“Cynthia,” my mother asked, apropos of nothing, “how does an airplane work? Why does it stay up in the air? Or is that a stupid question?”
“No, it’s not a stupid question,” I replied, wishing she hadn’t asked, and I muttered something about air currents and speed and realized rather quickly that my understanding of flight is tenuous at best, maybe related to the fact that I dropped physics in high school.
“I still don’t really get it,” my mother responded, just senile enough to miss the obvious fact that I don’t get it either.
On some level, it seems impossible. I sit on board suspended between wonder and fear. I used to prefer the window seat until I heard a story about a woman who was somehow sucked out the window into oblivion. I imagined her fellow passengers in the middle and aisle seats watching in horror and hanging on for dear lives. Nowadays I always choose the aisle, sneaking a peek now and then at clouds and topography below, but that isn’t wise either because it reminds me how high up we are.
I am especially uneasy about flying over water because I don’t know how to swim. “That’s ridiculous,” says my husband, “you wouldn’t have to swim because the impact would kill you instantly. Do you know how hard that plane would hit the water?” He thinks that this is comforting. And maybe in some twisted way it is, for it renders us all equally at risk and I can stop flagellating myself about those swimming classes I never took.
In order to give myself the benefit of every doubt, however, I do listen earnestly to the attendant’s pre-flight safety instructions, despite their being vaguely disturbing if not absurd. I don’t want to be confused about what to do if those masks drop down, or be fumbling for the flotation device in the event of a water landing. I don’t want my last thought to be, “Darn! If only I’d paid attention.”
In the years since 9-11, of course, there’s yet another unpleasant undercurrent to flying, that subliminal remembrance and sense of shared exposure exacerbated by the slow procession through security, the removal of one’s shoes, the discarding of innocent liquids. Excitement has been replaced by a quiet kind of submission, a tolerant do-with-me-as-you-will demeanor that begins well before boarding.
On board, of course, it is best if you are a compact, foldable sort of person. Once — only once — I managed to get a bulkhead seat on a transatlantic flight, something I had always lusted for. Imagine the possibilities of stretching out one’s legs, of getting up and moving about without elaborate maneuvers? I admit that I am mildly claustrophobic, but I have flown too many times with my nose pressed against the back of the seat of the person in front of me, or wedged between strangers, or alongside some mountainous soul who never moved and over whom I had to climb repeatedly in order to go pee or maybe just stand upright for a moment. I would ask for a bulkhead seat, of course, but not only was one never available, it seemed that requesting one was laughably naive.
Now I learned the secret: fly with the sister of a travel agent. I eased myself down with a sigh. Moments later the stewardess appeared and asked if anyone in our privileged little group would volunteer to give up their seat for a man with a heart condition. I lowered my gaze and prayed that someone else would make the sacrifice, shocked at how much my own comfort mattered to me, dismayed at the extent of my selfishness. I was saved by a more altruistic soul, a fellow much younger than me, more flexible, I told myself, less needy.
And so I settled in for the long duration, realizing at one point that my grandfather had made this crossing in a crowded steamship exactly one hundred years earlier almost to the day, and I savored this symmetry for a little while, marveling at how much the world has changed in a century, acknowledging the relative luxury and comfort of my life. Then I swallowed an Ambien and waited for sweet unconsciousness. When all is said and done, I am a “wake me up when it’s over” type of flyer.
But I’ve never gotten over the fact that we can do it at all.