In a time before WI-FI on airplanes, my nineteen-year-old self was thrilled to have a nonstop flight from New York to Phoenix to visit my parents. I was looking forward to a five-hour nap.
But before take off, a flight attendant introduced me to the unaccompanied minor next to me.
“This is Lauren,” she said.
I looked around in the hopes that she was talking to someone else. She wasn’t. She was trying to set me up on a playdate.
“Hi,” I said, leaning back into my seat.
The flight attendant asked Lauren if she needed anything and, with an army of shiny white teeth, said, “Lauren is flying by herself today.” She had the tone of a mother encouraging her child to take her first steps.
I opened my eyes and turned my head enough to say, “Oh… neat.”
I nestled back into the seat and shut my eyes. Like a baby playing peek-a-boo, I had hoped closing my eyes would make everyone else go away.
It almost worked.
Once the plane took off, Lauren read a book for a while and I tried to sleep. Thirty minutes later, I heard the seven words that signified the end of my nap before it had even begun: “Do you know what an adverb is?”
The voice in the seat next to me repeated, “Do you know what an adverb is?”
Yes. But if I tell you what it is, you’ll probably continue to ask me questions, which, of course, I will continue to answer because you’re a kid, but I would really like to sleep.
“An adverb modifies a verb,” I said, then fumbled for an example. “Like…fast. Or ‘run slowly,’ or ‘jump high.’”
Lauren had two books of Mad Libs in front of her. “Oh,” she said, “I tried using a verb and that didn’t work. Thanks.”
“No problem,” I said.
I leaned back and popped my headphones in.
“I’m Lauren,” she said.
I know. The flight attendant told me.
“Do you like Mad Libs?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Do you want to do some with me?”
“Sure,” I said.
Despite my urge to sleep, I couldn’t deny this girl a friend, even if it would only last the duration of our flight. We took turns thinking of parts of speech. The nouns I conjured developed into a list of articles of clothing; I might as well have been running through the contents of my suitcase. Adjectives were even harder. I think I said “blue” three times. I couldn’t even come up with a more exciting color, like magenta. The pressure was too much. The entertainment value of each Mad Lib hinged on the vocabulary I selected, and I kept naming colors.
After five or six vocabulary quizzes disguised as games, Lauren gave up trying to generate new words. I was relieved to see her eyes fluttering open and closed.
Then she said she had crossword puzzles.
“But I can’t finish them,” she said. In fact, it seemed she wasn’t able to start most of them. Together, we filled in the letters of one word; then she changed her mind and whipped out a purple notebook of partially completed lists and activities: the Best Friends Book.
“Do you want to fill this one out?” Lauren pointed to an activity comparing tastes in obscure food dishes—because every lasting friendship should be based on mutual disdain for brussel sprouts.
“I don’t mind brussel sprouts, but I don’t love them,” I said.
“Yeah, me too,” she said.
We moved to the next item in the list.
“I like calamari,” she said.
“I do too.”
We disagreed on lima beans, but matched up again on tofu and sushi.
The drink cart inched down the aisle to us. The smiling flight attendant returned and asked Lauren how she was doing.
The man to my left was folded over, his head on top of his knees his forehead supported by his interlocking fingers, which were turning red. I asked if he wanted anything, but he responded with silence.
I ordered coffee, resigning myself to the fact that my dreams of napping had died along with any remaining appreciation I had for Mad Libs.
As I sipped my beverage, my new friend showed me the pictures she had taken of her dozens of pets in various locations, captured from every angle, at every stage of their development. She talked about her dad, her mom, her sister, and her step-dad. She made this trip a few times a year to visit her father. Before she had boarded the plane that day she went to something called Scoopy’s and had ice cream. She liked pistachio (another food we didn’t see eye-to-eye on). I learned the names of her best friend and the plan she had devised to put a pool in the backyard.
“You need to have a fence so that kids don’t fall in and drown,” she said, “so I think we should just put a little fence around the pool so you could still walk around it. But then I guess you could still climb over the fence if you really wanted to.”
Here was a girl whose parents had been divorced for years, who was pushed across the country, by herself, to visit her father on a regular basis. When she talked to me about the mundanities of her life, I felt as though these things had been waiting to spill out of her. Lauren had made that trip dozens of times, and, I imagine, has made it many more since then, but I wonder how many people have sat next to her and never given an example of an adverb. It seemed the least I could do. We were brought together, briefly and by chance as strangers on an airplane, to live forever in her Best Friends Book.
Maryann is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is currently receiving her MFA in creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College and holds a BA in psychology from New York University. Her educational advice appears on Noodle.com.