“It’s not so bad back here.”
I had no idea what he meant, or why he was addressing it to me, so I faked a smile and gave the businessman a polite nod. Flights are uncomfortable enough without awkward conversation between strangers.
“Usually I’m up there,” he continued, reaching over the seat in front of him to point at the curtain delineating first-class. “But there was a mix-up. I got a free drink voucher out of it.”
He waved the card through the air as if it was some great prize and returned it to his shirt pocket without allowing me to inspect it. All that movement was a bit too much action for his very large but well-pressed business attire and he took a moment to tug at his sleeves, giving an ostentatious pose as he adjusted a gleaming wristwatch. Maybe it was expensive.
I tried to slip on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, but this man, in his late forties if I had to guess, with a receding hairline and a neck like a deflated balloon, was absolutely determined to start a conversation. I gave him the standard profile information—I was twenty-two, third-year at the university, on my way home for Thanksgiving. I figured that once we got past the obvious genialities the guy would give up and doze off.
He muttered a few words about how fortunate I was to be young, how great it must be to just be starting out, then introduced himself as “Tom” and made repeated references to “business” without giving any indication of what exactly he did for a living. It was clear that he was waiting with anticipation for me to ask what kind of work he was in, but I just kept nodding and smiling, unwilling to give him the satisfaction.
“You’ll never guess who I sat next to last week,” he said, enticing me with a dramatic hand gesture. I gave a half-hearted shrug, but brazen apathy did nothing to deter a man like this.
“Ludacris! You know, the rapper.”
Yes, I knew. What I didn’t know was that the hip-hop and Hollywood icon was collecting frequent flyer miles on American Airlines.
“You won’t believe some of the stuff he told me.”
I’m sure I won’t, I thought, but his comment had piqued my interest in a different regard. Tom was an irksome figure whose mouth ran faster than his thoughts, but that alone couldn’t account for my discomfort. There was something disgruntling about a man so desperate for attention that he would go to such lengths to impress a complete stranger.
“First off, the jewelry, the big necklaces, the bling, it’s all fake. Every last bit. Costume jewelry! Isn’t that incredible? The man has millions but his gold rings are made out of plastic!”
Tom’s own grubby fingers lacked any burnished bands, authentic or otherwise. I glanced over at his wristwatch and wondered how much he had spent for those thin glimmering hands to snatch away empty moments on lonely flights. Could they show him how many hours, how many days, how many years he had paid to get from my seat to his? I couldn’t pity this man, but I marveled at his tragedy.
“Here’s the other thing,” Tom continued with enthusiasm. “Ludacris is a real upstanding guy, a gentleman. Classy. And smart, way smarter than me, real smart.”
I raised my eyebrows. Tom must have missed the last six Ludacris albums.
“No, I’m serious! We started talking finances, you know, Wall Street stuff, and after a while, I couldn’t keep up. He was tossing around words longer than my dick!” Tom gave a smug grin and paused to catch his breath.
“I’m telling you, he’s not the gangsta thug you see on MTV,” said the businessman, more subdued now. A pensive expression washed over his animated features and he turned toward the window, scrutinizing the miles as they passed.
“Goes to show,” Tom said after a while, “how a man needs to reinvent himself just to get noticed.”