Strangers on a plane

It’s Sunday morning and you’re on your way home from the big South By Southwest music and bacchanalia conference, resting your cauliflower ears for Springsteen’s church service later that night, and all you want is some peace and quiet. You keep to yourself in the Houston airport. When the boarding call comes, you get in line, get on the plane, and make your way to the window seat over the two people in your row, a young mom and her son. You settle in. You and the mom both open your books at the same time.

She’s very tan. She instantly reminds you of you and me and everyone we know. Her kid has a PSP and an iPod and a rogue-in-the-making smile. You look out the window, put your head in your book, but she’s bright and alive and wants to talk. So do you, it turns out. You put your books down and she tells you about her stay-at-home-mom life and how she and her son are on their way to Utah for a ski trip, leaving her husband and their other two sons back in Texas for a week. She has the cant of the uncaged.

The plane takes off as you make small talk about the weather in Texas and Minnesota. Her kid has his headphones on. She tells you about herself. She has never had a drop of alcohol, drugs, or caffeine in her system. She played basketball and lacrosse in college; tennis and skiing now. There isn’t an iota of pretention to her, and it occurs to you that she might be the happiest person in the world. She’s not wearing a wedding ring; yours catches the light from the sun blazing in from behind the clouds you are tearing through at thousands of miles an hour.

Her name is Amanda. Her grandmother, who died at age 98, contended that reading and feeding your mind keeps you young. She is very polite. Southern belle, raised by a blueblood Boston mother and an Irish-American father who called her “kiddo.” They’re both dead. Dad when she was 22; Mom a few years later. As she talks about them and her sisters, tears well up in her bright blue eyes. One teardrop slowly pools in the eyelid closest to you. You know it’s going to fall, and you know what you have to do when it does, even though you’re not sure if you should.

After what seems like forever, the tear drops, and you brush it away from her eyelid and her cheek. She thanks you, not taken aback in the least, rolls her eyes with slight embarrassment, and continues to talk about her father. A few more tears fall, but you leave the mop-up duties to her. Her son is listening to the audio book of “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

She tells you about a boy she used to know. She met him when she was in 8th grade. He was a couple years older than her, but they spent the summer biking around a man-made lake in the town that she and her family had just moved to. She was killing time while her family’s new house was being built, and excited to start her new school. Her family lived in a gated community, his on the outside of town. Hers had money, his didn’t.

The talk was easy between them. They became good friends, growing up together, talking about their lives. Near the end of the summer, he asked her to be his girlfriend. She politely declined. He wasn’t her type — she’s always liked athletic guys — and so she told him she just wanted to be friends. He said he was fine with that.

Over the next few years, they saw each other in the halls at school and she always said “Hi” to him and vice versa. She was popular and pretty and he was a loner. She never told her friends about how he asked her out, because that would have been gossipy and disrespectful. After his first semester at college, he came home for Christmas, turned the car on in the garage and killed himself. She cried for the longest time. She still feels guilty about it, even though she knows it wasn’t her fault. Her dad explained to her that death is a part of life and that, “It just gets harder, kiddo.”

The plane lands and you say goodbye. You tell her kid to keep playing baseball. She wishes you luck on your career. You brush her arm slightly because a hug would be too forward, and then you walk away, back to your life, not knowing what the hell that was all about but that it was nice while it lasted.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.