Flying is a strange gamble.
The cost of the gamble is X dollars for the ticket and Y hours of time. You get A and B for this - A being your destination, and B being the 'experience of traveling'.
X+Y = A+B
Now, that Y hours of time also gets multiplied by Z, the overall experience that awaits you between you slipping into and out of whatever seat you've been assigned by the magic ticket fairy. Z is closely correlated, but not altogether directly related, to B.
So, X+Y = A+B becomes X+Y*Z = A+B.
Z is determined by a lot of different factors - is there food? alcohol? a power plug under your seat? (look for that little lightning bolt on your overhead bin cover, people). But the single most important factor of Z is who you sit next to.
If you're not tired, you should be able to make friends with your seatmate 100% of the time. There's so much room for small pleasantries, small favors - helping with luggage, not being an asshole when they need to pee, taking their leftover food and trash out for them, etc. - and let's not forget making major sacrifices for friendship like offering the window or the aisle seat.
But do you want to befriend them? Flying is a gamble because it's the only roulette you can take in this day and age that plunks you straight into the personal space of a complete stranger for hours on end. You become privy to their most intimate secrets - their home address (check their carry-on luggage for a tag if you're interested), their angry emails to ex-spouses (should've brought a privacy screen for your laptop kiddo), the capacity of their bladder.
You also will wind up sharing the olfactory results of their last meal and personal hygiene habits. Basically, you'll end up sharing, for a few hours, everything you would share with a spouse or a roommate - sometimes, even more.
And take this Z - all the way from Zsub1 to ZsubK - and multiply it by the Y hours you'll be spending aloft. Beijing to Chicago is a long-ass flight. What did the magic ticket fairy have in store?
Cue the Capital International Airport - one of those airports with a monorail that takes you from one terminal to the next, because it's that freaking huge.
It's 6AM. I haven't slept all night since I got back from Wudaokou kind of late. My throat hurts from all the karaoke and cigarette smoke and my brain is still hungover.
After hugging my relatives, customs, and security, I find myself at the departure gate, waiting in the group 3/group 4 line, basically the group that means 'since you're a new customer to our airline, it makes a ton of sense for us to treat you like Rosa Parks - BACK OF THE LINE, KIDDO'.
Some lady behind me nudges my shoulder, leans forward, and asks what 'group 1' meant on her airplane ticket. Inwardly, i was like 'why is it that Chinese people always think I can speak English?'. Answer her question - then I see a much younger woman standing behind her, eyeing both of us. Probably her daughter. The lady begins zipping up her shit, preparing to cut ahead of all of us in line.
I turn my head, try to sleep standing up. Doesn't work; my eyes keep taking deep drags of the reddish-orange, pollution-filtered sunlight. Turn back around: the young woman is still standing there. I ask her if she was going to meet her mother. She looks at me like 'wtf' and I realize my sleep-deprived brain fucked up with the whole mother-daughter dealio. I smile, change the subject in English, abusing my English proficiency to paper over the awkwardness as best I can, then ask her why she's heading to Chicago, yadda yadda.
The answers barely register but I get the feeling she's in the same boat as me - young working stiff, seeing family in Beijing, heading back to the US before the May 1 airport crush. I ask her which school she went to, she tells me Tsinghua. I blink twice, grin in admiration, she blushes, and now the ice is officially broken. The line starts moving.
I would have kept talking with her, but then I get pulled aside by security.
"Is this your laptop?"
I nod. Behind me, Tsinghua Girl expresses a look of concern. I give her the 'I can handle this' look, then tell her I'll see her on the plane. She shrugs, walks onward.
The security lady's voice is harsh. "Turn it on."
I try to. The battery is dead. Then I plug in the adapter. Nothing happens. No charge, nothing. I begin to sweat. "Um, sir, it looks like my laptop adapter is broken. What should I do?"
The security lady working my bag looks at me with these wide fearful eyes, like I'm about to blow us up, and calls for her boss. After a bunch of fiddling, they let me go, but TG is nowhere in sight.
I wind up on the plane next to this guy who just got back from Indonesia, and who proudly admits to me that it's been 24 hours since he's slept in a decent bed. Where has he been, I ask. He turns and sprays me with full-force haven't-brushed-my-teeth-in-a-day breath, recites a litany of airports across most of Southeast Asia.
I want to cry... but then I look past him, and at the end of the row is none other than Tsinghua Girl.
TG is sitting there trying to sleep and looking just as miserable and tired as I am, while the guy next to her is rocking out on a headset. I decide to take a risk.
After the plane takes off, I stroll up in my best nonchalant-sheepish manner possible, tap rockerboy on the shoulder, and ask, in halting English, if I could sit next to my friend. I explain with mock sheepishness that she and I know each other. I tell him the flight attendants are all fine with it.
He gets up and leaves. Step 1 complete - competition removed. Now I have a monopoly on her attention for the next ten hours. She looks at me with these huge, unsure eyes that mean some part of her is happy with the whole situation but she's not sure which. I sit down smile, and after rockerboy is out of earshot, tell her (in Chinese) thanks for staying quiet and saving me, since the white dude from Indonesia sitting next to me smelled like ass. She says that I'm so evil for sending that other guy over there. I grin and say that's why I owe her one. We lock eyes and exchange smiles - she asks if I can put one of her bags up in the overhead bin.
Step 2 complete. She's now asking me to do things.
We chat a little, do the standard 'what do you do and where do you live' round. Turns out we work two blocks from each other. I say UChicago, she says Tsinghua and a masters at Notre Dame. I joke that she's younger than me but already smarter, she misses the joke but laughs anyhow to be polite. Then all of a sudden these old ladies next to me start asking me whether I can help them fill out the US Customs entry cards. I decide to be a nice guy and fill them out - TG asks if she can help. We do it together, the old ladies call us a cute couple. I don't register, but from behind me, TG nudges me. I turn around, she's beaming - she doesn't look uncomfortable at all.
Step 3 complete. Target is single.
We chat some more, then decide to watch Silver Linings Playbook together. Sure. I sleep through the movie; so does she, since she's already watched it three times before. Before I fully pass out, I take her headphones out of her ear; she smiles in her sleep. Cute. Food comes by, I translate for the old ladies again because the flight attendant doesn't speak Chinese and they don't speak English.
We still can't fall asleep for very long so I suggest alcohol.
This is the other reason I like long-haul flights. They give you plenty of free booze. I mean, 10 hours to monopolize a lady's time and an open bar? Too easy. Plus, everyone wants to drink anyhow since 'that helps you sleep'.
Two little bottles of wine later, she suggests another movie which she heard won a bunch of awards. Turns out the movie is called Amour and it's about an old couple's struggle with stroke-induced partial disability and amnesia, and their struggle to maintain their love for one another. Pretty heavy shit, she's crying, hell, I'm crying. She asks for two more bottles of wine. I oblige, and I return with a bunch of tissues to boot. She's gone.
I sit down, watch as she appears from the bathroom with a bunch of tissues. She sees the ones in my hand, laughs, says she got some for me too.
TG leaves the armrest up as she sits down. We then talk some more - swap war stories about exes, college life, work, drink another two bottles of wine, then fall asleep. I would want to say we were snuggling against each other, but snuggling is rarely a comfortable way to sleep. So we just turned away from each other and snored until breakfast and landing.
All the way up to Customs, I exit holding one of her bags like a war trophy. It feels good in my hands. We part, my jet-lagged brain forgets to ask for her number. But then the afternoon rolls around and she adds me on LinkedIn, the only place she could find my name. I add her back with all my contact info.
She texts me pictures of her paintings. I tell her I'd buy one of them for the rights to one of my script treatments. She calls me an egotistical bastard. I tell her that makes two of us, unless she doesn't think her paintings are even worth a pile of uncertain publication rights. She texts back her painting with a few more details. I downgrade it to the rights to a short story. She calls me, tells me to go fuck myself, then asks me if I have time Wednesday.
After a Wednesday mix-up, we do the classic first date Saturday. All goes well until she stops me at the door to her place - it's only a quick kiss goodnight. I'm intrigued, she's showing some self-control.
She tells me she wants to cook for me next weekend, and we can go watch The Great Gatsby. I say yes if she'll let me do some cooking myself and bring it over. She extends it into a mutual grocery trip too. Odd date idea, but what the hell, it's cheaper than any other option I can think of.
Then Sunday morning happens, she says I gave her a nightmare. She suggests Monday coffee to make it up to her. I up the ante - Tuesday at the bar with the 2$ drafts. She says yes to both.
X+Y*Z = ....?
Even if the magic ticket fairy wanted me to spend 10 hours in agony, at least she gave a chance to make it work out.