We were in the darkened cocoon of a fully booked transpacific flight from Narita, Japan, to Washington D.C. In the aisle seat next to me, David was slumped forward, the top of his head pressed against the back of the seat in front of him. The visor of his khaki baseball cap slanted over his eyes. I had never seen this airplane sleep posture before and thought, in light of the conversation we had been sharing on and off for about six hours, that maybe he knew something I didn’t. Straightening up and stretching my arms, I arched my back and leaned forward, pressing my head against the seat in front of me. My shoulders and back felt relief, but I didn’t drift off to sleep and eventually resumed my upright position staring at the illuminated bathroom sign over the bulkhead. Did I wonder, then, why David was sitting in economy? Surely he could have done better, given who he worked for and where he was going. It was a question I didn’t ask him, although I suppose he would have answered.
I was returning home to Maine after spending three weeks in Vietnam with Habitat for Humanity—two weeks assisting with a building project in the Mekong Delta, plus an extra week with a school project unaffiliated with Habitat. It was my third trip in three years. I was tired physically, troubled by some of the things I had observed, and wondering whether this might be my last trip to the region. I was looking forward to a quiet flight and hoping my seatmates would not be talkative. But in the end, I was the one to start a conversation with David and, as I write these words weeks later, it’s still buzzing in my head.
The economy section is, of course, the last one to fill up, and I hoped that through some magical intervention the aisle seat next to me would remain empty. The window seat had already been taken by a young man who had tucked himself in and was now resting his head against the window. I had not yet buckled up when a tall figure appeared in the aisle, stowed a pack in the overhead, and bowed down, indicating that the precious aisle seat was gone. He was a young man with a smile that reminded me of Denzel Washington in Mississippi Masala. We mumbled hellos and, settling in, began digging out the buckles and straps lodged in the crevices between our seats.
The plane was already airborne when I asked the first question. Where was he going? Washington Dulles. Was that home? No, work. A meeting. Oh, the government? Yes. Military. And then I said, “What do you think of your boss?” “Well, I can’t talk about that,” he replied. I said something like, “It must be hard to work for someone like that,” and then we didn’t talk about that person at all for the next twenty-odd hours. And so the rest of our day-and-night-long, crossing-the-international-date-line conversation began. What did we talk about?