The alarm bells started ringing the moment you sat down. Actually, no… it was before that. When you were pushing your bag into the overhead bin, I heard you say something like “Hi, how are ya?” But I ignored it, thinking you must be talking to someone else. You claimed our mutual armrest without hesitation. But the way you’re built, I completely understood. Wide shoulders, long legs — you could have been a linebacker at your North Carolina high school.
That’s where you’re from, right? North Carolina? What am I saying? Of course you’re from North Carolina. You live there with your wife and two kids. Your son, 23, just graduated from college with an Economics degree. Your daughter, 18, is looking at schools but isn’t quite sure where she wants to go. The one thing she does know is it won’t be the same school as any of her friends. She wants to start fresh and stand on her own. That’s admirable.
I’m sorry, but I didn’t like you at first, Bridge Man. Mainly because you provided all of the above information as we waited for the Airbus’ boarding door to close. While we taxied to the runway, you told me about how you used to have a cat named Tom that would attack your wife in her sleep. You searched through the pockets of your khaki travel vest to try and locate one of your business cards. Your business? Bridge-building. Hence, Bridge Man.
But I’m not the one who gave you that nickname. You got it the day you were unexpectedly bumped up to first class and sat next to a major league relief pitcher. His name escapes me (I think I was ordering a ginger ale as you said it). While you told him about the sad state of the bridge-building industry, he started calling you Bridge Man. I decided to do the same.
You asked me how I met my wife… how I ended up in South Florida… what I do for a living… whether there’s any money in it… how long it takes me to get to work… if I think I-95 is a good freeway… do I have any pets? I answered: on a cruise ship… to be closer to my wife… write sales copy for an investment newsletter… some… it’s a half-hour drive on a good day… yeah, I guess… two cats…
People like talking about themselves (especially narcissists like me). But there was something about you, Bridge Man. Something that made me want to keep the dialog going, in spite of my usual modus operandi of putting in my earbuds and pretending I’m asleep. Maybe it was your Del Griffith temperament or your nonjudgmental tone.
Whatever the case, I soon found myself asking you questions. Such as: how long will you be in Florida? Will you be home in time for New Year’s? Why did your company send you down here this week anyway? Where do you like to eat in Raleigh? How many dogs you have? Do they get along with Tom the cat? Like Forrest Gump and Jenny, we just sat right there on that Airbus and had ourselves a conversation all the way to school — er — Fort Lauderdale.
When we landed, you fetched your carry-on bag out of the overhead bin and made a decent quip about how me and my wife had better hurry home to our cats. I said I know, and we shook hands. Then I said something I say all the time but rarely mean: “It was nice talking to you.” You smiled and tore down the aisle way, your bag slamming into the headrest of every seat you passed.
For no particular reason I called after you: “Good luck, Bridge Man!” Everyone around me — my wife included — looked annoyed by the outburst.