The Gray Man
by Cody Wagner
Today, the gray man flew for the first time in years.
Inching thru the gate, he stuffed his headphones deep in his ears and boarded the plane. He didn’t turn the music on – he just wanted something separating him from real life. Hidden behind technology, he felt like he was in another world, alone.
Walking down the aisle, he admitted he felt pretty good. And his muted tie matched his charcoal sport coat just perfectly. Sighing with relief tinged with stress, he inched to his seat (34B – he wanted a middle seat so as not to choose between a window or aisle) and plopped down then buckled his seat belt, because it was mandatory.
When situated, he noticed an old man sit in front of him next to a very pretty woman. For every wrinkle and liverspot the man had, the girl did not. She was what the gray man had heard of as ‘fresh-faced.’
As the plane pulled away from the gate, the gray man noticed the aisle seat next to the wrinkled man remained free, yet he didn’t move to give the comfort of a territorial bubble. Instead, he settled back, in his middle seat, and began talking to her. The gray man thought it strange, but reminded himself he was in a middle seat.
After a few seconds, the wrinkled man asked the fresh-faced woman’s name in a voice so loud, the gray man couldn’t help but overhear, even with his headphones smashed in. She said her name was Joyce or Jacey. She politely asked for his and he said it was Todd or Tom.
Then he asked where she was going and she said Phoenix. He made an unfunny joke about the city and she politely laughed. He asked if Phoenix was her hometown. It was.
Then he asked what she did and she replied that she was a teacher.
“Ahhhh, a typical female profession,” the wrinkled man said.
That made the gray man flinch in his seat. But then he acknowledged most of his teachers were, in fact, women. So it wasn’t a big deal.
Leaning the tiniest fraction of an inch toward her, the wrinkled man asked if the fresh-face woman was married, to which she replied, “No, I’m single.”
The wrinkled man smiled but, before he could respond, the flight attendant came by to make sure his seatbelt was buckled. The wrinkled man laughed and said, “Is that why you became a stewardess, so you could boss me around.” She returned his laugh and said, “Of course. Now please buckle up.”
He pulled his glasses down, peered over them, and said, “That’s why people become stewardesses. Especially females.”
The woman tensed, forced a smile, and walked away, leaving the fresh-faced woman on her own. The gray man looked for an escape. Unfortunately, he couldn’t turn his music on (instead, he safely stowed his electronics away, per the command) and, like it or not (he wasn’t sure which), was sucked into their world.
Settled back in his seat, the wrinkled man turned back to the fresh-faced woman and asked if she liked bossing her students around. She said no.
“I like teaching,” she said, sounding less pleasant.
The wrinkled man seemed to find this very funny and, as the plane took off, he giggled and nudged her with his shoulder. She leaned away from him and laid her head against the wall, acting tired.
Seeing her trying to check out, the wrinkled man poked her arm and asked her to guess what he did for a living. Taking a deep breath and, without looking at him, she said, “I have no idea. An engineer?”
The gray man scoffed. There was no way the wrinkled man was an engineer. Then again, engineers sometimes dressed poorly and some didn’t have social skills. He could be an engineer. Or he might not be.
“Nope,” said the wrinkled man. “I’m a doctor.”
“Really,” said the fresh-faced woman.
“Yep. I own my own practice. I’m the best in Oakland.”
They proceeded to talk about work and the wrinkled man was like a machine gun. He fired off questions and statements so fast, escape was impossible. Apparently, the fresh-faced woman realized pretending to sleep wasn’t going to work, because she picked up a magazine and started thumbing through the pages.
“Females love that magazine.”
The gray man leaned forward a few inches and saw a SkyMall in her hands.
“Lots of people read this on planes,” she replied.
“Sure, but I bet you’ll spend your hard earned teacher money on something worthless. Females love to shop.”
In a bout of angry curiosity, the fresh-faced woman glared at him and asked, sarcastically, “Are you married?”
The wrinkled man was oblivious to her tone.
“No,” he said, drawing out the word like it was a compliment.
Then the wrinkled man went on to talk about his ex-girlfriend, an ‘incredibly beautiful Puerto Rican woman.’ She was gorgeous and fiery and devastated when he broke up with her. He went on and on about her.
Then he began to make comparisons between the Puerto Rican ex-girlfriend and the fresh-faced woman.
“She’s more passionate than you.”
This seemed to irk the fresh-faced woman, who said, “We’ve talked for like two minutes.”
The wrinkled man raised his eyebrow, the one facing the gray man.
“Don’t sass me. I know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m an empath.”
The woman looked at him, squinting. “A what?”
“An empath. I can sense people’s emotions, even when they don’t want me to.”
At that, the fresh-face girl looked scared. The fear grew when the wrinkled man continued, “That’s why I’m a counselor for a living. I heal married couples on the first session.”
The fresh-faced woman didn’t say a word about how, just a few minutes earlier, he was a doctor. Instead she nodded and, flicking a look at the gray man between the seats, turned back to her magazine.
The gray man took a deep breath and stared down at his hands. A voice in his head suggested he offer the girl his seat. “Excuse me,” he could say. “I haven’t slept in two days and could really use a window seat. Would you mind trading with me?”
But the gray man hesitated, thinking about the wrinkled man, who was clearly enjoying speaking with a female. Maybe switching seats would end up ruining his day. What if it genuinely hurt his feelings? Wasn’t it worth it for the fresh-faced girl to sit there, taking his nonsense for a short flight, if it meant making the wrinkled man happy?
It made sense, and the gray man nodded to himself as the wrinkled man asked, “How old are you?”
Instead of playing the typical, How old do you think I am? game, she said, “I’m thirty-seven.”
The man gaped at her. “Thirty-seven?”
He was clearly surprised, and the gray man felt better, expecting him to say, “You look way younger,” or, “I would have guess you were twenty-four.” Something nice and complimentary. Instead, the wrinkled man eyed her up and down and said, “Do you want children?”
The fresh-faced woman turned the page in her magazine and quickly said, “Yes.”
The wrinkled man whistled. “You better get going. That biological clock is tick tick ticking.”
The girl’s hand froze mid-turn and she didn’t reply, so the man said, “You’ll be barren in a few years.”
Now the gray man’s hands were sweating, leaving oblong streaks on his arm rests. He didn’t know why and quickly wiped them off with his elbow. Again, a voice in his brain suggested he do something. However, for every argument of, “She’s miserable,” another voice countered with, “He’s happy.” The two canceled each other out.
A few silent seconds passed. One of the gray man’s legs was tense while the other felt like jelly. The fresh-faced woman was stuck on a page. The wrinkled man looked from her to the back of the seat in front of him and back to the girl.
“Why are you being so damned difficult,” he finally snapped.
The girl jerked in her seat and, without looking said, “What?”
“I’m sitting here trying to talk to you and you’re being nasty. You’ve barely looked at me. Am I disgusting or something?”
The gray man bit half his lip as the girl, obviously scared, turned to look at him and said, “No.”
“There, was that so hard?”
Although her shoulders were raised like cat hackles, she said, “I didn’t mean to be rude.” As if nothing had happened, the wrinkled man smiled and said, “You’re a closed off female. I can tell. I’m gonna work on that.” Then he nudged her shoulder again.
Seconds later, the flight attendant approached with the drink cart, interrupting. The gray man didn’t hear a word she said. His mind was filled with visions of the wrinkled man crying. The gray man suddenly pictured him in his hotel room, ruefully thinking about what could have been. Being denied by the girl was one thing. But if the gray man or flight attendant interrupted, the wrinkled man might regret his lost chance forever. The thought made the gray man squirm and push himself back in his seat. One knee jumped up and down.
The wrinkled man had turned his attention to the flight attendant.
“Most stewardesses get into the profession because they can’t be models.”
By now, the flight attendant was done with him. Silent, she served him his drink and pushed on, but not before he could throw in, “But you’re really beautiful.” The stewardess nodded her head, said a curt, “Thank you,” then moved to the gray man’s aisle and asked what he wanted.
The gray man rose halfway in his seat with an idea. He could ask the flight attendant if she’d insist he trade places with the wrinkled man. That way, she would be the one interrupting fate, not him. All he had to do was lean in and whisper, “Yes, could you have the woman there trade places with me?” After exchanging a knowing look, he figured she’d do it without question.
But then he thought of the stewardess. Who was he to put her in an uncomfortable situation? What if the wrinkled man threw a fit, thereby ruining her day?
Shaking his head, the gray man said, “I’m fine, thanks,” and lowered his tray table. It didn’t make sense – he had no drink.
The gray man heard a loud swig as the wrinkled man gulped from his cup, swished the ice around, and asked what type of men the fresh-faced girl liked.
She deftly responded, “Younger men.”
“How young?” he asked.
“Twenty-eight to thirty-five.”
“Twenty-eight? You’re too damn old for that.”
She made a noise in her throat. “It’s only nine years.”
“It’s too young,” he snapped. “I’m forty-two.”
For the first time, the girl called him out. “No you’re not. I’m sorry, but you’re too old for me.”
The wrinkled man flew back, stunned. The gray man nodded; that would be that.
“I never said I was interested, did I?” snarled the wrinkled man. “You’re too fucking ugly for me.”
At that, he jerked away from the fresh-faced woman. She, in turn, jerked away from him, put her magazine against the wall, and stared at it. Her hands shook so bad, the paper fluttered.
The gray man’s right hand left wet spots all over the tray as he looked around. The woman to his left was buried in a book and the man to his right had been staring the opposite direction for a half hour.
The wrinkled man nudged the girl and said, “There you go being closed off again.”
Without turning she said, “Leave me alone.”
He slapped his armrest. “God, what does it take to get you to open up?”
“Calling me fucking ugly isn’t a good way.”
He recoiled. “I never called you ugly.”
The fresh-faced woman didn’t respond. After staring at her a few seconds, the wrinkled man said, “Answer me, liar. I never said you were ugly.”
Again, she said nothing. Then the gray man watched the wrinkled man change like fall leaves. It was bewildering. Now smiling, the wrinkled man waited a few minutes then leaned in and whispered, “I think you’re beautiful.”
Every hair on the gray man’s body shot up, as if the wrinkled man had blown across his neck. He could almost taste the breath and imagined it smelling like shit and whiskey. But why fault the man for bad breath? Maybe he couldn’t help it; maybe he had gum disease.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the woman hissed a short, “Thanks,” to the man, who took it as complete and total forgiveness. Grinning, he leaned in further, and said, “What would it take for you to go out with me?”
“Sorry, I’m not interested.”
“What?” The fresh-faced woman’s voice was incredulous, as if saying, Do you not see how crazy psycho you are?
Unfazed, the man put his hand near her leg and said, “You’ve changed.”
“What?” she said again.
“At the beginning of the flight, you were closed off and distant. You’ve opened up to me. Now you’re alive and passionate.” He nodded. “I do that to people.”
She couldn’t respond; there was no response. The gray man didn’t know what she could have possibly said.
Miraculously, the plane touched down in that exact instant. The fresh-faced woman’s shoulders fell in relief and probably exhaustion.
As the passengers disembarked, the wrinkled man insisted the fresh-faced woman go first. “I’m a gentleman,” he said, even though he didn’t grab her bag from the overhead bin. The gray man didn’t judge; the woman was free and the man got his kicks.
When everyone was off the plane, the gray man took one last peek at the wrinkled man following the fresh-faced woman. He had a hand on her elbow and she was trying to outrun him. The gray man walked the other way and stood behind a column.
When the fresh-faced girl and her shadow were out of sight, a new thought hit, one that made the gay man feel different. What if the wrinkled man kills her? What if he jams a pen into her throat before security stops him?
Leaning an ear against the pillar, he responded, Maybe he’s a serial killer. In that case, at least he’d be captured. That would prevent him from killing lots of other women. It made sense and, with that, the gray man nodded, shoved his headphones in, and walked to the next gate.