Originally published in Travel + Leisure, October 2014
THE FIRST ARGUMENT I HAD with the woman who became my wife concerned not punctuality, past romances, who pays for what, or any of the usual early-relationship bones of contention, but the proper response to a 3-3 seat configuration on a transcontinental flight.
I’m partial to windows, meaning I need a damn window seat, while Nilou is an aisle person. This being a full flight, I’d booked us a window and a middle, stupidly assuming she’d want to sit together.
“Wait—you didn’t get me the aisle?”
“And put a stranger between us? What good is that?”
“Good for my sanity is what it is.”
“Don’t you want to cuddle?”
“Not now I don’t.”
It was our first trip together, and it seemed destined to be our last. I love my wife to pieces, and think she feels the same, but at that particular moment, on that particular plane, it’s safe to say we loved each other a little less.
I always found it strange that the first thing couples do after they’re married is board an airplane together. As if matrimony weren’t daunting enough. Still, I suppose relationships are forged in trauma, and flying is the defining trauma of our age. Our hidden selves are revealed in that bizzaro world between baggage check and baggage claim. Friends, lovers, family, colleagues: they seem cool and collected on the ground. But issue them an airline ticket and they’re exposed as shorts-wearers, line-cutters, duty-free-dawdlers, nail-biters, nail-clippers, headphone-shouters, Bloody Mary–bingers, Jujyfruit-gobblers, “Two and a Half Men”–cacklers, and landing-clappers. You’ll cringe at their buffoonery, recoil at their gall—yet scarcely consider what they think of you.
Nilou and I have since figured it out, now that we know each other’s flying tics and rituals. We don’t accept them, but we know them. I, for instance, am a firm believer in visiting the lounge before a flight, even if I’m running late, just to get my money’s worth in free Babybel cheese. This drives my wife crazy. “You don’t even eat them!” she’ll say. “Last week I found three more in your jacket pocket!” But she doesn’t understand. Flying is stressful, and we need to take comfort in the little things.
Also, I can’t sleep on planes, while Nilou can barely stay awake. She’ll nod off even as we’re taxiing, then spastically jerk her head up whenever chin hits sternum, like one of those bobbing-bird toys. This is understandably distracting, so now as she dozes I use a pashmina to tie her head to the seatback. She looks like a narcoleptic sherpa lugging a chair, but she sleeps soundly, and I can read My Struggle in peace.
So we’ve managed a certain détente, she and I. Traveling with friends is another matter. Certain acquaintances apparently see flying as a chance to “catch up”—not on work or emails but “with each other,” which entails talking and talking and talking until you get a kink in your neck from looking sideways and nodding so much. This is not for me. On planes I want to be left to my literal devices. Give me my iPad and Audio Technicas and I’m down the rabbit hole for days. I actually prefer long-haul flights to short ones, grateful for a 12-hour stretch of uninterrupted Me Time. (I was an only child, if that explains anything.)
Air travel is rife with disappointments, and flying with others illuminates how differently we react to them. Upon learning that “chicken or beef” is now just “beef,” some merely shrug; for others it’s as if Noma has lost their reservation.
And then there are the delays. Traveling in Brazil during an air traffic controllers’ strike, our group endured countless re-routings and cancellations, culminating in a seven-hour wait in an unventilated Sao Paulo departures hall. At this point we just lost it, all of us stomping around and taking turns yelling at the gate agent. All except Susan, who wore headphones and a blissful grin, obliviously rocking out to Justin Timberlake as they announced yet another two-hour delay. Her grace would’ve been enviable if it weren’t so annoying. “Why isn’t she sulking?!?” I fumed to her husband. She was so happy it made me mad.
(By now it’s probably clear that you don’t want to fly with me.)
You know how some people think eating two ice-cream sundaes doesn’t count on a plane? Air travel has a way of rearranging logic, while encouraging the basest, most boorish behavior. I’m talking not just about flatulence, but about neligence, impatience, gross self-indulgence, all of which are somehow excused in the air. (To his credit, Alec Baldwin appears to be consistently belligerent both on and off the ground.)
But that’s the nature of flying: it turns our earthbound selves topsy-turvy. It causes cinéastes to weep at Bridget Jones. It causes gourmands to pay through the nose for SunChips. It causes otherwise adjusted adults to order nine vodka-cranberries. And it thwarts accurate assessment of your seatmates, since they too have likely slipped out of character. On airplanes the creepiest-seeming people turn out to be thoughtful and kind, while the outwardly normal turn out to be crazies.
I’ve never seen someone undergo a schizophrenic break and try to jimmy open the exit door (that happened to a friend of mine), but I’ve shared armrests with all types, pleasant or otherwise; it’s usually 50/50. There was the posh dowager in the lavender hat who sweetly offered me a Smint, then mumbled racist epithets all the way to Fort Lauderdale.
En route to New Delhi I sat beside a man who did nothing for 14 hours but stare blankly ahead. The TV stayed off; his seat stayed bolt-upright. Across nine time zones he ate nothing, drank nothing, read nothing, said nothing. He even declined the hot towel. Fearing he might murder me in my sleep, I stayed awake too, and tried not to panic. When we landed, he turned to me and said in a gentle voice: “It was very nice flying with you. I do hope you enjoy your visit.”
There was the shifty teenager on a flight to Thailand who used a nail file to saw the handset controller off the armrest and stuff it in his knapsack. I guess he thought he’d scored a free phone/Nintendo/TV remote, and I hadn’t the heart to disabuse him. (Karma: on the flight home, my seat was missing a handset.)
And there was the skittish seat-gripper who spent the duration of our ride to San Francisco tuned into United’s cockpit-audio channel. The idle chatter of the pilots reassured him. He’d listen intently, nod along, then loudly offer me updates: “OKAY, LOOKS LIKE WE’RE ASCENDING TO THIRTY-NINE THOUSAND—STORMS UP AHEAD.”
Sitting beside that guy, for whom flying must feel like a five-hour MRI, it struck me that air travelers divide into two basic groups: those who take it seriously and those who plainly don’t. I don’t mean business versus leisure travelers, or veterans versus amateurs. I mean the manner in which people carry themselves, be it on work or on holiday, an overnight flight or a puddle jump. Shorts-wearers, to me, lack a fundamental respect for the miracle of air travel. But that’s just me. Maybe they think my carry-on’s too big, the queen-size pillow I brought from home too much.
Flying brings out our best and our worst. Nilou and I found our crucible seven miles over the Gulf of Tonkin, midway through a flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi. Out of the blue, the cabin lost pressure, oxygen masks dropped, and suddenly we began plunging toward the sea.
I don’t wanna I don’t wanna I don’t wanna, I shouted through my mask at Nilou, who held me—or rather held me down—as I kicked and flailed in my seat. I’m not ready I’m not ready I’m not. My too-short life telescoped into 90 agonizing seconds, until all at once the plane leveled out and everything returned to normal. Normal, but for the scowls of my seatmates, who glared at me for the remainder of the flight, as if I’d reacted inappropriately in the face of certain death: Boy, THAT guy needs to pull his shit together.
I’m still not sure what the correct reaction would’ve been. Yet I do recall how oddly stoic my fellow passengers were as we plummeted into oblivion. Nilou, too, was eerily calm. She even had the foresight to tuck my passport into my shirt pocket as we dove, to ensure I’d be properly identified. How sweet is that?
I, meanwhile, went on kicking and screaming in her face.
You think you know someone, but you don’t. Not until you’ve flown on an airplane side-by-side. At some fateful point, the seatbelt sign will ding, the earth and all pretense will fall away, and you’ll find yourself hurtling through the air with 237 strangers…none stranger than the person beside you.
Luckily, she’s sticking with me anyway. Two seats over of course. •