I had made it three and a half hours without talking to him. Mostly by furiously underlining in my book. The whole time I could feel him fidgeting in his chair, shifting positions. He had brought a pillow in the shape of a pineapple and made a show of punching and tugging at it before setting it down on his tray table. He wanted me to remark on the pineapple. He wanted my attention. I could feel it. And when I didn't give it to him, he reached down underneath the seat in front of him and pulled his knapsack onto his lap. He put the pineapple into the bag and then shoved the bag back under the seat. I snuck a peek at his shoulders as he pressed the bag. He sat back up and sighed.
We flew for a few hours. He slept. He was awake. He played SuDoKu on his iPod.
I remained glued to the pages in front of me. I felt as though I hadn't concentrated so hard on a piece of fiction in a long time. The stories danced for me in a way they hadn't. I felt very serious.
But on the 214th minute of the flight, I suddenly lost concentration and looked up at the back of the seat in front of me. The kid in the middle seat, seizing the opportunity to break the plane of my attention, reached over me and pulled up the shade to look out the window.
"I'm just trying to see," he said. In the grey yellow of my reading light, he looked unshaven and tired, but he had earnest eyes. Dangerous eyes. There was almost an hour of flight time remaining. I turned toward the window and could see his reflection craning to see around my head.
"We're over Las Vegas," I said, looking down at the bizarre splotch of lights in the middle of the black desert. I think I was hoping that by confirming our location, I could somehow get back down into the private headspace I had established for myself. I looked back into my book, staring at the words more intently, but feeling the kid's eyes pointed out the window. We crept by Vegas, and I stared at the Strip, unable at our altitude to pick out any detail.
"What class are you reading that for?" he asked.
I turned toward him.
"I'm not in school," I said.
"Oh, I just thought you had the look of a student."
We let that sit for a moment.
I decided that I would be ruthless in my disengagement. That I would sit and listen with a flat look on my face. That I would let whatever he said wash straight over me until he was pummeled into submission by my own inattentiveness. This had been my defense before.
I looked at my watch and put my pen in the book to mark the page.
"What are you going to do in Los Angeles?" he asked.
"Visiting a friend," I said.
"I'm going home from my first semester in college at Southern University." He leaned back in his chair, confident all of a sudden that he had attained my attention and could shift into easy conversation.
"Have you heard of it?"
I shook my head.
"It's a small Seventh-Day Adventist University in Chattanooga. Do you know where Chattanooga is?"
"Well anyway, it's really right outside of Chattanooga, in a small town called College Crossing."