My husband, Brent, loves aviation. He sees a plane and remarks on how pretty she is or how it looks like it would be fun to take a ride in. He’s maniacal about checking weather reports. He speaks in airport names and 24-hour time. Growing up with a pilot in the house does that to you.
My relationship with flying is less exciting. While Brent and I share a wanderlust from time to time, I don’t see the beauty of a graceful craft silhouette or appreciate the roar of an engine. Aviation and I are acquaintances that see each other from time to time, but never really keep in touch.
When I board a plane, I’m equal parts joy, anxiety, and nausea.
We take for granted our ability to navigate vast swaths of land by flying. The long, across-state-lines drives you took as a child are reduced to movie running-times, measured in a few hours and minutes. It’s awe-inspiring when you take a moment to think about it.
Louis C.K. has a routine where describes how people behave on airplanes. The miracle of humans mimicking birds. Really entitled birds. Who get mad about not having working Wi-Fi on a flight, never remembering where they are in the midst of their meltdowns.
“You’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should be constantly going ‘oh my God, wow!’ You’re sitting in a chair in the sky.”
I wish I could appreciate it at that level. Or altitude, rather. Sometimes, I do.
The first time I ever flew on a plane by myself, I was so proud. I felt very adult – even though I was already 19. Professional. I imagined myself reading a magazine, looking all kinds of put-together as I swiveled my green (and borrowed) suitcase through an airport. I would sip tea and make conversation with some exotic and exciting stranger I would meet in the adjacent aisle. I was TRAVELING. I was away from home.
Reality was different. I sat next to a man in a Steelers coat and threw up as we began our descent into Detroit. I had just finished a chapter in a book I was reading. One of the characters tossed his cookies after a helicopter ride. Fitting. My seatmate moved back a row for the rest of the trip.
Today, when I fly, there’s a tiny voice on my head that congratulates myself every time I make it from one destination to another. Most importantly, when I do it without pulling a Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
“YOU DID IT, BUDDY! YOU DIDN’T PUKE! WELL DONE, YOU!”
I spend my flights breathing deeply and eyes closed. I’ve gotten smarter. I arm myself with the right tools to soothe my pitching stomach: Dramamine, ginger ale, pretzels, and a set of headphones.
In between playlists, I tune in to the conversations happening around me. It’s thrilling playing tourist in someone else’s dialogue. I overhear where she’s going, what he does for a living, or the boss’s opinion on the new HR rules. Occasionally, I’ll get a seatmate who talks to me.
In November, I flew for a business trip and sat next to a delightful grandmother named Darlene on my return. She grinned as I took my seat, offering me a Lifesaver candy from her purse. She chuckled as we watched a seatmate across the aisle struggle with an overhead bin. We exchanged light smiles and glances. She broke the comfortable silence first.
“Are you from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre?”
Her voice was soft and even. In my head I prayed for the trip to be of the same tenor. I sipped on the bubbles in my ginger ale and thought about anything but my nausea. Darlene’s interruption was a welcome distraction.
Like a symphony, I watched this kind-eyed woman in a gray fleece conduct her hands as she animatedly referenced her lasagna recipe, sparked into our talk from the magazine I had open. Only the staccato of a cleared sinus or two from the bald man in the row in front of me broke up her stream of consciousness.
She works from home in IT. 27 years she’s been at her job. On her way home from a business trip, too. Eager to get home but not excited about the hour she’d have to drive once she landed.
We talked about marriage and family, living in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and holiday recipes.
I was reminded of how good it feels to come home. The jetsetter my 19-year-old self I thought I would be shook her head. For someone who thirsted at that time for newness and the unfamiliar, I now felt comforted knowing that I was making my return.
This flight to AVP was filled with the best kinds of NEPA people. They smile and laugh. They ask about your family. They’re open. Between their naps they talk easily, their faces illuminated by the soft glow of a James Patterson novel they downloaded. A recommendation from a friend, perhaps – and one they’ll share with their newly friended seatmate.
When circumstances align perfectly with the right combination, these are the kind of people who will trade stories over seatbelts and airline snack mix, making any traveler feel more at ease – no matter how bad her motion sickness might be at that moment.
In their best of times, they’ll make you forget your discomfort – and remember why you love a place so much.
“Be careful out there,” Darlene cooed as we said our goodbyes at the gate.
Beyond the TSA gate, a set of beaming parents held up a sign, “Welcome Home Eimy”. I watched them embrace their daughter as she returned home for the Thanksgiving holiday.
I sat on a bench in the lobby and called my husband. “Hey, you made it,” he said. I sighed relief and breathed in comfort, even though the bench was hardly a soft cushion.
“Yep, it feels good to back. Flight home was smooth. My seatmate was nice,” I replied. “So, what should we do for dinner?”
I wasn’t in my driveway watching my cat peer at me through the bay window as I unloaded my bags. I wasn’t in my living room with shoes off or tucked beneath my husband’s chin as he wrapped me in a hug. Not yet. But soon.
Soon, I’d be home and back on the ground again.