The Person Sitting Next to Me
by V. Shalace
“Life is like sailing across a vast sea where you have no idea what lies ahead of you,” my mother once told me. “In the end, we each have to sail our own ships. But sometimes, you meet other ships along the way, and depending on what it’s like on the other ship, you might choose to travel together for a time.”
Every time I think back on that conversation, I picture a great, dark ocean shrouded in fog and dotted with tiny ships, each with a pale light like a star hanging from its prow. I don’t know what was on her mind when she spoke those words, but since then, for me, her analogy has come to mean the way each of our lives touches upon the lives of those around us and how we can choose to take something away from even a brief, chance encounter or to simply sail on without ever calling out.
We spend so much of our lives in transit, both literal and metaphorical. From the journey that is growing up to the drive from home to the next job interview, it seems like we spend most of our lives moving from one place to the next. So what about this in-between time?
In the two and a half years since I started graduate school, my life has been punctuated by trips back and forth between Irvine and San Jose—about an hour away by plane. More than six if you’re driving.
Traveling, especially when you’re legally blind, can be nerve-wracking. Every time I step through the sliding doors of the airport, I’m dazzled by all the colors and sounds and motion. I know that there are counters, lines, luggage—but all the people and gleaming surfaces blend together before me, and it’s like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. Given time, the bits and pieces will start to make sense as knowledge fills in the gaps in perception, but the niggling worry that somehow, something will go wrong and my flight will leave without me never completely goes away.
My Seeing Eye dog Rachel, on the other hand, is happily unhampered by such anxieties. As soon as we’re through the doors, she drags me to the counter with enthusiasm and cranes her neck to peer around my legs as I speak with the airline assistant.
The first time I flew home “by myself” after the fall quarter of my first year at UCI, the young woman who sat down next to me made me think of beaches and sunshine. I can’t explain why I had this impression of her. What vision I have does not allow me to distinguish a person’s features or identify the nature of her apparel. The best I can manage to describe of someone is a general sense of colors, shades, and movement, and that day on the plane, the woman next to me seemed somehow vivid and bright.
Rachel tends to sprawl out into the leg space of the person next to me, so when the woman folded herself onto the seat, I spoke up.
“Um, just nudge her aside if she’s in your way.” Rachel wiggled around to nose towards her feet, and I added, “And if you’re wearing open shoes, she might try to lick your feet. She really likes toes. Just tell me, and I’ll stop her.”
She laughed and said, “I don’t mind. I love dogs.”
Her enthusiasm made it feel strange to leave it at that, so I asked, “Do you have a dog?”
“Yeah, but she’s getting kind of overweight.”
“Well, a lot of dogs do really like to eat.”
She made a sound of agreement in her throat. “I think they’re like fish. They don’t make the connection between eating and being full. This one time, she got a dog food bag open without us noticing, and when we found her, she’d eaten so much that her belly was bulging and she was crying because it was uncomfortable—but she kept on eating anyway.”
“Was she okay?”
“Yeah, she threw up, and then she was fine. I felt really bad though.”
No kidding, I thought.
I reached down to pet Rachel. There was something soothing about the feel of her warm fur and the quiet rise and fall of her sides. The instructors at the Seeing Eye had reminded us at least once a day throughout training with our guide dogs not to overfeed our canine partners.
I’m still not sure what to make of that first airplane conversation, but I realized that perhaps the one-hour flights back home would prove more interesting than I had hitherto imagined.
An interesting thing about guide dogs, I discovered, is that when you have one, other ships will often sail a little closer to have a look. Sometimes, a look can become a comment, and a comment can become a conversation.
“Your dog is beautiful. Her fur is so shiny and black.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The woman shifted in her seat, making herself comfortable with the careful slowness of the ill or the elderly. It turned out that she was both.
“Is she a Lab?”
“A Lab-golden cross actually, although I’m told she mostly looks like a Lab.”
“Yes, I can see it now. I have a golden retriever at home. Wonderful dogs. Very smart.”
I was on my way home for spring break this time, and the moment this lady had boarded, Rachel had been drawn to the swishing hem of her long skirts. Seizing the opportunity afforded by our seating arrangement, she inched sideways and snuffled at the unfamiliar pair of feet.
“Stop it,” I hissed at her. She settled down with a resigned sigh, and I turned towards my new neighbor. “Sorry about that.”
“Oh, no worries. I just came from a farm. She’s probably never smelled pigs before.”
“A farm? Really?”
That was a surprise.
She laughed. “Yes, I was visiting my daughter on her farm in Texas, and she raises and sells pigs at this fair. I went along to help her out this time.”
“A fair, huh? That’s interesting.”
“I suppose, but it was very hot and very exhausting. We had to coat the pigs in their own manure to stop them from getting sunburned.”
“Eh, that’s kind of unpleasant.” No wonder Rachel was fascinated by her.
“Well, it’s not really an experience I’d want to repeat, especially since I‘m against eating animals and hunting and that sort of thing. The fair was really for those kinds of people. The pigs were being sold to be eaten, and I know that that’s just the way of life in some places and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m still not very comfortable with it myself.”
She sighed. “I was hoping she would agree to take care of our tortoise since they have so much space on the farm, but she didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the idea.”
“Do tortoises need a lot of space?”
To my knowledge, pet tortoises lived in large glass tanks, not farmyards.
“He’s an African tortoise,” she explained. “They can grow to more than a hundred pounds and live for more than a hundred years.”
“It’s incredible,” she said, “but I’m worried what will happen to him after I’m gone if I can’t find someone to take him in. My health’s not very good.”
She suffered from throat ulcers that made swallowing painful and meant she had to drink a special medication before meals to prevent herself from choking on her food. She had Parkinson’s disease on top of that, and when I met her on that plane, she’d been reading a book on the twenty things that you should do before passing on.
“That sounds depressing.”
“It’s really not,” she said. “I’ve been visiting friends and family so that I’ll be ready when it’s time.”
Ready to move on.
After that, the conversation wandered back to more lighthearted topics, like how she used to show horses when she was a girl, and I wondered... Would I be able to think the same way at her age? Be so composed and cheerful about things? I didn’t know, but I hoped so.
Maybe she wasn’t anyone famous. Maybe she’d never made any great scientific discoveries, published any bestsellers, or done any of the other things that people tend to talk about when they think of people who have done great or interesting things. More than likely, nobody else on the plane knew who she was, and I would probably never meet her again. But I remember thinking as I prepared to disembark that, in her own way, she was a remarkable old lady, and I was glad to have met her.
Of course, not all of these chance encounters were comfortable.
Flying back home that summer, a young woman slid past the person in the aisle seat to take the chair between us, accompanied by a cloud of flowery fragrance. Before the newcomer could settle down, however, the other passenger—an older woman, as it turned out—said, “Sorry, but can you move? Your perfume is very strong.”
“No it’s not.” The newcomer sounded young and offended. “I didn’t even use that much perfume.”
“But I find it very strong, and it bothers me.”
The younger woman snapped, “Then why don’t you move?”
I looked out the oval window beside me, embarrassed by this display. The older lady had been a little blunt in her request and I could appreciate how the newcomer might find it unreasonable, but the younger woman was also being very rude to someone who had been there first—not to mention someone getting up there in years. After a few more words, the newcomer left with a huff, and when she’d gone, the old woman flagged down a flight attendant to ask if it had been all right for her to request that the other passenger relocate. Strong smells gave her migraines, she explained, and the attendant replied that they would probably have tried to move the other passenger as well since she qualified as having medical needs.
It seemed I wasn’t the only one who had found that exchange uncomfortable.
Talking to people can be hard. There is an entire branch of research devoted to politeness and social manners. At the same time, it’s amazing how much more we can “see” of the world simply by taking an interest and listening to the people around us. The businessman who loved Labrador retrievers but whose ex-wife bred Rottweilers, the undergraduate student who greeted me as we passed in the halls of our apartment complex who turned out to have been in a car accident only the night before, the shuttle driver on my way to the airport that talked of how he considers time to be but an illusion created by our need to compare one event in our lives to the next—all of these people had their own stories—their own experiences that are now part of my own story and add in some way, however small, to my understanding of the world.
To some people, I suppose these encounters may seem insignificant. Certainly, I can’t say that they changed me or my life in any great way—but then, that wasn’t really the point.
There was this elderly man who walked with me onto the airplane this past December. It was going to be a quiet Christmas for him and his wife, he told me. Their children were grown with families of their own, and he and his wife would probably send them some money for the holidays since their kids would appreciate that more than any gifts that they could buy. Even though he did not sound saddened by this, hearing it made me feel a little melancholy. It was sad that he would not be seeing his children during the holidays when the best thing to me about the holidays was spending time with loved ones. It was sad that the best gift he could give them—both from his point of view and theirs—was a check in the mail.
On the plane after I said goodbye to him, I thought about the distance that can grow between individuals. If we never speak, if we never listen, even the people sitting next to us can be quite far away.
And there’s something a little sad about that too.
When we tell stories, there’s a reason we don’t simply skip to the end. Most of the time, we want to know what happened along the way, and it’s what happened along the way that makes a good story.
So when I call out to another ship passing by in the fog or dredge up the courage to continue a conversation with a stranger whose face I cannot see, it’s because every chance encounter, however brief, is a chance to make life a little more interesting and a little more colorful.
Author's Note: I wrote this back in 2018 while I was still in graduate school. I found myself jotting down snippets of conversations that I had with the people who sat in the chairs next to me on the airplane. I had recently finished a paper for a class on learning through the arts where I was reflecting back on and analyzing the development of my passion for writing, and I got to thinking about how I might pull these disparate conversations into a coherent reflection on the interactions I had with others that were initiated by my Seeing Eye dog. Of course, this was two years before the pandemic hit and completely reshaped how travel looks on an airplane.