There’s a middle aged man sitting next to me on an airplane. He’s got a box resting on his lap, about the size of a newborn, wrapped in glossy, jade paper that reflects holographic stars back at me when I turn my head a certain angle. The corners of the wrapping paper are folded to a perfect point, and the bits of tape exposed on it are all the same exact length. The man smiles at the box, grips it tight, as if he’s telling the world he’s spent years of his life wrapping it and he’ll never let it go.
A stewardess walks up.
“Excuse me,” she says. “You’ll have to put your present under your seat.”
“Who said it was a present?” the man says.
“Well, I just assumed,” the stewardess says. “Since it’s wrapped so nicely.” She stutters a bit and looks down the aisle. We’re in the middle of the plane, leaving a handful of other passengers she still needs to check on before we can launch.
“Yes, yes. It’s a present,” the man says. “A very important one. So important I have to leave it on my lap. To protect it.”
The man lifts the box, smiling, proving how light it is and, indeed, how easily it could be damaged.
“But it’s for your safety,” the stewardess says.
“But what about the safety of my belongings?”
“Sir, I promise the box will be fine.”
“Present,” the man corrects her. “It’s a present, not a box.”
I press against the wall of the plane, trying to be as far away from the conversation as possible, while still staring at the jade wrapping paper and the little holographic stars coming out. I close my eyes, sigh, and the situation becomes clear: two people are arguing over an unidentified object on an airplane.
Usually I love the window seat.
“Well, how about I just put it to my side,” the man says. And he puts the present to his side, demonstrating how efficiently his words can be turned into actions. “See, now it’s between me and this nice young fellow.”
I’m the nice young fellow.
“And the present will be our little baby,” the man continues. “Happily sitting between its’ parents. He laughs, maybe a little too loud, like he knows he’s caused trouble and he’s trying to fix it with jokes.
The stewardess says nothings; not even a hint of laughter under her thick lipstick and heavy blush. She just looks down the aisle, to the dozens of people still needing to be reminded of their seat belts and tray tables. She turns back at me. It’s my decision. We all know it.
So I nod.
The stewardess walks off and the man adjusts his white t-shit, fanning his skin, as if preparing for a new chapter of the flight.
“Thanks,” he says to me.
With the present between us, I notice his large belly and the heavy amount of skin sagging from his arms, like he used to obese, lost hundreds of pounds, and is now halfway to gaining it all back; all of it hidden by a white t-shirt, workout clothes.
“You’re welcome,” I tell him. “And I’ll try not to touch your present.” I prompt my arm a few inches above the jade wrapping paper and the holographic stars. He smiles at me; a smirk. We both know I can’t hold this position for the duration of the flight.
I’m wearing a flannel - not workout clothes.
“You can rest your arm,” the man says. “I trust you. Really, I do.” He stares at me, fluttering his eyelids, and for whatever reason I believe he really trusts me.
A ding is heard, and the captain gets on the loud speaker, making an announcement that the plane will take off soon.
“Do you like the wrapping paper I picked?” the man asks. He pats the present resting between us like it’s the head of a toddler.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s nice.”
“Spent all day picking the color.”
“Yes,” I say again. “Jade is very nice.”
He leans back in his seat, cracking his shoulder, taking in all of my L shaped body.
“That’s right,” the man says. “It’s Jade. Most people would have just said blue though. But you’re a smart one.”
“I just know colors.”
“No, you’re smart,” the man says. “What do you do?”
“I’m a student.”
“I didn’t say I was a good student.”
“Well, what kind are you?” He leans forward, hovering over the present, as if waiting for me to validate all of his assumptions.
“I’m a med student,” I say.
“Ha,” the man says. Not a laugh, he actually says ‘ha’. “See, I know people. That’s my talent. Like the stewardesses. Try pulling that with the wrong one you’ll get thrown off the plane. But find one with a thick layer of blush covering the wrinkles formed by exhaustion; you got someone who’s easily going to give up on you.”
“But what if she snapped?” I ask.
The man scraps his tongue against the tip his teeth, like he’s got a curly hair stuck in the back of his mouth that he’s trying to secretly remove.
“Med student,” the man says, ignoring my words.
I smile. It’s my turn to talk, but I just smile, and the plane begins to move, shifting the present between us – our baby.
“You know much about jaundice?” the man asks. His voice lowers, changing pitch with the changing subject.
“For newborns,” I say.
“That right,” he says. “For newborns.” He exhales, as if once again preparing for a new chapter of a flight that hasn’t even launched.
“You see my wife delivered yesterday,” the man says. “A month early. That’s where I’m heading. I work up here and commute each week to see her. Of course I was planning on being there for the delivery, though. I wanted to be there more than anything. Anything.” He’s motionless, not a flutter, and I nod, doing my best to reassure him that I agree he’s the type of man who would want to be present for his child’s birth.
“She’s got jaundice,” the man says. “My little girl…That’s not serious though, right? Just asking because of your field of study.”
“It’s fairly common,” I say.
“So, she’ll be okay?” he asks, though by the tone of his voice I’m not sure whether it’s a question or a statement.
“Pediatrics is not my field,” I say.
“Oh,” he says. “Oh.”
A ding is heard again. The captain is back, telling us we’re next on the runway.
They say doctors never apologize to you. No matter how long they make you wait, sit in your underwear, give you bad news. You’ll never hear them say sorry.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sure your little girl is fine. Jaundice is nothing serious.”
The man just nods, up and down, over and over, answering questions that no one is asking. Maybe I hurt him more than I realize.
“My wife says she looks saffron,” he says. “A little girl. Four pounds. The color saffron. My little girl is the color saffron.”
His head nods heavier, like the plane is in turbulence, but in reality we’re still just headed towards the runway, nice and smooth. Then his face turns red. A droplet of sweat forms on his bicep, beginning to drip down his saggy skin towards his beautiful present. I’m tempted to wipe it off, to tell him what a shame it would be to get sweat on the glossy, jade paper.
“Most people would have just said yellow,” I say. I smile, trying to tell him that I know people, too. That there’s nothing to worry about and it’s okay to laugh. Instead, we both stare down at the present. I wonder if it’s doll for his little girl; maybe a gift for his wife. But then the man wipes a tear from his eye, and, as ashamed as I am to be thinking it, I wonder if the present is an urn.
“I’m sorry,” the man says. “But I don’t feel like talking to you anymore.”
He looks out to the other passengers. There are a few empty seats ahead of us, and I wonder if he’s going to move. I look at the present, our baby, and by the angle of my head I can’t see a single holographic star.
The plane prepares for takeoff.