Strangers on a plane

The woman sitting next to me on the flight from Charlotte to West Palm Beach Saturday afternoon had a big rhinestone studded watch, bright red lipstick and a comfortable calm about her as we settled in for the flight. We exchanged looks of dread when a baby somewhere in the back began to shriek before take-off, and settled into our separate diversions when it stopped.

Then as we descended over western Palm Beach, she turned to me smiling and said, “Going home?”

“One of them,” I said. “I live in Washington to work, and come home when I can.”

“You’re lucky,” she said. “That sounds fun.”

“Well it’s a wonderful time to be in Washington,” I said, with a suggestion of the joy I have felt in waves since the early hours of November 7, during what has been called “the Great Obamagasm of 2012.”

She said, “is it?”

Silence fell for a moment and I realized we were close enough to landing to risk repricocity.

“Is this home for you?” I asked.

“No, Philadelphia. I’m here for the holidays. I love coming here,” she said. Her face contracted then, from smile to frown, as if she had heard a voice reminding her what she was supposed to say next. That turned out to be: “But I could move to Canada any time now.”

“Uh-oh,” I thought, but I didn’t say anything at all.

She waited and then, after a while she filled the silence with: “I’m actually first generation here. All my family came from Canada.”

Ah, I thought, she’s probably just another Canadian braggart, once removed. They do that — revel in their ability to live in the top of no-where because they can have healthcare and cross the border to smuggle in cheap cigarettes and alcohol. Which is so much better than what I had thought she was getting at that I gave it to her, and said, graciously, I thought, “Well, they’ve got fantastic healthcare there, I hear.”

Her face closed again, a real constriction of meaness, that saddened me.

The pilot started making an announcement about the weather, the time, what to do with our seats, unwanted items, tray tables, at the same time she started telling me something about how no, the healthcare there was not all that, in fact her aunt’s friend had to wait two weeks for an operation with some consequence that I couldn’t hear because of the pilot, and also because I wasn’t listening.

So I said, how I didn’t know about any of that, it’s just that I used to work with a woman from Canada last year and she was always bragging on their health care . . .

And then with no transition that I heard, the woman next to me was suddenly on a tale of another friend’s relative, or relative’s friend who didn’t like the health care in England either, because you can only do what the government says you can do . . .

You get the idea, as I did, so I stayed quiet and waited for her to finish and the plane to land, and then she brought it home.

“And we don’t know what’s going to happen here,” she said. “I don’t think anyone knows. I mean the Congress had to vote on it, but they don’t know what’s in it — it’s more than 200 pages.”

“Well I hope they read it,” I said, “That is their job.”

So she looked at me, the same way I had looked at her a moment before, with the sadness of realizing that we were on opposite sides of a chasm that probably neither one of us can figure out exactly how it came to be there.

Silence fell, abruptly and pleasantly, and the plane landed and as we plodded off the plane we wished each other a happy Thanksgiving.


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