He was almost half asleep in his seat. Meds seemed to be working this time. He had taken more than enough to drug an adult elephant. He was scared to death when things didn’t go as planned. And this time he was thinking that hell was about to break loose. A loud voice forced him to open both eyes
-Sir, is anyone sitting here? a woman asked him
-Thanx cause I don’t like sitting at the back, she said and after placing her oversized cabin luggage above them she just sat as if taking a dive into the ocean in the seat right next to him.
He could feel anxiety rising and his spine pinching. He was angry. So angry. He managed to say
-What does your boarding pass write?
Jesus. Where did these people come from? Acting as if an airplane is like riding a public downtown bus.
-Oh, I have no clue. I never look at them, I just seat wherever seems more comfortable as long as its a corridor seat, she replied.
WHAT? he mutedly thought. He had been planning where to seat for more than 5 months prior to this trip. He had examined thoroughly online the airplane type in Seatguru.com, checked which seats were the safest -if anything malfunctioned- and in order to secure one of them he had been online since the second check in was made available for his flight so that no one else would take what he wanted.
She spoke again interrupting his inner monologue.
-Are you traveling alone? She asked with that loud voice again
-No. (Keep your answers short, she will stop talking at some point)
-And were is the rest of your company?
-At the back (I cannot even stand them on a flight, he silently added).
-I was that close to losing the plane. I fell asleep and my suitcase was not ready, I couldn’t find a taxi for the airport, I was running like crazy, lucky me I got in the gate a second before it closed, she said in an exciting way.
-Yes. Lucky you, he murmured.
This is just great. He had 12 hours of flying ahead of him with an irritating woman again next to him preventing him from a drugged sleep just when the meds started to kick in. There was no way he wouldn’t be drugged to make it through this ordeal of being in the air. Especially after he thought that he would travel alone.
He doesn’t remember when all of this began but he never felt safe up there in the sky even if he had read dozens of studies saying that its the safest way of traveling. And boy, didnt he love going to places all over the world. He just couldn’t stand going there on a big bird. He often got frustrated by thinking that it was time technology found a way to transfer people instantly to the places they wished to be. On the other hand, he often argued against his own wish that part of the trip is going somewhere, not just landing on a place on the planet.
The engines were in medium power, the plane hadn’t started ascending yet but it was close to doing that. He felt it by seeing boarding to be complete and the stewardesses showing what people should do in case of…”stop thinking of that damned”. He had exercised himself well in putting an end in thoughts that made him feel uncomfortable. As well as he might have exercised though, at this point of time, he started sweating again.
-Are you ok? You seem a little ill. The woman asked him and he was more than ready to knock her down if she spoke one more word. He didn’t answer but he knew already that it was going to be a really long flight. He wanted to start yelling at her but took a deep breath instead.
Wheels started moving on the tarmac and he hold his breath once again while looking out of the window and grabbing the seat handles as tightly as possible.
Suddenly while the plane was speeding up on the runway he felt something on his left hand. He moved his eyeballs without turning his head to the place he felt a skin on his skin.
She had taken his hand in her hand and was holding it firm.
-I am sorry I was late. I know how nervous you get. But you know, there was no way I wouldn’t make it, she told him in a low husky voice, almost apologetic.
-I want to just kill you right now, Claire. I have fantasized a million ways of doing that until I saw you on the door of the plane. How many times have you done that? Being the last one when you know what happens to me.
The plane started ascending and he was on the verge of breaking but now she was there and everything seemed a little bit better.
-Ok, Peter, first of all, I said am sorry. Secondly, I was working late last night and barely slept for 3 hours before waking up and seeing I overslept. But am here now, doesn’t that count?
-Yes. It does, he said still looking out of the window all these buildings becoming smaller and smaller until they were just dots.
It was a game that they played for the last 12 years they knew each other. Pretending after their first random flight to be complete strangers. They met on a plane on a transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Boston when they were barely 23 years old. They were both heading to an MIT exchange university program and all European participants were scheduled to travel through Frankfurt so that they could get to know each other better pending their arrival to Boston.
Peter was scared of airplanes. She was scared of nothing. Or almost nothing. But anything that could scare her was far away from a plane flying above the sea.
They were seated next to each other at that trip and while he was on the verge of dying she kept talking for the whole 9 hour flight so much that after a while he forgot how scared he was and just focused on what he felt he wanted to do more than anything else; make her shush.
She, of course, had understood that he was frightened the minute she sat next to him. His color was changing from pale white to almost an ill yellow within seconds. She couldn’t understand how someone is afraid of flying. For her it was like being afraid of a cat or a dog or taking out trash at night. But she well respected people’s fears even if she couldn’t comprehend them. So, when she saw him on that first trip ready to faint although they were strangers she just grabbed his hand and said
-Everything will be ok, no worries.
-Please can you let go of my hand? he said
-Yes, I can but considering the color on your face I think its wiser to keep holding it just in case you die suddenly and I keep flying for 9 more hours with a corpse next to me. Not what you would describe as a perfect trip, right? she asked laughing.
Is that girl on medication? This was his first thought. But he didn’t pull his hand from hers until it was hours later that he decided to visit the wc. She was still talking to him even when he was two seats behind in the corridor leading him to the back of the plane.
When he returned he sat and buckled immediately. She started talking again. She kept asking him questions. So many questions that in order for him to answer he didn’t, anymore, have a second to spare in order to remember that they were flying over the ocean, helpless if anything happened.
He got to take a good look at her the minute the plane landed while he was thanking every God on earth for making it to Boston alive and kicking.
She had a smile as if flying was taking out her dog for a walk, he thought.
The next few weeks he barely saw her on the campus premises until it was time to get into the return flight again. He was starting to sweat all over when she got into the plane as the last boarding passenger saying sorry to the people waiting for her and bumping into seats with her things until she saw him and sat next to him on the corridor seat.
-Phew, I thought I wouldn’t make it, she said
-It seems that you have a habit of almost losing planes, he said
-Yes but I never have so you got to stuck with me again
And she just grabbed his hand again on the airplane take off and she kept on sharing stories with him until they landed on safe ground.
Half an hour later, while waiting for his baggage claim Claire came to him and gave him her boarding pass with something written on it.
-This is my email. If you ever feel like being afraid of flying again just give me a call, bye
And just like that she vanished into thin air.
On the years that followed Peter left the country to work abroad, in Rome. Claire was jumping from one job to another in Paris. But every time Peter scheduled a long trip, once every one or two years, he just booked her a ticket and send it to her so that she could travel with him. They kept meeting on planes each one coming from work, or a friends wedding, one time she almost boarded on a bridesmaid gown and he couldn’t stop laughing. Every time they almost had reverse psychologies. When she was happy he was troubled and when he was over the roof with joy she was holding back.
Sometimes she stayed for 1 or 2 nights at his final destination but mainly she was his airplane safety net. After that, they solely continued their trips and lives as if they were random co-passengers of flights.
But this time she hadn’t even replied to say she was coming. He didn’t think that she would come although she had never missed a trip. Moreover, she kept asking to pay for her own ticket but Peter felt it was the least price he could pay for making it to his destination without having a nervous break down.
-I think that maybe next time you can fly on your own, she said
-Why? Are you going to be away somewhere? he replied and fear started to grow inside him once again
-No, but I think that you’ve made so much progress that you can travel without being scared with also other people next to you, like your friends or a girlfriend, a fiance, anyone.
-You say this as if this is the last time you seat next to me on a plane.
-No, no, I am not saying that but you are strong enough and at some point you have to just try letting go of this fear. You have traveled half the planet and still you do not let go just because you are in a flying machine up in the air above the sea…
-You do understand that first of all its almost impossible to find someone talking as much as you do and keeping my mind busy for so many hours and secondly when you describe it like this, at the exact moment that it happens we are flying, I just wish I could strangle you?
She again started laughing.
-No you wouldn’t. You were just listening to California dreamin’ a second ago, do not try to deny it, I know that you have an earbud hanging on the other side of your head when I am talking to you. And trust me, no man listening to that song can strangle a woman just because she is talking too much
-You are once again irritating when you analyze me like that. For your information, I can get really mad. It just happens that when you are next to me this just doesn’t externalize itself.
-Is that a new word you just invented? Cause this is something I usually do Peter, remember?
-I never forget, he said and he changed the subject asking her of how things in her life are at the moment.
The last time he saw her, a year ago, she was broken hearted and he was happier than ever. And when they said goodbye at that trip, the only trip she didn’t constantly talk, he just wanted to tell her “hey, let’s jump on another plane” just to try doing on reverse what was happening for years. Him talking and her listening. Him helping her feel better. But something stopped him.
-I am good, really good, work is fine, I have time to do the things I like and I got to meet some really great people on my last trip to Singapore, she said
-Maybe, who knows? Time will tell.
But even if he only shared with her airplane hours he knew that she was troubled. He could sense it in an inexplicable way.
-We are not all that good in relationships like you mr-california-dreamin’-listening-guy, she said and burst into laughing
-Actually, just to make things right, I haven’t been living lately on what you ‘d call my own little paradise
-Oh, so there are problems in heaven also? What happened? This year you didn’t make a bonus big enough to feed the world’s poor?
-Stop it, he said trying to contain his laughter
-I don’t want to know
-Really? You? Not wanting to ask a question? How come? Are you ill or something?
-No, I am just a little tired, that’s all.
And she kept talking for hours and at some point Peter for the first time closed his eyes and let loose and fell asleep. It wasn’t less than two hours later that he opened his eyes, terrified until understanding that everything was ok and the plane kept going. He felt something on his arm pushing him and when he turned his head to Claire he saw her sleeping while resting her head on his arm. Christ, he thought, she actually does stop talking at some point. He didn’t move an inch so that he wouldn’t wake her up and when he saw the stewardess moving along the plane corridor he made a sign to her with his free right hand to bring Claire a blanket.
They had three more hours ahead before landing in Lima and there he was 12 years after their first trip being able to sleep and moreover her not talking. As if you could, for a moment, think of the world stop spinning and it happening.
He placed the right bud in his ear and kept on listening to music for the next half hour almost relaxed but still aware of the height of the plane.
-Are you sleeping? she suddenly asked in that still-not-waken-up-voice
-I was, he replied.
-I am so sorry, I fell asleep
-Oh, I know. I was 5 minutes due to asking a refund on your ticket, he said laughing
-I was so tired, am so sorry, she said and tried to move so that she could sit straight in her seat.
He stopped her. She didn’t move.
-Will you stay in Lima for a couple of days? he asked her
-I have no idea, maybe. Aren’t you meeting up with friends there? I was thinking of grabbing the first plane back
-No, I am traveling by myself this time, he replied
-Really? You scare me Peter. You start doing what I do. See? Next time you will fly by yourself and be just fine
-The only thing I can hear is blah blah blah and a silent proposition of yours for me to finally pay a visit to a psychotherapist
-I would never say that. You know me. I may have thought about it but I’d never say it out loud, she said laughing while almost falling asleep again.
-Don’t let me sleep again, ok? And if you feel scared just tell me and I will keep talking, she carried on saying.
He grabbed her hand, tucked her in the blanket, gave her his left earbud, picked up the volume of the song and said
-Stay put, am fine. Everything is going to be ok. Do you trust me?
-Yes, I do, she said
And just like that she fell asleep again in seconds. And he kept talking to her from that moment until the plane landed.