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Flight 393

I arrive at the airport in Paris with barely an hour to spare before my flight.  I’m usually much more conscientious, especially when traveling:  I like to be two or even three hours early when I’m flying.  I like to wander the crowded terminal, pulling my suitcase along behind me like an obedient child, rolling, rolling, rolling.  I look closely at all the jewelry, the salesladies growing nervous and watching me hawk-like with heavily made up eyes.  I always wonder if the makeup makes it more difficult to see—as a kid I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup and even now it just makes me anxious—but I think it would be rude to ask.  I go to the perfume store and spritz all the tester bottles, pretend to smell judiciously like a potential paying customer would.  Then I shake my head, gravely, as if the store has disappointed me deeply despite its duty-free price tags, and I roll my suitcase away.

Because I have so much time, I usually eat in one of the restaurants:  table for one, a steak and a beer.  I love airports because you can order a beer at ten in the morning and no one looks at you twice.  It’s thrilling; anonymous; never lonely.  I watch kids in their Mickey ears, drooping, over-stimulated; college kids returning from spring break, tan and hungover; couples returning from romantic vacations, so tired of each other they barely speak.  After I pay my bill and tip the waitress, I make a trip to the restroom. This is always an ordeal in airports.  You have to maneuver with your roller bag in the stall, plus a purse and sometimes a coat, and the coat hooks on the back of the stall door are always missing or broken.  I get anxious here but it’s better than the antiseptic claustrophobia of a plane bathroom, so I hold my breath, squat over the bowl and pee, then try not to fall sideways as I grope for toilet paper.  I’m clumsy on solid ground; you can imagine that trying to pee into a bowl while 30,000 feet above the earth and moving at a speed of 550 mph seems to me an impossible feat.

I always feel better when I get to the gate, and I don’t drink anything else, no matter how thirsty I am.  I don’t want to risk it.  I chew gum and then suck on Jollyranchers instead, mint and apple flavors mingling with a strange metallic taste on my tongue.  I have a ritual here too:  headphones go in, making me seem like everyone else with white wires sprouting from ears, tethering us to purses or belts where our iPods are hiding.  I pick from a stack of the trashy magazines I’ve bought at CVS the night before:  Us Weekly, Ok, Entertainment Tonight.  I read about this celebrity’s wedding, that one’s third divorce, this one’s potential baby bump (later proven to be only a few extra pounds, not a pregnancy), that one’s racist, drunken meltdown (complete with mug shots).  When I finish reading one, I don’t save it for my coffee table like some people do; I get right up from my seat and throw it away.  I don’t like carrying things I don’t need any more. I feel weighed down.  So I just get up and throw the read magazine in the trash.  Then I sit down and move on to the next one.  I have a pace:  one magazine per half hour.  If I read any faster I go back and look at the photos again so I don’t mess up my schedule.  Then I won’t have anything to do on the plane.  So I read, usually two whole magazines, until the plane starts boarding, then I put all my stuff away and stand up, even if I’m not boarding until very last.  I like to be ready.

So I am a little nervous when I get to the airport in Paris, clutching my ticket for Air France Flight 393 to JFK, and my plane leaves in an hour.  I got confused on the metro and promptly forgot all the simple French phrases I had studied so hard when my mom invited me to come see her and her new boyfriend.  They had an event this afternoon and couldn’t see me off, but I told them I would be fine, I was an adult, I had studied French for weeks before coming over and knew how to read the metro signs.  

I get through security without a problem, but my heart is pumping furiously anyway; I have to make a quick decision, and I can’t decide if I want a sandwich or a slice of pizza, and I forget how to order anything in French so I just go up to the deli counter with the shortest line and point mutely at what looks like a turkey pita.  I pay for it with some euros I have left over, without any idea how much I’m actually shelling out.  I’m thirsty, so I get a soda too, Pepsi, and go right to my gate.  I’m getting more anxious as I eat my dinner hurriedly, because I’m not going to have time to go to the restroom if I want to stand by the door as the passengers board.  I take four deep breaths because I start feeling calmer after four, and I remind myself that I peed once in the plane bathroom on the way over, and it wasn’t so bad.  I can do this.  So I finish my sandwich and get up to throw away the wrapper; sit down and finish my soda, the bubbles fizzing in the back of my throat as I gulp it down, then get up and throw the bottle in the recycling bin next to the trash can.  I put in my headphones and press play on my iPod, nervously; I pause it every time I think they’re making an announcement at my gate.  Mozart sounds like he’s being played on a skipping record player.

Just as I’m deciding I have time to go to the restroom after all, they announce that they’re boarding for Air France Flight 393.  Everyone gets up, and I get up too, even though I’ve memorized the layout of the plane and I’m sitting so close to the door that I’ll probably be boarded last.  I’m 8F, on the aisle.  The plane is one of those that has two seats and then three seats and then two seats again.  I’m in a two-seat section, but not next to the window.  Looking out the window in a car or train makes me dizzy; looking out the window of a plane gives me vertigo and once as a kid I passed out. 

I wait and wait by the door until they call my row and then I’m first in line.  I roll my suitcase down the walkway.  As a kid I always thought the walkway to the plane could lead anywhere:  maybe we’d come out on the moon, or in Alabama.  (My mom grew up in Alabama, and as a kid it fascinated me that she had her childhood so far away from New York.

I find my seat and wedge my suitcase in the compartment right above it.  My seatmate isn’t here yet, because I was first in line for my section.  The plane air is cold and stale.  I hate the way it smells:  days old, breathed in and out too many times.  I sit down in the scratchy blue seat and buckle my seat belt.  Then I quick take my iPod back out and stick the earbuds in my ears and play my music, close my eyes, so I don’t have to talk.  Strangers make me afraid.  I know they shouldn’t because I’m twenty-three and not eight, but they do anyway and my therapist says it’s okay, and I don’t have to fight it all the time.  I’ve ordered my sandwich and come through security and tried to ask for help on the metro, so it’s okay if I don’t want to talk to strangers during the flight.  Except for the stewardess when I have to ask for an apple juice.  It’s weird, but I have to drink apple juice on planes.  When I was little it used to calm my stomach, so it makes me feel better when I drink it during a flight.

Someone is leaning over me, then squeezing past my knees, and I move them to one side to accommodate him.  I can tell it’s a man because of the cologne.  I guess, with my eyes still closed, that he’s in his sixties and wearing a tweed blazer, and when I peek I’m right.  I close my eyes again and pretend to be sleeping until I hear the stewardess walking toward me closing all the overhead compartments.  I take one earbud out while they’re doing the safety demonstration, because without my music I get too scared imagining all the things that could go wrong.  Then they make everyone turn off all their electronics, and I take lots of deep breaths, more than four, because I get the most nervous during takeoff.

We rumble down the runway and the nose of the plane points into the sky, and my stomach clenches in fear, and I take deep breaths and remind myself of all the flights I’ve taken and all the times that the takeoff has gone just fine, and that there are more car accidents every day than plane accidents, and that the pilot has done this a million times, and by then we’ve leveled off and I can breathe at a normal speed again.  When I was a kid my mom used to hold my hand during takeoff and landing.  I try not to think about that now because it gives me a strange feeling in my stomach, like a dull swooping sensation.  Susan, my therapist, says this is sadness because I miss my mom now that she lives in France with her boyfriend.  Susan is usually right, so I guess I am sad because my mom lives across the ocean.  It is much further than when she lived in Hoboken, because then I could just take the N train from my apartment in Chinatown to 33rd Street and get on the Path train and go under the river. 

After a while the drink cart finally comes through, which is great because I’m thirsty.  I practice in my head:  jus de pomme, jus de pomme.  When the surly French steward glares at me, I mumble in English that I want apple juice.  He sighs heavily, as if taking orders in a language he speaks fluently is a terrible burden.  The man next to me orders in French, and the steward pours some scotch over ice and hands it to him, splashing a tangy drop of alcohol on my tray table.  He plunks my juice down on top of a napkin, sloshing it in a puddle across the tray.  It dribbles into the circular depression meant to keep drinks from sliding if there’s turbulence.  As this thought passes through my head I repeat the last word because I like the sound of it: turbulence, turbulence, turbulence.  In any case, I have nothing to sop up the liquid with, so I drink my juice and stare at the ugly blue fabric of the seat back in front of me.  I check my watch:  we’re fifty-seven minutes into the eight-hour flight.

Susan recommended that I make a schedule of activities for myself so I don’t get too antsy.  It worked well on the way over, and I was especially glad she suggested I not rely on watching the in-flight movie, in case I didn’t like what they were playing.  On the way over it was Black Swan.  I hate scary movies because they scare me, and I hate ballerinas.  They walk like ducks.  For some reason I have a fear of ballerinas akin to what some people feel about clowns:  seemingly innocent, but terrifying to me for some inexplicable reason.  Luckily I had booked myself solid:  two issues of the New Yorker I had saved for the occasion (for a total of 3 hours of reading), an Us Weekly to give my mind a break, a chapter of crossword puzzles, and a Mozart playlist I like to listen to without doing anything else.  That plus dinner and an hour-long nap got me through the night.

It’s nighttime now again and they’re going to serve a meal and then show Little Fockers.  I’m relieved because I don’t have any New Yorkers left.  I have a book my mom gave me, which is funny because you’d think since she’s my mom that she’d remember I don’t really like to read books.  I wish she’d bought me something else, even if it was in French—French Vogue or French Cosmo.  At least I could look at the pictures and imagine what the headlines and articles said.  The book is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and she said she thought I’d like it because the narrator is like me.

I know what she means and I don’t know what she means.  I understand because the boy in the book has Asperger’s syndrome like me.  But he’s a boy and he’s younger than me and he’s not real and he wants to be a detective, so he’s not really like me at all.  Anyway, I’m glad they’re showing a funny movie because I don’t want to read the book now.  I will because my mom gave it to me and I feel like I should.  But I’ll spend so much energy trying to figure out what exactly makes the boy like me that I’m tired just thinking about it.

Dinner comes and it is limp penne pasta in a red sauce with chicken and broccoli and a roll.  I eat every bite of it and wish there were more.  My mom always laughed at me when I was younger because I got so hungry traveling.  I still do.  I eat in the airport, I eat on the plane.  It makes my stomach feel less empty, and then I don’t get nauseous.  Luckily I have a huge bar of French chocolate in my bag.  I take it out and eat half, then wrap the rest carefully and put it back.

Dinner has been cleared and I’m halfway through Us Weekly when it happens.  I’m listening to my iPod, Debussy now, when the man next to me makes a strange gurgling sound, then a sharp exhale, then clutches his throat, then slumps sideways into me.  His weight collapses on me for a moment until I jump up, magazine torn and falling crumpled under the seat, and press the call button frantically, then yell that we need help, a doctor, and I stand in the aisle, still listening to Debussy, as the flight attendants move into action.  Someone radios to the pilot the situation, then gets on the intercom and asks for a doctor.  One appears from behind the first class curtain, and he so resembles the man who is sick (silver hair, ruddy face, tweed jacket) that I shrink back.  Someone asks me if I know him and I shake my head mutely.  The doctor asks if he ate or drank anything strange.  I tell him he had scotch from the cart and the same dinner as me and everyone else (the non-vegetarian option).  This makes my stomach freeze, and I take eight deep breaths through my nose and remind myself that the whole plane would be sick if something was wrong with the food.

They work over the man whose name I do not know for a long time: they open his shirt and use those paddles you always see on TV.  The doctor performs CPR.  They do other things I don’t know the name of.  Passengers are craning their necks, morbidly curious.  I can’t tear my eyes away either:  a bad car accident or a line of emergency vehicles on your street.  Debussy is playing a strangely calming soundtrack to the frenetic activity.  

After twenty-one minutes by my watch, the doctor shakes his head.  Even though only a few people are looking when he does this, a hush falls over the entire cabin.  One of the attendants leaves to inform the pilot, then announces over the intercom that the passenger has died.  There is a horrified murmur, and people closest to my empty seat lean as far away from it as possible, as if death were contagious.

One of the stewardesses takes me by the elbow and guides me to the bay where coffee is brewing.  She opens a door that turns out not to be a cabinet but a refrigerator and hands me a bottle of water.  She explains softly that the flight is full, and they have no space to store the man’s body because all the free areas must be kept clear for emergencies.  I want to laugh—isn’t this an emergency?  What are the odds of another one happening on this flight in the next six hours and seventeen minutes?—but I don’t.  I sip my water.  I want to tell her I can’t do this, I have Asperger’s syndrome and an anxiety disorder, I’d rather stand back here by the coffee for the next six hours and sixteen minutes.  I can’t seem to form any words, in any spoken language.  She smiles sympathetically, but this has stopped being her problem.  She pats my shoulder and says she’ll come back for me when my seat area is cleared up as much as possible.

Time passes, and it’s like I’m outside it.  I start remembering things.  I remember how my mom’s boyfriend makes me feel anxious, like he doesn’t really care about me or my mom.  I remember how he would watch TV when she was telling him about what we did that day: we saw the Mona Lisa, we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  He would leave the apartment (he calls it a flat, but my mom doesn’t) without telling her where he was going.  I could see the look in her eye that meant she felt upset and all I could do was give her a hug, and she’d be surprised because I used to not know what being upset meant, even when it happened to me.

The stewardess beckons to me from the aisle next to my seat, and I am feeling upset.  I know this because my throat feels thick and there’s a pressure behind my eyes that usually makes me cry, but I never cry in public so I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what to do, so I walk slowly toward her as if I were being beckoned onstage with a hundred ballerinas, and I look down in fear that I’m wearing a tutu.  I’m still in my jeans and sweater, so I take four deep breaths.

She ushers me into my seat and says thank you, and says other things; my hearing fades out.  Though she’s speaking English, “thank you” has suddenly become the only phrase I understand.

She leaves me alone next to the dead body of the man whose name I still don’t know and I am acutely aware of everyone staring at me in horror.  To prove to Susan’s voice in my head, which asks me whether everyone was actually staring or it just felt that way, I peer around fearfully.  I make eye contact with six people:  green eyes brown eyes blue eyes, and none of them look away as they normally would when caught staring.  Nothing about this situation is normal.  I sit back in my seat, pressing myself so hard away from the body of the man that I feel the armrest digging into my thigh and my elbow simultaneously.  I breathe in and out, in and out, but this doesn’t help because of the smell.  Antiseptic and something else:  something dark and stale and musty.  I peek around my lowered eyelashes at the man next to me.

I have never seen a dead body before.

They have leaned the seat back a little—perhaps so he doesn’t fall forward.  His fleshy face is blotched purple and looks like he’s wearing a lumpy mask.  Everything about him is unnaturally still.  Tears well in my eyes and I swallow and swallow against the lump in my throat.  I can’t cry, I can’t cry, I can’t cry.

I tear my eyes away.  I am so afraid that I know if I do something familiar—read Us Weekly or listen to music or do crosswords—I will start hyperventilating.  The familiarity in the face of this impossible situation, far from comforting me, would undo me.  So I pull out the shiny new copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, annoyed at how heavy and bulky it is to hold, and open to page one.

I read as if for dear life, willing each word to carry me away from myself and the dead body resting motionless beside me.

Every now and then I peek to make sure he’s still dead, still motionless. I can’t look at his face again so I look at other things—his left pinky finger, adorned with an ornate gold ring.  There’s a small hole in the right knee of his trousers.  Someone has rebuttoned his blue oxford shirt and the top button of his tweed blazer, and the buttons don’t move at all because he’s not asleep, and he never looks asleep.  Always dead.

I check my watch every six minutes for the next 240 minutes.  I seem incapable of allowing more or less time to pass between watch checkings.  Even so, each 6-minute increment is the longest 6-minute increment of my life.

People around me sleep.  The attendants bring pillows and take drink and snack orders in hushed tones.  I watch parts of Little Fockers in silence.  I’m still listening to Debussy, I don’t want to listen to the movie, don’t want to hear punchlines.  The garish colors and dramatic gestures alone are too much, and I turn my face back to my book and focus on the black words on the white page until my eyes tear in concentration.

It is the longest night I have ever spent, longer even than the night I went camping with my Girl Scout troop and lay awake in fear, tears slipping from the corners of my eyes, too afraid of the dark to get up and find a chaperone.  As soon as dawn came I went to the pay phone and called my mom to come get me.  But there’s no phone I can use here, and my mom can’t come get me.  The flight attendants check on me often (approximately every 26 minutes of the long, long night), bringing me water, offering me peanuts, pretzels, a stiff drink.  The thought of the smell of scotch—the fact that scotch is sloshing around the stomach of the dead man next to me—almost makes me gag.  I refuse the water and the food until the surly steward remembers and brings me a cup of apple juice with no ice, and I drink that.

When we finally begin our descent I am too tired and numb to fit any more fear in my bones.  Consequently it is the most fearless landing I have ever experienced.  Once we touch down and arrive at the gate they ask everyone to remain seated, and the pilot himself comes back and escorts me from my seat, rolling my suitcase for me down the narrow aisle.  I keep my eyes on his long, thin fingers curled around the suitcase handle to avoid all the curious, sympathetic, disgusted gazes.  The pilot assures me that the airline will send me a gift because of my inconvenience, and I laugh.  

I call Susan’s office and it’s only 7 AM, so they’re not open, and I leave a voicemail that I need an emergency session at 5PM.  I treat myself to a cab, too afraid of who I might have to sit next to on the subway.  I text my mom to tell her I got here safely.  I hope she’s not too attached to Paris and her boyfriend, because I will never get on a plane again in my life


Brooke Law is a student in Fairfield University’s MFA program, where she is working on a novel.  She also runs the book review blog Books Distilled. She lives in Long Island, NY with her husband.


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