Today’s post is an early draft of a travel recollection I’m still wrapping my brain around a year and a half later. Forgive disorganization or rambling; just think of it as seeing into a writer’s brain a little bit before usual.
When you see an annoying kid waiting for your flight, never inwardly pity the person who’ll be stuck next to him at 36,000 feet. Don’t tempt fate. You’re just asking for it. You know it’ll just end up being yourself.
When I found my seat on the Friday-morning flight back to Madison and saw it was the aisle companion to the kid’s window seat, and when I saw that his dad sat in the row ahead of us with no intention of moving closer to his son, I buckled my seatbelt with more force than was necessary. I often like to be left alone in flight, but today of all days, I truly needed the solitude. It would figure I get stuck beside the annoying kid.
I had just spent three days in Boston for the second-worst work trip I have ever experienced. Every day in a dark hospital, no familiar faces or friendly coworkers to share lunch with, horrified locals warning me against exploring the city on my own (yeah, like I’d have had any energy to sight-see by 7pm after a 12-hour shift anyway), and, on my last day, a stillbirth in the L&D sending me on a wave of grief that I had to tamp down lest risk looking unprofessional.
On top of all this, I couldn’t just go straight home when my flight landed in Madison. Instead, I’d have to spend the afternoon back in the office, then rush home to change clothes before helping my friends set up their rehearsal dinner that evening. (My own scheduling gaffe sent me out of town the week before my two closest Madison friends got married.) If I had ever needed downtime, it was this morning.
And here I sat next to the child whose own father was relieved to be apart from him for a couple hours in flight.
To be fair, while I settled my carry-ons around me and found my book, the kid ignored me. He sat hunched over the iPad clutched in both hands, elbows leaning on the tray table, with headphones the size of donuts enveloping him in a bubble of some action movie. Maybe I could pretend he wasn’t there and just read my book.
“It’s time to put your tray tables up before taking off,” the flight attendant said at my elbow. I wasn’t using my tray table, so I ignored him.
“Ma’am,” he said, gently tapping my shoulder. “He’ll have to put up his tray table.” He nodded at the kid to my left.
Oh no, I thought. You are not making me take care of this kid today. Feeling passive-aggressive, I turned to the kid and tapped his shoulder.
He took off his headphones.
“Hi,” I said, loudly enough for the row in front of me to hear. “What’s your name?” To my right, I heard the flight attendant make a little sound.
“Caleb,” said the kid.
I held out my hand. “Hi, Caleb. I’m Becca. It’s nice to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand. “You’re going to have to put up your tray table now before we can take off.”
He acquiesced and, as he did so, the flight attendant murmured his apologies to me for assuming I was the kid’s caretaker. The dad even turned around to thank me. Feeling slightly mollified, I went back to my book.
A while later, the kid took off his headphones. “What’s your name?”
“Becca,” I replied.
“I couldn’t remember.” He put his headphones back on and pressed play. Two seconds later, he paused the movie and took off his headphones again.
“Becca?” he asked.
“Yes,” I nodded.
“Becca, do you believe in God?”
Allow me to say, right now, that I am never more thankful to be a Christian than when I’m on public transportation. And although nothing about my behavior up to that point that day reflected my Christian beliefs, I still have them. It’s such a relief to honestly answer yes to my more evangelically-minded brothers and sisters.
I nodded. “Yes, I do, Caleb.”
“Oh, good,” he said, and put his headphones back on.
Two seconds later, he took his headphones back off. “Do you know Jesus?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you tell your friends about him?”
“Often,” I said.
“That’s good.” He put his headphones back on.
It went on like this the rest of the flight. He’d watch two seconds of his movie, I’d get half a paragraph through my book, and then he’d press pause, take off his headphones, and say something else to me. In the course of the flight, he told me all about his dad’s job and how he (Caleb) was going on a work trip with him to Madison and if he was good, he’d get a new video game, and he thought I was dressed really nicely, and he had two little sisters and soon a sort-of little sister because they’re going to get a puppy, and he’s ten years old and it’s good to make sure people know Jesus and his favorite video game is awesome for these reasons, and he loves root beer and is allergic to pollen and did I see the Lego movie? Wasn’t it funny?
I, in turn, told him that while he was in Madison, he needed to try the cheese curds.
Meanwhile, I made peace with the fact that this day was just not going to be my day, that I would interact with Caleb for another 45 minutes, and that tonight after the wedding rehearsal, I could finally decompress.
“My baby sister screams a lot and it’s really annoying.” Headphones off. Pause. Headphones back on. Play.
Then we started to land. I checked his tray table and reminded him to buckle his seat belt. He looked out the window.
“Look at all the farms!” he exclaimed, nose pressed to the window. I heard the midwesterners around me laugh.
“There’s thousands and thousands of them!” he said. Over and over. (I’ve never been able to land in Madison since then without hearing him exclaiming over the thousands and thousands of farms.)
Then, just before touching down on the runway, “I have to pee,” and started to unbuckle his seat belt.
“NO!” I shouted, holding his hands away from the buckle. God help me, he might wet the seat cushion, but I would not be responsible for letting a 10-year-old kid get out of his seat at touch-down.
Finally, we’d taxied to a stop with no one injured or sullied. I could grab a bite of lunch in my apartment and breathe before returning to my office and submitting my travel receipts. As I was reaching up to the overhead compartment to extract my purse, I felt two little arms wrap about my middle.
The kid was giving me a hug.
I heard fellow passengers murmuring about how cute it was, and in that moment, a rush of warmth went through me. It was cute. He was cute. Totally uncontrolled and an absolute handful, but cute for all that. I hugged him back.
He and his dad deboarded before me, and after a ten-minute wait for my gate-checked suitcase, I rolled off the jet bridge. Only to find Caleb and dad holding hands in the waiting area.
Dad, looking more sheepish than any grown man I’m ever likely to see again, said, “He insisted we wait so I could meet you. He really enjoyed your conversation.”
We shook hands.
“What was it you said we needed to try?” Caleb said, practically hopping along beside us as we walked toward baggage claim.
“Cheese curds,” I said. “You’ve got to try the cheese curds.”