“Man, I love these peanuts,” I say as I tilt my head back and pour the remains of the third packet into my mouth and chew loudly, “but they sure do give me gas!” The passenger next to me’s face is priceless – disgust, annoyance, fear of a fart-y future. It’s incredible how much the human face can convey with just a few muscle twitches. We are only an hour into our flight from Denver to Miami.
On a non-stop from Dallas to D.C., I glance at the MP3 player of the passenger next to me and begin listing reasons why The Beatles might be the most overrated band of all time. “I heard that they didn’t even write half of those songs,” I say, leaning into her field of vision to make sure that she is listening me despite the fact that she has very pointedly not removed her headphones. “And by half, I mean they only wrote the really stupid ones like ‘Octopus’s Garden’ and ‘Yellow Submarine.’ The ones that actually make sense and say something were written by somebody else. Probably Bob Dylan or something.”
Between Phoenix and Chicago, I tell the businessman next to me: “This Philly Cheesesteak is really good, but it needs more onions!” While I’m saying it, an onion falls out of my mouth and onto the arm rest between us.
The idea is simple enough: If you can tolerate me for the entire flight without voicing your disgust or shooting me mean looks, then you win one million of my parents’ dollars. Yoda came up with it. He was so irritating to Luke Skywalker to test his patience before training him to be a Jedi knight. Patience, like the Jedi way, has almost been eradicated from the galaxy. As I crisscross the country meaninglessly, my parents’ money and I aim to bring it back.
We are 33,000 feet in the air somewhere closer to our New York City departure than our Los Angeles destination. Next to me is the most beautiful woman that I’ve ever seen. I can tell by the way that she carries herself that she has no clue that she is the most beautiful woman that I’ve ever seen. She’s wearing a red dress, nothing complicated or flashy. Her dark brown hair is straight, short; it ends just below her chin. Her bright red lipstick matches the dress. The rest of her makeup is sparse, just a little bit here and there to accent her gorgeous features. She’s wearing this head wrap thing tied together by a small knot that sits just above her eyebrows. It’s stupid and seems really impractical, but she’s pulling it off somehow and my heartbeat is racing as she notices me looking at her.
Her big brown eyes meet mine and I look at the floor. I wonder if she knows how much my shoes cost; how expensive my tie is. I wonder what her name is, where she’s from. She’s not wearing a wedding ring. Forget annoying her, I just want to give her a million dollars or ten million dollars or everything that I own.
I’m feeling exposed, so much so that I fidget with my crotch to make sure that my fly isn’t down. She notices but is so polite that she tries to pretend that she didn’t just notice and my blood comes to a boil, releasing steam from my ears. My eyes are burning like my tongue has been replaced by jalapeño peppers.
I’m terrified, petrified, paralyzed. In an effort to unstick myself, I fall into my normal routine. In the middle seat, I dramatically utilize both arm rests – my elbows are dangling off either side and they gently brush against her ribs before I pull them back in just a centimeter. “Sorry about that. I have unnaturally sharp elbows. It’s some kind of medical condition. They lock up if I don’t keep them elevated,” I say curtly.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s alright.” She has just the tiniest little fraction of an accent, so infinitesimal that I stare at her in silence for several long seconds before I can detect the gentle twang’s southern origins. She’s smiling and her teeth are toothpaste commercial perfect.
“I had a girlfriend actually dump me over my pointy elbows. She said it just wasn’t worth it – the pain of ignoring my handicap, the inconvenience of trying to work around it. She dumped me in a Myspace message. This was a while ago.”
She laughs, a tiny snort somewhere in the middle of the sounds and I worry that I’ve gone too far too fast. She’s figured me out. She knows this trick and thinks I’m an idiot. Then she apologizes, “I’m sorry. I know that the elbow thing must be really tough for you. The whole situation just seemed so over-the-top and unreal. Not that I don’t believe that it happened. I believe you. I just couldn’t help but laugh because life can be so weird sometimes.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I don’t know. That just sounds like an episode of Friends or something: ‘The One With Chandler’s Pointy Elbows.’ You just see something on TV and think that it’s so laughably absurd but then it happens to someone that you know and you have to rethink the whole human condition.” She blushes and my bones liquify, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take something crappy that happened to you and make it some existential pop-culture statement. I’ll stop talking now. I’m probably annoying you.”
“Not at all!” I accidentally shout. Several rows of passengers in front of us and behind us get really quiet and now I’m the one who is blushing.
The drink cart comes up the row and the stewardess takes my order. I contemplate being unnecessarily rude to her, but choose not to. I’m terrified, but I think I want this woman to like me. “I’ll have a Crown and coke and my underage friend here would like a Jameson and ginger ale.”
She laughs, but the stewardess looks concerned. The most beautiful woman that I’ve ever seen looks young, but she might actually be 87 and just too beautiful to be concerned with something so tedious as aging. “Can I see your ID miss?” the stewardess asks. She pulls out her ID and I try to steal a glimpse at it: Florida. Can’t read the birthdate or the name.
Our drinks are passed to us and we touch our plastic cups together. Both of us have the same idea, and we make a “clink” noise as we cheers. “Why Jameson and ginger ale?” she asks.
“What’s your name?” I reply. My head is fuzzy and I realize that I’m acting a little bit stupid and everything that I say or do is making me incredibly self-conscious.
I shake her outreached hand. “I’m Rich. Pleased to meet you.”
“So back to my original question: Why Jameson and ginger ale?”
“Because if you hate it, I’ll drink it – though whisky does have a tendency to make me combative. Speaking of which, who are you voting for in 2016?” She laughs again and I realize that I am avoiding a huge decision. I can’t purposely annoy her and try and make her like me at the same time. I have to choose and one option is considerably easier than the other.
“I have a strong feeling that there is more to it than that, Rich.”
“Rich isn’t my name. I’m fabulously wealthy. I was just looking for a way to sneak that into the conversation.”
“You’re elusive. Are you a crooked politician?”
“No, but I can dodge reality with the best of them. I took a calculated gamble.” And I’m still taking calculated gambles with every word, though I’m no longer sure which option I’ve chosen. “As the most beautiful woman in the world, I’m sure that at least one million men have bought you drinks. 40% of said drinks have been Vodka-cranberry. It’s sexist, unimaginative and perceived as a safe bet. I mean, it’s pink, right? Girls love pink!”
“And the other 60%?” Dorothy asks.
“20% Michelob Ultra or equally water-y, light girl beers; 20% Cosmo/whatever they drink on Sex and the City/whatever the average guy at a bar thinks that they drink on Sex and the City; 15% rocket-fuel/get-her-drunk-enough-to-give-me-a-shot drinks; 3% Buttery Nipples; 2% other, with maybe .25% total being drinks that required any thought.”
“Impressive, though I get enough margaritas to warrant their own category beyond the 2% ‘other’ catch-all.”
I laugh, but then get totally serious. I bought her a Jameson in the hopes that she wouldn’t like it. It was part of this auto-pilot, be-an-impossibly-annoying-human-being game that I’ve been playing. I start to wonder whether or not I’m subconsciously sabotaging myself. What if I don’t deserve this? What if I’m a piece of garbage who has done nothing to earn a few minutes of conversation with this incredible woman? If she realizes that I’m just some monumental jerk, she will hate me. It’s so beyond my control. There are so many little things that she could pick me apart by. It’s only a matter of time before the whole thing crashes and burns. Then, I’m wishing that I had chosen a better choice of words in my thoughts than ‘crashes and burns.’
“Rich? Where did you go?” Dorothy is asking me when I shake out of my spiral.
“Sorry, I just remembered something important,” I say, waving my hand as if I’m swatting a fly.
“Oh no. You’re totally married, aren’t you?” Dorothy asks. I think it’s a joke, but her tone is pretty serious.
“No, it’s not that. It’s far worse.”
“You’re not gonna like, hijack the plane, right?”
“Not that much worse, but kinda somewhere halfway between the two.”
“I suppose I can live with that,” Dorothy smiles comfortingly and I want her to like me but I need her to hate me. I can control that. I can feel good about it: I act a certain way and people judge me based on it. It’s so much more straightforward than doing the right thing and having it overlooked or putting your best foot forward only to be rejected. If you’re a jerk and people don’t like you, well then that’s kind of the point, right?
“Rich, we will probably never see each other again,” she says, her brown eyes now wearing a barely noticeable sheen. “I want to do something crazy,” she grabs my hand and my heartbeat is racing. “I want us to be completely, fearlessly honest with each other.”
“Uhm, okay. You first,” I smirk, trying to hide my terror.
“Ask me anything,” Dorothy says.
“Who are you? Are you single? What do you want out of life?” I spout.
“Way to sneak ‘are you single’ into the mix,” she snorts. “I’m an upscale grocery store manager in Los Angeles. I’m a bit of a couch potato in my free time, but I have good friends who make me go out and do stuff every once in a while. I’m single. As ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ as you put it, I have plenty of guys who are interested, but none of them really talk to me the way that you have today. I guess they just assume that I’m a vodka-cranberry drinker. Nobody takes the risk of sending me a Jameson and ginger ale,” she nudges me as she finishes her drink.
“I would nudge you back, but my pointy elbows might put you in the hospital.” We laugh together and she flinches like her whisky might shoot out of her nose, which has actually happened to me before and I swear I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. “You never said what you want out of life.”
“When I have an answer to that question, I’ll send it to you in a Myspace message. Now it’s my turn: What are you doing on this plane? Are you single? What is the medical name for your elbow malformation? Do you see any way for us to see each other again after today?”
She likes me. She has to. That has to be what this is about. I acted like a human being and someone actually noticed and liked me for it. It’s empowering and terrifying and disorienting so naturally, I start telling her everything.
“I’m rich and my name is Rich.”
“Like Richie Rich?”
“Literally. Some lonely young socialite wished upon a shooting star for his favorite comic book character to come to life and be his friend and now here I am.”
“What happened to the lonely young socialite?”
“He’s doing 5 years for insider trading. I ride planes from place to place for no reason at all. I try my hardest to annoy the person sitting next to me. I’ve always made this some game, telling myself that if the person next to me can make it to our destination without being judgmental or rude towards me despite my horrible personality, that I’d give them a million dollars. It was something to fill my time.” But now I’m realizing that I was just afraid of putting myself out there and allowing people to like me. “I made up the elbow thing, as well as the whisky making me combative thing, but I really did get dumped in a Myspace message and I’ve been single ever since.”
“Must have been a pretty earth-shattering Myspace message…” Dorothy quipped.
“It was a Myspace message that will live in infamy.”
“Well, if you’re rich and bored, would you have time to grab a cup of coffee in Los Angeles?” she asks, the sheen removed from her eyes. Was there a possibility that she might have cried at the prospect of us parting ways forever?
“Honestly, I have so much time that I could open a coffee franchise and name it after you with plenty of time left over for us to grab a cup of coffee at Dorothy’s in Los Angeles,” I joke.
She turns her nose up for effect, “You wouldn’t really show off your wealth in such a tacky way, would you?”
“Why yes, these are $700 shoes. Thank you for asking!” I laugh.
“I suppose if I could tolerate it for just a date or two, or three.” She flashes me a gentle, almost timid smile.
“Three dates sounds like an excellent starting point for these negotiations. I’ll have my lawyer get in touch with your lawyer to settle the paperwork.”
In Los Angeles, we drink coffee and talk until we are the last two people in the cafe and the overly polite staff is too overly polite to ask us to leave so that they can lock the doors and go home.