I like talking to strangers. Especially fleeting encounters. I’m really curious about how others live their lives, to the point of being intrusive on occasion. Over time, of course, that’s gotten tempered down with a grumpy ‘everyone is the same, finally’. Earlier, my heart would do an excited flip every time I realized I had something in common with someone else, irrespective of how old they are or what gender they are. Now, well, I realize you can have enough similar with people and still dislike them intensely, and if you look hard enough, you’d find enough similar with anyone… I mean, if I met Hitler, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to bond with him over our birthdays being just a few days apart, and how German is similar to Sanskrit, and would probably practice my pidgin German on him.
At Dubai, I came across a guy from Benin who was going to a conference about nonprofits and charity in Beijing. I told him to get a facemask because of the pollution. I listened to him whine about how tricky it is to actually do something lasting, and I whined about the sorry state of mental health in India. We wished each other luck, and I came away feeling there’s so much that I can actually do to make things better. It was a different, more positive feeling than the one you get when you see people suffering and wish hard that no one else suffers this way.
Not all conversations are productive or life-changing though.
Some are plain weird fun. I was writing in a comedy bar (where you watch comedy shows, and the waiting area is a bar), when this gay couple accosted me. Right off the bat, we began this slur-filled banter, the details of which aren’t that important, but which essentially was insult after insult. Good-natured, slur-filled banter, if such a thing exists. It ended with exchanging tofu recipes. We finished our ciders and went to watch the show we’d been waiting for. Turned out, these two men were the standup comedian’s plants in the audience. Y’know, like you see a standup comedian pick on people in the audience, and they are taking it incredibly well, and you’re wow’d by how awesomely the comedian improvises his jokes based on what the people say? Yeah, these people got picked on, multiple times. Broke my heart to see these people who not fifteen minutes back were giving me awesome comebacks take all the insult comedy lying down, but well, they got free tickets and a free drink after, so why the heck not.
Some aren’t even that fun.
I found myself on a nineteen-hour-long flight from JFK to DXB. I’d scored a window seat. That’s always convenient, because I lean on the window and curl up. The seats to my left were occupied by two slightly older women, who looked just like Annette Bening and Julianne Moore from The Kids Are All Right. I’ve forgotten their names, so I’ll call them Annette and Julianne. Annette was sitting next to me, and Julianne was next to her. Annette made easy conversation, and had me laughing within five minutes. In conversation, I gathered they were both heading to Jo’burg, and that Annette was a nurse, and Julianne designed aptitude tests or some such thing. And they were coming back from a duathlon in Ottawa and ditched their group and detour’d to New York City where they let their hair down until 6am.
Now if you’ve watched The Kids Are All Right, it’s about a lesbian couple who’ve been together for twenty years, and Julianne Moore is a landscaper, and Annette Bening is a surgeon. Which to my mind was not too far from aptitude-test-designer and surgeon. Believe me, the ladies looked just like this. So I assumed they too were a couple.
Soon, Annette got busy with watching Twilight. I slept. When I woke, Annette had switched to some gruesome-looking movie. Julianne caught my expression and grinned. She began talking to me.
Right away, I realized Julianne was very different from Annette. Our conversation was halting, and trite. And I must have said or implied something wrong, because at one point Julianne vehemently said ‘Oh, no no no no’, in her Afrikaaner accent, ‘No, we don’t live together’, with a nervous giggle.
I wanted to die right there.
Julianne was niceness personified, though. She talked about her being legally blind (which was why she was taking part in a duathlon for the differently abled), about her daughter studying to be a nurse, about how she sometimes felt unsafe in Jo’Burg and thank god she didn’t live there (though Annette did) and lived in saner Cape Town instead. She talked endlessly about how smart Annette was, and how dedicated. She talked about how they met and though it had been hard for them to train for the duathlon separately, they had, and they’d won. She said it was unfortunate what Pistorius had done, and was nicely dismissive when I pressed her on it.
So far so good.
And then we began talking cuisine. I mentioned I was a vegetarian. And asked her ‘What’s one vegetable or fruit I’d get in South Africa and nowhere else that I simply HAVE to try?’.
And there it began. My dear, helpful Julianne began listing fruit after fruit, vegetable after vegetable. Asparagus, beans, capsicum, drumsticks….
I tried prying the conversation away from this grocery list. I mentioned biltong. And offal sandwiches. I even dangled the Kenyan Carnivore Cafe. But nope, the ever-helpful Julianne kept listing fruits and vegetables asking if I’d heard of them. Aubergines, carrots, mangoes, oranges….
Twenty, thirty minutes passed. We were still talking vegetables. I was at my wit’s end. I didn’t know how to cut it short with such a nice woman, who’d just told me she was legally blind and that she’d need my help reading menus and asked me to take pictures of her because she couldn’t see well enough to take selfies.
I felt like a child in a fruits-and-vegetables class in first grade, the only missing bit was those Topical charts with lists of fruits and vegetables we used to cut and paste into our notebooks for homework. And there wasn’t a bell that’d ring and save me from this.
I looked pleadingly at Annette, but she had fallen asleep by now. I prayed hard for an airhostess to interrupt, but we’d just got done with lunch, and they wouldn’t even come by with juice now. I wondered if I should reach for the call button, to call the airhostess, to escape, but it was too high up.
And Julianne wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. We were still ten hours from land.
Then a miracle happened.
I sneezed. Then I sneezed again. And again and again. Until I excused myself and reached for my allergy medication.
The sneezing fit lasted fifteen minutes. I had never been so relieved to have an allergic reaction. My doctor would say it was dry air that triggered, but I like to believe I’d gotten so allergic to talk of fruits and vegetables.
At long last, we reached DXB, the rest of the flight having mainly been sleep and listening to Ghanaian songs which I didn’t really understand, except well, this one (warning: NSFW).
I began saying my goodbyes to Annette and Julianne. I’m big on goodbyes. I always like to add a ‘nice to have met you’, or some such thing that sums up our interaction. Otherwise it feels awkward, irksome, painful to me. Like a parenthesis left unclosed in printed text which you can do nothing about.
We were looking up connecting flights, when Julianne tapped my shoulder. “See there”, she said, pointing to one of the many departmental stores that dotted DXB, “There’s fresh produce there, you’ll probably find something you’ll like”, she said, in all seriousness.
For the first time in what seems like forever, I didn’t complete my goodbyes and instead scribbled down my gate info and walked away hurriedly, though my flight was five hours away.