“Welcome aboard!” says a flight attendant as I am crossing the gap between the jet-way and a plane taking a step inside. I lift my eyes and see a tall blond woman, welcoming me and smiling, in her blue uniform and bright yellow scarf, which contrasts with the dimmed interior lights of the Airbus. She greets me with a slight German accent as if to remind me of my destination - I am on a late night flight to Munich. I have just spent an hour wandering around an empty airport. Not many passengers had decided to fly on this dark and rainy Wednesday night. There was no line at the gate, and I am not surprised to find a half empty plane.
Passengers are slowly moving forward, taking their time storing their bags and settling in comfortably before a long flight. Waiting to pass them, I try to look outside through a small window; it is completely dark, and I can’t see even a glimpse of light through the glass covered with large rain drops. I suddenly feel that my world has collapsed and is limited to the inside of the airplane and that nothing exists beyond its walls. The weather, the lighting, and the quietness of the airport— they all fit my sense of nostalgia. I am on my way to sell my parents’ apartment, the place where I spent all of my childhood years. Twenty five years have passed since I lived there last, but my thoughts are still filled with vivid memories. I suddenly realize that this is the end to a chapter in my life.
I bought an economy ticket and with an almost empty plane I hoped to have an entire row to myself; instead, I find my seat next to an old Indian man with a long untrimmed white beard and his head covered with a traditional turban. I settle my bags, take a seat, and greet him, but he does not acknowledge me. Instead, he keeps glancing over my shoulder looking intensely at every passing passenger as if he is waiting for someone to board the plane and to tell him that last thing that he forgot to tell him before. It’s as if he has to see that someone once again for the last time before he leaves on his long return home.
I close my eyes. How do we choose to keep certain memories of what passed long, long ago? Some events are forgotten but some are kept as if they happened yesterday. I try to remember my life in my parents’ house, recall events that happened over the course of two dozen years. But the facts keep slipping away, only leaving me with light sadness and a sense of something lost and forgotten. I imagine myself in that small apartment on the third floor of a residential high rise, standing in front of a window overlooking a tiny park below. Small children are playing in the playground and I can see myself there on the swings passing time with friends. I am standing in the kitchen, at no particular moment in time, and the apartment feels empty. But I can sense my memories and experiences pass around me, and I can feel the shadows of the people who once lived there. All the exact details escape me.
“Excuse me, sir, I think you might be in my seat.” Somebody is touching my shoulder. I look up and see a woman handing me her boarding pass. Trying to return to the present, I slowly focus my sight on the piece of paper in her hand, then look at the seat number, and then, for some reason, at the old man sitting next to me as if asking for his confirmation and approval. He keeps staring into the aisle and does not turn his head. I can’t believe my eyes, but indeed I am sitting in a wrong seat. I suddenly realize I have been so completely overtaken with my thoughts of the past and future that I didn’t know what I was doing in the present.
I get up and move across the aisle. In the new seat next to me there is a woman looking through the window watching bags being loaded into the open belly of the plane. She is in her late 30s, with dark hair and brown eyes. I greet her and she replies politely, without turning her head, her thoughts buried deep inside. I glance over her shoulder trying to spot the object of her stare, but all I can see is the brightly lit terminal of San Francisco International. With the plane doors still open I pull out my Android. I put on the headphones and start listening to music.
My parents’ house was always filled with books. A thing out of this time that could have only existed in previous centuries. Fiction books, professional reference books, history studies, and original historical documents. Bookshelves, bookcases and bookshelves again occupied all available space. When I was growing up they were a part of my life, they were my toys. The books always attracted me, and every spare moment I had I would grab a book from a shelf and read about countries and cities and people that had disappeared thousands of years before. The books I read were always precisely relaying information and facts, but never attempted to describe what people were like then or what were their dreams and hopes. I often dreamt about living among them, imagining what my life would be in that distant time.
Another tap on my shoulder brings me back to the present. I lift my eyes: this time there is a man trying to talk to me. I can’t hear a word so I pause the playback and take off the headphones. Now I can hear the man but it doesn’t help to understand what he is saying. I suddenly realize that the stranger is talking to me in German. He notices my confusion and switches to English.
“I am wondering if you could switch your seat with me,” he says.
They must be traveling together, and I am ready to help as long as I will not be cramped into a middle seat in the back of the airplane. I turn my head and glance at the woman next to me but she keeps staring outside. She only turns her head a little, trying to catch our conversation and I can’t see if the expression in her eyes is changing.
“Sure, where are you sitting?” I ask.
The man hands over his boarding pass with a word “business” written in big bold letters right in the middle of it. “I have checked with the crew and they are ok if we switch seats,” he adds.
I look again at the woman. By now she has turned her head and is following our conversation. I look into her eyes trying to see if she is happy with her new companion, but the only thing I can sense is her confusion.
For me this is an easy decision. I unbuckle, get up, take my bags out of the overhead bin, put on my jacket, and start moving towards the front of the plane. Before stepping out of the economy section I turn my head and quickly glance at the man and the woman I left behind. They are chatting and smiling. All seems to be good in their world.
I take my seat for the third time and immediately a flight attendant comes offering me drinks. I look at the tray, grab a glass of champagne, take a sip, and close my eyes.
When I was in high school I decided to write a novel. In those days I was under a spell of Ray Bradbury’s stories about time and space travel, and it was no surprise that the plot took a science fiction turn. My protagonist, a brilliant physics student, conducts experiments attempting to create a worm hole. Having made errors in his calculations he gets thrown through time into a medieval period. As a credit to my fascination with the Renaissance I placed him in Florence, where, hundreds of years before his own time and with no means to return home, he has to adjust to life there. He is obsessed with changing the future and comes up with a plan to reverse his fate. He decides to correct his original calculations, figure out the answer, and encode it as a message in several famous paintings for his future self to find. The time travel acted only as glue between the historical part of the book and a modern day suspense novel where another character goes on a quest to find mysterious clues left in paintings by various Tuscan artists.
Writing took tremendous amount of time, and I could never complete the book. I finished high school and had to leave home to go to university. Without a clear inspiration about which career to choose I decided to follow my sister’s lead and picked a major without any relation to either literature or history. My unfinished book was left behind but was never forgotten. Over the years I often imagined that I would have led a happier life if I had chosen a different path in it. Today, on my last trip back home I know exactly where to find the old manuscript - it is still there where I left it twenty five years ago, a thick stack of yellowish pages hidden in a bottom drawer of my old desk. I start to recall the details of my unsophisticated and naive novel and I can’t stop smiling. Yes, I can recognize the lack of experience of my own younger self, but I can also remember the passion and the satisfaction I felt from the process of writing. I suddenly get a clear sensation I have missed something in my life, and I feel an urge to try doing it again. And just like the protagonist from my youth is focused on changing his future from the past, I start to wonder if I can maybe change my past from the future.
I wake up after the airplane has already parked at the gate. The man who gave up his seat 10 hours earlier is standing beside me pulling his suitcase from the overhead bin above my head. His eyes look tired as if he hasn’t slept a single minute.
“How was your flight?” he asks.
“Great! How was yours?” I reply.
“The best!” he says. “You know, I met a girl that I haven’t seen for 20 years.”
He turns back and hugs the woman standing right behind him. She is smiling.
“She was my high school sweetheart.” He looks at me again and continues. “Can you imagine? Accidentally meeting each other five thousand miles away from our homes. She was my first love; we broke up when I moved away after finishing school. And later I was too proud to start looking for her. Yesterday she was right in front of me sitting in the boarding area. Giving up my seat was the best decision I have made in years.”
“Well, I am glad I’ve helped and I am ready to do it again,” I reply.
He smiles, grabs his suitcase, takes the woman’s hand and they start moving towards the exit together.