28 August 2011
[Note: This post was written after a press trip to Thailand in July 2010 and was originally published at Nerd's Eye View. (Hi Pam!)]
47B. That’s me. Aisle seat. On a 17-hour flight, I made sure to take an aisle seat.
I was flying from LA to Bangkok and was seated next to a short 50-ish Indian man wearing bright yellow Bermuda shorts. His eyes sparkled behind big gold-rimmed specs and his moustache stretched across his face as he smiled.
We didn’t introduce ourselves but we exchanged our stories. He was a business man working in the textiles industry in Southern India and was returning to Asia after some business meetings in Mexico and the States. I was a travel writer (although he insisted on calling me a journalist) on my way to Bangkok as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
“There are others of me on this flight, but I’m not even sure who they are. I’ve never met them,” I told him.
“You know, I’m a business man, but I’m very creative. I write poetry,” he said to me. Unsure what to do with this information, I smiled, nodded politely, and said something like, “Really? That’s great,” before pressing play on my headrest movie.
We cut in and out of conversation, enjoying each others company as much as we enjoyed our own solitude. He was rude to the flight attendants, always making very particular requests as if we were in first class (“No, I said no ice.”). He also made a noise like a cow every once in a while, which I later realized was him burping. Once, while I was waiting patiently for the bathroom, he came over and rapped on the door. When the lady came out and sat back in her seat, I embarrassingly whispered to her, “just so you know, that wasn’t me who knocked.”
At some point — time means nothing when flying across fourteen time zones — I noticed him writing. I looked without trying to look like I was looking. At the top of the page was scribbled For Honey Bee. Words and sentences followed but, respecting his privacy, I turned back to the movie.
Earlier, he’d told me that his wife died three years ago; this poem must be about her, I thought. I re-focused on my movie, Green Zone. While Matt Damon was yelling orders to his men at a weapons-of-mass-destruction site, I noticed my new friend had stopped writing and was wiping his eyes with a tissue. Through the sound of gunfire in my earphones I could hear him sobbing. I kept watching.
Later, while Greg Kinnear was sending his Pentagon thugs to kill the Iraqi army general, my seatmate again paused in his writing, looked out the window and wiped away tears. His sniffling made it through the noise of a car chase. The movie was reaching its climax.
Somewhere over an ocean, sometime between meals and restless napping, he put his pen down, picked up the paper, and turned to me. “My sister-in-law, my wife’s elder sister…she died last week. While I was away on business.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It was a gas explosion. She must have forgotten to turn off the gas at night, and when she went to light the stove the next morning…”
He told me her husband smelled something and was trying to tell her when she lit the match. It was like a scene from a movie. In my head, Matt Damon was playing the husband.
“She was like my elder sister. She helped and supported me when my wife died. She was always there for me.”
He pushed the paper into my hands and asked me to read his poem. It started on the right half of the page, had some things crossed out, arrows to change the sequence of some lines, then it continued on the left half of the page.
“Honeybee. That’s what I called her.”
I was moved. Not only because he chose to share such a personal thing with me, but because of the pain and suffering he has gone through, first with his wife, now with this. I felt compassion. My personal relationship issues suddenly seemed so unimportant. Other than the moments of sobbing, he was remarkably happy. I saw him as a testament to how resilient we can be in the face of tragedy.
“It’s beautiful,” I told him as I handed it back. He smiled that moustache-stretching smile and then turned to look out the window.
I put my earphones back in and selected another movie.
[Feature photo by Roydy]