Friday, August 9, 2013

A Tale of Two Passengers

I fully admit it's my fault for not checking in 24 hours in advance.

"Set an alarm," my husband told me, and I replied, "Yeah, yeah." But I knew I didn't need to set an alarm, because I would remember. I am good at remembering things. I have, in my time, remembered many things, some very important and some quite useless, like the license plate number of every car my parents have ever owned.

But of course, I forgot this.

It wasn't until we were on our way to the airport that I remembered. For my negligence, I was awarded a spot in the "C" group -- and, as we all know, C stands for center.


By the time I boarded the plane, all the window and aisle seats were taken, as expected. After determining that there was a bathroom at the front and rear of the plane, I decided to take the first available seat. A quick scan revealed no infants in sight (although infants have a way of suddenly appearing on flights, from beneath blankets and small basketlike child carriers), so I stowed my bag (my beautiful red bag, which is so impractical and of which I'm so immensely proud) overhead and asked the occupants of Row 12 (two, benign-looking and vaguely "older" people, the sort who like to read or sleep on planes),"Is this seat taken?"

This produced simultaneous shakes of the head from the man in seat A and the woman in seat C. Seat C was kind enough to stand, and I scooted past to wedge myself, water bottle, cell phone and book of true crime into Seat B.

Seat C immediately settled into a book on her iPad (Atlas Shrugged, about five chapters in, I noted), and Seat A, who was borderline portly, flipped through the pages of Skymall magazine. They were both fiftyish, with graying hair and glasses. I had high hopes.

We exchanged the usual pleasantries:

Seat A: Boy, they really wedge people in, don't they?

Me: Yeah.

Seat C: At least it's not hot. The last time I flew out of this airport it was so hot. I mean, so hot, and there was no air on the plane, and everyone was getting testy.

Me: That's awful.

Seat C: But it's cool today, at least.

Me: Right.

Pleasantly but firmly, wanting to ward off further impending conversations about nothing, I opened my book. I happened to be on a chapter about a mortician-turned-brothel owner who was facing legal trouble at both businesses, and I wondered for the millionth time what in the world other people thought of me. But my rowmates didn't seem to think anything of me. Seat C returned to Atlas Shrugged; Seat A abandoned SkyMall to stare at the tarmac.

It was promising to be a fine flight.


Seat A was asleep by the time we reached a cruising altitude, one of those carefree, full body sleeps where you don't care that your legs are spread far apart and wedged up against the hapless person in the center seat (me). Seat C was reading.

A flight attendant came by and took drink orders, and woman in seat C and I both ordered. Guiltily, I looked over at my sleeping companion in seat A. Why guiltily? If he wanted a drink, he should have stayed awake, right? But it would have taken no effort at all for me to nudge him (he was, in effect, already nudging me), or to say near his ear, Did you want something to drink? But I did neither, and the flight attendant moved on.

When the attendant returned with our drinks later, the woman in the aisle seat and I both unlatched our tray tables and obediently received our plastic cups and square napkins. It was then that the man at the window woke with a start and demanded to know why he didn't have a drink.

What he actually said was, "Why didn't you order me a drink?"

Um. This was very awkward, and a little shocking. If I prefer not to have a banal conversation with a stranger, I certainly don't want to be scolded by one. I thought ruefully of all the other center seats that had been available at the time I chose this one. Missed opportunities, all of them.

"Well, I didn't know if..." I began, at the same time the woman in the aisle seat snapped, "You want a drink? Then you order your own drink."

Wow. I was sitting so stiffly that I could feel each vertebrae of my spine. The guts of this woman! She wasn't going to take anything from anyone, even a complete stranger on a plane!

And then the man said, "You do this every time we fly. I ask you to wake me up, and you just completely disregard me."

Without moving my neck, I glanced back and forth between them, the Bickering Bickersons. A couple, although they had decided to sit with a (n unsuspecting) buffer in between them, and to my observation had not acknowledged each other's presence up until this point.


 "You've never ordered a drink for me," the woman insisted. "But you expect me to..."

 "Never mind, I'll do it myself." The man reached up to the call light, jostling my left arm and therefore my entire body in the process. The flight attendant, looking subtly annoyed, returned and took the man's request.

All that for a Sprite -- it hardly seemed worth it.


Somewhere over Wyoming, the man demanded the iPad and the woman obliged with a noisy sigh, shoving it in his direction, narrowly avoiding my forehead. I read studiously on, pretending to be invisible. (Maybe I really was.) When he was through with the iPad, one red state later, he returned it with a similar thrust.

At one point he demanded gum; a stick of gum was produced and passed in his direction. At another point she insisted on his iPod; the headphones came popping out of his ears and the entire apparatus was passed over my head.

I decided that I hated these people.

I decided that they must have been together for years, miserable, keeping it up for the sake of a shared mortgage, children, assets that would have been difficult or costly to split. Or they had just had a particularly bad trip, one in which her phone had dropped into a toilet and his luggage had been lost, leaving him with no other options but to raid his brother-in-law's closet for the duration. Maybe divorce was imminent. Maybe they were flying to Milwaukee to meet with divorce attorneys and a court-appointed mediator. Maybe -- I was, after all, completely ensconced in a true crime tale -- one had cheated, and the other had discovered the affair, and the whole sorry mess was a raw wound, complete with lawsuits and allegations and late-night whispered telephone threats.


The descent into Milwaukee was smooth, our touchdown and deceleration unremarkable. I clutched my cell phone and book in one hand, and tried to plan how I would remove my beautiful but impractical red bag from the overhead bin quickly without whacking another passenger on the head.

That's when the woman stepped to the side, smiled sweetly at me, and said, "You go ahead, honey. We're not in any rush."

I was happy to oblige, and scooted around her, made a heroic grab for my bag, and hustled off the plane.

For all I know, they're still standing in Row 12, arguing over whose turn it is to carry the luggage.