December 12, 2008
By Linnea Calhoun, Knoxville, TN

The cabin isn’t large, especially for a transnational airplane; I notice this as I find my seat and maneuver my large, black backpack into the overhead compartment among the various laptop cases and carry-ons. My seat is 24F, the window seat in the second to last row. I sit heavily into the uncomfortable, navy chair and lock my seat belt. It isn’t my first time flying, but I feel a familiar sense of apprehension as the other passengers find their seats. This feeling is one that I feel every time I fly, perhaps because I’ve long been desensitized to the more dangerous modes of travel, namely driving. The hot July sun glares through the plastic window, warming my pale skin. A long morning of flight already behind me, it isn’t a wonder that I am exhausted already and it is only 11 AM, Chicago time. I sigh, knowing that I will gain three more hours before I arrive, effectively shortening the last flight to one hour. The last flight for me, anyway, and at this thought I glance at the other passengers around me. Some seem disheveled from other flights, others patiently sit with their belts tight around their waists. Though the flight is relatively full, no one sits beside me and I am somewhat glad of it, I have little tolerance for small talk. The last, out of breath stragglers appear in the tiny entranceway far ahead and the steward locks us in. Locks the air out, rather. The passengers settle in and screens drop down above us to explain emergency procedures as we tax to the runway. We must wait a few minutes to take off, for we find ourselves in a plane line, of sorts, a jet taking off every 3 minutes or so. From my position on the right of the plane I watch these jets, saying a silent farewell to each of them as though they were alive, knowing that with their precious cargo they might as well be. Finally it is our turn and I wave to the planes behind us, a childish gesture I understand, but like Holden I am looking for closure, for a goodbye when no one offers one. The takeoff is turbulent, and I find myself clutching the armrests needlessly and glaring at the wing beside me. It seems so flimsy compared to the air, the impenetrable air. I wonder that humans have made a way to fly, to glide across emptiness at such massive speeds. The light turbulence subsides and I relax in my seat; the seat belt light above me clicks off and an old asian man stands 6 or 7 rows ahead. He is hunched over, with liver spots dotting his face and a tuft of silver hair combed over his wrinkled skin. He grumbles audibly as he hobbles past, and the flight attendant rushes to his aid. I can’t understand him but she seems to, and after a short exchange she strides a few rows away from me, bends over, and comes back with a plaid blue blanket, folded tiny. He nods to her as he takes it with leathered, shaky hands and finds his seat. A few rows off I hear a baby gurgle, and I settle further into my seat for the four hour flight. A movie, devoid of plot or realistic dialogue, is eventually started and most windows are closed from the bright sun. Resigned to the flight, I rummage for a moment in my handbag until I find my novel, Jane Eyre, and open the window a crack to take advantage of the brightness.

Some minutes later, I find myself too bored to focus on the book. Luckily, the flight attendants serving beverages and food are upon me, so I order a Coke and a water, along with the usual pretzels. I munch on these thoughtfully, sipping my soda. The flight attendants finish, and in the aisle I notice a younger asian woman with a baby strapped to her belly, pacing to soothe the infant. She rocks him with every step, cooing softly (though I cannot truly hear over the airplane noise.) Back and forth, the length of the plane she walks and I admire her motherhood skills and beautiful child. I am yet far too young to be thinking of children, but still, seeing a mother and child together stirs something deep within me, ingrained in my very genes. I long to hold an infant in my arms and kiss him, play with his tiny fingers and rock him to sleep. A feeling, I have no doubt, most women experience at least once in their lifetimes. I watch these two for a while longer, and as the woman passes by me again she gives me a shy smile which I return.

Satisfied, I turn my head to look at the passengers behind me, one of which has just coughed. I almost wrinkle my nose at the thought of sharing air with the fellow, but decide against it since he really couldn’t have helped it anyway, and I’m sure my immune system will ward off anything I am exposed to on this flight. There are two, a man and a woman, presumably spouses. Both are overweight, the man far more so than his female counterpart, and a few beads of sweat slide down his white forehead. He coughs again but doesn’t notice me, and I hide myself behind my seat back, forming a barrier between us. He slides his window open for a moment and I see the brightness out of the corner of my eye, then shuts it quickly, and I am almost positive he is afraid of flying. His wife, on the other hand, seems quite comfortable, her large body stretched out along the two empty seats she claims for herself. Her head rests on the armrest at the end of the aisle; her hair, immobile with hair spray and streaked with chunky, tacky highlights falls a few inches into the aisle. The asian woman’s hip, small for so early after a pregnancy, brushes against this hair as she pivots to begin her trek again. I glance up at her face and see that she is not so young as I assumed, maybe in her mid thirties with a softly lined face and a warm expression. In contrast, the woman behind me has a cold face; she is not young, though fat has filled in any trace of wrinkles. She is heavily made up, and her lined lips are pursed even in sleep; I wonder what she is dreaming. The attendants walk up and down the aisle picking up trash, and I hand them my empty can and cup. The thought of drinking makes me realize my bladder is full, and I weigh my options. I don’t think I can hold it for another 3 hours, so I reluctantly stand and shimmy out of the row, turning to find the tiny lavatory. It is occupied, so I waste time observing the passengers in the rows on the left of the plane.

In the last row there sit three girls, all blonde and likely sisters. They are in ascending order of age, which I presume by their heights, and the oldest and youngest lean into the middle one. The youngest has dirty blonde hair cut in an overgrown bob; she speaks loudly and I can overhear most of what she is saying:

“Can you read this? Which part is the Spanish... read it!... what does it mean?... is that the Spanish part?... read it again!”

She seems to be addressing the older sister throughout, who has taken the laminated index card from her hands and is apparently reading it in Spanish to the younger one. The middle sister seems to take little notice of the two girls nearly on her lap, and I wonder that she isn’t bothered by their closeness. I’ve never had siblings, but I assume one would get used to the constant presence of others after a lifetime of it.

At a tap on my shoulder I turn and see a tall, brunette girl motioning for me to move aside. I lean into the row with the sleeping woman and she passes me; I go to the lavatory and, after a bit of confusion with the lock, relieve myself. It takes me a minute to find the flushing device, a small button a bit too near the floor for my tastes. I feel dizzy and hot in the tiny space, so I don’t wash my hands, opting instead to use the sanitary wipes provided by the beverage service.

When I reach my seat again I notice the sleeping woman is now awake, and seems to be speaking soothingly to her husband, much like the mother did to her child. I look up the aisle at the thought of the mother, but she seems to have sat down. A jolt of turbulence forces me to my seat, and I don’t have much trouble remembering my jitters from earlier. My stomach lurches as the plane drops again and I quickly fasten my seatbelt. The plane begins a steady rhythm of lurches and bumps, as though it is no longer gliding on air, but an uneven gravel road. I am ashamed at myself when I am too afraid to open the window beside me, and I am glad no one notices my hot cheeks. The steward ushers standing passengers to their seat, and with a loud metallic bell sound I see the seat belt light begin to glow above me. A pleasant, elevator noise sounds from the intercom, and then I must strain to hear the pilot’s voice above the static.

“Folks... looks like we’re gonna see *muffled noise* for a bit... calm and keep your seat belt... *crackle*... we’re checking the status of... gas tanks seem to be...”

My heart quickens almost audibly and I realize now that I have an inherent fear of flying, or rather falling. Cursing myself that I hadn’t noticed this before, and wishing I had rented a car and driven to Canada myself, I once again grip the armrests, this time with icy hands. I try not to think about how high up we are, or how far we fall each time the plane drops. Focusing on my fellow passengers seems to help, so I turn to look at the sisters, who are now bickering as they strap themselves in. The woman and child, I now realize, were only in the bathroom, and she carries him quickly to her seat. Now that he is no longer strapped to her front I see his face and he seems to look straight at me. One tiny hand is curled in his drooling mouth, the other unfurls and tightens as though in a tiny wave. I gasp as the plane drops again, this time so many feet I nearly can’t hold my stomach. Other passengers retch into bags stowed in the compartments in the seat in front of them, and I hear a baby cry. Other, older people are crying now and I see the three sisters sobbing quietly, the oldest clutching the other two to her breast and murmuring to them, tears running down her own face to mingle with their hair. My breathing is shallow and I press myself against my seat, turning my head to try and drown out the noise without actually letting go to hold my hears closed. Instead, the couple behind me catches my eye. They are embracing, and I hear him whisper his love for her and stroke her hair. They no longer look overweight and ugly to me, but beautiful. Their bodies are beautiful and perfect and I fear for them, for myself. I feel so fragile as the plane jostles me, my head hitting the back of my seat repeatedly. We are descending now, quite quickly, and I wonder if the pilot is doing it to escape the turbulence, or to make an emergency landing. The thought of landing reminds me of how high we are, and this time I do not retch dryly. I don’t bother wiping my mouth because I can’t let go of the armrests, I couldn’t if I tried. My knuckles and hands are white with the strain of my hold, I gag on my own vomit and tears begin to sting my eyes . I wasn’t raised religiously, but when I hear a prayer rising above the white noise of vomiting and crying, I think suddenly of my family. Of my mother and father back home, probably having a drink and settling down for the afternoon, of my best friend Steven waiting for me in Vancouver to show me his new apartment. The plane’s descent is sharp now, and my welded grip and flimsy seat belt are the only things keeping me from falling forward from my chair. There isn’t anymore time for crying, my companions and I fall silent, or at least it seems so. I mourn the life I know I’ll probably lose, cherish every ragged, terrible breath that rips into my lungs. My stomach is in my throat as we go farther, farther down and I begin to get frantic. Beads of sweat sting my eyes, and my vision blurs. I’m praying now, praying to any god, to all gods, for help. I forget the other passengers, and to me it seems I am alone on a broken plane, falling endlessly. A scream catches in my throat; it won’t be an endless fall.

The author's comments:
I wrote this on an airplane trip to Canada, because I am afraid of flying. In writing it, I hoped to understand my own fear, and I believe I made this as realistic as possible. Of course, one can't write something like this in past tense. It's the first and only draft; this is an emotional response, not an edited piece.

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