The airplane was about to take off. I had the seat by the window. She had the seat next to me, on the aisle. I was young, confident, fearless, friendly, and endlessly fascinated by everything. Particularly people. Particularly ones I did not know. I approached them the way a sugar addict would a Whitman’s Sampler box of chocolates. Is the lumpy one a cashew cluster? Is the rectangle a Vermont fudge? This round one had better not be a cherry cordial, because I hate those.
I viewed people … strangers ... everyone in the world who occupied the Ranks of the Great Unknown in that same Whitman’s Sampler way. What was their shape? Their color? Their texture? Would they be smooth on the mind? Abrasive to the soul? Interesting but elusive? Tangy? Tart? Sassy? Smart?
The first leg of my flight began hours before at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. I changed planes in Kansas City, but shortly after I had settled in, my seat companion began to fumble ineffectually with her seatbelt. First, I showed her how to insert the tongue into the latch. Then …
“Dear me. I’m so clumsy,” she murmured. I picked up her fallen handbag. “I hate to be such a bother …” I un-snagged the band of her wristwatch from the edge of the armrest. “Oh, dear. I think I broke it ...” I snapped her tray table back in place after it developed poltergeist-like symptoms and flopped into her lap.
She was such a nice woman. A lady, really, in the old garden-party sense of the word. She sat erect, as if her body remembered her mother’s admonition to “stand up straight,” and she was nicely dressed in a tailored travel suit that was neither stylish nor out of style. Her hair was a neat cap of recently permed curls. She wore small pearl earrings and a pearl necklace, both of which had the look of treasured heirlooms.
Until the plane took off, I initiated every conversation. “Are you comfortable?” “Would you like to borrow my magazine?” “There’s a pillow in the compartment overhead.” But once we were in the clouds, she took over. She spoke confidently, smoothly, and seemingly at ease.
I had never met anybody like her before and suddenly felt that, instead of staring into a sampler box of chocolates, I was sitting beside a living, breathing Saturday Evening Post cover, painted by Norman Rockwell, from a series entitled “Life in These United States.” The subject of the painting was a white clapboard house with a nicely mowed yard and a cheerful summer garden in a small town somewhere in Kansas. There was a picket fence around the yard and a gate in the fence that open on a narrow, winding path.
I walked through the gate and up that path to the front door. The door opened, and I was invited inside.
I spent the rest of the airplane trip inside that house, comfortably ensconced in my seat companion’s old-fashioned parlor, in the company of the members of her book club: She introduce them all. There was Madge – a bit fussy, but essentially a good-hearted soul. Elayne – tediously proud of her prize-winning rhubarb pie. Dorothy – clueless about motherhood and shamelessly spoiling her boys. Vivian – beautiful, unmarried, and the best English teacher the high school had ever had. And Sylvia – an opinionated gossip.
The book they were reading that month was “The Life of the Hummingbird,” and everything I know about those intriguing creatures, I learned during the flight:
• That their average lifespan is three to four years
• That their hearts beat 1260 times per minute
• That the wings of the Ruby-throated hummingbird beat 53 times per second
• That they hover and dart at speeds up to 60 miles per hour
• That they migrate back and forth across the Gulf of Mexico.
As she spoke, I conjured up the image of a cozy, sun-filled room, with six women seated comfortably around a coffee table brightly festooned with flowers and pastries, each with a book on her lap, all sipping Darjeeling tea out of fine porcelain cups, ardently discussing how and why hummingbirds do this or that.
It wasn’t until we were approaching the airport in California that my new friend forever altered my Norman Rockwell perception of her by adding a few unsuspected and unforgettably ennobling touches to the picture.
She had married out of high school, she confided. She had raised a family. Planted a garden. Preserved fruit. Made pies. She was the Town Historian and on the Board of Directors of her library. She had spent her entire life accommodating her husband. A month ago, for the first time, she had asked her husband to do something that would please her. He had refused. He would not fly with her to the West Coast to visit their grandchildren. In the past, she would have let that stop her.
The airplane began its descent. She clutched my hand. The wheels touched the runway. She released my hand. The plane began to taxi toward the gate.
“Thank you,” she said, her face awash with relief. “I’ve never gone anywhere alone before. I have never been on an airplane before. When I sat down beside you this morning, I was terrified. If you hadn’t let me bore you to death about hummingbirds, I would have died of fright.”
I had not, for an instant, been bored. I had listened, enthralled, to statistics about the life, flight, and migratory habits of those tiny adventurous birds. Or, at least, that is what she thought she had been telling me. What I heard, instead, was the chronicle of a drastically different life from my own, told by a woman who was living it with dignity, intellect, courage, and verve.
She had thanked me, and that was a polite and ladylike thing to do. It was, however, misplaced gratitude.
Indeed, it was I who should have thanked her.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben