There’s an old cliché, something about how you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I travel a lot, and I’d like to add a line, or at least a footnote, about how you also can’t choose who you sit next to on an airplane ride, especially if you’re flying in economy class.
I am a collector of stories and a connoisseur of characters, so for the most part I love the random way that travelling strangers enter and leave each other’s lives. I relish the chance to spend two hours listening to the life story of a little old lady who usually only talks to her cat, or the postman, or the girl her family hired to come and clean the house once a week, ever since her daughter got too busy with the twins and the promotion.
I notice how thin her skin seems, stretched like tracing paper over the blue veins that map the backs of her hands. How they shake just a little when she holds up a photo for me to see, how she spills a little bit of sugar when she pours it from the tiny packet and has to hold her paper cup with both hands. I savour all these details, and save them as souvenirs. Some people take pictures or buy postcards to remember where they have been. I collect people, and conversations.
One time I spent three hours waiting for the fog to lift in San Francisco with a guy who told me he spends so much time on the road that he never fully unpacks his suitcase, and that he has missed nine of his son’s 12 birthday parties.
He was a salesman, who had single-handedly cornered the North American market for snow globes. His chest swelled proudly when he passed me his business card and announced that if I ever bought a quality snow globe anywhere on the continent, chances were it was one of his. Not the cheap ones mind you, but the good kind, where the snow floats around for a while before it falls and collects on the bottom.
When he found out I was a writer he told me he had spent the last 10 years working on a novel, mostly at night in hotel rooms, and that when he finally retired he was going to take a screenwriting class.
“Maybe I’m a writer too. You never know,” he told me. “Stranger things have happened.”
I told him I thought everyone had at least a thousand great stories to tell, but we have been taught to believe that only heroes or serial killers or rich people or crime scene investigators live lives worth writing down. He rubbed his bald spot with one hand for a bit, like he was thinking about something he forgot to do, and took a deep breath.
That’s when he blurted out that he hated his job but the only thing he’d ever been better than everyone else at was selling snow globes, and that his wife hadn’t touched him in three years, ever since he put on 40 pounds after his back surgery, and he was pretty much convinced that she was fucking his son’s soccer coach and how the worst part was that he didn’t even care anymore but he didn’t want to leave her because she would get the house and he loved that house and his dog who had lived to be almost 15 and was buried in the backyard next to the apple tree and what if his wife sold the house and bought a condo when the kids moved out so she wouldn’t have to mow the lawn and maybe a dead dog was a terrible reason to stay married to someone who won’t look at you without a shirt on, but he was hardly ever home anyways, except for long weekends like this, and if the weather didn’t get better he wouldn’t make it home at all.
Then he apologized and said he didn’t know why he was telling me all this, that he hadn’t even talked to his best friend about any of it, on account of how they worked for the same company, and getting too personal might put a strain on their business relationship.
I hugged a perfect stranger that night because his wife wouldn’t, and I think of him whenever I see snow that falls slowly.
Today I sat next to a man who immediately informed me that he was on his way to Europe to work in a Christian embassy, spreading the good word of the Lord.
Before the plane was off the ground he asked me if I had a girlfriend. I took this line of inquiry to mean that he thought I was a clean-cut young man, and therefore possessed a soul worth saving.
I told him the truth: I did have a girlfriend, and no, we were not married yet, and yes, we were indeed living together, and yes, I was aware that we were living in sin.
I smiled inside at just how much sin he didn’t realize we were actually living in, and pondered telling him I was not as nice, young or male as he appeared to think I was.
Then I realized how fun it was to listen to a fundamentalist Christian lecture me on how God wanted me to marry my girlfriend, and how not fun it might become if he were to find out he was touching thighs with a full-blown sodomite disguised as a harmless wayward Catholic boy in a crisp shirt and a tie.
I knew there was as much chance of me changing his mind about queers as there was that he would ever lead me back to the path of righteousness, so I told him he was right, and that I was going to propose to my girlfriend as soon as I had enough money saved up to buy her a decent diamond ring. He took this to mean that he had helped me see the light, and continued the Lord’s work all the way to Toronto.
When the plane finally landed he shook my hand and told me that I seemed like a good person, and that if I were ever in Guelph I should look up his son, who had strayed from God’s path a little and had pierced his eyebrow and was pursuing an arts degree.
“I’d like him to meet some friends with ambition. People who realize that appearances matter. I pray that he grows up to be just like you.”
“I hope God answers that prayer,” I told him. “I really do.”