by Natasha Glasser
HERE IS SOMETHING I HOPE NEVER HAPPENS TO YOU: WHILE boarding a plane, I hope your travel companion never turns to you and whispers, "I have a really bad feeling about this flight." That's what my boyfriend, Jay, did on our flight back from Portugal last month.
Saying that to me is like offering an alcoholic a drink. After three years together, he knows I'm the Queen of Worry. Well, not the Queen, my mother still holds that title. But through some kind of nature/nurture double whammy, I'm the heiress to the throne. What really made the whole thing so disturbing, though, was that Jay just doesn't say things like that. He never complains that anything hurts, he never says he's worried about money or his job or the future of the earth . . . and somehow, even though I know how profoundly screwed the planet is, I believe him. That is the balance of power. That is why we work. That should not be monkeyed with.
I have a bad feeling about this flight. What do you even say to a thing like that?
I went with "Have you met me?!" And "What is the matter with you?"
"What? I have a bad feeling."
"And? You think we should get off the plane?"
"No. It's fine. Besides, it's too late now. Forget I said anything."
Right. Like that would be possible without a lobotomy. We got to our seats and saw we were in an exit row. Not a problem in and of itself, though a little more responsibility than I was comfortable with. But we had three seats to ourselves, so we weren't about to complain. Then I noticed that a woman and her small baby were seated directly in front of us.
"Could that be the bad feeling? Being trapped next to a loud, crying baby?" I was grasping, I knew.
He closed his eyes, gripped the armrests, and exhaled loudly. "It's not that kind of a feeling," he pronounced, like he was some kind of mystic. Then he took his little airplane pil low, put it on my shoulder and closed his eyes. "Just go to sleep;' he mumbled. Amazing. He clearly didn't understand that worrying is an active pursuit.
I know enough about fear to know that it's all about lack of control, and you don't get a whole lot more out of control than hurtling through the sky in a massive soup can thirty-five thousand feet above ground. What I needed was the illusion of control. If I remained vigilant, maybe I'd, I don't know, see a piece fall off the wing and I'd be able to alert the pilot in a timely manner. Or maybe I'd be the only one to see my fellow passenger about to light his sneaker bomb while everyone else was sleeping or watching The Tuxedo, and I'd be able to alert the strapping young man sitting a few rows behind me to subdue him. (Whenever I board a plane, I always make note of a strapping young man just in case anyone needs to be subdued.)
I sat staring straight ahead at my upright tray table, annoyed that I'd let Jay get me so rattled. It would be fine.
I pulled out my Us Weekly. I always allow myself one trashy gossip rag per trip. They don't require much concentration, so an adequate level of vigilance can still be achieved. That occupied about an hour, and then it was back to tray-table staring. Several minutes went by without incident, and then we hit some turbulence. Nothing major, just the equivalent of a bumpy road, but it was enough to make me miserable. It did manage to wake Jay, though, so at least misery had some company.
"This is why you don't fly Air Portugal," I hissed. "I wanted to go on Continental." He had, in fact, found us a much cheaper fare on Air Portugal, and I had, in fact, been very happy about it. But that was then, and this was now, and now I was pissed.
"And how does that have anything to do with it?"
I was suddenly patriotic. "Well, our pilots know to go above or below the weather or something."
The bumping and lurching continued longer than it should have, I'm still convinced, but eventually things returned to normal and I relaxed a little. So did Jay. On my shoulder.
By this point, I was pretty exhausted, too. I wasn't going to sleep, mind you, I was just going to rest for a moment. I closed my eyes and put my head on Jay's shoulder. He reached up and stroked my hair. Some of the anger and fear went away. I remembered that he was kind. Nice. Good.
"Guess what, honey?" he mumbled. "I don't have a bad feeling anymore."
He was a moron. I was about to explain the profound karmic consequences of such a statement when the universe did it for me. As if on cue, the plane suddenly dropped like a stone and the lights started flashing and pinging, and there was a collective gasp as everyone clutched hands and hung in freefall.
Finally, after the longest five seconds of my life, we stabilized. Everyone exhaled and looked around with a shaky, smiley "That was a close one" expression on their faces. The plane stayed level. Which was good. But not enough. Because two seconds later it started to shake and shake—like the worst turbulence you've ever been in times ten. And it didn't stop. Then, one after another, the overhead bins opened and bags came tumbling into the aisle where the beverage cart was careening around wildly—unmanned since the flight crew had abandoned it to strap themselves into their little seats. I always look to the crew to gauge how bad any situation is. It always feels bad to me, but then I'll see that they are calm and chatting and having a diet cola and I'll feel better. I peered at them between the seats, and that's when I saw one of them make the sign of the cross.
They say you never know how you're going to react in an emergency. Introverted people take on gangs of muggers, weak people lift cars off babies—but I reacted pretty much the way I'd always figured I would; I just squeezed my eyes shut and tried to pretend none of it was happening. Jay, on the other hand...
I had his hand in a death grip, but he peeled it off. I opened my eyes and saw him undoing his seat belt. And standing up.
"What the hell are you doing?" I said.
" We need to get off," he answered. Very matter of fact.
"Are you insane? We're seven miles above the Atlantic Ocean. Sit down."
But he was already climbing over me, his eyes on the emergency exit to my left. I looked across the aisle, but the Portuguese couple sitting there had their blanket over their heads. Even worse candidates for an exit row than me. I glanced over at the flight crew again, but they were heatedly discussing something in Portuguese. An escape plan that they wouldn't be sharing with the rest of us, perhaps? An ejection capsule? Parachutes? I didn't know. What I did know was that my boyfriend was fiddling with the emergency door of the plane. He didn't really know what he was doing, but it also didn't look all that difficult to figure out.
Somebody needed to do something. I ran through my arsenal of skills: humor, reason, anger, pleading—all completely worthless at a time like this. Well, if I could not be the hero, at least I knew where he was sitting. Seat 39C. The strapping, Navy SEAL-esque guy I picked out earlier. There had been another contender I'd noticed during boarding, a muscle-bound guy with a barbed-wire neck tattoo, but he seemed potentially less selfless and wasn't seated on the aisle, I'd noted on my trip to the bathroom. Nope, 39C was my go-to guy.
I hesitated, wondering whether Jay could be trusted alone right now, even for thirty seconds. I studied him for a moment. He was still fiddling with the door handle, but in an idle way, like he was too paralyzed with fear to actually do anything that decisive. I unbuckled my seat belt and headed toward the back of the plane. The SEAL was just a few rows behind us, and everyone was too busy in their own panic spiral to pay me much mind as I headed back. I reached his seat and locked eyes with him. He looked relatively calm, all things considered, and was already undoing his seat belt even as I was saying what my face so clearly revealed: "I need you. Now."
He followed me up the aisle and we managed good speed despite the jerking and bucking of the plane. The flight crew was yelling something at us in Portuguese, but we ignored them. Jay and all the things that would be sucked out of the plane if the door were to be opened were still there, but his hand was on the handle. One good yank and bad, bad things would happen. I stopped a few inches from him. "Honey. Relax. You're fine. This isn't—"
There was a blur in my peripheral vision and my boyfriend went down. Sacked by the strapping Navy SEAL. And just like that, it was over.
The rest of the trip was bumpy, but bearable. Jay came to within a couple of minutes, and though it seemed pretty clear that the takedown had knocked some sense back into him, Navy SEAL guy and I still thought it best to keep him strapped into the seat between us for the remainder of the flight. Aside from a few mumbled "thanks" and "sorrys" and "I don't know what happened. I kind of lost its," Jay was silent. So I chatted with Navy SEAL guy (Dave) and learned that he was from Tennessee and had a fiancée named Tammy. Also, he was not a Navy SEAL. He had been in ROTC in college and now worked in pharmaceutical sales. All very light and small-talky, with no mention made of near-death experiences, mental breakdowns, or subduing.
When the landing announcement was made, he said goodbye to me and returned to 39C. I would've expected a parting exchange between the two men, but clearly some kind of macho wall had been broken. They instinctively understood that the only thing to say was nothing.
I also said nothing. I just took Jay's hand and held it. And when the plane finally touched down, and the passengers erupted in wild applause, we were whooping it up right along with them. It was a good feeling.
Natasha Glasser is a writer from New York City, and is currently working on a book of personal essays. She avoids flying whenever possible.
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