The man looked wild. Dark stringy hair that was only out of his face because of an old bandana and gray, misty eyes. He had stubble all over his face and neck, and when he smiled, dimples appeared. I tried to figure out his age, but all I could guess was that it was somewhere between twenty and forty. Somehow he was still handsome. He wore those gloves with the fingerholes cut out and brightly colored clothes that had faded dramatically over time. Or maybe he had bought them like that. He looked like an adventurer, so it hadn’t surprised me when he’d said:
“I like the wild. That’s the kinda life I want to have.”
I was tired but wanted to catch the view out my window. And then there was the David Livingstone-type stranger sitting next to me reading The Art of War. My eyes kept wandering back and forth between them. These two wonders.
“You ever read this book?” he asked when I happened to be glancing at him. I had turned to the window just as my face heated up, but I looked back. I studied the book cover. I’d seen this book in my college library, but never with this cover. A worn, black leather cover with gold lettering.
“You’re missing out.” He smiled. That’s when I noticed the dimples.
He looked like he was trying to go back to reading, but was more interested in the strange woman beside him who kept looking at him. I don’t think I looked disgusted or judgmental. I don’t think he took it that way either. I was just curious.
He closed the book and stared straight ahead for a little while. Then he turned to me.
“My name’s Steve Harding, but a lot of my friends call me Stev and, I don’t know, I guess I’m just used to hearing it.”
He grinned. “Hey, I watched a movie about you once. What, did you trade your soul to get some legs?”
My cheeks turned red. “I have a boyfriend.”
“What?” He laughed. “You’re a terrible liar. But I’m not hitting on you. Just passing the time getting to know the person stuck next to me.” He cleared his throat then smiled. It was gentler, almost sad looking. “Being a bad liar isn’t a bad thing, because it takes practice to be good at something.” He winked.
I was scooted as close as I could get to the window. It’s not that he freaked me out or was dirty. He actually had a good smell, like musty cologne. Something that was ancient on purpose. He was just… different than anything I had ever encountered. Then he held out his hand.
“Nice to meet you.”
I wasn’t too keen on shaking it, but I did anyway.
“Thank you. You too.”
“So what brings a city girl out here to Montana anyway?” When I looked at him, he shrugged. “Sorry, you just look like a very eastern-coast-type person.” Then he smiled, like there wasn’t the slightest bit of offense in his words.
“My friend’s mom died.”
I had lied. It was my mom, but Steve, or Stev, or whatever, had been wrong. I lied all the time. Not for malice or anything particularly bad. It’s just, sometimes it’s easier than explaining the truth.
I had expected his sympathetic smile to appear, but instead, his eyes widened.
“Oh.” He didn’t seem to know what to say, until he said, “But at least it wasn’t your mom, right?”
“She was like a mother to me.” I turned away and looked out the window.
“Sorry, shouldn’t have said that,” he muttered. “I say everything that pops into my head when I’m nervous.”
He went quiet. I could feel him staring at me.
“You need a hug, Ariel?”
I looked at him.
“Sorry.” He grinned. “Sometimes people just need a hug. I’m still not hitting on you. Some people might use it for that, but it’s just a basic form of human contact to show other people that you care. That you are there to support them.” He smiled again, but it was that sad smile.
“Oh. No I’m fine. But thanks.”
“Okay, but I’m here if you change your mind.” He propped his knees up on the chair in front of him and unfolded his book.
I watched him for a minute, then looked back out the window, then back at him.
“What are you doing out here, Steve… Stev, I mean.”
He smiled. “We’re taking a bus up to Canada. It’s perfect weather for ice climbing.”
“Yeah, it’s like rock climbing only it’s mountains of ice.”
“Why?” I asked. He looked at me, and my face burned a bit. “I mean, why do you like doing that? I’m sorry…” I shook my head. “I–”
“It’s fine.” He laughed. “I’ve been prodding you with questions this whole flight. And I dunno. I guess to prove to myself that I still can. It’s very physically and mentally challenging.”
And that’s when he said it with a very child-like smile. He liked his life wild. I asked him what that meant. I knew what wild was, but what did he define as wild? What did he want to accomplish by living wild? I don’t know. Maybe I’m too technical, too “by-the-book” to understand, but he laughed and got a twinkle in his eyes.
“I’m so glad you asked, Ariel.”
Then he told me about his life. About his time in Africa, digging wells for villages, herding children by fifties from wastelands to orphanages, and using the Burner from his hot air balloon to keep away the lions at night. He talked about his time in India, the bogs with half-buried Hindu statues, the people who smiled though they had nothing. He talked about the catacombs in France, the wolves in Russia, and the dialects in China. He talked about the Sea of Trees in Japan where he waited for three days, then found a woman, and talked her out of killing herself.
I almost didn’t believe him… and then he showed me the pictures. There was the hot air balloon, the well on the western part of Ethiopia, and the Japanese woman named Hatori Sakura with her and Stev having their arms around one another. They were both smiling.
“She was a mother and had lost two of her kids.”
“But there was still one left.”
He looked at me. The ashy somberness of his eyes had flecks of blue and white that reminded me of the sky.
“It’s kind of selfish really.” He smiled and looked back at the picture. “I wanted to save someone’s life. I mean, not anyone in particular. I just wanted to be responsible for saving them, you know? I wanted to feel the pride that comes with that. That’s the whole reason I went out there.”
“You still saved her though,” I said quietly.
“Yeah.” He shrugged.
After a few minutes of silence, I stared at the seat in front of me, then at the floor between my feet. I could feel him watching me.
“You feel better, Ariel?”
Then he hugged me. It kind of shocked me at first. He hadn’t even asked me if it was okay. But I hugged him back.
Our flight was almost over.
“I’m not really from the city. I was born and raised out here. On a farm. But I never belonged, so I left. I figured I would fit in more in a bigger place. Well, a place with more people.”
“Yeah, you seem weird.” He grinned. “But like, weird in a good way. Stretched too thin across the continent. But you’ll never really find where you belong. There’s no place. It’s just you… Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
But the more I think about it, it does.
“How old are you, Stev?”
“And you’ve been all over the world?”
“Well, not all over. After traveling, I realized I’d explored other countries more than my own. That’s why I’ve been home these past two years.”
“Where are you from?”
“New York… I know, right? But not the city.”
“I’d love to travel, but I can’t afford it. Not right now, anyway.”
“Of course you can. There’s always a way. Maybe not the conventional, or the safest way, but it’s possible.”
“So you just travel for a living? And help people?”
“I’m a photographer. Sort of. I explored for the first time when I was nine, and took a camera for the first time when I was twelve. Capturing moments is… it’s the reason I live.”
“You capture the moments for the people who can’t see the world?”
“No, I capture the moments to encourage other people to see the world.” His smile turned to that sad version. “I’m going to say something, and it’s probably going to offend you. Okay?”
“You’re in college, aren’t you?”
“I would ask why, but I already know the reason.”
His eyes turned ashy like they had a few times during his stories. My heart started to pound. We were about to land.
“You go to college because you don’t know of anything else to do. You think it will help you figure out who you are. A few people might have a plan, but they’re the exceptions. Like me. You go to college to discover what life might be like, but all you discover is debt, stress, and people who don’t actually care about you. You want to learn about the world, but all you learn is how to act and think like everyone else in this society. Where does your knowledge of the world come from? From books and people who have never seen the world but still get up and talk about it because they have been to college, from limited perspectives. From… Ariel?”
All the blood had drained to my feet. Stev’s face was as grave as his eyes. No child-like laughter any more. Then he smiled, and everything turned a bit gentler.
“You okay? Am I being too rude?”
“No. You’re right.” I swallowed hard and nodded. “You’re right.”
“They try to teach you what truth is based from other people and other perspectives, but you have to go out and discover it for yourself. Think for yourself.” He shrugged and leaned back in his seat. “I know some people have to go to learn how to be a doctor, but even then. Doctors learn when they’re in the field. They learn from the real world. Not from the books. I’ve talked to doctors. But I don’t think you’re going to be a doctor, are you.”
“No.” I was shaking. “But books make you smarter.”
“Yeah. But those books had to be written by someone who experienced it, or who experienced something profound enough to make them think of it. And trust me, you could never write everything that’s out in the world into a book.” He sighed. “If you don’t have a reason to stay, then go… You like to read, Ariel? You should read about my inspiration. David Livingstone.”
“A Scottish explorer who went to Africa to help people. The overseers of his group tried to keep him under their reins, but he wasn’t there to play it safe and stay in one spot. So he went out into the jungle to find people he could help, and that’s how he discovered Victoria Falls. I’d like to discover a waterfall someday. Something.”
The flight attendant was talking, and people were getting up and getting their stuff. Stev watched them with glazed eyes.
“Man, I’m tired,” he muttered. He looked back at me and smiled. “You should come with me sometime.”
“Exploring. You know, get a taste for it. I promise, if done right, it’s addicting. And it’s not that expensive.” He looked over my face and started laughing. “I’m still not hitting on you. Man, have you been attacked or something to make you think that everyone’s got their own evil agenda?”
I could feel the blood rise to my cheeks.
“I suppose it is getting bad nowadays. Sorry, like I said. No filter.” He pointed to his head and grinned.
We got our stuff, and we left the plane. It was a small plane. Not much cargo. Not many people.
Stev started walking with his back to me, and my heart jumped several times to my throat. Was he going to leave without at least saying bye? After hugging me?
I lost sight of him in the crowd. My stomach wanted to twist itself in knots, but I tried to convince it that he had only been a friendly stranger on a plane. A friendly, weird stranger. But when I walked in, I saw him ordering a coffee. I was determined to say goodbye. To say thanks. My heart was pounding and my blood was practically frozen, but I needed to do this.
Was Stev too informal? Should I have called him Steve!
“I used to hate black coffee,” he said, turning before taking a sip. “You want something?”
“Uh no. I just wanted to say bye. And thanks for showing me the pictures.”
“Leaving so soon?” He glanced around. “I’ve got another three hour wait till my bus arrives. It comes with the next flight. I guess that gives me enough time to finish this book you had distracted me from.” He winked. “You might think I’m flirting, but I’m like this with everyone. Even my gram and grandfather.”
“Gram and grandfather?”
“Yeah, stark difference, huh? She’s basically what you’d expect for a gram, but he’s super formal. Very businesslike, lawyer-type fellow.” He almost winked again, but I think he stopped himself. “He wanted me to be a lawyer. Said I was bright enough, but I guess I’m more of the photograph and save the world type of guy.”
“Here.” He handed me a folded napkin. It had his phone number. “I was serious about you coming with us some time. If you’re worried about being the only girl, we can try to convince Isaac’s wife to come. Call me after this funeral. I think it would cheer you up too.”
“I have classes.”
“So did I at one point. So did my buddy Joe till I convinced him to come with me once.” He laughed. “Just call, and we’ll work something out.”
“Okay…” I almost told him that it was my mom’s funeral. That my dad had died of cancer when I was twelve. That I hadn’t talked to my sisters since I’d moved away. That I was scared and sad at the same time. “Thanks. I will.”
I forced a smile, and I walked away, dragging my luggage behind me. I could feel his eyes watching me. Part of me wanted to turn back, but I resisted.
Instead I turned on my phone and looked up a picture of David Livingstone.
(Photo: Izzy Gerosa)