This post also appears on the Fairlady site.
It was, quite frankly, a rookie error on my part.
Well, to be more precise, I made two rookie errors. Two silly, avoidable mistakes that had unexpected, agonising consequences. These slip-ups made me endure the horror of horrors, the ultimate commuter torture: (ominous thunder rattles in the background) small talk with a stranger.
The first error was a consequence of my rather haphazard packing routine – packing too much, too late. The second though was a result of what I’m going to call my Politeness Reflex.
In my defence, the first mistake was quite small. In the packing madness before my flight home to Pretoria for the long weekend I forgot my book next to my bed. Who would have thought such a simple mistake could cause so much pain!
The second blunder was a result of my careless, thoughtless Politeness Reflex. It’s the kind of mistake anyone could make – like an idiot I said ‘bless you’ to the man next to me on the plane after he sneezed. I mean, seriously, who does that? Rookie, rookie error. I really shouldn’t have been surprised at the maelstrom of polite conversation that ensued.
HOWEVER, I’m also going to blame Super Irritating Neighbour (SIN) for his blatant disregard of plane etiquette. Sure, I’ll admit that I made some stupid mistakes. But who the hell talks to their plane neighbour? It’s common decency to leave them alone with their thoughts, their books, their laptops or their dreams. SIN did none of these.
It started innocently enough. I’d forgotten my book at home, and wasn’t allowed to take my laptop out until the plane was thousands of kilometres above the clouds. So, unable to openly entertain myself, I was quietly letting my thoughts eddy and swirl in my mind, like whiskey curling around blocks of ice. Then SIN – with his tattooed arm, various piercings and greying ponytail – squeezed past me into the window seat (my favourite seat), and sat down.
You see, if I could have pulled out a book at this point SIN and I would happily have ignored each other for the duration of the flight. But, as I have discussed, I couldn’t do this because my book was sitting fatly at home beside my bed, while I was sitting on the plane, clearly looking to SIN like I needed entertainment.
I crossed my legs, showing my bright pink toenails to SIN. This wasn’t a quite a rookie error, but it was nonetheless a terrible mistake to have painted my toes such a conversation inducing colour. Tapioca would have been a better colour, a pasty white, tombstone grey or even a bland beige would have cut this conversation-to-be short. But alas, only hindsight is 20/20. “Nice colour,” SIN said with a small nod and a smile. I smiled back stiffly and said “Thanks.” This clearly cracked the ice of silence.
Then he sneezed.
And I said “Bless you”.
It seemed that this was all he needed to confess his deepest, darkest, and most intimate secrets to me.
During this two hour flight I learned:
- He has a brother,
- His parents have converted his bedroom into a study (since his hair is greying I am hardly surprised they did this after he moved away),
- The history of the typewriter,
- He designs stages for a living (there was a lot of exhausting detail that accompanied this minor fact which I barely managed to look interested in, let alone remember),
- The location of a variety of his tattoos,
- He has trypanophobia – a fear of needles,
- This is why he got so many piercings (lip x 1, eyebrow x 2, ear x 923 456 78),
- He is on some kind of medication,
- He is ten years sober this year.
All within 120 minutes. I know less about some of my long-standing acquaintances. Seriously.
Now, before you blame me for being friendly and asking polite follow-up questions, let me say that at one point I did actually take my laptop out to work, hoping that this would muffle his chatter.
But no such luck. SIN is an incorrigible conversationalist.
Aside from his incessant chattiness, SIN actually, again, breached quite severe plane etiquette at this point. After opening my laptop and starting to work, he read what I was writing (a new column) and started to laugh and comment. It was at this point I sighed, closed my screen, and resigned myself to another hour and a half of overly personal small talk with a man I would (fingers crossed) never bump in to again.
I consider myself a friendly person, but I think even Mahatma Gandhi would have been strained by this plane trip. The rules are quite simple – be friendly, be polite, and entertain yourself, goddamit.
Needless to say, on the trip back I had a magazine, an iPod and therefore far, far better neighbours. I wish SIN’s future neighbours all the best.