The interior of the plane was as dark as the blackness that engulfed it. It was night—well, maybe evening—depending on which portion of the country I happened to be flying over. I wasn’t entirely sure. It didn’t really matter. As the inhabitant of the window seat, I had sole command over the pull shade, which I chose to keep up, despite the fact that the lights on the tips of the wings had an annoying way of flashing across my eyelids just as I began to drift off. Giving up on the idea of trying to sleep, I decided to put my headphones on and gaze down at what I could see of the glistening lights below. I wondered if anyone was gazing back up at me, as I thought back to two weeks earlier. It was Thanksgiving weekend. And I was headed back to school.
Thin flashes of light kept disturbing my sleep as the Greyhound bus I was aboard rumbled northward, away from coastal Connecticut and towards the heart of Massachusetts. The flash of light would burst…then fade. Ten, fifteen seconds later it would burst again. These flashes weren’t enough to fully wake me up, but rather they transformed the midnight black hue of the back of my eyelids to a vibrant peach red, disrupting a sound rest, but never quite fully rousing me. After the sixth or so flash, I opened my eyes and glanced over. The unmistakable glow of a touch screen phone, rhythmically awakened from its locked position glared back at me. Couldn’t its owner turn the brightness down?
It was night. Probably 9:30PM, given that our bus had left so much later than its 8:00PM scheduled departure. The night air was as black as the inside of the bus, shrouding most everything from recognition except for the red tail lights in front of our coach. The highway glowed ahead of me, lined by the blurry collection of weary holiday travelers. As the third to last person to make it onto this bus—the last bus out of New Haven, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving—pickings for a “good” seat had been slim. I had heartlessly shoved my way past a few women and children, as well as an older person or two. I was tall and relatively strong, and I had used that to my advantage when thrusting my ticket towards the overwhelmed bus driver. Was I proud of it? Absolutely not. But was I content in having a sure ride back to school? Absolutely.
Upon boarding the bus, I shuffled down the grooved, sticky plastic flooring and settled for the first seat that I saw—a third row aisle seat to next to one of the largest women that I had ever seen. There was scarcely enough room for her expanse across the matted grey upholstery, let alone room for me to join. Yet I settled in and folded my arms, ass half off the seat.
As my eyelids glowed red for the thousandth time, I finally opened them, thoroughly annoyed at the chronic time-checker I had next to me. She would not stop looking at her phone. I marveled at her near-perfect ability to light up her device the second that it turned dim, but couldn’t help but think to myself that a minute would not go by any faster the more she checked its progress. Sixty seconds, in any circumstance, was still sixty seconds. I glanced at her illuminated screen, attempting to gauge how much longer of the ride that I had to bear accommodating her one and a half seats. Peering at the phone from the corner of my eye, I never even caught the time. What I saw was more important than any time that it could have been.
As the screen lit up, I noticed its wallpaper. A grainy cell-phone photo of a beautiful baby boy, maybe six months old, lit up the screen along with my dark corner of the god-forsaken Greyhound. My heart sank—she had not been checking the time. She was looking at him. I swallowed once, recounting all of the hurtful things I had thought, both boarding the bus and sitting next to this woman. Had she just left the boy? Was she going to him? Why didn’t she have a car? My heart ached for her as I turned my head away, closed my eyes, and allowed myself to be disturbed by the thin flashes of light.
Several weeks later, here I was: wedged against the airplane window, gazing below me, my mind focused, for some reason, on her. Why was I thinking of her? She had entered and exited my life for no more than a brief instant. Yet in that instant, she willingly stepped into a supporting role of a scene in my own story. In that instant, she had softened my heart and showed me how little I really knew of what I perceived.
Maybe I was thinking about her on this flight because she didn’t know that she had affected my life. I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps people were like planes in the night sky; here I was, flying to somewhere from somewhere else, and there everyone else was, down on the ground. It was like the bus—there she was, riding to—or from—her baby boy. And there I was, next to her, just someone down on the ground, watching the flight of something that I knew nothing about. What a shame, I thought, that we know so little of each one of our fellow humans’ journeys; it was amazing how little awareness we have of where they are coming from, and where they are going to.
I wondered how many people down there had seen my plane from the ground, pausing to take in the night air, or simply enjoying a starry night. I wondered how many people were looking at me, wishing that they could fly away to somewhere—anywhere. Maybe they would, simply because they had seen my plane. Maybe I, from thousands of feet above, had inspired the biggest decision they ever made, the loftiest dream they had ever dared to dream, or maybe I had merely softened their hearts. Perhaps someone thought I was a shooting star, and had wished upon me like I had wished upon them so many hundreds of times. I would be content if I had merely played a role in one scene of their lives.
What if I was reading too much into it? Maybe none of that was true, and my analysis of the role that I played in the lives of passerby just meant that I, along with everyone else, was exactly like the woman on the Greyhound, hanging on to every bit of meaning that we could find, on the journey that would one day bring us back home.