Nancy the flight attendant had the dried out look of someone who had been in too many states in too few days.
“If there’s anything I can help you with, just ask,” she said over the PA.
Nancy’s sourness had not escaped the man who sat beside me: “I’d like a smoke, Nancy, and a shot of whisky.”
My mind began to ply the mysteries of sociology as I surveyed my neighbor in his seat. In a sampling of airplane strangers, like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box, you never know what you’re gonna get. This man’s long legs filled their allotted space in our section of the scrawny plane. I laughed outright at his Nancy-quips. He discerned quickly that I could catch his humor and fixed his eyes on me with joy. I have never laughed as hard in an airplane as I did with that man, whose name turned out to be Stephan. Our laughter floated over the heads of the other airplane people from Rochester to Washington.
Stephan, a veterinarian returning from a visit to his mother in Upstate New York, told me all about Europe. “You’ll go someday,” he said. Eyes widening, he described the pristine Alps of Switzerland. He detailed the Adriatic Sea and the glory of Croatia, where people walk cobblestone streets and know how to nap. Unlike here, he said, where we get half an hour’s lunch break and eat standing up.
By flight’s end, I knew Stephan’s facts: A little over 50 years old, 220 pounds. Stephan ran away to Europe at the age of 18 to find himself, and has only a few regrets. His mother covers her cheesecake, the best in the world, in strawberry sauce. For reading, he scans medical books. He knows what it feels like to get to that point with a pen where your thoughts flow and flow and you cannot catch them all. He could live on French bread alone. Stephan lives six months out of the year in a stone house in Croatia by the sea with his Croatian wife of 35 years. He held up his left hand to show the gold ring: “She is my best friend. I am faithful to her. She has a wonderful personality and is a great mother to our children. But she was the wrong woman.”
The wrench in the story silenced my stream of replies.
Stephan talked about his wife’s struggle with alcoholism. I tried to open my heart with the right reverence. Even if you’re a stranger on an airplane, when someone shows you his or her broken spots you receive a treasure you cannot repay. It is such a tragedy, I thought, that when you leave an airplane you forget the face of the person you sat with.
I asked Stephan if I could write about him. He said yes without hesitation, and wrote his phone number on the front of my New York Times.
“What caught your attention?” he asked, delighted.
I couldn’t lie. At first, I noted him for his remark about Nancy and the whisky. By the time we reached Washington, I wanted a chance to thank him in print for giving me 40 minutes of friendship.