He turned sideways in the aisle to move past passengers still struggling to jam slightly too-large carry-ons into the overhead compartment. I groaned inwardly, because I knew exactly where he was going to sit.
It had been a long couple of nights in San Jose. My room was right next to the bar, and synthesized music pounded incessantly on the wall above my head. It was cold and the blanket inadequate. Each night I huddled with my hands between my thighs to keep them warm.
I drifted off not long after I sat down on the plane, and dreamt I was Chuang Tzu dreaming he was me. I’d been looking forward to leaning up against the window and sleeping my way through the entire flight, maybe use the footwell of the empty seat next to me to stretch out.
That wasn’t going to happen. I knew it as soon as I saw him.
He was wearing greenish cargo shorts of some sort, with too many pockets full of too much stuff so they bulged in too many places; flip flops, and a shirt that might have been white once, a long while ago, but was so wrinkled it looked like it had been wadded up and tied with tight rubber bands. He was three days away from his last shave, and his hair, though clean, looked like he combed it with his fingers.
“Hi,” he said as he sat down. He dropped the small day pack he carried to the floor, shoved it under the seat in front of him with his feet.
“Hi. I wondered if I wouldn’t run into you on this flight. I was hoping for a nap.”
“Yeah, well…” his voice trailed off into a smile. “It’s good to see you again. I didn’t know if you noticed me hanging back there.”
“Not at first,” I said. “Have you been behind me the whole trip, or just since Quepos?”
“For longer than you know. Let’s leave it at that for now.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why have I been behind you, or why are we leaving it at that?” he responded.
“Yes,” I said. His clothes had the slightest odor, I can’t say that it was unpleasant, but I could not identify it. It might have been food, or perhaps just the dense muskiness of being stored without air in his backpack.
“It seemed like you were doing some sort of research that might be of interest, we decided to find out.”
“Of interest to whom? Are you with the government? U.S. or Costa Rican?”
“Not really,” he said. “I work for more of a development agency, of sorts. Let’s leave it at that for a moment. Want a Coke?”
“They’re not serving. We’re barely off the ground.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
“So, is your development agency a non governmental organization? Private company?” I asked.
“Stubborn, aren’t you? No wonder all those people spilled their lives out to you.”
“You know about that?”
“I thought that’s what we were talking about.”
“Is there an echo in here?”
“No,” he said. “I think it’s just the drop in cabin pressure.”
“So, somebody you work for or are involved with thinks that what I’ve been doing is of some interest from a development point of view?” I asked.
“Something like that.”
“Thats why you’ve been following me around?”
“No, I was following you, though that’s not the right term for it, to see if you were being honest or just out to exploit others.”
“What’s the verdict?”
“You did okay,” he said, trying to soften the impact.
He got a tired expression on his face, and I swear he rolled his eyes, but caught himself and looked at me as directly as he could, given we were seated side-by-side in cramped airplane seats.
“Alright. You were as honest as you could be, and while you did stray a little close to the line at times, exploitation is hard to define when it comes to art. Do painters exploit their models?”
“Nice analogy,” I said.
“I’ve picked up a few pointers. The main thing is that you didn’t exploit for cheap or easy reasons. And you were honest. Those are high marks where I come from. Accept it and let it go.”
“Why sit next to me now, when you’ve tried so hard to stay out of sight?” I asked.
“Because we’re about done. You’re going home, and I needed to ask you some questions.”
“I’ll want to ask you some in turn,” I said.
“Fair enough, but do you mind if I go first?” he said.
“I suppose not. Go.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
I laughed out loud, because his question hit right in the middle of the bullseye. That was the very question I’d been asking myself. I looked out the window while I assembled my thoughts. He was able to stop the attendant and he even reached over and dropped my tray table. It took me until the two Cokes had arrived to give him an answer.
“I thought I would. I figured it would be Rebecca, of course, then thought it would be Olivia, how her potential was tempered by vulnerability. Alycia for her faith and serenity. Valerie’s blend of intelligence, wisdom and passion was stunning, and Avi’s innocence, honesty, and strength made him “amazing,” to use his favorite word. Ed made me sad and of course, so did Pantalones, but that was no reason to reject them. So I don’t know. I didn’t get quite deep enough into the others, I suppose, or deep enough into myself where they would resonate.”
“Did you learn anything?”
“I learned I can live small and still feel fulfilled, as long as I have art. Rebecca, Valerie and Olivia made me realize how selfish I can be.”
“Why?” he asked, actually looked confused.
“By how much they give, are willing to give, the extent of their sacrifice. It may be a female thing,” and then I immediately regretted saying that. But by the way he smiled, I think he saw the regret and let it drop.
“What else did you learn?”
“How thin are the differences.”
“What do you mean?”
“We focus on the differences between us, between people or between people and animals, even between people and the ocean. But at so many levels, we are really all the same, at least have the same rhythms, and it is the rhythms that unify. I don’t have better words for it than that.”
It was his turn to look away and think for a while.
“What was your favorite place?” he asked.
“Bocas del Toro.”
“Because of Olivia and Alycia, Avi and Valerie? You know they won’t still be there if you ever go back,” this he said with a real look of compassion in his eyes. “Would you want to live there?”
“Probably not,” I said. “I think it was the water. I like Bocas, I will go back and maybe for a longer period of time, but I don’t want to die there. The Pacific Northwest is my home.”
“Okay. Last question. Why did you go? What were you looking for?”
“That’s two questions,” I said.
“And there will be followups. But humor me.”
“Adventure. Connection. Love, maybe.” I don’t think I’d admitted that even to myself before he asked.
“Did you find it?”
“Really? What about the story of Olivia and Alycia? What about Avi and Valerie?”
“Well, yes, I saw their love, how they loved and how they were loved. I meant something else.”
“Something more personal?
“Something more my own,” I admitted.
“Let me ask you this. Do you believe you can perceive an emotion you don’t experience?” He was looking at me intently as he asked this, so I was a bit wary, careful with my answer.
“No, my guess is that perceiving the emotion is experiencing it.”
“Hah!” this exploded out of him, was so loud it startled me and caused the man on the aisle seat to look over, even though he was wearing headphones and watching a movie. “Good boy! So if perceiving emotions and experiencing them are the same, can we agree that by perceiving love, you experienced it?”
“That was a trap. Yes, I’ll agree I experienced a form of love and connection, but not the way I want to be loved and connected.”
“Well, let’s get to that. My guess is that if you have this capacity for love, you have been loved. Correct?”
“Different things at different times.”
“You fucked it up.” He managed to say that with compassion but I don’t know how.
“Different reasons in different relationships.”
“Really?” he asked, now in the same tone of voice people use when they say “seriously?” indicating a level of stupidity hard to believe.
“My exwife said I let go of what I want to reach for what I can’t have.”
“Sounds like a wise woman.”
“Yes, and your point would be…?”
“Oh, don’t get that way. I’m on your side,” he said.
“That remains to be seen,” I replied.
“Fair enough. So why did you fuck up your relationships?”
“Please. For now.”
“I’m going to have to see you again?”
“Let’s stick to our topic for now, Evasive Boy.”
“The short version is that I didn’t find a partner to play in my playground.”
“Really? No one wanted to commit?” He said that “really” with the same tone of disbelief.
“There were some important differences.”
“I’m sure there were. Who focused on them?”
“I think I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my core values.”
“Okay. Desires. Wants. Aspirations.”
“So you sacrificed companionship instead? So you could live the life you wanted?”
“That seems a little harsh,” I said.
“The truth can be,” he threw back quickly. “But we’re not done. You may appreciate the outcome. What have people said about your little stories?”
“I would say for the most part readers have been very receptive.”
“Good Lord. ‘Very receptive?’ What in Hell are you hiding from?”
It was my turn to sigh. I don’t like talking about myself, and compliments make me uncomfortable. Especially when I am forced to recount them.
“Feedback has been very positive,” I said at last.
“Oh, Christ, I don’t know.”
“Bullshit.” He spat that word out like he had a mouthful.
“Because I shared something that I was seeing.”
“That you were seeing?” Now the sarcasm was thick as sour cream. “You were acting out your lifelong ambition of being a video camera? A seismograph? No editing involved, just recording?”
“Of course not. What I saw, what I felt, how it impacted me.”
“And readers liked this? Why?
“Because I engaged with them.”
“Engaged with readers, or with your subjects, with your butterflies?”
“Both, I guess.”
“Why did these people talk to you?”
“Why am I talking to you?” I shot back.
“Exactly. But let’s answer my question first.”
“Because I asked them questions?”
“Would they have opened their hearts to just anyone the way they opened them to you?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“You suppose not? Let me repeat: What in Hell are you hiding from?”
“They opened their hearts to me because… I cared about them. But they couldn’t know that so…”
He waved his hand in preemptive dismissal of my argument.
“Didn’t you once say that much of our personal communication is not verbal?”
“So, let’s assume they knew that, in your own way, you loved them.”
“That’s a little strong.”
“Granted. But I’m not prepared to say that love is just one thing, and nothing else qualifies.”
“Me either,” I said, mildly offended at the implication.
“Then stop doing it.”
“You are a pain in the ass. What is it you do again?”
“I’m in the development business. So if the people you talked to knew, in some way, that you loved them, and you shared that experience with readers, you shared love, right?”
“You have stretched this far past the breaking point,” I said.
“I don’t think so. And I’m willing to bet that if you were able to summon the courage, that’s exactly what your readers would say if you asked them.”
“I thought they loved the writing.”
“There’s lots of wordsmith’s out there. I’m going to repeat the question: What were you looking for?”
“Answer’s the same. Adventure. Connection. Love.”
“Did you find it?
“In a way, I suppose. I perceived it, and by your definition, experienced it.”
“More than that. You showed love, received love, shared love.”
“But I didn’t hold love in my arms.”
“To say you have nothing because you don’t have everything seems a little selfish and small, especially coming from you: you who can love the father of a girl he abandoned for a principle; who can love an armored up tough girl trying to find fairness in a world where it’s in short supply; who can find love for a drug and alcohol addled cripple who can’t keep his pants above his knees, an old surfer chasing the future as if the past did not exist. I’m leaving out your daughters and all the others because they are too obvious. All that love, and you want to hold it in your arms?”
“I want to be held.”
“You are a writer. You need to hold yourself. That’s what we do.”
“We?” I asked.
“Just a second. Let me track down the attendant. I need a Coke.”
Of course, he never came back. The plane was full. I walked the aisle back to the bathrooms, saw people come and go out of each. I looked into first class until the attendant chased me out. I asked if a man had come up and asked her for Cokes, and she said no one had, besides me.
I know he didn’t get off the plane before I did. I thought once I caught a glimpse of him, but I was mistaken. But my guess is that I will bump into him again, somewhere out on the road, probably chasing butterflies.