He sits along in the window seat, surprised at his luck – crying, squirming babies and a pissy-nutty smell, and he is the only passenger with a seat to himself. His hair is coarse, cut short with the precision of a Marine, his eyes knot together beneath his nose, old acne his chin. His cell phone rings and he silences it, mumbling, a Bosnian accent thick on his lips and tongue. He looks out of the window and thinks of his mother.
Approaching footsteps, the steady flip-flop of loose sandals, and someone stops, shifts a suitcase, launches it above the seats. He coughs gently, turns to smile at his flight companion – a young woman, just his age, tall, with muscular calves, big, red-toenailed feet, a t-shirt stretching over the top of her flowered skirt, her belly-button crevice just suggested beneath the fabric. He smiles still – she returns the gesture and sits down, opens her book, absently picking at her cuticles as she reads.
He looks out of the window again; he isn’t thinking of his mother, but of the elbow next to his on the armrest, the foot next to his on the carpet, the suitcase next to his in the overhead compartment. He knows he wants to talk to her, but doesn’t know what to say that is worth interrupting her reading. He doesn’t worry long – she turns to him, asks if there is a time difference between St. Louis and Atlanta. He answers with a meek, knowledgeable ‘yes,’ conscious of his eyebrows wriggling.
She smiles at his heavy jaw, heavy nose, heavy accent, thumbing at page forty-two. She is thankful for the way he looks at her face, respectful and kind, thankful he isn’t a sweaty old man staring at her breasts. They sit there, looking at each other, halfway to a smile, and then he starts talking, not knowing how he comes from one subject to another.
Airplanes, to start: wingspan and speed, and the likelihood of a crash. Her face stays relaxed through images of fire and brimstone, and she says she flies often, to visit friends in Dallas. Really, it’s her fiancee, but he doesn’t need to know that, and she doesn’t need to know that he has someone waiting for him back in Bosnia, because they’re having such fine conversation. The way she looks at him is different than a pretty girl pitying a poor immigrant, and he looks at her in the eyes, not sideways at her ears or shoulders, but straightforward and kind. He is full of genuine kindness. She puts her book away.
She asks about Bosnia; she is curious. She has a whole library of Harvard and Yale and Oxford University Press books that she has read and bookmarked, made notes in. He answers her spoken questions, then answers the questions she asks only by a glance, a nod, another smile.
He tells her of black, rich coffee and thick, warm, brown bread, and Sarajevo, and his sister with a piece of shrapnel in her brain, and his uncle’s house flattened, and his family’s escape through Germany, and his father’s three jobs, and his mother, most of all, his mother.
“She has these thick, bushy eyebrows, barely two of them -1 remember when we moved to the States, I was young, my older sister used to fight with her over those eyebrows, begging her to prune them a little, trying to look just like everyone else. And my mother would hold out her hands, rough and ugly from years and years of manual work in the sun and warm and wet, and remind her where we came from, why we left, why we were never going back. I used to curl on her stomach and she would sing to me in Bosnian, comb her fingers through my hair…”
She wasn’t surprised by his eloquence – only refreshed, relieved. She liked the sound of his voice over the humming of the airplane. She liked the way his eyebrows wiggled when he smiled, the way he thrust his chin out when making a point. She studied his eyes for falseness; found only truth and ingenuity. He asked her about her family.
“I don’t have much to say.”
“No one does – until they start talking. There’s always more to say then you think there is.”
“Where should I start, then?”
“Your mother. Your father. Anyone.”
“Whoever you have the most to say about.”
“My little sister.”
“I’m eighteen. She’s twelve. I don’t know her as well as I’d like to. All I really have are memories, I guess. And not all of them are good memories, either.”
“Someone who only has good memories is a lucky man.”
“And a non-existent one.”
“Tell me a good memory.”
“Everything we’ve done is kind of silly–”
“I don’t mind.”
” – and embarrassing.”
He doesn’t understand her unwillingness to talk, but he smiles anyway, encouraging. He has always been the kind of person to open up to strangers, to share his life story with the person across from him on the subway, on the train.
“Those are the best kind of stories.”
She begins to sift through her memories, categorizing the good and the bad, ordering events by year and season and theme, but one look at his rough face and all order melts into pools of pandemonium. Images of her thirteenth birthday party drip onto the opening night of her lead in the school musical, flowing over family vacations and her first romance, her favorite book, her favorite movie; she cannot bring her mind to its usual form, and this freeness has thrown her off guard.
“I like horses.”
“Oh?” He fiddles with his seat, tilting it back and forth, swaying and bumping as the airplane dips into the clouds.
“My sister and I used to ride when we were little, on my grandparents’ farm.” She pauses. She smells the dirt and hay. She thinks of her grandmother’s fluffer-nutter sandwiches and Nancy Drew books. “We took the horses out early, early, in the morning, when our parents were still asleep. My favorite was Shadow -1 named him myself, at ten years old, and Shadow was… magnificent. The most gorgeous horse I had ever seen. Tall and royal and shiny and soft… I needed a stool to reach the stirrups, but I always tried to get on without it. My sister, she was taller then me, even then; she could do it by herself, and I hated her so much for that.” She laughs, swirls the remnants of her drink around in the short plastic cup, sips, takes a cube of ice into her mouth and chomps it.
“I used to ride,” he says, by way of a reply. “I took lessons with —” And she knows there is someone, someone else besides her he has been riding with, and the fantasies that began with the first words of his response, the images of flying through the desert on Arabian steeds with this dark man burst into the reality that he is only her next-door plane-seat neighbor, nothing else; this moment is nothing more than chance and coincidence, and they were not meant to be.
“With Melina, my wife.” He seals the doom of the ending conversation. “She loves horses.” He coughs, nervous; swallows another mouthful of his drink. She chews on her ice, glad for the excuse to be silent.
A moment passes. The flight attendant begins her return journey down the aisle, collecting trash into a white bin with the colorful logo of the company. She reaches out her hand to take his napkin, his empty plastic cup, and he thanks her.
Into the trash–everything.