In the Air

"Would you like an orange?" I asked the man seated next to me. These seats in economy class are so uncomfortably close together--uncomfortable for any other grown person except me, that is, being an average-for-a-Filipina, small-for-a-Westerner like me. That's me, I guess--comfortable in most situations, yet never quite looking like I belong there.

The man in question seated next to me was a 40-something-looking White guy. He had a buzzed haircut, like a military dude, but looked scruffy and disheveled in every other way. His khaki cargo pants were wrinkled and dirty, as was his red sweater, which was faded and looked slept-in. I offered him my orange out of habit: I was eating and someone in my immediate vicinity wasn't. My mama taught me all the right manners fitting for a properly behaved Filipina.

The man gratefully accepted my orange, to my surprise (for Filipinos, it may be customary to offer food, and it may be customary to eat morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, early evening, and evening--but it's also customary to refuse food AT LEAST the first time you're offered). 

It was the only orange I had. Luckily, I also had a Nutella sandwich in my backpack underneath the seat in front of me. I took that out and started eating half of my sticky (overflowing) sandwich.

"I haven't eaten since breakfast yesterday. I'm starving," the man said. He tore off the orange peel and started eating the orange in wedges of three and four. That is to say, he ate it in three bites.

I figured this stranger on my flight had no reason to lie about something like that, and I knew our flight would only serve us salted peanuts during our 1.5-hour flight to San Diego from Oakland. I offered him the other half of my sandwich.

"You will not believe the night that I had last night," the man said, after, of course, accepting my sandwich.

"Yeah?" I said. 

"I was in San Francisco, trying to figure out how to take BART to Oakland to catch this exact flight... YESTERDAY. I turned my back for just a moment to try to figure out how much the train ride would cost. When I turned around to get my bag, it was gone! Can you believe that?! My bag had my wallet, clothes... Everything."

He paused to chew, slower this time.

"I didn't know what to do. I walked around asking people if I could borrow their cellphone to call the airlines or for change for a pay phone. But you know, there are so many homeless people walking around San Francisco that no one believed me when I tried to explain my situation. 

Finally, I was able to get some change together. I memorized my ex-wife's phone number, because, well, she got the house and I remember my own home number. Former number," he seemed lost in another thought as he quickly corrected himself.

"I asked her to wire me some money so that I could buy a meal... I was hungry at that point. I remember that it was about lunch time when I finally managed to get ahold of her. She agreed to send me money. Then, when I went to Western Union to get the money, they wouldn't let me get my money because I didn't have 'proper identification'! 

I didn't know what to do at that point. I had already gone to the police earlier, right after my stuff was stolen. They filed a report, but they also told me that without an ID, they wouldn't be able to do much for me. An ID for crying out loud... If  I had seen the guy take my stuff, I wouldn't be in the situation that I was, now would I?" He shook his head.

At this point, I still hadn't strung two words together. I nodded and interjected with a "whaaaaat..." every now and then, but other than that, I must have been listening in that way that my roommate David tells me is attentive and encouraging--big-eyed with an unbroken stare. My other roommate Elaine calls it creepy. This guy seemed to be in agreement with David.

"I went back to the police station and asked them if I could stay there for the night. They said they couldn't do that. Something about there being dozens of others homeless people who they couldn't house... so for that reason, they couldn't house me either. 

So I just walked around in nothing but this hoodie. It got cold at night. I tried sleeping on a bench in the park, but there were all these homeless people there. And then I got in a fight with some bum. He wanted to fight me, I have no idea why. And you know, of course I fought back. I wasn't about to let myself get killed out there. That's when the police came. This time, because of the fight, they had a reason to bring me in. So I slept in jail for the rest of the night.

Then, by some miracle, the police found my bag based off of the description I gave 'em. A bum had it. My wallet was gone, but most everything else was there. The police gave me a lift to the airport. I explained my situation to the airlines people--they remembered me from when I had called in yesterday from the police station. And will you believe it, I had one piece of identification on me--" he pantomimed an object in the shape of a business card "my scuba license. They let me use that as an ID and let get on this flight. 

So here I am."

"Crazy," was all I said. I wasn't feigning interest, he just didn't seem to be asking for  my input on anything.

"So you're a student?" He asked me, nodding at my Berkeley sweater.

"Yeah. I'm studying Chemistry."

"Wow, you must keep pretty busy then. Don't keep your nose in those books though, you gotta have those extra-curricular activities, too." 

"I'm in a sorority," I said.

His eyebrows shot up in surprise. The image of the geeky pubescent-looking Asian girl seated next to him didn't seem to jive with his idea of a sorority girl.

"A sorority?" He asked, as though he wasn't sure I understood what the word meant. "I remember sororities. I was in a frat myself when I was in college." He supplied the Greek letter name of his fraternity. I shrugged.

"Those were some wild days. I drank and partied a lot. But I also made some good friends. Well, I met a lot of people, anyway. Important people, as it would turn out. I studied finance... When I was studying, that is. Ha ha." He smirked. "But it's all about WHO you know. I got a job right after college dealing with money. I still partied a lot. I got married to this BEAUTIFUL woman, I mean GORGEOUS... had kids.... But I didn't stop doing drugs."

This conversation, weird as it already was, was quickly formulating into another story. I sat quietly.

"And you know, the promotions, the money... It just kept coming. I bought a huge house in Northern San Diego County, had a garage full of expensive cars...

But it just wasn't enough for me. I moved on from alcohol and weed to... The harder stuff." He gave me a sideways look. I continued to listen in my way: naive, eyes wide open. I'd never met anyone who did hard drugs before.

"Cocaine." Not that he seemed to be holding back anything in any part of our 45-minute and counting conversation, but something seemed to unleash inside of him and anything that he DID have on reserve was let loose. 

"I couldn't quit the stuff. I'd be up late in my office getting high, then come home, barely talk to my wife and kids, lock myself up in my office at home and do more drugs.

I spent so much money on the stuff. I did lots of different kinds of drugs, but mostly cocaine. I was on the fast lane down a one-way tunnel to nowhere and nobody could stop me. I lost my wife, my kids, my house, my cars... I was a wreck. But I kept doing drugs.

Finally, my parents, brother, sister, and my best friends sat me down and gave me an intervention. But still, I didn't listen.

I kept doing drugs and being stupid, until... Well, I don't know. Something inside of me just said "enough is enough". I checked myself into rehab.

You know what surprised me about rehab? Nobody stops you from leaving. You can literally walk out of there any time you want. And I did. Twice. Because I'm an idiot. But the last time I was there, I stayed 'til the end. I've been clean ever since.

I lost everything I had because of my addiction, but I'm getting everything back on track now. I've been clean for five years." He concluded. 

The whole time he was telling his story, he had a faraway look in his eyes. The expression remained for two counts after he finished. Then his attention snapped back to me.

"I have no idea why I told you all that," he said. Suddenly, the man whose life I was a part of for the 15 darkest years of his life and the 24 hours of his previous day was was back to being a mere stranger on the plane.

"Oh, right, because of the sorority thing," he remembered. "Uhh... Don't do drugs. Ever. It'll fuck up your life." He became thoughtful.

"I guess I just really needed to tell someone all that," he said. And now I can say that I helped someone from my experiences. Don't do drugs." For a moment, he looked proud in a shy kind of way, like a young boy earning his first Cub Scout badge--or like a man who believed that he didn't deserve to feel genuinely proud of himself for anything.

"I'm glad you told me your story. Thank you," I said. I said nothing of the fact that I hardly ever drank, I never planned on touching even weed, or that my sorority wasn't a SOCIAL sorority, it was a SOCIAL JUSTICE sorority. God, I am a dork.

His nose turned red and his eyes became glassy. He looked away from me, blinking back tears, and stared straight ahead for the rest of the flight. After we landed, taxied, and deplaned, we still hadn't spoken. To be honest, I was exhausted from all the listening I had been doing.

My dad was waiting for me at baggage claim, early as usual. He hugged me tight and kissed me on the top of my head. He loves me way more than he knows how to express, and I him, which isn't saying much seeing as how emotionally mute we are to each other. My dad awkwardly busied himself with searching for my luggage on the carousel before either of us could get all weepy and sappy. Lord knows I'd had enough of that touchy-feely stuff on the plane.

After my dad and I collected my bags and started towards the exit, Mr. Don't-Do-Drugs crossed our path. "You raised a good daughter, sir," he said to my dad, without slowing his stride. He walked away and disappeared into the crowd.

"Who was that?" my dad asked.

I realized I didn't even catch the guy's name, which may have been intentional on his part.

"I have no idea," I told my dad. "Just some guy I met on the plane...

"...again," my dad added.

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