On Wednesday, I left my apartment at 3:45 a.m. to head to the airport. My destination was Dallas, Texas, for the American Librarians Association Midwinter conference. I love conferences. I also hate them. At 3:45 a.m. I was a spectrum of emotions.
I was lucky that a yellow cab happened to be letting off a passenger in front of my building just then—there are never yellow cabs in my neighborhood, which is in the very netherest nether regions of Brooklyn, and I’m sure he felt as lucky to find a fare to take him back to civilization as I felt at finding a ride.
On my first flight, from New York to Philadelphia, which boarded at 5:30 a.m., I met the most disorganized family I have ever encountered. There were two parents—both frazzled and rude—and somewhere between 4 and 7 children. I can’t be sure of the number because they were running on and off the boarding tunnel unticketed and in arm-flinging bystander-shoving groups of two or three. The mother, who demonstrated her force of character, marched onto the plane with several of the children—and no tickets. She snapped at the ticket taker that her husband was following behind with her son and that he had the tickets. The father, a bit of an arm-flinger himself (one of his disorganized limbs hit me in the back as he ran down the ramp to cut me in line), had a confusion of tickets and wasn’t sure where they all were. The flight attendants were so stressed by the crazy that eventually everyone was waved onto the plane. If I had had more than 2 hours of sleep I’m sure I would have been more impressed by the whole scenario, especially in this age of security and “order.”
When I got on the plane, I found there was a woman in my seat. (I might have mentioned here before that I have a sometimes inflammatory facial recognition problem, so I didn’t realize it was the crazy mother of the crazy family—I have spoiled the story a little by telling you that, so pretend you’re just walking up to a woman who’s sitting in your ticketed seat.)
I showed her my ticket. “That’s funny,” I said. “My ticket says 12D.”
“Well I’m 12D,” she said, staring me in the eye, her thin jeaned legs crossed tightly at the knee. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t checking her ticket politely either, which is (you’ll agree?) what usually happens in situations like this.
I decided this was one for the flight attendant. I hauled my heavy bag back down the aisle and told the cabin manager, “My ticket says 12D but there’s someone in that seat.”
When she went to investigate, it was revealed that the disorganized family had decided to sit in a cloud of seats that were roughly together in the middle of the plane. None of them knew what tickets they had—the tickets had since been lost (it had been at least 2 minutes since the father had last lost them at the gate). It took a long time to sort out, during which time the flight attendant forgot she had taken away my boarding pass and passport and I had to go running after her and shouting over the many crazy family voices to get them back.
I think this would have bothered me less if it had just been disorganization, the complications of traveling with a bunch of children. I might have been more compassionately annoyed. But the woman had looked me in the eye and told me it was her seat—knowing full well she didn’t even know what her seat was. She had been digging for confrontation. And the man had struck me physically (not hard or anything, but) and not apologized. I found I could only ride my mercy so far.
When I settled into the seat for the flight, I noticed I could not stretch my legs because there was a 36-inch silver sequined shoulder sack in front of me. Apparently she’d either forgotten it or hadn’t felt like taking it with her.
My second flight was uneventful.
At the Dallas Fort Worth airport, a Super Shuttle happened to be waiting right outside the door. The driver encouraged me to get on—he was going to my hotel. It all seemed too easy.
In the van already were three women and a quiet man who said nothing the whole time. The women were a rare books librarian who was also in town for ALA (would she at least get to attend one of the cocktail parties, I asked her; “No, rare books people don’t really do that kind of thing,” quothe); a very young girl (who turned out to be exactly my age) in an “artsy” hat who couldn’t stop redirecting conversation to herself and her right-brainedness; and a slender sun-weathered middle aged women with blond hair clipped short and chunky rings on the fourth finger of each hand.
When it came out I was in book publishing, the blond woman mentioned her connections in the magazine world—her business brought her into partnerships with some of the conglomerates. One of her favorites was a tiny southern magazine called Garden & Gun—we should all look them up for the animal stories. The horse ones especially—she hadn’t read a single one that didn’t make her tear up.
“Oh, do you ride?” asked Art Hat. “I love to ride.”
“Yes,” said the blond woman, “I ride. I love fox hunting.”
“I’ve never been hunting,” said Art Hat. “But I’m a really good rider. I went to an unusual private high school where we were encouraged to specialize in outdoorsmanship.”
“Do your children like to ride, too?” the librarian asked the blond woman.
“Well, yes,” said the blond woman. She hesitated, then said, “Yes, they do. My oldest, who is just applying to colleges, is looking at places where she can ride. She has a shot at the US equestrian team. My son has only been on a horse twice, though. He’s twelve. He tried once or twice and said, ‘You know, this just makes me too nervous, I don’t think it’s for me,’ and it’s true you don’t want to force it if it makes you nervous.”
“Very true,” said the librarian. “It can be a dangerous sport anyway.”
“It sure can,” said the blond woman. “I love those animals to death but you have to remember they see things differently. Sometimes you just can’t control how they react. A couple of years ago I was riding one of my three–she’s sixteen, I’ve had her for twelve years, she’s like a child to me, but–and we came to a jump and she stopped and I kept going.” She held up her left wrist for us. “I broke almost every bone in my hand, and it was months before I was back to normal. But that’s just what happens sometimes.”
We were silent for maybe half a second–Art Hat wouldn’t have given her more time than that–before she started talking again.
“Actually, I had a child die on a horse,” she said. “No, it’s okay now, it was a long time ago”–she raised both hands, palms out, like a Baptist preacher reminding us of the ineffable mercy of the Lord, and waved away whatever condolences we might have been about to splash her with–“It was twelve years ago. She was eleven. My oldest daughter. It was during a riding lesson, actually, and on a pony. I was wish her. The pony got spooked by something and twisted and fell on her, and her neck vertebra severed the artery right here.” She patted the back of her neck and nodded calmly, as if we’d asked something. “It was very strange. I was standing there, watching my daughter bleed out on the stable floor, and I thought, this is really happening, isn’t it? And of course there was nothing I could do. It’s just a risk you take when you have a hobby you love this much.”
She turned to me and met my gaze. At this moment I became aware of the fact that I had one hand plastered over my gaping mouth. I wasn’t sure if it would be ruder to take it down or leave it where it was.
“You know,” said the blond woman, “We all have our time. Like a friend of mine, only 54, who just died of leukemia. It happened so quickly. I’m just glad that my daughter died doing something she loved. She loved to ride. I’m glad it happened the way it did.”
“A friend of mine got kicked in the chest by a horse once and broke three ribs,” said Art Hat, and the conversation went on in other directions.
When I hear a story from a stranger, I always struggle to put it in a box. I feel like a story psychiatrist, the worst possible kind of story collector. If I can just diagnose this story, I always think, figure out what kind it is, then it will all make sense.
At the conference, my boss and I were walking through an old graveyard on the way to the convention center. I told her about a gravestone I had seen a couple months ago, with two people’s birth dates (both from the 1850s) but no death dates. I listed to her some of the reasons this bothered me.
“This is why writers shouldn’t be allowed to walk through graveyards,” she said.