The moment the plane takes off, he starts crying. I look over at him then away. It’s rude to stare at someone who is crying, especially if you haven’t the slightest intention of comforting them. I’m not good at comforting people. The last time I tried comforting someone, they ended up worse off than before. So I keep to myself and pull out my SkyMall, pretending to read it so I have an excuse not to comfort him.
He’s trying to keep quiet, stifling his sobs with the sleeve of his Army Vets jacket. His whole body is shaking in his seat, which only seems to make it more obvious that he’s crying. I glance over again. His face is crinkled up, deepening his wrinkles, and he wipes his runny nose on his sleeve as if he’s five-year-old child even though he’s old enough to be my grandfather. There’s no dignity in crying like that. I go back to my SkyMall, hoping to spare him the embarrassment of crying in public, but then he pulls out a picture.
From this angle, I can’t tell what it’s a picture of, just that it looks worn and faded. That seems like a funny thing to do when you’re crying, I think. Right after, I realize I’ve been staring at him for the past few minutes. This obligates me to attempt to comfort him. I reach out and place my hand on his arm, though with the weight I put behind it, it might as well be a ghost’s hand. Subconsciously, I think I’m hoping he doesn’t notice so I can say See God? I tried to comfort him.
He wipes his nose on his sleeve again and turns to me. His eyes are red-rimmed and watery, but they’re the bluest eyes I have ever seen. It occurs to me that he is pretty good-looking for a grandfather, a veritable silver fox. Then I remember it’s also rude to impose labels and titles on people, especially people you’ve just met and who have been crying next to you for the past few minutes of your nonstop flight to France.
“I’m sorry,” he says, in a voice that is almost as handsome as he is. “I didn’t mean to bother you. My memories got the better of me.”
For some reason, I find his apology endearing, especially with how he acts embarrassed. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tissue he uses to dab at his eyes. I find that even more endearing, though I really shouldn’t. Crying is not cute nor is it handsome. Though if anyone could make crying hot, it would be him.
I haven’t answered. “Oh, it’s alright,” I blurt, hoping to cover up the obvious lapse in conversation. He seems like a gentleman, so he probably won’t point it out. He smiles, the kind of smile that crinkles the corner of your eyes. The picture is still in his hand, but he goes to put it away.
“Wait,” I say before I can stop myself. “Tell me about that picture.”
His hand stops and he stares at me. When he speaks, his voice is cautious, as if he doesn’t believe me. “You want to know about the picture? Are you sure?”
I nod. “It’s a long flight to Paris,” I joke. That is my poor excuse to make up for my loud mouth. This is why I don’t talk to strangers who cry.
His smile returns, but it’s politer and reserved. “It is.”
“I really do want to know.”
His smile softens and he leans back in his seat. I realize I should really stop looking at his face. He stares at the picture for a moment. I wait for him to begin, but he doesn’t. Instead, he keeps smiling though now it’s the kind of smile that’s equal parts nostalgic and regretful.
There’s the sound of kids, conversation. His finger runs over the picture and I think this is when he’ll start talking. The story must be a painful one if he won’t talk about it.
“What’s your name?” he asks, which startles me out of whatever half-coherent thoughts I had.
I blink. “Sarah.”
“William. Nice to meet you.”
We shake hands before resuming our positions, staring at the seats in front of us. The engines are particularly loud now that the couple from 21b is quite.
“His name was Robert.”
He hugged his parents one last time. His mother was doing her best not to cry, his father stoic as ever.
“I’ll be back before you know it,” William said, though he knew there was a small chance he wouldn’t. With that thought, he turned and walked over to the line waiting for the bus that would take them to boot camp. The person in front of him turned around. “I’m Robert.”
They shared a smile.
“The next few months at camp were hell, but we made it through. By the time it was over, we were best friends.” He smiles and leans back, done with this portion of the story.
I stare at the photo in my hand. Though the colors have faded to varying degrees of sepia, I can still make out the smiling faces. William is older now, but I can still see some of his younger self in him. Both have the same way of smiling, lips closed, one corner tilted a little higher up than the other. On most people, it would give them an air of mischief or trouble. I try not to laugh at the mental image of a young, rascally William. Or would his name have been Will? William notices and flashes a smile.
The flight attendants stop by and we get our drinks. The silence between us isn’t deafening; it’s a natural pause between conversations. William finishes his drink and sighs.
“We were cocky then. But when we arrived in ‘Nam, things changed. Tell me: have you ever written to God?”