Half a dozen robust men wait at the gate to board the flight from Rome to New York City. My husband, Todd, scrutinizes them all with dread. “I know I’m going to have to sit next to one of them,” he worries, thinking ahead to the potentially miserable nine-hour flight. I laugh at him and reply, “It depends on your karma.”
When I checked my family in, I requested 4 seats across, but I didn’t realize until we board, that we somehow only got three. The fourth is located behind them in the next row. My husband needs leg and arm room, and his shyness makes it more difficult for him to be surrounded by strangers and make friends, plus my name is on the back ticket. I excuse myself and shimmy into my straight jacket of a seat. I am sandwiched beside a huge man on my left (one of the ones my husband scoped out in the lounge) who is evidently aware of his mass. His folded arms rest high across his chest to make lots of room for me. He keeps to himself for most of the flight and I don’t even know he is there. On my right side, is a man wearing a very bulky winter jacket.
After we buckle in and get out our reading material, I try to get comfortable by placing the edge of my elbows on the back ends of the armrests. My seatmate on the right has his winter-coated arm, already occupying the total length of that armrest, from tip to end. I try to unobtrusively slide my elbow in the far back of the rest, but I can’t get in. At first I think he must be oblivious to my need and my struggle or even to my arm’s existence and so I say,
“Could I please put my elbow on the arm rest?”
“That is the inconvenience of sitting in the middle,” is all he says, never even glancing at me.
I can’t believe my ears. I half expect him to laugh jokingly, but he stares straight into his paper. I feel like I’m in kindergarten with a bully.
I continue, “Well, if you have the front of the arm rest, then I ought to be able to have the rear, or vice versa.” He completely ignores me.
In a little while I try moving my elbow in for a little space and am pushing so tight against his body, that I can feel the heat radiating off him, through his coat…his energy, his ill feelings towards me. He still refuses to give me even half an inch.
Nine and a half-hours in a tight airplane stretch before me like a stint in prison. After watching a movie, dinner is delivered. My coated seatmate complains to the plane waitress that he is diabetic and ordered a diabetic meal and wants it!
After we eat, my seatmate gets out his book, tablet, laptop and keyboard. When he is all situated, I break the news, grinning inside, “I’m really sorry, but I have to go to the bathroom.” Timing is perfect! So he packs up everything to let me out.
When I return, I visit with my family in the row above and bend down to whisper in my husband’s ears. “Will you switch seats with me for awhile and teach him to share?” he nods his head in agreement.
We switch seats. Todd is a strong, broad-chested man, of about 185 pounds. For close to an hour, a struggle of muscle and will goes on behind me. I peek between the seats as a hidden spectator. I can’t believe what I am watching. The coated man is sitting forward to type but more importantly, to gain leverage for pushing, in an attempt to remove Todd’s elbows from the back of the armrest. I periodically peek between the seats and see Todd struggling, trying not to smile, trying not to give up the fight.
Todd pushes back nearly as hard but isn’t in the right position to “win.” He participates in this isometric battle for as long as he can hold out, then succumbs and folds his arms across his chest.
After a few hours of flying, I relieve Todd to take my turn beside the armrest hog. As I am standing in the aisle, stretching my legs, I notice that the man in the coat does not have his private spotlight on and he’s reading a book in the dark.
“You know, you could see a lot better if you had your light on,” I say slightly sarcastic comment, which could be taken two ways.
To this he comments, “The light makes a glare on my laptop screen, but thank you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see your computer behind the seat.”
I sit down and suddenly something happens. He changes. He begins making small talk. Suddenly he extends his hand and introduces himself. “I am Antonio’ from Mexico City.” I am taken back but very pleased.
Conversations move from where we’ve been in the world to what kind of work we do. I am a travel writer on the way back from a month long trip to Sicily to see the island, find my relatives and introduce my children to their European heritage. Antonio’ is a world famous biologist specializing in the Origin of Man! He travels the world lecturing, presenting papers, and in-between does research in his lab in Mexico City.
Over the next few hours, we discuss people’s cultures, what we’ve learned and discovered about the human condition, how we feel about parenting. We laugh and joke and become friends. Antonio takes off his coat and stuffs it at his feet. (Did the cabin’s temperature actually go up or was it Antonio’s positive energy?) When he sits up, he doesn’t even attempt to place his arm on the rest, and for the first time, my arm easily slides on. Antonio’s arm never goes near the armrest for the duration of the flight.
Next, he gets out his bag of diabetic candy. He not only asks if I want some but also the man across the aisle, the person diagonal, the one behind and in front and also the huge man on my other side who is still sitting with his arms tightly crossed on top of his chest. Todd peeks between the seats in front and gives me this look that says, “What is going on back there?”
Suddenly Antonio confesses, “You know, I believe I owe you an apology. I believe I was quite rude to you when we first sat down.”
“I was going to ask you if your parents ever taught you to share!”
“I didn’t sleep very well last night and I felt badly. Then I had trouble getting the diabetic meal I ordered. That’s no excuse, though. I really am sorry for how I behaved. You turned everything around when you made that kind gesture about my reading light.” (I feel slightly guilty. I was mocking him a bit).
“Please,” he begs. “If you ever come to Mexico City, bring your whole family and come stay with me. That would make me very happy.”
I can’t believe my ears. The last few hours have flown by as I enjoyed probably the most engaging and inspirited conversation I have ever had with a seatmate.
Before we disembark, Antonio makes it a point to invite us two more times to his home. As soon as he can stand up, he embraces me and admits. “You have made this trip for me.”