Things were different in those days. Back in the nineties, my international business meetings were face-to-face rather than screen-to-screen. I spent a lot of time in the air. Sometimes I felt like one of those big sea birds, the ones that soar thousands of miles without ever landing. One thing I learned during all that air travel: People on planes say the damnedest things to strangers.
On one of those trips, I flew to Los Angeles from Singapore, and then flew out on United flight 415 bound for Washington, D.C. Dulles. I boarded with Business Class before most of the other passengers. After I pulled the book I had been reading out of my carry-on, I stowed the bag in the overhead compartment. As I sipped the orange juice the flight attendant brought, I watched the cavalcade of passengers struggling to board: overseas business travelers like me, coming from the airline clubs, worn out from long hours of travel over broad oceans, the men unshaven, the women disheveled in wrinkled travel outfits; tourists-to-be, clad in cargo shorts or peddle-pushers, pulling oversized carry-ons, some with screaming babies in their arms, unaware of the temperature differences they would encounter in their nation’s capital; and domestic business travelers, fresh from their morning ablutions, all smiles.
When the passing line stopped for a moment, a young woman glanced down at the opened paperback on my tray table. I’d just begun reading The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer. Our eyes met, and I thought she was going to say something, but the line began to move, and she continued toward the rear of the plane.
After most passengers boarded, the woman reappeared, looming over me. Her dark hair was cut short. She wore a silver Orthodox cross and a puzzled smile.
“Hello,” I offered.
“Why are you reading that?” she asked, pointing to my book. She pronounced the “g” in “reading” with a slight “k” sound at the end, the faintest of Russian accents. “I didn’t think anyone read him anymore. Isn’t he,” she paused, seemingly struggling for the right word, and then, with look of triumph and a slight hiss in her voice said, “passé?”
The smile disappeared. She looked as if she was going to spit on the book.
“Well, I don’t think–”
“I worked with him in Russia.” Her nostrils flared. “I translated. I did all the research on the KGB files. I helped him write the goddam Oswald book.” She paused, and then lightning flashed behind amethyst eyes. “What a vile, rotten little shit he is. What a fucking excuse for a human being.”
I had no idea how to respond. I had never thought to judge a writer’s work by their behavior.
“Nobody reads Mailer anymore.” She turned and stalked off toward the rear of the plane.
“All finished?” The flight attendant smiled as she snatched up my unfinished juice and cocktail napkin. Another attendant at the front of the plane instructed us to stow our electronic gear, fasten our seat belts, and bring our seats to an upright and locked position.
As our plane rolled down the runway and then lifted off, I wondered what had happened between her and Mailer.
When the Boeing 777 leveled off at cruising altitude, the pilot’s voice came over the intercom. “This is your captain speaking. We are going to keep the seat belt fastened sign on for the first part of the flight. There’s a lot of turbulence ahead. Looks like a bumpy ride, folks.”
Our plane suddenly dropped, and we were weightless as space-walking astronauts. It stopped dropping, only to shake violently as it leveled off. We passengers glanced around at each other, chuckling nervously for reassurance. But the shaking began again. The air was rough and choppy; people screeched every time the plane lunged. I tried to concentrate on my book but kept rereading the same line. A lavatory door swung open; a toilet seat banged shut. Overhead compartments popped open and dropped their contents on frightened passengers. There were no knowing chuckles this time, just determined looks, white knuckles gripping seat arms, faces frozen in various degrees of a determined, fearful rictus.
The “fasten seatbelts” sign remained lit for most of the flight and turbulence kept us in our seats.
After disembarkation, I waited at the gate for the woman to deplane, but when the crew finally passed me, I realized I must have missed her when she had exited in the crowd of passengers.
The gate was empty of people now, and I turned to leave. I had to get home to unpack so I could pack again for tomorrow’s trip.
Now, whenever I see a volume by Mailer, I think of that woman. I don’t know why what she said bothered me. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it meant something.
People on planes say the damnedest things to strangers.