In the past few weeks I’ve found myself in a constant state of disquiet. I worried about: the recent distance I’d put between my family and myself, where I was going to be in six months, the decisions I’d made in the past, the ones I knew I would make in the near future…I had buckets full of paint and no idea what picture I wanted to create.
Then on a flight from Bakersfield to my new hometown of Houston, I sat next to a woman who had only one direction she was going in life—building a family. She was from Nebraska; grew up in a town whose population was 1,300–roughly the size of my high school student body and she had no intention of leaving.
We couldn’t have been more different. I was a city girl, living in a world of concrete walls and high rises and she lived on 52 acres of lush green farmland. I passed by a thousand strangers everyday whereas I was probably the only stranger she’d met in weeks. This was going to be a very quiet plane ride home.
It had been a particularly rough weekend for me and as friendly as she seemed I wasn’t interested in making friends. The 3.5-hour plane ride was quiet time for me to do what I did best: worry. Right away my mind went into superdrive, thinking about back-up plans and big picture changes that needed to be made.
I was contemplating my next move–Ireland? Scarborough? Bangkok? Singapore? San Francisco? Seattle?–when I heard her ask me, “Do you speak English?” I raised an eyebrow; an attitude notoriously known as being an “L.A. thing,” (Los Angeleno’s apparently don’t talk to strangers and those who attempt to talk to us are given the death stare) only this time I felt it was justified.
“Yes. I was born in Denver actually,” I replied, with a condescending tone.
“Oh. I just wasn’t sure cause…” I could tell she was embarrassed, which consequently made me feel like an asshole. She didn’t look like a malicious person and even though I wanted to be offended, I could tell that her question was sincere.
I backtracked, softened my tone and told her that it happened all the time. In truth, I think it had been probably 20 years since someone had asked me whether or not I spoke English (and even then it was the daughter of a blatantly racist household). But I was in big picture mode which meant I had to think about the adverse effects of being mean to someone obviously very sheltered.
We took off and I reclined in my seat, ready to take a nap and decompress, when she handed me a copy of “Star Magazine” with a photo of that girl from Twilight and some guy who was apparently not her boyfriend. As you can probably tell, I never read gossip rags–not even while standing in line at the grocery store–but I didn’t want to be rude so I politely thumbed through it.
“So do you travel often?” she asked.
“More so than most I guess,” I said.
“For work?” she asked.
I didn’t really know how to answer that question. I was a writer who valued travel as a means of expanding my scope of knowledge so in a way—yes—I traveled for work. Truthfully though, travel was a socially acceptable means of running from life. In a fight or flight situation my instinct was always the go with the latter.
It was easy when I lived in Los Angeles, where I could find a cheap cross-country flight for less than $300. But when I made my move to Houston it was with the intention of staying put. I had hit a point in my life where running—though fun—had become unhealthy. So, even though I was itching to hop on a plane at every turn, I made a commitment not to run.
Of course I wasn’t about to unleash my life’s story on this poor stranger who had the sore luck of sitting next to me, so I turned the conversation onto her. Gina told me about her favorite cattle, Gertie, a calf that had been abandoned until Gina found her. She told me about the town; it’s community-like feel and how she’d grown up knowing everyone’s business.
We laughed together as she told me about the Jerry Springeresque drama that had been unfolding in the town recently. And before I knew it I found myself enraptured in her stories. With our age, cultural, societal, and personality differences we were the most unlikely of friends. Yet, there we were.
As the plane began taxing toward the tarmac, I thanked her for my reading material and wished her the best of luck, but in true small town fashion she did me one better. Gina handed me a piece of paper with name, phone number and address on it. “If you ever find yourself in Sutton, Nebraska make sure you look me up. I promise to show you a great small town time.”
When I sat down next to this 52 year-old farmer I expected her to marvel at the adventurous life I’d led; I expected her to be jealous. We city dwellers always assume that small town folk want to be us. How delusional we were…
My 3-hour plane ride with Gina made me wish I had grown up in a small town where my grocer, doctor, and teachers occasionally all sat down for dinner together as equals. And then it hit me, I was running around the globe searching for the very thing Gina has had all her life: community. There was no amount of travel or education that could give me that and in that moment…I was jealous of Gina.
For a week after meeting her I considered making a move to Sutton, Nebraska. If I pack up now and move I could nudge my way into thanksgiving dinner at the Sutton community center potluck, I thought to myself. But then there she was again my instinct to fly away…and I knew right then that it was time to go home.