Looking back, it was my fault that I only gave myself an hour connection time after an international flight. It was also my fault that, out of all the lines in U.S. Customs I could have chosen, I picked the one behind the old foreign woman who was carrying a shoebox peppered with makeshift air holes.
Yet somehow I made it. I arrived at my seat, dripping sweat after sprinting through the airport terminal like a chubby cheetah who would do anything to avoid having to spend the night at the Houston airport.
I was one of the last ones on the plane. Most of the seats were taken. Most of the seats including my own.
24A. A window seat with a beautiful view of the wingtip embedded over the night sky and the slowly passing lights below. I was looking forward to resting my head against the wall of the plane and staring out into the abyss, reflecting on my life. Where am I going? Where have I been?
But the biggest obstacle between me and the seat of my dreams was that there was already a man in it.
The imposter was my age, but Hispanic and skinny enough that I could vaguely make out the shape of his fragile, tiny skull. His arms, which extended from the t-shirt that was made for someone of my size were lined with angry-looking tattoos and his baseball cap was just crooked enough to cover one eye. His other eye, which looked like it had seen some shit, was sunken deeply into the back of his head.
“Excuse me, sir.” I exclaimed, dropping straight into the character of a Mormon missionary interrupting a redneck with a shotgun at dinner time. “I believe you might be in my seat.”
There was a pause when I finished speaking. The young man’s gaze never left the seat back pocket in front of him. I felt like I was barging in on a staring contest between him and SkyMall.
Just as I was about to repeat myself he raised his head, revealing his other eye which was sunk further into the back of his head and looked like it had seen even more shit than the first eye I saw. Both shit-seeing eyes were now focused directly on me.
When I finished explaining that he and I were victims of, what I prayed to be, a hilarious misunderstanding, he didn’t blink nor say a word. That was when I gave a nervous chuckle and started scanning the plane.
There were a few other empty seats, but they were all middle seats. The one closest to me was between two passengers so big that only approximately sixty-three percent of the seat between them was usable.
Like a television lawyer pulling out a piece of irrefutable evidence, I snatched my ticket from my bag and stuck it right in front of the imposter’s nutrient-deprived face. 24A. The seat that was assigned to me.
“That’s where I’m supposed to be.” I explained pointing to the seat and then back to the ticket. “See?”
Without moving his head, his eyes shifted from me to the ticket and then back to me. He then reached into the seat back pocket and pulled out his own crumpled ticket. With the same amount of confidence, if not more, he showed it to me. 24B. The empty middle seat right next to mine.
We stared at each other. Locked in an awkward showdown. Neither of us backing down from what was easily a one-sided argument. I was showing him proof that he had taken my seat and he was also showing me proof that he had taken my seat, but with the belief that I was the asshole in this situation.
“You’re right here.” I said pointing to his actual seat right next to where he was. “This is you.”
With one last expressionless glance, he shrugged his shoulders and slid over. At this moment, I expected everyone on the plane to burst into wild applause, but all I received were nasty glares for holding up the plane after already arriving late. Perhaps I was an anti-hero.
The first hour of the flight was one filled with tension. In my drive towards victory over the window seat hijacker I never gave myself a chance to realize that, win or lose, I’d be sitting next to him for the next three hours.
My thoughts raced. What if he turns around and stabs me in the neck with a pen? What if he strangles me with the cord from his free pair of cheap airplane headphones as soon as I try to sleep. His tattoos suddenly looked more menacing. His expressionless eyes looked cold and hateful. I pretended to stare out into the night, but in reality I was ready to act if he made any kind of move.
And about an hour and a half into the flight, he made a move.
I had almost forgotten that I was fearing for my life when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned my head and was faced with a pair of sunken eyes. That’s when I expected the knife in my throat. His mouth opened for the first time since I met him.
“What…” He began before the rest of the sentence seemed to escape him. “What is…?
What is what? My last word? What is God going to say when I meet him or her in the next thirty seconds?
“What is…” He tried again with no luck. At a loss for words, he simply raised his knife-less, boney arm and pointed to his wrist.
The universal sign for time.
I looked at my phone.
“It’s nine thirty-five.” I replied hesitantly.
He stared blankly.
“Nine thirty-five.” I repeated. “That’s the time. You want…the time…correct?”
He was listening, but nothing I was saying was getting through. Just like our awkward encounter moments earlier. This time, I understood why. The only words he knew in English were “what” and “is.”
“I’m sorry.” I apologized and let out a laugh, realizing that my life was no longer in danger.
I showed him the clock on my phone and he understood immediately. He nodded. He even smiled at me. I smiled back. Two smiles. The universal sign that the tough, angry looking man who you thought was going to shank your judgmental ass turned out to be friendly, Mexican citizen with limited English skills.
We spent the rest of the trip in calm silence. Me with my head against the wall of the fuselage, staring out into the abyss, reflecting on my life. And him, staring at the seat back, feeling a sense of satisfaction that he had given up his window seat to a strange man who would do anything for place to rest his head.