Whenever I travel amid strangers, cramped aisles, and stale air, I find a home 30,000 feet up in a metal tube rocketing off to who-knows-where. No matter the airline, the setting remains the same: drab blue seats with crumb-filled seat pockets and worn carpeting. The flight attendants are bubbly; the pilot cracks the same tired jokes. When pinballing between cities – or even continents – the interior of an airplane becomes a welcome constant.
The laws of luggage storage and in-flight entertainment replace the rules of time and geography. I may never know what the sun is doing when the pilot claims it’s nighttime or where we are exactly, but I do know that the overhead compartments will be full and one of them will burst open midflight. Someone will have filled in the magazine crossword puzzle stuck haphazardly in my seat pocket. That’s just the way it always is.
On each flight, I gain a new family within my row of seatmates. While actual family members occupied the seats next to me when I was younger, these days, strangers fill them. On one flight, my cousin is a fast-talking, stooped man from Harlem, and on the next it is a woman with an airy voice who speaks almost no English. Not knowing who will show up to claim the title of long-lost aunt or crazy uncle makes adapting to this new family an interesting challenge.
The conversations start slowly, with a polite acknowledgment and perhaps a question or two as to why the other is flying to London, not Laredo, Abuja, or Auckland. Sometimes the exchange ends there, each of us turning to our respective forms of entertainment to whittle away the hours. But most times the conditions will be right for a confession or two. The hazy dimness and forced closeness tease our stories out.
“I think this might be the last time I see my mother.”
“I’m going to my stepsister’s wedding. I don’t know if she wants me there.”
“I think things might actually work out this time.”
We redden and glance away, wondering if perhaps we’ve revealed too much, but the power of anonymity intoxicates us. We can be whomever we want when our names are “26A” or “17D.” We can be secret millionaires headed for a perfect vacation from our perfect lives. Instead we choose to be honest, to spill our secrets because we know that we will never see 26B again. Soon we’re discussing our personal lives. Privacy is abandoned when someone’s elbow juts into my side or my knee encroaches on his sacred space. Even I, someone who is loath to talk about my life, find myself spinning my autobiography for a person I’ve just met. In return, I’m granted access to life stories that history will never record. Suppressed hopes and dreams tumble out as we give life to ideas that existed only in our heads, trying them out on people we will never see again. Strangers replace best friends and confidants.
However, not all relationships require words. On one particular eight-hour flight, I found myself seated in the middle of the center section, far from a window and cut off from the aisle. The person to my right, a wild-eyed, frazzled woman, suffered the same predicament, and we exchanged sympathetic looks as we sat down. She took care to preserve my bubble of personal space, and I returned the favor. The cheerful man who sat to my left offered me his pillow, and I shook my head. Instead, all three of us passed our miniature pink pillows to the woman at the end of the row whose joints creaked. Wordlessly, the four of us organized a complex system of life aboard the plane, one in which we timed bathroom breaks to give each other adequate space and not disrupt the sleeping aisle-seaters. We swapped meal items like schoolchildren at lunchtime, and procured pens for the woman who had an affinity for Sudoku. When the flight attendant stalked down the aisle demanding our nationalities so as to give us the correct form needed to enter the country, we froze. It was only after we’d scribbled in answers and shoved the forms out of sight that we settled back into our harmony again. There is no place for pointless geographical divisions when you’re 30,000 feet above the Earth.
No matter what happens during the flight, the routine after landing is always the same. The plane finally lands and the seatbelt sign pings off; we yawn and stretch and tell each other that it’s been a pleasure. No one ever offers to keep in touch. (The one time an overeager, lonely woman broke this rule, I took her phone number reluctantly, knowing we would never speak again.) The suddenly harsh cabin lights dispel any desire for additional confessions, leaving vague embarrassment in its place. We take our bags and head in separate directions. If we see each other outside of the intimate shelter of the airplane, we catch each other’s eye before sheepishly looking away. If it happens again, we stride by without acknowledging the other person. Even the best confidants can be replaced.
It’s easier that way.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the April 2015 Teen Ink Travel Contest.