My seat mate had bumped my forehead with his shoulder bag, plumped into his seat, rumbled through his bag, pulled out a laptop, and hacked on the keys until the flight attendant told him to stop. He never apologized or looked my way. He let out intermittent sighs and kept scratching the side of his scalp. I was fantasizing about how to hurt him, how to exact vengeance ever since flight 116 took off from JFK. I hated him by the time the plane had began its initial descend to Los Angeles and then suddenly plunged towards the ground like a rock. Suddenly the cabin was filled with screams and rogue nuts, pretzels, and half emptied plastic cups were ricocheting off the ceiling. It was the vertical equivalent of crashing into an obstacle. That’s when my seat mate squeezed my hand with his moist palm and I was too surprised to fight it. What the hell, I thought and squeezed back. Then the plane caught air and leveled out. I took a peek through the window at the sprawling desert. I wondered if had just entered through a portal on the other side of which we would find salvation. My seat mate pulled his hand and looked down on his lap leaving behind damp indentations where his knuckles had been. Somewhere behind me a baby began screaming and I caught a whiff of puke. Other than that there was only the humming of the engine and the relief, for most of us, that the plane was back under control. Until we dropped once more and screams drowned out the baby and the engine. The seat belt choked my stomach as I turned towards my neighbor who’s face was frozen in a terrified grimace with his mouth agape and his eyes full of panic. I offered him my hand but he had gotten hold of the elbow rest this time. A wet spot soaked his shirt around his armpit and I’ll be damned if there wasn’t a pee stain sprawling around his crotch. I was hit on my temple by a pretzel and I noticed somebody regurgitating their sandwich in row 13C, the bile splattering the ceiling.
“We’re all going to die!” a woman screamed somewhere behind me and I felt happy for her because she just recognized the one and only certainty in life. She was going to die. I was going to die. My neighbor was going to die. Sandwich puker was going to die. The crying baby was going to die. We’re all the same that way. For me, a potential crash became a pretty decent option. The churning of my stomach, the pressure of the belt against my abdomen, the lack of control I had over whatever was going to happen next filled me with rare excitement. I was relieved to be able to let go, albeit for as long as the plane was dropping at terminal velocity.
The plane caught air once again and the cabin calmed down once more safe for the baby screaming and the engine humming and a the onset of tentative grumblings. I looked at my seat mate and smiled but he turned the other way. I was overcome with sudden compassion for this scared middle-aged man with strands of thinning hair sticking to his forehead, the sweat stains, the crotch of his ill-fitting khakis now soaked with urine. The black loafers which didn’t match his pants or shirt. I no longer hated him. I began to understand that he wasn’t being a dick to me. He was not judging me. He didn’t ignore me because he felt superior. This man was just like me. Scared. Insecure. Unsure of what was next. Unable to decipher the code, the one that would provide answers, provide relief, provide a good enough explanation, one that we could live with. He made me feel less alone in that moment and I wanted to talk to him, ask him the questions that he had been asking himself, I wanted to know his name, his phone number, his hobbies, his interest in music and art and literature, or sports and science, whatever his thing was. I wanted to eat a sandwich and drink a coke with him. I wanted to laugh with our mouths full, spitting tiny bits of lettuce and ham at each other and then laugh some more. I wanted to hug him and feel his sobs match mine. I wanted a friend. Anyway, that’s what I thought of as I continued staring at him sitting over there. He turned toward me once again and I noticed a tear running down his cheek.
“The fuck you looking at?” he said. His voice was deep, much deeper than I could have imagined. I snapped back into my reality and looked away. The baby was still screaming, there were sobs and many what the fucks were being uttered throughout the plane in the aftermath the plunges. The pilot made an announcement and I spotted the pretzel laying next to my shoe. I crushed it.