We're All Going Down

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I've never had sex with a stranger, although I can't say they were all really friends. I've held hands with a stranger, though, and that may have been the strangest thing of all.

It was a Friday night somewhere over Kentucky. I had a window seat on a flight from Dallas, where I'd been sent on business, back to Washington, D.C., I was making small talk with my seatmate, a man who was probably 20 years my senior, when we hit the storm.

With breathtaking suddenness, the plane rocked and rolled, skidding through the air like a car on black ice. Lightning bolts galvanized the darkness outside. Ominous bangs could be heard from deep in the fuselage. The flight attendants put away their drinks and their smiles and strapped into their jump seats, the thing that frightened me most.

The captain may have announced something, but I don't remember. The world had turned into a surrealist painting, the rain falling sideways, time bending and stopping.

“We're all going down,” someone said lightly, a gentle stab at levity. Someone else laughed a little, a small kindness in return.

Then he took my hand—my seatmate, the man I'd exchanged only a couple dozen innocuous words with in my entire life. I looked up at him in surprise.

“Can't hurt, right?” he said. I nodded and kept my hand in his.

We held hands for a long time. Maybe it only felt like a long time, but it was long enough for strangers to become friends. And yet, we didn't. 

I am now close to the age the man was when our plane lurched through the night. Sometimes I wonder why I never asked his name or where he lived. Or why I didn't memorize something about his face, like whether he had a mole or a beard or glasses. I held his left hand with my right, our sweat commingling, but I don't remember if he wore a ring.

He also asked nothing of me, except to hold my hand.

Our labels are incomplete. There must be a word for that third condition that exists between people when they are thrown together, whether it's in a broken elevator, or a burning skyscraper, or a car crash in the street. When details are unnecessary, because those details tell only part of the story, and our actions say who we really are.

After a time, our plane landed safely. People clapped. We stood and stretched and gathered our belongings. We filed out of the jetway, delivered like sinners. Then, my seatmate and I—who had shared something intimate in the darkness, not sex, not love, but something just as essential—went our separate ways.

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