NOTE: THIS WAS WRITTEN A FEW YEARS AGO, BEFORE COVID, WHEN SITTING NEXT TO AN UNMASKED STRANGER WAS POSSIBLE.
People don’t expect me to be shy because I am a performer. I cannot explain how I can go on stage to do a show for hundreds, but am shy around a person I don’t know. But trust me when I say I am.
I was away last week for a work conference and took a flight home on Saturday. I dread sitting next to a stranger. I strive for invisibility and force my body to be still. I select the aisle seat to slip easily away into the bathroom. If I have to crawl over them to get out, the invisibility illusion is shattered.
This plane was small. It was so small they stowed all our carry-on underneath. As I moved toward my aisle seat I saw there was a man in the window seat next to mine. He looked up when I arrived. I had a feeling he didn’t speak English. It wasn’t only that he was Asian, but it was a sound he made that may have been a greeting, or perhaps he had a cold. I nodded, and then got myself settled.
A part of the settling was finding gum for the ascent. It is my long held belief, with no scientific data, that chewing gum keeps my ears from exploding. A thought came to offer a piece to him. I usually ignore those thoughts, but this time it felt too right, like if I didn’t do it I would be responsible for him becoming deaf. I offered, he hesitated, then nodded. We sat and chewed and I began reading a book to feel less awkward. Just as I thought about turning on the light above my seat, the man switched it on, and adjusted it to perfectly illumine my book. He nodded and smiled, and so did I.
That was all.
And this one tiny kindness between strangers has made me happy for days.