On a plane, I sat between an aging nerd and a teenage boy. The nerd informed us both with contemptuous superiority that we’d be told to put our bags up in the bin and then, when we were, said, “I told you.” He spent the rest of the flight playing chess on his tablet and reading A Clash of Kings. The teen read Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason.
The teenager’s parents were sitting behind us and spoke to him frequently. They were loud and friendly. The mother told everyone within earshot that the family was from Texas and they were sorry the weather was going to be so cold in San Diego but she didn’t care, she had a new dress and she was going to wear it even if she had to wear a coat! They talked with excitement about dinner reservations, about their hotel and the car meeting them. The kid cringed. I felt so bad for him. He was trapped in a circle of existentialist hell.
I thought the deep thoughts of the sleep-and-oxygen deprived. Growing up does not mean we stop reading Marxist critiques or hating ourselves or feeling the grotesque contrasts writ large on every page of our petty lives. But it means that—sometimes—we might read something else in that moment, just to get through it. That we blinker ourselves like carriage horses in city traffic. On the other hand, this kid would never be able to feel such uncomplicated contempt again—soon, he’d not have such onerous luxuries imposed upon him, after all—and it was certainly something to savor.
He was writhing in perspective right now. He would not let himself feel the discomfort of the seat or the icy blast of an overactive AC above our heads—or he’d hate himself if he did. He’d feel glad for the meal they brought around, and mumble that he wanted a Coke, even knowing what that made him.
When we disembarked, the surly, nerdy guy was ahead of me. “Hope you enjoyed your flight,” a cheery flight attendant smiled at him. She was already turning that impersonal smile on the next person—me—when he said, “Actually, the eggs were very dry.” She looked startled, we all did. I wonder if he didn’t have it figured out.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.