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Even though he usually puts up with you, your husband tells you you are terrible to fly with. You call yourself a “scary flyer” when you really mean scared. But others on the plane with you might agree when you say scary.
Because you have been called “The Next Great Travel Writer” by a national magazine, your friends call you a paradox and a contradiction in terms when you tell them you must have the window seat so you can watch the wing. Something in you believes your very gaze will hold the plane in the air. Behind your back, your friends call you a freak. Strangers buy you Bloody Marys because whenever the plane makes its usual takeoff or flying or landing noises you grab at whoever is within reach and ask, “What was that? Did you hear that? Is that normal?”
But on your latest flight, you did not do that. You do something else that will prompt your husband to buy you the extra legroom and have you sit in Economy Plus on your next flight. Alone.
You tell him the altercation with the teenager wasn’t your fault. Not entirely.
You tell him that when rats are contained in close quarters, they become afraid and aggressive, to which your husband counters: You are not a rat.
You guess her to be about 14, which you find out later is too young for the emergency aisle seat she occupies. She wears pink braces and too much black eyeliner, making her look like a skinny metal-mouthed raccoon.
You are on a night flight, reading poetry and minding your own business. The poetry makes you feel superior, as if you will be granted entrance into a special poetry reading room in heaven if your plane should crash. The image of the resulting fireball, with you inside it, crowds out the verses before you, but you try to focus. The teenager reclines her seat into your knees, disturbing your concentration even more. So you push back. Hard.
And the struggle begins.
She leans forward and then throws all the weight of her skinny body onto your knees. Later, purple bruises will bloom on them. But now you push back. You have been lifting weights at the gym, and you can handle 135 pounds on the leg press. This is heavier than the girl. She changes tactics. She bounces back and forth onto your knees, quickly, backforthbackforthbackforth as if she is up there masturbating in her illegal exit aisle seat. You hold strong, poetry book clutched in your hands, sweating a little from the exertion but still feeling satisfied.
Finally she jumps up from the seat, which flies forward with the counterweight of your legs.
“What the fuck?” she shouts.
You put a curse on the girl. You are careful with this, considering where you both are.
You continue to read and ignore her. Or pretend to ignore her, feeling smug because you read poems and you write poems as if this redeems you somehow even though you are being as big an asshole as the teenager, bigger since you are bigger and should know better.
“You better move your feet,” she says. Your cabin reading light glints off her braces.
“My feet are not on your chair,” you explain. This is true or your knees would not ache so.
“You better stop fucking kicking my chair.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” you answer without looking up. Under your breath but loud enough for her to hear, you say, “Charming.”
Your husband pretends to sleep through this. If he were really asleep, you would know because his mouth would be hanging open and little gargling noises would be coming out. His mouth is closed, so you know he’s faking. But if he wasn’t faking and he was really asleep, you might tell the girl she is a boring, entitled little fuck who is wearing too much eyeliner. So there. But if you could say this without getting in trouble with your husband, you may make even more trouble for yourself — the flight attendant would probably have to become involved, and you have no desire to be featured in the evening news: Poet and Teenager Fight over Reclining Seat. So you say nothing more and continue to read poems.
The airplane pushback continues until she stands up again and shouts, “Fucking stop it.”
“Maybe you should put your seat up a little. You’re in the exit aisle. You have plenty of room.”
“I’m not sleeping sitting up,” she says. You translate this in your head: My comfort is more important than yours. You teach at the community college and deal with teenagers who refuse to revise their stories and poems because they were born of divine inspiration, coming straight from their souls. This is a direct quotation. Maybe you are getting back at them for ignoring your sound advice? Regardless, the good news for you is that you have been able to concentrate on something other than the plane’s bubbling passage over “unstable air,” which is what your captain has called it.
Even though you recently fought the urge to steal small jars of jams and jellies from your hotel to prove that you are not, in fact, becoming your mother, you do just what your mother would do in this situation: You put a curse on the girl. You are careful with this, considering where you both are.
Lucky for you and your relationship with your husband, the plane’s engines reverse and you know that this noise, because you have inquired about it so many times, signals you will be landing soon. The flight attendant asks you to put your seat backs in the upright position. Yours already is, but you can hear the small cry of defeat in the girl’s voice. Your knees ache but you feel as though you have won.
And even if your husband is mad at you, you consider the pushback fight an improvement over what you normally do on a plane, which is to panic while pretending to read, your heart bumping around in the cage of your ribs, your palms and armpits drenched with a sweat that smells like fear. And sometimes, if you deem it an appropriate time of day for drinking at either your departure or your arrival destination’s time zone, which turns out to be often, you drink too much.
Though it seems you have graduated now, from scared to scary, all you can do, as you wait for the thump of the wheels on the tarmac, is to picture those rats crowded into coach. They are seatbelted into rat-sized airplane seats reading their rat poems. They are hoping someone will buy them a Bloody Mary, wondering if there will be peanuts this time.