“I’m on the plane, thoroughly worn out after spending all day in Auckland walking around. I looked up the streets on Google Maps and, if I’m right, I walked somewhere in the vicinity of thirteen miles doing nothing in particular. I had breakfast in a small cafe on the quay, I found a few of the music stores. Checked out a used bookstore. Toured the university, visited the art museum- I even sat in front of Starbucks for an hour and just watched the vast sea of people go by. So I was good and tired by the time I got onto the airplane and found my seat. I had the aisle and, as the stream of passengers coming onboard turned into a trickle, the seats beside me were still empty. I was thinking, ‘No way- I get a row all to myself?!‘ I was just thrilled- elated. Sitting in my seat, leaning on an elbow and holding my Kindle while keeping one eye on the aisle, trying not to smirk.
“Then, I see this young woman who is walking just in front of this older man. They were counting the seats and her eyes seemed to land above my head. She looked down at me and blushed. Then she turned her head to say something to the guy and he laughed. When she turned back, she was blushing even more.
“I really should have known, but of course, I had no idea.
“She stops in front of me and the older guy says that they’re sitting beside me. He’s cul-de-sac bald and he’s let the gray hair on the sides of his head grow long- it sticks nearly straight out and it gives him this sort of bumbling look that matches his congenial face. He’s a little portly, but not fat, and as I stand up, he comes to about my nose.
“‘You want the window or the middle?’ he says to her. ‘Which do you think will be better?’
“‘I don’t know,’ she dances from one foot to the other.
“‘Well, make a decision- this poor guy’s waiting on us,’
“‘Um, window,’ she says and moves toward the window seat. He thanks me and apologizes for the wait as we sit down and buckle our seat belts.
“It’s not even a minute and a half before she says, ‘I don’t know,’ to who, I assume, is her father.
“‘Really?’ he says. ‘But this poor guy-‘
“‘I know, I know, I’m sorry- I just, I don’t think it’s going to work out,’ I look over at her and she’s grimacing. I ask her if everything is alright and they both turn to face me.
“‘I’m really sorry,’ the guy says.
“‘It’s me,’ she says suddenly, surprised that the words have erupted from her mouth. A giggle trails her sentence. ‘I’m just, I’m- I’m pretty claustrophobic and I’m not sure which seat is going to work best.’
“I tell her that if she wants the aisle, she’s more than welcome to it- that it’s not a big deal to me either way and she continues to grimace, looking from seat to seat. She’s pretty enough, but sort of plain. Long, but adjective-less brunette hair runs down the length of her back and she’s slender and petite underneath her oversized sweatshirt and yoga pants and Ugg boots and though she has big, bright blue eyes, again, she’s just sort of plain. She finally asks her dad if she might have the aisle seat and I’m unbuckled and up before they even ask. She giggles again as they both sit down.
“I’m just trying to be a nice guy- I feel for her in a general sort of way. It must be rough to be claustrophobic and so, I’m just trying to help out in whatever small way I can. It’s while I’m standing that I realize that this beautiful blonde girl I chatted with in the terminal is across the aisle from me.
“‘Oh! Are you just there?’ she has this great Kiwi lilt- not a hard accent, just a faint trace and she’s demure, so I can barely hear her as the plane starts to ramp its engine up a bit more. I tell her that yes, I’m just there and she salutes me with this big book that we were talking about and I wave my Kindle at her and we wish each other happy reading. When I look to my seat, this young woman, who is now in the middle, is looking directly up at me and smiling.
“‘Oh, this feels much better. Thank you so much,’ she says as I’m sitting and buckling again. ‘This is good- being between two strong men like this,’ I decide not to make too much of the comment, thinking that if I don’t acknowledge it, it’ll probably go away.
“Air New Zealand has their safety procedures televised on the small screens that are mounted on the backs of each of the seats and we watch with some amusement- particularly as we’re on one of The Hobbit planes, so everyone on screen is dressed as a wizard or a dwarf or an elf- and she laughs, almost obnoxiously loudly, at most everything.
“The seatbelt light comes on and we’re on the runway and she brushes the side of my arm as she reaches for the armrest, gripping it tightly. We take off, we’re in the air and as soon as we hit that space where the plane no longer seems to be moving, she exhales deeply and relaxes her grip on life itself.
“I ask her if she’s alright and then immediately kick myself- she’s glowing and telling me that yes, everything is great and I’m great and thank you so much for switching seats.
“The father turns to me and smiles and they ask about my trip and what brings me to New Zealand. I give them the pertinent details- a few friends, hiking, photography- and turn the question back to them. They’re in some medical equipment company and they were in Auckland for a week training people how to use a specific machine. Apparently, there was a lot of time spent in clean rooms and special suits of some kind. I tell her that I assume that must have been fairly tough on the claustrophobia as well- again, stupid, stupid- and she laughs and says that yes, it was tough. They didn’t leave Auckland once. Stayed in the city, but didn’t go out at all. Just work and hotel, over and over. I have a hard time imagining why anyone would go across the world just to spend all their time in a hotel, but that’s what a lot of people do for work, isn’t it? They ask where I’m from and he actually knows where I’m talking about because he lived in Breckenridge for a while and I’m sure they’re from Minnesota or Wisconsin because that long ‘a’ is unmistakable and I’m right- Minnesota.
“He suggests that they watch a show together and she starts asking me about television shows and what I like to watch. I wave my Kindle at her and tell her that I’m not all that up to speed on TV. She asks if I’ve seen Scandal and I say no. She asks if I’ve seen How I Met Your Mother and I say no. She asks if I’ve seen Duck Dynasty and I say no. When she asks if I’ve seen The Big Bang Theory, I lie- because I’m anxious to begin reading the three novels I’ve put on my Kindle- and tell her that I haven’t.
“‘Well, it’s awesome and hilarious and you should watch it sometime. Maybe with us?’ she giggles and looks at me expectantly. She’s got to be no more than a few years younger than me but I’ll be damned if she doesn’t giggle after everything she says- and everything that I say.
“I wave my Kindle at her and give a very vague ‘perhaps maybe later’ and she giggles again and they put on their headphones in unison. I thank G-d and turn on my Kindle to begin reading.
“I’m all of about thirteen pages in before she nudges me with her elbow, ‘What are you reading?’ and she’s clearly giving me her best set of Bambi eyes. As we’ve only discussed television shows thus far, I’m trying to gauge what I can and cannot get away with saying. I briefly consider saying something including the words ‘hegemony’, ‘demagoguery’ and ‘bildungsroman’, but eventually settle on something about how since I’ve just started, I’m not sure, but as near as I can tell, it’s a fictional account of Ukrainian Jews during the Second World War. She nods, smiling and asks me if it’s any good.
“I don’t bother saying that since I’ve just started, I’m not sure.
“She’s just gone back to her headphones when the intercom comes on and the stewardess announces that they’ll soon be coming around with dinner and that those with special dietary needs can expect theirs first. As the announcement is being finished, an attendant appears and hands her a steaming box clearly marked, ‘vegetarian’. I go back to my book.
“A page or two passes before she nudges me again. ‘Take a look at this,’ she says. ‘What do you think?’
“Looking at her plate, I see nothing recognizable as a vegetable. Still, this is an airplane and expectations of food are probably best when set low. I give vague sympathy, but do not take my eyes away from the Kindle and she hands the box to her dad, who gives it a quick sniff and turns it right back to her.
‘Well,’ she says, packaging her meal up and disregarding it once and for all, ‘I hope that the food is better for you boys.’
Dinner comes and goes in thoroughly mediocre fashion, the trash is collected and the two of them go back to their television show- laughing extremely loudly at the slightest provocation. I am simply content to get deeper and deeper into “Everything Is Illuminated”.
The stewardess comes by to take drink orders and I politely refuse anything. My neighbors, however, would like vodka- and perhaps a soda or cranberry juice to go along with it. The drinks come, the stewardess smiles warmly at me and I catch the literary blonde to my right looking at me empathetically. She shrugs, I shrug.
“We get back to our reading.
“Chapters pass and the young woman nudges me again. ‘So, tell me about your life,’ she looks at me like she is prepared to listen for hours, if need be. My flesh crawls at the banality of her question, but I keep my shudder to myself and simply say, ‘Well, that’s not a very large question at all, is it?’ She giggles, of course, and I find myself wanting to break something small and insignificant- a pencil, perhaps. I even consider- however briefly- her pride.
“I decide to be nice. Which was probably wrong.
“‘Not much to tell. I’m boring. I read, I have a dog. We hike a lot.’
“‘You have a DOG?!’ she is nearly screaming. I don’t know if this is simply the way she speaks or if she feels she needs to be louder than normal to be heard over the engines, but she is berating my left ear. I whisper so as to provide a subtle hint- a hint that she is not picking up on so well. ‘OhmyGod,’ she runs all of her words together. ‘IhaveadogandIlovemydogandit’ssogreatthatyouhaveadogandohmyGodisn’titgreatthatIhaveadogtoo?’
“I nod and ask her what her dog’s name is. Again, stupid.
“‘Kamala,’ she smiles with the pride of the sort of person whose dog is very small and usually kept in a purse or bag of some kind. Why she would name her dog Kamala thoroughly baffles me. Why not Vishdu or Lackshmi? For that matter, why not Starburst or Rainbow Fucker? The possibilities are endless.
“I tell her how interesting it is that she’s given her dog an Indian name. The flood gates open wide again.
“‘OhmyGodhowdidyouknowthatKamalaisanIndianname! You are SMART, aren’t you?!’ She beams. She radiates. She vibrates. If you had asked me if I considered myself smart five hours ago, the answer might have been, ‘Oh, I do alright, I guess.’ The answer now, however, is ‘No, no I do not.’
‘She tells me that she got the dog with- and she became a little reticent here- an ex-boyfriend (‘But definitely, definitely an ex,’ she made sure to clarify with TWO definitelys”) and they liked the sound of the name and thought it was ‘so so awesome’ that it was the name of the Indian goddess of love ‘and she’s such a pretty dog and she deserved a pretty, meaningful name.’
“I considered telling her that her dog was not named after the goddess of love, but rather after a prostitute- er, ‘courtesan’- in a classic novel, but thought better of it. I could feel Literary Blonde looking at her, so I turned my head ever so slightly and caught her in the middle of a slack jawed stare. The literary blonde realized that I was looking at her and thinking the same thing and we rolled our eyes in unison.
“The flight attendant came by again, this time offering wine. She and her dad each took a glass. She began regaling me about her own life- where she lived, what she did for fun and what she did for a living. I was mortified to learn that the man I had taken for her father for the past five hours was actually her boss.
“‘So, what do you do for work?’ She smiled and giggled. I could have said anything. Lawyer, engineer, quarterback- I had no intentions of seeing this person ever again. I could have even been honest and told her that I was a worship leader at a church!
“But no. I told her that I was the assistant principal of a private high school. Because I hadn’t been mistaken about anything I had said to her thus far, and how much worse could it really get?
“‘Really?’ she elongated the vowel and lowered her voice, giving it a husky, breathy sound- like we were suddenly alone in a hotel room together. ‘Like, the vice principal?’
“‘That’s amazing. And do you teach anything?’
“I should have said no. ‘Literature.’
“‘And that’s why you’re such a reading boy,’ she touched the Kindle that was now in my lap. I looked at the ceiling of the plane, at the control panel just above my head. Could I call a stewardess? Would she answer? Would she do anything? Could anyone help me?
“‘Sure…’ I looked everywhere but next to me.
“‘So, you teach and you’re the vice principal?’ she paused. ‘So that means that you’re the disciplinarian, right? Isn’t that what most vice principals are?’
“‘I think so,” I began to shift in my seat as her voice only got lower and breathier. The alcohol was clearly loosening her up.
“‘So, what do you do when someone gets in- you know- trouble,’ she italicized trouble as she said it. ‘I can’t imagine you as a disciplinarian. You seem too,’ again with the damned pause, ‘sweet.’
“At this point, I’m nearly out of my mind. It’s all too much. The interrupting my reading and the giggle and the loud voice and the dog’s name and the insipid chatting and the small talk. It’s too much. And now this. And I can’t- I just don’t know what in the hell to do. Get up? Leave? Go to the bathroom?! Sleep in the bathroom?! Tell someone that I need and adult? I’m just beside myself and absolutely crawling in my seat.
“‘No,’ I say, because I’m an idiot. ‘Quite a- uh- quite a bit of the school is afraid of me.’
“‘Oh,’ she whispers. ‘I bet they are.’ And she’s mistaking my discomfort for nervousness- as though this husky, breathy thing is actually working for her and she’s winning whatever game she’s playing!
“‘So, let’s say that a student was ditching class,’ she says, clearly feeling very good about the exchange thus far. ‘I did that all the time. I was so bad! I knew all of the tricks from my older sisters. So, let’s say that someone was ditching. What would happen?’
“‘We, uh, we don’t really have that problem. Too small.’
“‘Oh, come on. Everyone ditches every now and again, right? So, what would you do? Detention?’
I’m looking straight ahead. I already know what’s coming and I’m hoping against hope, gritting my teeth and biting my tongue, praying that she won’t say what I think she’s going to say.
“‘You’d give them detention, wouldn’t you? And you’d have to administer it, too- because you’re the administrator, right?’ She paused. I think I heard her lick her lips. ‘I bet lots of the girls want to have detention with you.’ Another long pause. Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it.
“‘I’d want to have detention with you.’
“She said it. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she leaned into it and touched my arm, feeling for whatever bicep she hoped I had.
“I just pretended she didn’t say anything. Stared straight ahead at the television screen that I had turned off earlier in the flight as though it were the most interesting thing I had ever seen in the entirety of my life. I let a few moments pass before I reached for my backpack underneath the seat in front of me, found my toothbrush and toothpaste and high-tailed it for the back of the plane.
“A long line was formed, much to my relief, and I took a moment to stretch and bounce on my heels and try to shake off the last few hours- quite literally- I was shaking my arms and my head and each leg. A stewardess came back and was preparing a few cocktails for someone upfront and she noticed my toothbrush.
“‘Look at you, all prepared with your toothbrush,’ she smiled. ‘And stretching! Cute and smart.’
“Fantastic. I raced into the lavatory that was opening and nearly bowled the elderly woman coming out of it over.
“I returned to my seat almost an hour later, having finally caught a break. Not only was there a line for the restroom, but the drink cart was going down the aisle, preventing me from my seat.
“‘Welcome back,’ she said as I sat down. The cabin lights dimmed and I cursed myself for not thinking of just going to sleep before. Stupid, Cyle! Stupid, stupid!
“‘Oh, hello,’ I said, reaching for the floor where I had stashed the complementary airline blanket and pillow. Look at me! I’m opening the blanket! I thought as I made a big show of tearing open the packaging, removing the blanket and stowing the trash. Boy! Look at how long this blanket is! It stretches so far! Oooo! Now look at me opening the pillow! Isn’t it grand! I’m going to go to sleep now! Look look! The pillow is out of its packaging! It’s going behind my head now! See? See?!
“‘Going to sleep now, eh?’ she sighed.
No, I’m going to scratch my head and see if I can’t lay an egg. Christ almighty, woman!
“‘Yep,’ I said, situating myself.
“‘Well, you know,’ she said, her voice suddenly taking a tentative turn. ‘He’s asleep.’ She nodded toward her boss- her boss!- and then looked back at me. ‘We could,’ another pause. ‘You know…’
“I felt my body seize as she paused.
“‘We could lean on each other,’ she looked down demurely. Of all the places she could’ve gone, leaning against each other was the most innocuous- and yet, still so unappealing.
“‘Oh, that’s okay, I think. This headrest folds. I’ll be okay,’ I propped my pillow against the headrest, leaned toward the aisle, and was feigning sleep before my head hit the pillow.
“It couldn’t have been more than an hour before I awoke, in a completely discombobulated and confused state, to her scratching my arm and whispering in my ear.
“‘I’m so sorry,’ she said when I looked at her wide-eyed and half-asleep. ‘I need to go to the restroom.’ I sloughed the blanket off of me, rubbed my eyes, unbuckled and stood up. She pressed her hand to my sternum as she passed me and looked back over her shoulder once as she walked down the aisle. I looked at Literary Blonde, but she was sound asleep and smartly utilizing the complementary sleeping mask.
“Perhaps another hour passed when I awoke to her nuzzling her head into the crook of my arm. My head was swimming and spinning and I couldn’t for the life of me remember who this person was or what she was trying to accomplish. I don’t remember feeling badly about returning my head to the headrest and moving my arm.
“I woke once more to her scratching my neck. I straightened and she didn’t stop. I stretched my arms and she didn’t stop. I turned my head to her and she stopped. She smiled at me.
“‘What are you doing?’ I half mumbled.
“‘That doesn’t feel good?’
“‘Doesn’t everyone like their neck scratched? I love it.’
“‘No. Please stop,’ I’m not sure how she responded, because I turned back to my head rest and went back to sleep.
“I awoke to the lights of the cabin being raised and window shades being opened and people coming to all over the plane. She was still asleep, thank G-d, and I tried to move as little as possible to keep it that way. I got right back to my Kindle and polished off a few more chapters.
The moment I saw her stir, I reached for my toothbrush and toothpaste, put my Kindle in the pocket of my shorts and was gone. The longer I stayed at the back of the plane, the longer I could avoid her ridiculous behavior. So, I skipped breakfast and pretended to be perpetually in line for the lavatory. When the stewardess asked what I was doing as I stretched and bounced on my heels, I told her that I was ‘avoiding blood clots’ and read and was incredulous that this then, was what it had all come to.
The pilot came on the intercom and said that the FASTEN SEATBELT sign was coming back on because we only had 45 minutes until we landed in Los Angeles.
“‘You need to go back to your seat, sweets,’ the stewardess told me.
“‘I’d love to keep you here, but I’m afraid so.’
“‘I could be convinced to do the drink cart.’
“‘Sorry, sweets. Orders are from on high. Seat.’
Literary Blonde was awake when I came back to my seat.
“‘Yeah?’ Literary Blonde mouthed silently.
“‘No,’ I mouthed back.
Literary Blonde smiled and feigned clicking the seatbelt.
“‘Hello, Stranger,’ she said as I took my seat again. ‘Haven’t seen you all morning.’
“‘Long line,’ I said.
“‘I guess. Hey, come to think of it, I still don’t know your name. I’m Brittany,” she held out her hand.
“Of course your name is Brittany! Why wouldn’t it be Brittany?! What else could it possibly be?! I hesitantly took her hand and shook it. ‘Cyle.’
“‘Good name,’ she said.
“‘I’ll let my mother know,’ I reached for a set of headphones and took an interest in the airplane’s available music selection. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Because I was worried about being rude?
“Normally when a plane lands, I’m more than content to wait around for everyone else to collect their belongings and file off the the plane. Then, when all is clear, I stand up, grab my bag and breeze out. Not this time though, no no. This time, I was standing before the plane landed, bag already in hand and two seats ahead of Brittany and her boss.
“‘Where are you going so quickly?’ she asked. The line moved. Four seats.
“‘I’m not sure what flight I’m on, much less which carrier,’ which was technically true- having lost my phone in New Zealand, I didn’t have any flight information. Six seats.
“‘Oh, well then yeah, you’d better hurry,’ she called up as the line move again. Ten seats.
“‘Yep,’ Eleven seats. I turned to her boss. ‘Apologies for being rude, sir. Nice to meet you.’
“‘No problem. I understand hectic flights. We’ll probably see you in Denver! We’ve got a connection there!’ he called up from twenty seats away.”
There is a long pause as my Dad takes in everything that I’ve just told him.
“And did you see them in Denver?” He asks.
“I did, but from the back. They were wandering around in DIA trying to find a restaurant. I bolted the other direction.”
“Well, Cyle,” He crosses his arms and smiles. “In all the flights I’ve taken and all of the places I’ve travelled, that’s never happened to me. That kind of shit only happens to you.”
A moment passes.
“Thanks- I think.”