She had perfect skin.
I notice such things, especially when seated shoulder to shoulder with someone on a plane. And though I'm normally not one for chatting with seatmates - far too much effort to pay attention and converse - I was replying to her questions with relative ease. No, the air vent wasn't making me chilly. No, I didn't live in connecting city - I was traveling somewhere else on business. Yes, I did do a fair amount of travel for work. No, I don't tend to mind it all that much.
"It exhausts me," she admitted and I smiled.
"It's very detailed," I agreed. "Keeping track of times and belongings. Watching people and being mildly uncomfortable for long periods of time. Having to do what people tell you - and pretend you're very pleased to do so. I understand - it still makes me tired. But I've adapted." I paused, feeling sorry that she looked so troubled over it, and decided to distract her. "Did you go somewhere fun?" I chirped, doing my best impression of friendly and happy Katie.
"I was visiting my daughter," she told me and I smiled encouragingly. She mentioned a hospital and mere seconds before I asked how long her daughter had worked there, her expression soured and she shook her head. "I'd hoped to bring her home," she said. "They told me they'd only need 3 months before she was better."
"Oh," I said softly, reaching to touch her arm. So we discussed mental illness - autism and anxiety, depression and obsession. I nodded when she told me her eldest child never slept well. Winced when she tried to articulate the magnitude of pain.
"It's so confusing and frustrating and exhausting to have your brain work against you," she told me, wringing her hands. "To make you feel miserable and alone and hopeless."
"Yes," I agreed simply as we sat together above the clouds, talking quietly as the sun disappeared for the day.
A lengthy layover, turbulent flight and shuttle ride later, I stood at the rental car counter.
"Tired," I answered - as I always do - when asked how I was. I never fail to hope this encourages them to hurry through the paperwork. I am consistently disappointed.
"There was a man here the other night?" she said, ignoring my repeated glances at my credit card and license lying on the counter before her. "He arrived just after they closed," she glanced briefly toward a competitive company and I wondered wistfully if they would give me a car so I could reach my hotel. "It was barely past midnight and his car had broken, but nobody was here to give him another one."
"Uh huh," I sighed, merely hoping the story was a short one.
"I told him he could go get a hotel nearby, but he said he'd just work through the night. So he graded papers - right over there." She pointed to some nearby chairs and I obediently turned to look, nodding my understanding of where he'd sat to wait.
"He taught calculus," she continued, "and at 6:20, he'd finished a stack of papers but was nodding off." I smiled at the level of detail, realizing she liked him - had noticed something about him and decided it wonderful. "He had to teach at class at 11," she said and I decided her voice sounded a bit wistful - she wanted Calculus Boy much like I wanted a Rental Car. Still, I remembered what that was like - though it's been far too long since I've had a good crush on someone. To recall details and to have your mind so full of him that stories and statements and questions just slip out without you meaning to reveal them.
It's fascinating how people connect and release. How random encounters can somehow be meaningful. Perhaps it strikes me because I'm typically oblivious, avoiding any sort of interaction when I could otherwise get lost in my own thoughts. But those two women stood against the tedium of travel and made an impression. And as I continue to struggle out of this episode I'm having, it's good - even for a few moments - to shift my focus outward.