The man sitting beside him made Mark uncomfortable. Maybe it was the way the man was dressed—grey pants, grey button down, brown shoes. Or it could have been the the length of his neck, the way it jutted out of his collar, almost like a turtle’s head poking out from its shell, just seemed unusual. But whatever it was, Mark knew it was going to be awkwardly long flight—even if it was just thirty-five minutes from Huntsville to Atlanta.
At least I have the aisle seat.
When the flight attendant made her final pass through the cabin, Mark was relieved to know their flight had been cleared for take-off. As the Embraer’s engines slurped in oxygen and fuel, Mark took a deep breath. The only part of flying he liked less than landing was taking off. The rattle of luggage above him and the indeterminate sounds of metallic fatigue always unsettled him. But he reassured himself that flying was the safest way to travel and that he had nothing to worry about. Except maybe the man sitting next to him. Guy looks like Ichabod Crane.
As the plane relentlessly fought gravity and finally levelled off at cruising altitude, Mark’s heart jumped, just as it always did, when the roar of the engines faded. He squirmed in his seat, his feet anxiously pushing against the floor as if to insure the plane didn’t lose altitude under reduced power.
“Nervous?” asked Ichabod.
Mark let out an anxious uh-uh, punctuating it with a nervous laugh and a “’course not.”
No matter how many times Mark flew, he could never quite seem to get over his fear. Hell. It wasn’t fear. It was something closer to a controlled kind of panic. With every bit of turbulence, every slight bit of yaw, and, God forbid, the unexpected crash of something in the galley, Mark beat back the dragons of terror.
“No. Sure. Of course not,” said Ichabod. “Sometimes, for me, well, sometimes I’m a peaceful as a newborn lamb on a flight. Other times, I feel like a hunted animal—heart pounding in my chest, breathing like it’s my last breath. Good that you don’t have to deal with that. Wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Geez. Now this guy is gonna talk my head off.
Mark cursed silently, wishing he hadn’t forgotten his headphones. Maybe, he could just close his eyes and the guy would get the message. He leaned his head back on the vinyl, or whatever it was, cushion and found himself wondering who had last lain his or her head back in that seat. He shuddered, visions of unwashed hair or worse racing through his mind and gently lifted his back up from the headrest.
“What takes you to Atlanta? Going home or leaving?”
Short of being downright rude, Mark knew he was going to have to talk to Ichabod.
“Catching another flight. On the way to LA.”
“Now that’s a long flight.”
“Yep.” Mark wished he’d just lied and said he was going home. But if the guy lived in Atlanta that might have lead to questions he couldn’t answer.
“Business or pleasure?” asked Ichabod.
“Business. Going to see a client.”
“Guess that kind of question is a little odd.”
Mark couldn’t tell if Ichabod exactly who the guy was talking to—it seemed more rhetorical than it seemed directed at him.
“Pardon?” Come on, Mark. Leave it alone.
“Oh, I just mean, it’s kind of an odd question. You know, if you’re travelling for business or pleasure,” Ichabod offered.
Mark noticed the timbre of the man’s voice change. Was it lower? Or maybe it just sounded strange because of the pressure in his ears.
“You know,” Ichabod continued. “Business or pleasure. Seems kind like you shouldn’t have to pick. Know what I mean?”
Mark was beginning to forget how uncomfortable the man had made him when they first sat down. He noticed the man had impossibly long fingers and wondered if the man might suffer from Marfan’s syndrome—but even with noticing them, it didn’t strike him as odd as it might have earlier.
“I guess. But work is—well, it’s work. You have to make a living.”
“Oh, yeah. Of course, you do, Mark. But sometimes it seems like you have to mortgage yourself to buy little bits of pleasure. Maybe they should be the same thing,” said Ichabod. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m just rambling. Forgive me.”
Mark thought about the fact he really didn’t enjoy his job. It paid well. Came with some nice perks. It was respectable and occasionally satisfying. But the truth was, he’d come to the place where he didn’t expect that much from it anymore. Whenever he found himself depressed or discouraged about his job, he just pressed it down. Kind of like how he pushed down the near panic of flying.
“Who do you work for?” asked Mark.
“Who? Me? Oh, I work for myself.”
“Doing what, Ich—?” Mark caught himself.
“Oh. It’s nothing really. Nothing important. But I enjoy it. Which is something, I suppose.”
Mark thought about the long flights. The hotels. The Monday morning sales meetings. It was what he called excited misery. The next deal. The next client. The next—everything.
“I don’t really like my job,” confessed Mark. “I mean, it’s a good job. Good benefits. Pays the bills. Truth is, I wish I could just quit.”
Ichabod’s face flushed, as if he were embarrassed.
“Oh. Don’t do that,” pleaded Ichabod.
Mark was confused.
“But I thought you said you didn’t think people should have to choose between business and pleasure.”
Ichabod apologized. He tried to explain what he meant. Or at least Mark thought that was what he was doing. For a minute, all Mark heard was something that sounded like garbled voices when you were just close enough for two stations to occupy the same spot on the dial. He cocked his head a little, like a dog hearing a high-pitched whistle. That was better.
“…don’t have to, I think. I mean it’s possible, you know. To make it a different kind of choice. It’s possible to find meaning in even the most mundane things,” said Ichabod. “If you pay attention to the people around you—to how you make them feel, to the things you teach them, just by being present. I think you can change the world that way. But you have to pay attention.”
Mark nodded. By now, he had forgotten his discomfort. Ichabod’s confession that he struggled with fear sometimes, his attention to Mark’s anxiety, and his humility had been more than enough for Mark to let go of his irritation. Ichabod made a certain amount of sense. Anyway, it was something to think about.
Mark had barely noticed when the plane had begun its final descent onto the runway of Hartsfield International. As the plane came to a stop and the cabin door had opened, Mark stood and looked at Ichabod.
“You getting off here?” he asked.
“No. Just a stopover. This flight goes on to Philadelphia. I get off there.”
“Well,” said Mark. “It was nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, Mark.”
“I’m Mark, by the way. What’s your name?”
“I’m Sophos,” the man replied.
“That’s an interesting name. Family name?”
“Well, yes. I suppose. It’s Greek.”
Mark could feel the push of hurriedly travelers behind him and said, “Guess I better get out of these people’s way, Sophos. Have a nice trip.”
“You too, Mark. Enjoy your journey.”
Mark fell in with the rest of the herd exiting the plane, robotically dragging his carry on behind him. As he exited the jet-way into the terminal, he thought about the man’s name. Sophos. Unusual name. Maybe he should look it up. Mark thought his family had some Greek heritage, but he wasn’t sure. He checked his ticket for the departure time of his connecting flight and noticed his name on the ticket.
Wait. Did Sophos ever ask me my name? How did he know my name?
He looked at his luggage. Nope. No tags. His ticket had been in his pocket. Did the flight attendant call him by name? No. He was sure of it. That’s just plain weird. Mark thought about his encounter with Sophos the all the way to his next gate. When the Boeing 737 leveled off, Mark looked at the man sitting next to him. He could tell the other man was avoiding eye contact, trying to dissolve into his own private flight bubble.
“Hey. My name’s Mark. Long flight ahead of us. Figure we might as well get to know one another.”