Chapter 3: Joel
“…like to thank you for flying with American Airlines. We know you have a choice when you fly and we’re glad you chose American. Enjoy your stay, and we hope to fly again with you soon.”
Joel stirred from his light slumber and stretched his arms above him in a wide arc. Finally, the flight was over. It was about time, too. Fourteen hours on the plane had left him stiff, tired, and certainly not the most pleasant to be around. But the trip was over. He wasn’t in a particular hurry to get off the plane, so he sat back and allowed the rest of the crowd to clamor for their bags.
That was one of many things he’d learned this trip. Time was simply not as important as everyone seemed to think it was. Waiting patiently ten minutes for a majority of the passengers to clear out would not negatively impact one’s life beyond repair. But if the frenzied approach of the other passengers was any indication, this particular philosophy was certainly not the most popular. At least it was different elsewhere.
Joel closed his eyes and smiled, leaning his head back against the uncomfortable hard foam of the seat. It had been a good trip. He’s learned a lot, about everything. He didn’t know whether it was more incredible that it had come to an end or that it had even started in the first place.
When he’d graduated high school, he’d never imagined he’d take a trip like this. Many of his friends traveled to Europe for that summer before college, but Joel hadn’t been able to afford it. He’d attended St. Ignatius College Prep on a merit scholarship, and unlike most attendees, didn’t have a trust fund. His father owned a gas station, his mother was a seamstress, and pretty much everything about Joel’s life contrasted starkly with that of his classmates at St. Ig’s.
But Joel was a whiz with numbers. They just made sense to him. He couldn’t draw, he couldn’t sing, and he spelled at about a third-grade level, but he could do wonders with numbers. At St. Ig’s, he had been led through the magical world of mathematics by Dr. Alan Sparrow, who had impressed upon Joel the fact that math was everywhere.
It was a fact that opened up an entire universe of opportunities to Joel. After he realized that there were few things in life that couldn’t be broken down mathematically, his entire world began to make sense. He began to compose music mathematically, writing entire symphonies and handing them out to friends to play on real instruments, because he didn’t play any himself. He created complex formulas that, when graphed, produced wonderful works of art. He turned his entire world into numbers, and he excelled.
During his senior year at St. Ig’s, Joel met his first girlfriend, Sara. They hit it off immediately, and began dating exclusively after two weeks of knowing each other. For awhile, life was good. But eventually, as he did with all things, Joel began to analyze their relationship statistically, attempting to find the magic formula that would allow him to make sense of the complex interactions between them.
At first, Sara was amused and intrigued by Joel’s approach. His analytical mind had been a major contributor in her attraction him from the start, and his fascination with her mathematically was, in her words, “cute.” Increasingly, though, Sara began to resent her role as a mere variable in Joel’s increasingly complex formula. It became clear to her that Joel was simply running an elaborate experiment, and she was the guinea pig. He didn’t seem to care about her at all except in the context of his attempt to quantify human interactions. So, in the middle of their final semester at St. Ig’s, she explained to him that their relationship, such as it was, was over.
Sara had not been totally correct about Joel’s feelings towards her. In reality, Joel cared very much for her. His “experiment,” as she termed it, was really his attempt to figure the relationship out and put it into a context that he could understand. He had a burning need to know exactly what action he should perform in a given scenario in their relationship, and Sara simply wasn’t telling him.
He was beside himself with depression after the breakup. His statistical model had never, ever, predicted this outcome. Sara should be enthralled by him – he was doing everything right! Wasn’t he?
The failure of his model to predict the breakup was a source of great distress for Joel. It meant only one of two things; either he had made a mistake in his abstractions or calculations, or human interaction simply couldn’t be analyzed in terms of mathematics. Both options made him shudder. He was fairly certain he hadn’t made any mathematical mistakes, which left only… Joel hadn’t been able to come to terms with the possibility that he wouldn’t be able to arithmetize human sociality.
The emotional repercussions of the unexpected breakup did not contribute positively to his situation, so Joel had consoled himself by throwing himself into college preparations. He’d already been accepted and was enrolled, so he found out what classes he’d be taking, and spent most of his days that summer in the local library reading the text books and other material for his classes. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best decision. During his first semester at college, he became very bored, very quickly. His above- average intelligence combined with the foreknowledge of most of the material forced him to look for other things – some of them good, most of them bad – to keep himself occupied.
It wasn’t long before Joel realized that more schooling simply wasn’t in the cards for him. The nagging suspicion that mathematics weren’t everything just wouldn’t go away, and he didn’t feel as though he were truly learning anything in his classes that he couldn’t learn in a library.
He dropped out after his freshman year with no plans, no job, and realistically, no real future. His uncle owned a lawn mowing business, and Joel eventually began working there. It wasn’t especially difficult work, but it kept Joel busy, and he had plenty of time to contemplate the questions that were plaguing him about his approach to life.
It didn’t take long for him to realize that he needed to get out and experience the world if he wanted to try and understand it. That realization gave birth to the trip he was now returning from.
He had saved pennies for two years to afford it. Two years of ramen, weekends spent reading instead of going to the movies, and shirking vacation time in favor of overtime pay. Two years of blood, sweat, and tears for this – the trip of a lifetime.
Fortunately for Joel, the trip was all he had imagined it would be and more. He had hiked through countless mountains, seen wonders he never thought existed, and had met so many good people. The cultures of the places he had been were so much friendlier, so much more, he thought, evolved. His smile grew broader as he leaned back on the airline seat again and remembered the sheer incredibility of it all. He had done it.
His thoughts were brought back to the present by the sudden realization that all was quiet. He opened his eyes and glanced around. Nary a soul was present, save a woman and her two uncooperative children in the section behind him. He found his backpack, the sole possession he had with him and ambled towards the exit of the plane.
The hustle and bustle of the airport terminal was another wake-up call. It was now clear that he was far from the quiet jungles from which he had recently departed. Everyone seemed in such a hurry. People brushed by him roughly, not even stopping to apologize. It was strange, the difference between the attitudes of those he’d met in his travels and the people that now surrounded him.
It was a transition that he had noticed on this return trip. He had had some trouble with his tickets on the return flight. The airline in Thailand had suggested that he confirm his reservations with the local agent at each stop along his itinerary, so he did. At most stops, the agents were helpful, friendly, and understanding. One even made several frantic phone calls and escorted him personally to his gate to make sure he made his flight.
As if he’d crossed some invisible line, the agents on the American side of the world turned snobbish, were far less than helpful, and seemed determined to make interaction with them a living hell. And that was only part of it. The passengers on the domestic flights were closed off as well – they seemed to actively avoid all contact with other passengers, content rather to cower under their blankets and read the in-flight magazines. Joel had, on several occasions, attempted to start a friendly conversation during a flight or while waiting at a gate, but he was always pushed away. He had a lot of adjusting to do before he’d feel at home again in this place.
He arrived at the terminal train station just as a shuttle was departing. Oh well, no matter. He’d just get the next one. Stepping outside, he realized he’d forgotten how cold the city could be at this time of year. It was in fact quite warm, relative to the usual temperature of the city, but the gentle wind against his bare legs and sandaled feet only accentuated the remaining chill he had from the frosty airplane cabin. Yet another thing he’d have to readjust to.
Looking around him, he noticed several other travelers standing on the platform, donned in light autumn jackets, each one with a serious expression, talking on a cell phone and smoking a cigarette. Everyone seemed so isolated – he wondered for a moment if perhaps two of the people standing there were perhaps talking to each other, not realizing that they were in fact less then twenty feet apart. It wouldn’t be that surprising. None of them looked at each other. They were too engrossed in their own private conversations to care bout or notice the rest of the world around them.
Joel decided to take a short stroll around the platform while he waited. The conversations he overheard were topically different, but equally indicative of worried, frightened people.
“I know I’m late, Gerald. You don’t have to keep telling me. If the damn plane had been on time, I would have made it. Well, you’ll just have to without me for the time being. Yes, I have the portfolio. I’ll bring…”
“Did you get Mikey to school? Is he feeling better? What did the doctor say? Was he sure it was just a cold? I thought…”
“…got me thinking, you know? I mean, it was just a little fender-bender, no big deal, right? But the insurance company is saying that they might not cover it, and the mechanic is charging me my left nut to get it realigned. Yeah, I know…”
Joel shook his head. So many things to worry about – so many things to push out of proportion. He silently wished he was back in Asia . Things seemed a lot simpler over there. He chuckled. He was “home” less than an hour and already complaining. That made him a true America n, right?
The train pulled up and Joel stepped on behind a tired-looking woman pulling three large suitcases. She was trying to pull them, anyway.
“Could I give you a hand, ma’am?” Joel asked, placing a hand on the largest of the three and preparing to pull it up into the train. Confused, the woman gave Joel a quick visual appraisal and apparently judged him unworthy of the task.
“No, no, I’m fine, I’m fine. Just leave me alone.”
Joel shrugged as she moved as quickly as she could to the opposite side of the train, sat down, and eyed him warily. Whatever.
As the train began to move towards its downtown destination, Joel found an empty seat and sat down, peering out the window at the cars passing on the highway alongside him. Every driver had the same serious expression as the commuters at the station. Eyes gazing straight ahead, hands clenching the steering wheel tightly, lead foot on the accelerator. Everyone had somewhere to be, apparently.
Joel distracted himself by watching the autumn leaves perform complex acrobatics in the winds above the highway. The seasons were one thing that he’d missed while he was away. He didn’t much care for winter, and spring was his favorite, but autumn, with its falling leaves, grey skies and clear moonlit nights, held a special allure for him as well.
He smiled to himself as he realized he’d been absent-mindedly contemplating the physics governing the leaves movements, and reflecting on the equations behind them. He hadn’t changed that much on his trip, had he?
_[Insert more Asia back story here.] _
At Allerton, the traffic on the highway had come to a complete stop. Joel soon discovered the reason. A car was abandoned in the center lane, driver door swung open. The drivers rolled down their windows and cursed, at who they didn’t know, and abruptly cut off their rant when they noticed the car was empty. The combined symphony of multi-pitched car horns was deafening. Joel wanted to go out in the middle of it and yell at everyone to calm down. Seriously, it wasn’t the end of the world. Geez.
As they approached the next stop, Whoorsley, Joel noticed a man running brea thlessly towards the train from the highway entrance. He’ll never make it , Joel thought as the train slowed down for the stop. As the passengers boarded and departed, Joel poked his head out looking for the man. There was no way he could make it without a little help. He discreetly dropped his backpack to the floor, making sure it obstructed the door closing mechanism just enough to prevent the train from departing.
The passengers grew increasingly agitated as the annoying prerecorded voice said, “Doors closing,” over and over again, but no one noticed Joel’s surreptitiously placed backpack.
The man boarded a few seconds later, and there was a sigh of relief from all the passengers when the final “Doors closing” warning was repeated. Joel leaned back against the train door, awash in the glow that came with doing good deeds. His place in heaven was assured, no doubt about that. He smiled.