Seat Buddy

With flying you rarely know who will be seated next to you until, well, they’re seated next to you. It could be a priest who gives you a dollar for good luck. Or it could be the seven members of your cross country team taking up three whole rows. It could be someone annoying. (My two sisters and I once had a row together for ten disastrous hours. I spilled my cranberry juice, we could barely sleep, and when the youngest finally did fall asleep, the attendants came around with breakfast and we forgot to wake her. Oops.) Or you could sit next to me, who sometimes daringly reads Emily Dickinson poems about death while catapulting along thousands of feet in the air.

Most of the time, though, you have no clue who will be next to you. That was me on the way to D.C. last January. I was super excited, but I’d never flown by myself. Some people get nervous about the airport, checking luggage, getting through security, finding the right gate, but none of that really bothered me. I wasn’t even worried about the flying. I’d been on enough planes at this point to not really be nervous. I knew I had exit row window seats on both flights. A great view and extra room for my long legs. Bless. What worried me was who I’d be next to, whether they’d snore or bug my introverted self with conversation.

This is funny to me because the only detail I remember about the person who sat next to me from Spokane to Chicago is their headphones, and they used them immediately after the plane lifted. I was so not bothered by the person next to me that I barely have a recollection of them.

Chicago to D.C. was a different story.

You know when the seat next to you stays empty? For quite a while after you’ve boarded...and you just start to think you’ve caught a break...without thinking that someone else is having a terrible day missing their flight...but then, just as the flight attendants seem like they’re gonna close the door, people scooch on board, and one of them takes that seat next to you. Well, that happened. And the guy who sat down had his family in tow, and they took the seats behind us.

I quickly realized that the person next to me was pretty important. There were other people on the plane who seemed to recognize him. An older couple a row back talked to him familiarly. I thought, coworkers? Both traveling to D.C. after New Years? Probably an impromptu trip back home for the holidays and they couldn’t get better seats so quick. And there’s a government shutdown about to begin? And he has an American flag pin on his lapel? Oh. This is a congressman. I’m sitting next to a congressman.

I’d never really been this close to someone famous before, so naturally my brain went everywhere in a matter of minutes. Do I talk to this person? Am I gonna be the annoying seat-buddy that talks the whole time? Am I gonna talk about why I’m flying to D.C. and how I’m supposed to be doing this really cool internship-type-thing with the Smithsonian and explain how nine other people from my school are gonna be there too, but the government’s shut down because of this stupid wall money budget thing and so our program isn’t gonna be the same and we might not get to do anything with the Smithsonian, and maybe you could convince the government to open back up for us?

No. Don’t be weird. Just stay quiet, Gabe. Drink your ginger ale, take your melatonin, and pass out. Be your introverted self.

Despite this, I imagine what that conversation would be like. He might apologize for the looming shutdown, ask me my name and ask to include my story in a plea on the House floor, imploring that the shutdown end. He might smile, adjust his cufflinks, and engage me in lively conversation. The conversation might continue as we landed, pulling into the airport, and into his life and work. In the month that followed, even though I was not his constituent, my personal story might have urged him to push even harder to end the shutdown.

Could my conversation have changed that much? Dare I give a hypothetical conversation that much power?

Instead, he acted as most dads do on planes. He made sure his kids in the seats behind us got drinks (but not sodas). He settled in his seat, scrolling through things on a tablet. (Afterwards, I wondered if he was reading need-to-know information, but I was half-awake and it might have been Candy Crush for all I could tell.) When the flight attendant reached across him to hand me my ginger ale, he didn’t even flinch.

After pulling out of my barely-asleep stupor, and watching us fly so shockingly close to the Pentagon before touching down at Reagan, after manoeuvring the metro, and finding the apartments where I’d be staying, I Googled the members of Congress from Illinois. I found him. And you know, just as headphones are my only memory of my seat-buddy from Spokane to Chicago, I’m probably just a blur in a beanie, passed out against the window. And despite what may or may not have come out of a conversation, I’m okay with that.


Gabriel Meek is a senior English major at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, about to earn his degree and enter the "real world." His work is previously published in Furrow. In his free time, he runs long distances, eats applesauce, and is learning braille.

Categories: Airplanes, Trips

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