- At the start of a long flight, my daughter ate an entire bag of candy while I was distracted.
- Shortly after takeoff, she threw up all over the fancy shoes of the man sitting next to us.
- He shared that his daughter had died when she was around the same age as my daughter.
Trying to negotiate three bags of toys, markers, and painter’s tape as I plopped down in the airplane, I didn’t notice that my 6-year-old daughter had managed to open a large bag of Sour Patch Kids. Nor did I notice our row mate taking us in from a few feet away.
His clicking tongue drew my attention. He wore an immaculate navy suit with a pink checked pocket square and a scowl of disapproval. As I tried vainly to sweep a mound of sugar into my cupped hand, I smiled back at him tightly.
My daughter Dahlia, meanwhile, bounced up and down in the seat between us. Oblivious to his judgment, she offered him candy. He puckered his mouth as if he already had one of the tart confections between his teeth.
“No, thank you,” he said with a sniff, yanking the armrest down between us. We settled into a jagged silence.
My daughter threw up all over his shoes
Forty-five minutes into the five-hour flight, the plane began to pitch and shake. I turned toward Dahlia. Her face had turned the color of a stormy sea.
That’s when I saw it happening — somehow in slow motion, yet too fast for me to wrest the barf bag from the seat pocket in front of me. Pitching forward, Dahlia heaved up a sludge of candy bits and sticky liquid onto our neighbor’s pristine brown leather wingtips.
“Oh my god!” I’m not sure which of us said it first. The plane was still lurching, but he wrestled open his seatbelt and staggered off to the bathroom. I realized I was holding my breath as I stroked Dahlia’s back.
Some minutes later, on my hands and knees mopping up bits of vomit, I glanced into the aisle. There were those wingtips, re-buffed to gleaming perfection. I looked up at their wearer with a sheepish grin. He was staring at Dahlia where she lay, limply. His expression — were those tears in his eyes? — drew me up short.
He opened up to me
When his daughter was Dahlia’s age, he explained, she was sick — so sick that she often couldn’t get out of bed. He used to rub her back just the way I was rubbing Dahlia’s.
He gently folded his body back in his seat, careful not to disturb my daughter, who was still curled up like a question mark and whimpering. Afraid of what was coming next, I looked down at my feet. She hadn’t made it, he said. She’d passed away from complications from cancer when she was 7.
Dahlia sat up and said weakly, “I’m sorry I threw up in your shoes.”
I winced, but he grinned. His eyes, I noticed, were a deep chocolate brown.
The rest of the flight was different. We were no longer just accidental row mates. We had been through something together: a gentle reminder that the thin membrane of normality in which we’re all cocooned can tear in an instant.
When we arrived in Seattle, he took our luggage down from the bin and waited patiently while Dahlia, once again bouncing with excitement, ping-ponged up the aisle.
When we reached the gate, he said: “I was wrong about you. I thought … It doesn’t matter. It was a pleasure.” Smiling, he extended his hand.
“Can you tell me something?” I asked. “What was her name?”
He looked at me for a long moment as people streamed around us.
“Lila,” he said finally.
Then, posture straight and gait determined, he walked away in his vomit-scented wingtips. I watched him until he was swallowed up by the crowd.