Strangers on a Plane


Sharing a departure on an arriving flight.

By Cherri Ellis

The airport was clanging with beeping carts and rolling hard cases and announcements that weren’t intelligible but insanely loud. The plane was going to be packed, and I had another aisle seat to look forward to. Somehow the purchase of a cushy neck pillow that could turn a window seat into a bed at the Four Seasons had magically ensured that I will never get a window seat again. The neck pillow is useless in an aisle seat.  You can put it around your neck, but all it will do is jut you forward and smash your face up.

I have been the traveler who looked like a pro. I have sat in Starbucks in cute flat shoes, working on a fully charged laptop while sipping a nonfat vanilla latte that I didn’t really need because I had a healthy breakfast at the hotel after a brisk morning workout. I have saved my receipts. I have known where my phone was. This was not me today.

The first leg of the trip had been beyond awkward. Although I had left the hotel in plenty of time, the traffic had been insane, and I barely made my gate. I was starving and rolled my luggage up to a Subway counter because there was only one person in line. Hearing her order some sort of turkey something, I ordered the same, snatched the bag, and kept running. I was late to board, so I had to do that awkward thing where you have to find space in an overhead bin far from your seat, which involves butt contact with multiple people. Finally settled in my aisle seat, I smiled at the man wedged next to me. He did not smile back. I peeked in the Subway bag on my lap and saw that I had a 12-inch turkey Swiss sub with extra everything, and it had not been cut in half. The man next to me was not putting out a friendly “have at it” vibe, so I pondered my plan of execution. I wasn’t about to whip out a cartoon-sized sandwich and just go at it in such close quarters, but my stomach was eating itself. I ended up leaving it inside the bag and ripping off one bite at a time with my fingers. It was not easy and took a long time, and the man next to me never once acknowledged me. It was a long flight for both of us.

On the connecting flight my new seatmate arrived, slipping past me and settling into her seat with a long sigh. It was the sound of someone who had just finished an obstacle course, and I laughed. “Were you here for business or pleasure?” She paused, smiled apologetically, and answered. “I buried my mother yesterday.”

My eyes filled up with tears before I could even answer. She jumped to comfort me, and we started laughing because she was obviously the one who needed solace. We talked the entire trip.

By the time we landed in Atlanta, I knew her. She looked like a girl, but she was a married mother of two with a full-time job in HR. Her speech was free of any regional dialect, which took some effort having come from Brooklyn. She had left home at 17 to join the U.S. Navy after a childhood that had some really rough spots. Her grandmother had come to the states to escape extreme poverty in Jamaica, and her mother had not adapted well, eventually struggling with addiction and a string of bad decisions. She had a sister who was autistic and extremely low functioning, and it took a long time to get her diagnosed because she had a different dad, they didn’t have access to great medical care, and autism is rare in females. She knew the importance of school and got great grades, despite being a caregiver in chaos at a young age. She had grown into an elegant adult, with a beautiful family and good job, but her relationship with her mother had never healed.

Her face glowed as she told me about the funeral, and she pulled out her phone to show me pictures of the arrangements she made from her finds in the flower district. She had packaged wildflower seeds with a card attached that asked the guests to please scatter them at home in her mother’s honor, which might be the coolest idea I’ve ever heard of for a funeral. It was not lost on me that her husband and kids were absent, and it was clear she had not buried a loving mother. And yet, she had tried so hard to make it a beautiful occasion, and to bring an honorable close to a long and torturous chapter. She had such grace, and I hope that I will never forget our 90 minutes together. Sometimes a level of candor is possible in random encounters that is not achievable in real life. We actually hugged goodbye at the gate.

I learned two things on that travel day:

1. It is never too late to try to bring peace and redemption to a place of pain.

2. It is not possible to sneak-eat a foot-long submarine sandwich.•

One Response to “Strangers on a Plane”

  1. Mickey Guisewite says:

    Great piece, Cherri! Just beautiful.



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