During a long layover at LAX, I waited for a flight to London before another to Kuwait during a holiday school break. There wasn’t much to do at the airport but to roam around walking, touring the globally-identical duty free stores and the cafes whose sandwiches all looked the same. There was an area with long looping tables, stools, and a comically large amount of electrical plugs. With a computer on me, I sat down with my backpack on the floor and spent time working on things. A tall, old man was nearby and asked me if I was connected to the Wi-Fi. I was, and he wasn’t. I helped him troubleshoot while he made kind by asking me where I was going, and where I was coming from. Years ago now, the conversation lingers.

His name was David, and he showed me his house in New Zealand, where he owns a small resort and rents vacation homes to travelers. He showed me pictures of his wife, his son, his son’s wife. He told me about their family dinners, and I told him about all the new people I was meeting as a student in San Francisco. I told him about life and about having feelings of despair, while I connected his iPad to the Wi-Fi.

David didn’t ask any prying questions, nor did I indulge his listening ears by detailing the map of my emotional life—I don’t tell strangers about what I’m feeling deeply. Emotions are a universal experience—happiness, success, heartbreak, happens to us all. But without knowing the particularities of a person or how they talk about things, words can fall flat. To translate the depth of one’s own interior world without sounding contrived or intellectually alienating is no task to undertake at an airport, where the Wi-Fi is dodgy, the hours are elongated, the bacteria is global, and the food is just okay.

I’m a believer in small talk. I don’t think its emptiness is meaningless, but a tool to make a simple connection. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, and conversations with strangers don’t have to be memorable. But for the few that are, doesn’t that require having them in the first place?

Now, near our apartment in Kuwait, there is a house with 24-hour hired security. The men sit in the sun with their uniform on, occasionally crossing the street to refill their water bottles at the metal water cooler outside. One day a few weeks ago, I returned home from a kitchen gig in the afternoon with an extra burger on hand, hesitating about whether or not I should walk over and say hello to the guard who happens to see me walk in and out of a building, going to work, returning from work, going to run, returning from a run, going to a friend’s place, returning at night—all while he was simply at work. I thought, he might like to have the burger.

Walking slowly towards our building, I sharply turned towards the security guard, walking over to him to explain who I was, why I have an extra burger, and if we would like it. He said, apologetically, that he worked for a private company that provides him with food, and that he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to take anything offered to him. I told him I didn’t know, but I thought I’d ask, just in case. We smiled and I left. A few days later, I walked out of the our building at 5 am, putting my running bag into the trunk of my car, noticing a person walking towards me. The same security guard came over to explain that he didn’t want to make any trouble the other day, and that the company told him it was fine to accept something from someone. We laughed, but mainly reveled in the words that we spoke to each other as total strangers, sharing something minute. Between us, all of a sudden, the world became small and infinite all at once. “Next time,” I told him.

Our interaction was not revelatory, but what would otherwise constitute a painfully normal conversation—two strangers in simple dialogue exchange—has become profound. When something normal slowly changes shape, it becomes quietly unrecognizable, like the illusion of digital connectivity as connection. Instead of trusting an instinct to talk to a stranger, a cavity renders that instinct as fantasy—something to dream about before you continue with that thing you were doing. I think everyone yearns to have a fleeting conversation with someone they don’t know. In an instant, you can puncture the fabric of disillusionment. There’s power in that.

Maybe the reason I remember the conversation with David at the airport is because he told me that there’s a song I should listen to, but he couldn’t remember its name. We exchanged emails, and one day I saw my inbox had a note from him. I was excited to open it, and see that the song he wanted me to listen to was Got My Sunshine by Mojave 3. He was right about how I felt, and about the song. That big feelings stay big, that you grow around them, and that I would really like the song. He also asked me to send him a picture of the dress I was wearing at the airport, because he wanted to show his wife. I met him in 2016, and promised, per his request, that I check out their vacation resort in New Zealand if I ever found myself there. I never did, of course, but I haven’t quite forgotten it.

July 30, 2023 — Yasmeen Khaja

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