I can’t count the numbers of trips I’ve made from New York City to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the state where I grew up and own a home. Each trip adds to the dread which, like clockwork, I start to feel several days before each leg of the roundtrip. Not only are there the long lines of security-checking to which everyone is subjected, but there is no direct flight to Santa Fe, so I usually have an hour or more waiting time in Chicago or Dallas for a connecting flight, and then the last part of the trip on a bus from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. It's a full day of waiting or being strapped into a seat too small for any semblance of comfort.
And I make it much worse by starting the voyage in a bad mood. I try to fortify and distract myself by getting on board with a lot of reading material: the Times, The New Yorker and definitely something trashy and prurient, like People Magazine and usually, Vogue. I feel less cramped if I enforce a sense of isolation, talking to no one and getting an aisle seat so I don’t have to disturb the two seat-mates in my row with my frequent trips to the bathroom. They can continue to read, sleep, and snore, and I can have the run of the aisle. So I have it down--read, talk to no one, and go to the bathroom as many times as necessary without involving two more people who must be thinking, “Again? What’s wrong with her?”
I board the plane and look for my seat, which is on the right side of the plane where there are only two seats. I spot it and notice that sitting next to me in the window seat is a huge man, seat belt fastened, cinched to the limit, very little strap left over. As I struggle to get my heavy carry-on in the baggage compartment, he looks at me as if to say, “I wish I could help you, but I am already down, and it would be too hard to get up.”
Though this man is easily in his forties, the scale of his body dwarfs his face, making his features look small and childlike. His face could be a fast-forward image from one of Norman Rockwell’s Cub Scout faces featured in a 1940's cover of Saturday Evening Post: open, pliable, and vulnerable.
I can’t help but be startled by his size. It triggers recollections that some airlines now require larger-width people to pay for two seats. I wonder if this policy will be enforced at airports during check in? “I’m sorry, sir, we can’t let you fly because you are too fat and we are overbooked,” or do you have to decide for yourself when you’re booking the flight, or is it when you’re trying to get the seat-belt closed and the stewardess notices the struggle?
So we’re on our way, leaving LaGuardia for Dallas. We exchange perfunctory information about where we are going. He has his head pushed against the windowpane, and I am answering his questions while looking up the slope of his girth to meet his face. He is going as far as Dallas. I proceed to project an attitude that bonding is not going to occur and immediately stick my nose in the Times. Each time I get up and return from the lavatory, he shows a receptive “Now can we talk?” look on his face. I bury myself in my reading, as if I have a deadline on some important research.
As we near Dallas my scholarly pursuits consist of leafing through People Magazine. I am reading, but there is another tape running in my mind: “Why not be straight with the man and simply say you are tired and need to be with yourself, instead of putting out all these stern signals? Didn’t we learn that honesty stated without hostility is appreciated? What was all that money spent on therapy for, anyway?”
About the time I decide to be kind and straight with him, it occurs to me that he might not have picked up any cues from me because he is drunk. During the flight the stewardess has asked him several times if she could refill his drink, and he has knocked down three Jack Daniel's. I first assume he is running a tab, since no money has been exchanged, but soon realize as we are about to land that I have never seen him present a credit card.
We land in Dallas, his point of departure, and he turns to me and says, “You have been an excellent travel companion.” I am floored as my self-recriminations have stockpiled to the point that I am open to conversation. I say, my voice registering surprise, “Really?”
“On my last flight I sat next to an elderly woman, who started coughing uncontrollably, slumped in her seat, died of a heart attack, and evacuated her bowels. I had just started talking to her, and the next minute she was gone. There was a doctor on the plane who pronounced her dead. The airplane was full, and they couldn't move her to another seat so they left her next to me. Several stewardesses eased her into a large black plastic garbage bag and tied it at the top. She died almost as soon as we took off, and her body traveled next to me in the bag for the entire trip of five hours.
The airline told me I had been 'very accommodating' and has shown its appreciation by giving me ten tickets to go anywhere in the U.S.A. with complimentary drinks.”
published 19 August 2011