” Muttering, “Yeah, I hear you.”, I reluctantly shut my tray table
and yanked out the inflight magazine hoping I could figure out what to snack on
before the altitude of the plane allowed me to finish crafting my print campaign.
On an aside, nailing a third headline can be more challenging than cracking
the campaign it is meant for. Restlessly testing the airline's instant
remedy for restlessness prescribed on page whatever, I intently rotated my right ankle
for the 10th time, left went first. Obviously, I didn't feel any different.
Then, I looked up.

She stood two feet away, straining to thrust her handbag into the bustle
of the overhead bin. She was slender, mildly tanned, with dark blonde hair
tied into a tiny bun, in a half-sleeved white blouse and skinny-fit black jeans
with zip-down ankles. Beautiful, and unconventionally so. In a blink, she was home
in seat 5D, slippers off, buckled up, feet on seat, making an On the plane.
See you soon.
call. I presumed Australian, her accent didn't help. We took off.
She plugged into her iPod and descended into a head-bobbing knee-rapping trance
any lover of music would readily associate with. In the air, I put pen to paper,
stopping frequently to watch her silently mouth a few verses as she soaked
in the groove. Smiling to myself as I struggled, I concluded good work is a product
of worthy distraction. Basking thoroughly in this newfound wisdom, my eyes fell
on the empty seat beside her. 5E. I cursed my luck, briefly.

Midway through my expulsion, I watched her sink into the minimal recesses
her seat could afford. Her little eyes shut, she turned her head in my direction.
Still wired and sound asleep, she inspired me. The idea was laudable,
Playlist Exchange. How interesting would it be to swap playlists with the person
sitting in the next seat for the entire duration of a short flight? To know someone
intimately without saying a word? To capture a mood though music? To risk
insignificant revelations for fresh listening pleasure?

The minutes piled on idly. I delved back into knitting evocative nothings, her timely
wrestling to get comfortable relegated to my peripheral vision. She awoke with
the landing announcement. She stretched, strained her neck and batted her eyelids
in adjustment. I was relieved, surprisingly. My uneasy, one-sided association with her
would be over soon.

The flight landed on time. Deftly avoiding the desperate scurry to the shuttle bus,
I strolled in casually and wound my way to the centre, a sea of tightly-huddled bodies
on three sides and a wall to recline on. The last few passengers streamed in while
I scanned the bus. I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular. Maybe I was. Either way,
I found her. Seated in the last row. Staring out the window. Face flushed. Red-nosed.
Sobbing. Her contorted features barely reminiscent of those I’d spent a quarter-hour
trying to forget. She was a mess. Instinctively, I reached into my pocket and pulled out
my handy handkerchief. I looked at her, then down at my hand, then at her,
then at my hand. The routine ran its course as I worked out my approach. It ended
when I caught her looking at me about the 29th time I looked up towards her.
Caught off guard, I swung away. And then it struck me, I was trapped. The bus
had no room for even an honest intention to squeeze through to her.
‘I’ll meet her on the way out and offer her the kerchief if she still needs it.’
We alighted, she after me. She wasn’t crying anymore. She didn’t need anything.

On my way to baggage claim, I mused. I whistled, within, aware of her presence
a few steps behind and assured that her personal storm had passed. I disputed
whether I should have pushed past the throng and made my offering,
whether it would have done her any good if I did, whether it would have changed
the rest of her day even though she appeared to have overcome her demons
without assistance? With these and similar wonderments humouring my brain,
I turned the corner en route the smoking room and caught her following me
from the corner of my eye. The response was swift and impulsive. Assuming she
wanted a cigarette, I held the door ajar. She didn’t, the ladies’ room
was two doors down. In seconds, I was at peace with this private embarrassment.
I sat down, shook my head, shook off the stupidity and smoked at leisure.
Ten minutes passed before I found myself at baggage claim. ‘She must have
left by now.’ Ten more minutes passed before I realised I was at the wrong counter.

My faculties weren’t at their sharpest that afternoon. I knew exactly
whom to blame. I finally walked down the right side of the right baggage counter,
and lo, there she was, sitting on a trolley, coloured in a familiar shade of red, anxious
and fidgety. For some reason, I was no different. ‘Ok, so the luggage isn’t here.
Now, don’t encroach her vicinity. It’ll creep her out, if she has noticed you at all.
Let’s not mull over whether she has. Besides, the motion of the belt suggests your bag
will be coming out the other end.’ An about-turn and a few steps later, I took up
a position on the near end of the conveyor, one that ensured I would get my bag
the moment it made its way into the airport, one that ensured I could get the hell out

of the airport without overstaying my arrival. In my line of sight, a billboard proclaiming superlative home loan rates loomed ominously. It didn’t take curiosity two seconds
to get the better of me, and I strayed gently sideways. She was standing now,
more upset than I had ever seen her, pretend studying the meaningless billboard
to avoid being seen by more than a handful. Scrutiny of the colourful bystanders
revealed she had no reason for worry. Everyone was caught up stressing about
luggage already long overdue. No one had noted her. None, but me.

After light years of indecision, I managed to affix myself opposite her. Once more,
I felt the urge to reach out. I decided to write her a note of empathy, which I would
convey by way of the empty, yet moving, conveyor belt. Attracting her attention
by waving hysterically, I would prompt her to pick it up when the belt brought it to her.
There were intricacies I needed to consider, however. What if someone else picked
up the note? What if she dismissed my gesturing for a severe case
of cognitive retardation? What if she followed my gestures, picked up the note,
read it, but didn’t feel any better because of it? As is my habit, I let these thoughts
run their course while I paced the floor around my erstwhile position. Presently,
I arrived at the welcome conclusion that I couldn’t care less. I looked up. She was gone.
‘Was her bag not worth the wait? Did my indiscreet and recurring presence force
her to take up another position? Maybe she’s just gone to get a glass of water.’
Again, I was a rebel without cause. But, before I could wallow once more
in that lucrative cesspool lined with dejection and self-loathing,
surprise slapped me hard. She was walking towards me, trolley in tow.

Stupefied, I watched her come, place her trolley beside me and sit on it cross-legged.
She appeared fine, I hadn’t managed to get a clean look at her face yet.
Seeing she wasn’t wired anymore, I unplugged my earphones and shoved them
in my pocket. The action wasn’t smooth and I’m sure she noticed. I stared hard
at the empty belt, stealing occasional glances at her. And predictably, I succumbed
to the intimidation that accompanies being at arm’s length from a thing of beauty.
I resumed my nervous-yet-apparently-casual-to-the-human-eye pacing,
ambling aimlessly. And while I ambled, she relapsed.

From my roving vantage point, she started out with a blank expression
that bled mild tears amidst frequent texting. It progressed into her looking
downwards with both hands on her temple. Eventually, she buried her face
between her legs. I reached into my pocket, held my kerchief firm,
walked to my spot and looked down, at her. Head still buried.
‘Give her the hanky when she looks up? Pull up a trolley of my own
and sit next to her? Open with what the airline staff might be having for lunch?’
I didn’t have the nerve. She was daunting even in her vulnerability. ‘Let’s pace around
some more. Great exercise. Let her recover. Then, we’ll see.’ I turned, walked in circles
nearby, and returned a minute later.

She was up, but a mother with her 6-year-old son had taken my place.
‘There goes that. Enough is enough. Write the damn note. Put it on the belt.
It’s still running for a reason. Lean forward, ask her to pick it up and get this
despicable urge to make her day out of your system forever.’ I took a few steps
backwards, pulled out my notebook and scribbled ‘Beautiful women
don’t look good crying.’ I crumpled the note and deposited it in the nearest bin.
Then, I wrote ‘Beautiful women shouldn’t cry. Whatever it is, it will pass. :)’
Somewhat satisfied, I folded the sheet. My loss for words was legitimate.

Turning to proceed with my humble scheme, I met her eyes, looking dead straight
into mine. A piercing glare. Shaken, I pocketed the note and looked away.
‘What’s going on? Should I just go talk? Are we waiting for another sign?’
She faced the belt, the luggage had begun streaming in. ‘She’ll get her bag before
I get mine, and leave.’

My bag came first. I took it, set it on a trolley and rummaged
within for my lighter, another custom. In the next few seconds, she got hers.
Heading to the taxi stand, she walked ten metres in front of me. Then, for some
strange reason, she pressed down on her brake handle and broke into a frantic run.
‘Was it me?’ I was awed but inertia prevailed. I didn’t allow myself
any further consternation. I stopped at an ATM, then wandered past stores,
sampling their wares in measured glimpses. Sure enough, as I idled into
the prepaid taxi queue, there she was, ahead in line. No thought this time.
I walked right into her.

“Excuse me. Hi. I saw you crying in the bus earlier and I wanted to give you
my handkerchief but I couldn’t, because there were just too many people.”

“Oh, you did? I had no idea.”

“Yeah. And then later, as we were waiting for the luggage to arrive. You looked like
you could use a word or two so I thought of writing you a note and putting it on
the conveyor belt so it would go all the way around. I’d wave ‘Hey’ from the other end
so you’d know the note was for you.”

“I’m so embarrassed but thanks. That’s very kind of you.”

“Are you alright? Is everything ok?”

“Yeah. It’s nothing. I’m just having, I’m having a very stressful day.”

“Sure. Anyway, what I wanted to do didn’t happen. But, I’ve got the note with me
and I want you to have it.”

I handed her the note.
“Have a nice day.”

I turned away and then bounced back, she was still clutching it.
“You can read it now, it’s only two lines anyway.”

I soon realised I had cut ahead in line, so I went around and took my place behind her.
The counter next to ours freed up, the man behind it beckoned me. I leaned forward.
“You’re the one having a stressful day, go.”

She wheeled her way to the window. The next second, my counter freed up.
I transacted alongside her, catching the odd strain in her voice like I would
strain to catch a tune. When I finished, she had disappeared.

Outside the airport, the Sun was intense, but forgiving. It was hot, I was warm.
The deed was done. My mission complete. Or, was it? Like a reflex, I sought her.
I could only hope my simplistic words would bear my earnestness. Their effects,
much like the effects of my every interaction to date, were beyond my control.
Wrapping myself in this truth, I marched towards the yellow-topped rundown chariot
that would take me home. Again, she was all that stood in between.
‘This is getting old.’

While attendants scrambled to get her the next available cab, I stood calm,

propped on the railing and gazing into the distance, certain she didn’t know I was there.
Shortly, a cab arrived. She lifted her head while picking up her bags,
and shot me in the chest.


Point-blank. I reeled. One word, three letters, the answer to every question
I had asked myself that morning. Her face clear, she was radiant, grinning, settled,
a far cry from the sombre shade I had made my acquaintance with. I nodded
in acknowledgement and half-smiled right back. Her manner, her disposition,
their change, were all pleasantly unsettling.

She made her exit. I savoured my salvation. ‘You get a single precise instant in time
to push a life into the better. And when it passes, your compassion, its abundance,
your intentions, their honesty, all you feel and are capable of feeling, count for nothing.
No walk in the park, running the risk of seeming desperate and sounding stupid,
willingly signing up for judgement. Pretty darn suicidal. But, after that moment passes,
you have only yourself to live with. That, you could definitely do without.’

My taxi arrived five minutes later. Snug in my seat, I hit rewind. ‘If I see her once more,
I’ll have to stop her.’ At ‘her’, I drove past her on the highway. I didn’t pull over.
‘It wouldn’t be much of a story if we met again.’