Someone intuitive once told that after climbing a great hill, one finds out that there are many more hills to climb. This is one of the most real things I’d ever heard. You see, I was a kid with a lot of potential but I had one very severe flaw. I was afraid of everything and I didn’t even know it.
The problem with being the second child in a family with an over accomplished sibling is that nothing you do will ever be good enough. Having lived all my life being compared to someone who is better than me in everything, I learned the harsh truth that sometimes people don’t want what’s best for you. Sometimes all they want for you is something to stroke their ego with.
Long story short, I come from a family of great leaders, doctors and engineers and I grew up surrounded by walls filled with laurels and accomplishments of my parents and brother. I am the prime example of how apples can sometimes fall far away from the tree. I was always an average student, an average son, and a below average brother.
And just like every teenager who wanted to run away from home to get away from everything that confined him, I did too. Well, I didn’t technically run away because all I did was go to college somewhere far away so that I could get away from everything messy in my life.
So, I ran away to pursue Science and ended up falling in love with a girl with whom I shouldn’t have been associated with in the first place. Cliché? You don’t know the beginning of it.
She and I had a good thing going on and I was happy. I was young, away from home and in love and I felt like I could do anything I wanted to do. I fell hard for this girl and before you know it, she was acting distant and awry. And just like every song, even this one ended and I was distraught and broken.
Maybe I don’t sound like it right now because this happened a long time ago.
The point behind this ludicrous skinny love story is not the heartbreak.
No, this is not that kind of a story.
I am 45 years old and I am not going to tell you yet another teenage love story which will make you text your ex again.
This is a different kind of story, a story that I should’ve told many moons ago but maybe chose not to because of what it represented to me.
So, after the break-up and after my course ended, I pretty much just wanted to go back home.
Yes, that’s what heartbreak does to you, stupid teenager. First, you run away from home because everything is too confining and the second things get rough all you want to do is run back to your mommy and whine about how life treated you unfairly.
And that’s exactly what I did.
I had to take a 15-hour non-stop flight to get back home and I was on the first flight out that morning. On reaching the airport, I was notified that one of the passengers in my row had canceled last minute and that it would just be two people in my row. I liked the sound of that. After everything I’d been through, I liked the idea of some personal space.
I boarded the aircraft and I was sitting in my seat and ready to go. I used to be the kind of person who needed the window seat whenever I flew, but ever since her, I lost the ability to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and I didn’t care when I saw that an old man was sitting in my window seat; where I was initially supposed to sit. There was something about him that calmed me. I didn’t see his face, because he was already asleep and he wore an unusually attractive grey fedora on his head. Despite the simple appearance, he seemed to be holding onto a small black bag while he slept. I wondered what it could be but before I could figure out what that was I fell into the mellow depths of slumber.
The next thing I remember was an Asian man waking me up and the words “Son, are you okay?” echoing repeatedly as I struggled to wake up. Apparently, I was sleeping and I had been crying in my sleep. I liked telling people it was PTSD from the heartbreak but I’ve seen far too much in life now to give it such a name. I was crying because of the mind-numbing realization that the girl I loved would always be a part of my distant past as I flew further away from her. I tell him that I am fine and I realize that my co-passenger finally has a face. He was Asian and had strong facial features, bold eyes, and very grey beard. He smiles at me and offers me chocolate.
Now, every kid in the world has been brought up with one major instruction: Never take anything a stranger offers you!!
But there was something about this man, something I never saw in other people. He was well dressed but he looked extremely tired and his hair looked as grey as it could possibly get. But there was something about his eyes. They spoke volumes on their own. They told a tale of all the battles that he had to possibly endure in his life and how they took a toll on him. They were deep, strong, and beautiful brown eyes. And I thought what could possibly go wrong with a little bit of chocolate?
So, I graciously accepted.
He told me that I reminded him of someone that he used to know.
I chuckled and told him there was no way he could know someone like me.
Maybe it was the pain in my voice, or maybe it was just the way I told it. I still don’t know what it was.
But he told me that just because you think life is messy right now, it doesn’t mean it is not going to get better. I scoffed and told him that this is what everyone tells to make themselves feel better but the reality is that pain is eternal, you just learn different ways to mask it. And sometimes, you get good at it.
That conversation soon turned into an argument where he tried to prove how ungrateful most people are for what they have and me, being a completely self-obsessed teenager, told him how you may love a person as much as you possibly can and they’d still leave when they wanted to. I probably didn’t understand that this conversation wasn’t completely about me. It was maybe more than just an explanation to some teensy angst.
The conversation emphatically got the better of me and I didn’t realize as tears dripped down my cheeks as I spoke angrily with a man I had just met.
After a while, I calmed down and apologized for behaving disrespectfully and that was when I noticed his eyes again. He was not angry. Why was he not angry? Some random punk in the flight just rudely yelled at him. But no, his eyes were sad. It was almost as though he knew exactly what I was going through.
But, how could he? Every single atom in my body told me I was losing my mind, but there was something about the way he looked at me. It was almost as though he was torn between two wars within himself. Maybe he was wondering if he should help a kid out or let the kid find the light at the end of the tunnel by himself.
Anyway, I decided that it was best to ease the tension because we still had a long way to go before we reached home. So, I did what some people do best and made conversation with him and he told me about himself.
He was a traveler and he saw the entire world through the lens of his camera. He documented every moment he thought was important to tell the story.
That’s when I realized that the little black bag he held close to his heart was his camera. I wondered why it was so important to him but didn’t bother asking him about it.
But what I did ask him was why he was traveling alone and that was when his face dropped. I realized I had hit a wrong nerve. You see, I always did this. I always asked the wrong questions and did the wrong things and ended up at the right place at the wrong time. I was unparalleled when it came to ruining relationships with people.
He was a good man though, he overlooked it and asked me if I wanted to see the pictures that he took.
He opened his little black bag and took out a camera and gave it to me and OH..MY…GOD.
He was really good.
He wasn’t just another rich guy traveling the world with a DSLR calling himself a lifestyle blogger.
His passion painted such a bright and colorful picture on the canvas of life that it was almost poetic.
The way the pictures were balanced and lit and how he was able to portray the emotions through just the lens of his camera was truly mesmerizing.
He had indeed seen a lot in his lifetime and through his passion to show the world what the absence of love can do was truly represented in a monochromatic fashion.
Such passion didn’t just appear out of thin air. There was something that drove him every single day to get out with his camera and take pictures of the world. I needed to know what that was but I’d never truly been passionate about anything in life. So, I asked him and he told me that the answer was not going to be simple. Where was I going? I was going to be stuck in that flight with him for the next 15 hours, might as well make a story out of it and little did I know that this story was going to change my life forever.
He was a very average kid from the People’s Republic of China. His superpower was that he was average at everything he did. He was never too bad at anything but not too good at anything either. You could say that he was surviving life one day at a time. And then came the phase in everyone’s life where hormones make all the decisions and ruin everything: TEENAGE. And just like me and every other stupid kid, he was dumb too. He fell for the girl that everyone wanted but couldn’t have. Or so he thought. She was very pretty and by the way he described her, I could understand just how intimidating it would have been to start a conversation with a girl who’s so pretty with a stark personality, dark brown hair, light brown eyes, and a smile that could floor any guy without even trying.
But you see he was confident because he was a bad boy, and girls like bad boys, don’t they?
He was bad at everything when it came to girls and the stupid kid thought he had a chance.
And this is where life gets funny. Sometimes you think you don’t have a chance with that person so you step back and let things fall apart. But sometimes things do work out in your favor and things fall into place like pieces of a jigsaw.
After many weeks of careful stalking, he finally talked to her. And who knew! She didn’t seem bothered by it. And like that, the little puppy from the shadows became confident enough to talk to the pretty little girl that he massively crushed on.
No one knew that it was going to be the beginning of a lifetime full of happiness. You see, up until then, she had a long line of mistakes. And all those mistakes were 6-feet tall, with muscular bodies and perfect jaw and he was just a scrawny ass kid who was shy.
You see, he had figured out what most people still haven’t.
Pretty girls fall for the bad boys who promise to break their hearts not because they smell like smoke and talk like rain; they do that because they don’t know what they want. All of them make a first mistake, which turns into another mistake and soon they find themselves unable to stop spiraling down the vicious cycle of guys who break their hearts.
He was her break.
She needed him just as much as he needed her to teach him how to be a little less uptight.
Their love was epic. They were always together. They went to classes together, they ate together and they most of the moments awake together.
And when they were away, they couldn’t stop thinking about how amazing it would be the next time they saw each other.
Their love never faded and it only grew stronger and everyone who knew them knew that they’d end up getting their happily ever after. Everyone was rooting for them.
Through the sophomore year, junior year, senior year and college, their love echoed through countless walls and classrooms.
It was now when I noticed his eyes again. He didn’t look old anymore. He didn’t look tired. He looked happy. His eyes gleamed as he told the story and I realized there is nothing better than listening to a man talk about the love of his life.
Then he told about the last day of college. It was a very sad day full of goodbyes and tears. All his friends were going to leave to different places and life was about to get real and couples broke up here, there, and everywhere but not them. No, he had different plans for them. He was going to propose to her.
You see, he hadn’t given much thought to what they would do after they got married but he knew that he was always going to be in love with one woman for the rest of his life. So, he decided to do the deed where they spent most of their nights together. Others had cafes, theatres, parks, and rivers. But not them. Their spot was the terrace of the building they stayed at. He was a simple man. All he ever wanted to do was sit on the terrace and stare at the starry night with the woman of his dreams by his side.
So that’s where he waited. He decorated the entire place with pretty fairy lights and orchids and he waited there for the love of his life to come and begin the rest of their life together.
And he waited,
But she never showed.
And then his phone rang.
It was a call from his best friend and something inside told him that things were about to go terribly wrong.
Everything that happened after that was kind of a blur. It was raining by the time he got there and he was completely drenched but his face wasn’t wet because of the rain. No, it was as salty as tears could get but they still wouldn’t let him inside because he wasn’t immediate family. He cried and begged for them to let him in and finally they did.
As he walked into the hospital room, his heart stopped beating as he saw the most beautiful girl he had ever seen lying there, and he was barely able to move. His heart was ripped from his body.
You see, she was coming to meet him. She was driving and a drunk driver collided with her vehicle and died immediately on impact. She was now in critical condition and the only thing she wanted to do was see him.
I almost didn’t want to hear this part. The happy eyes turned very morose and he was crying but there was no whimpering or sobbing. Tears just rolled down his cheeks like this was something that he lived through every day and had gotten used to.
Her final words in the bed were that she knew. She knew that he was going to propose to her and she was going to say yes and she couldn’t wait to spend the rest of their lives together. But the universe had other plans. The universe took away everything that he held dear and along with it, his will to love.
She made him promise something though. She felt that the love they shared was too pure to be forgotten so she made him promise that he’d move on and love another and through his love, she’d live forever.
People say that you aren’t supposed to break the promises that you make to someone on their death bed.
But he did. He didn’t even try loving another. Maybe he couldn’t or maybe he didn’t want to.
And that’s when he told me the greatest regret of his life. The greatest regret of his life was never taking too many pictures of her.
Every time as the sun went down and the stars came out, he remembered her face as the one he saw on her deathbed.
He was stupid. He thought it would last forever, so he never bothered taking any pictures.
And as he got older as the years passed by, her face became more of a feeling he got when he talked about her. He liked talking about her. He liked the tears that rolled down his cheeks that reminded him that what he felt for her was real and it would always be real.
This is why he took pictures. This is what that drove him every day.
He didn’t want another person to go through what he went through and forget something that they love because of time. He needed them to remember the moments that they were the most loved because if they didn’t, then maybe she died in vain. Maybe there was never a love that was shared, and maybe she didn’t have an impact in this world at all. This thought was what he used every single day to convert emotions into a picturesque masterpiece.
As he finished his story, he looked relieved. He looked like he needed to get that out of his chest.
This man was a hero.
He was the culmination of everything that was lacking in the world.
He found the perfect girl. The girl took her own sweet time but she finally learned to love him back and they thought they had a lifetime of happiness together but she left him to go to a place where no one ever returned from.
His love for Alice will always be remembered through his pictures and now through my stories.
He went through something that would’ve broken most men.
But not him.
He was stronger than the rest of us. He was an apex model of a true human being and how love can transform one’s life.
Every single decision I made after that day was by remembering the story told by the old man with a grey fedora I’ve now come to love.
His story gave me purpose.
I couldn’t be just another sad, angsty teenager. I needed to make a difference in this world and so I did.
I broke the stereotype of a long line of engineers, doctors, and politicians and became the first writer in my family.
And everything I know about love was taught by a stranger I spent 15 hours with on a flight.
He had his regrets and I have mine.
Even after spending 15 hours with a man who opened his world to me, I forgot to ask his name.
And by the time I turned back to see if he was there at the airport, he was gone.
I will carry this with me for the rest of my life,
And I hope you carry something with you through your life too.
Because a life without regrets is sometimes too perfect to be true.
But every cloud has its silver lining.
A conversation with a stranger is sometimes all that you need.
Sometimes it sublime.
Sometimes it’s radiant.
Most of the time, it’s just liberating.