There is one area of my life in which I’ve always come in dead last. And I couldn’t be more proud.
You see, whenever I fly, I have to be the last one on the plane. No exceptions. When I look around the gate, there can be no other stragglers, no other travelers vying for the title of “Leader of the Back.” I’ve had my challengers. Some have proved to be worthy opponents. But none has surpassed my legendary patience and fanatical desire to bring up the rear. A recent return trip from Las Vegas, however, proved to be my Waterloo.
After the first four waves of passengers had boarded, I scanned the gate area for potential threats. Did anyone feel lucky today? As usual, it seemed no serious contenders would appear. But after the fifth and final group had almost finished shuffling on board, a competitor materialized. Not just any competitor. This one was different. I don’t know if it was his unassuming appearance, his relaxed demeanor, or his vintage R.E.M. T-shirt that did it, but a chill ran down my spine. The guy could be trouble.
After the gate area had emptied out, it was just R.E.M. and me. I started feeling a bit unglued. The man exuded a frightening sense of purpose, a locked-in focus that screamed: “I don’t care when I get on the plane. In fact, I might not get on at all.”
When the agent made the first “final call for boarding” announcement, I felt a twinge of hope; surely this would break him. As he reached into his backpack, my optimism grew. He must be getting his boarding pass.
No. His hand emerged with a bottle of Dasani. He calmly unscrewed the cap, took a healthy swig, then settled back into his seat like a man about to watch a Breaking Bad marathon.
I started to panic. The agent had already given the second final call and was shuffling her papers, an obvious prelude to closing the jetway door. As I grabbed my carry-on bag, pondering my next move, I looked over once again at R.E.M., praying for some sign he might be cracking.
He was reading People magazine.
Was R.E.M. even human? Clearly, he was a man on a mission. He seemed willing to make the terminal his permanent residence if necessary. He would have food delivered. He would raise a family here. But he was not getting on that plane before me — it was just that simple.
The reality of my predicament brought about a sense of calm. I knew I had been beaten. In some ways, it was a relief. While I had always relished the competition — and more important, the inevitable victory — the constant challenges were wearing me down. Heavy lies the crown, or something like that. I had had enough. It was time to pass the scepter to a new king.
As I walked the empty bridge to the plane door (the other passengers were settled in by this time; several had already begun tuning up to hack and cough for the duration of the flight), I heard footsteps behind me. I turned my head. It was R.E.M.
We exchanged looks. There was no gloating, no taunting, no air of superiority. Just a businesslike expression that declared: “I won. You lost. Time to move on.” Unaccustomed to being humbled but still wanting to appear gracious, I offered the only words that seemed appropriate: “Well played, sir. Well played.”
He smiled ever so slightly. “No one ever remembers the guy who came in next to last,” he said. “But, of course, you already knew that.”
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