On a short flight from DC to Philly last December, a hairless, gaunt, colorfully tattoo’d man slouched next to me in the window seat, his long limbs politely folded into the small space allotted him.“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“Rome. How about you?”
“I really want to go to Italy, but I’m afraid of Isis. They might chop my head off.”
“C’mon, you don’t really believe that, do you?”
“Yeah, sure I do.”
I suppressed the urge to cite the minuscule number of times terrorists had killed civilian Americans anywhere in the world, and the statistical probability that our little plane was many times more likely to crash and kill us than a terrorist. The 31 minute flight was too short anyway to engage in a conversation that I knew I couldn’t win. The facts wouldn’t have mattered. He simply didn’t feel safe in the world.
I don’t usually like to talk to people on airplanes anyway. However, we’d bonded over cancer during the pre-flight announcements when he mentioned he flew to the National Institutes of Health every two weeks to undergo experimental treatment for a rare cancer that had invaded his body. When I told him I’d survived breast cancer three years ago, he paused, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re in the club, too.”
He’d discovered his cancer the previous winter when blood streamed into the toilet bowl while he was “pissing.” I discovered my cancer when blood began squirting out of my right nipple. He’d been having kidney pain for months before he was diagnosed, but had been too scared to visit a doctor. I’d departed for a month-long vacation in deep denial after the first red dots began appearing inside my bra. He’d lost 75 pounds and been too weak to work since he’d begun treatment. I was intensely grateful that my treatments had cured me over the course of a year and wished him the same.
He recounted a story about partying with a Honduran friend. People often feel compelled to suggest they’re cool with me being not white by telling me about their friend who is a person of color. I wondered if he mistakenly believed I was Latina. I’ve been mistaken for Laplander, Hawaiian, Azerbaijani, and numerous other ethnicities depending on where in the world I happen to be.
He bragged about being a lifelong member of the union of masons. He was the working class white man that I had read about who had elected a narcissistic, thin-skinned, childish demagogue. In my bubble world, I rarely met anyone like him. I was angry with the group of people my seat mate represented. I couldn’t hate this man, though.
As we approached the landing in Philly, I leaned across him from my aisle seat to marvel at the afternoon sunlight bathing the top of a thick, fluffy layer of marshmallow clouds.
“I could walk on them clouds,” he said. I nodded.
We agreed that we’d probably run into each other again in the airport so we didn’t exchange contact information. I told him I wasn’t afraid of Isis in Italy and I hoped I’d see him again to prove it to him.