Walter Bitner

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Flying

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I am sitting in Seat 14D, a window seat on a medium size passenger airplane. In the economy class section of the plane where I am seated there are four seats across the width of the giant metal tube – two seats on each side with an aisle down the middle between them. Other passengers are filing down the aisle as I sit here typing on my laptop and the plane’s public address system is playing country music songs. I’ve been sitting here for about five minutes as the rest of the passengers board the plane.

It’s warm. Although it’s cold and drizzling outside, so many bodies inside this enclosed space promise to make the next two hours an intense experience.

The captain comes on the intercom and tells us to prepare for some turbulence on the flight ahead, and that the weather forecast predicts four inches of snow in Detroit tonight, which is where we’re headed.

The music is discontinued soon after I sit down and begin typing and the flight attendants make noises over the intercom, words about safety and tray tables, questions for passengers about baggage that doesn’t fit in the overhead compartments. One of them tells me to put away my laptop “at this time”.

I close the computer and place it in the pocket in the back of the seat in front of me. It takes a few minutes for the plane to wind its way around the lanes of the airport as the pilot maneuvers us to the runway. I sit quietly, feeling a bit cramped in my seat, breathing, waiting. I can sense and hear vibrations all around me, layers of vibrations from the aircraft that set my own body vibrating as well. Outside my window I can see the wing of the airplane which is attached to the tube a few feet in front of me, and there’s a powerful low pitched hum from the jet engines right outside, only a few feet away – I not only hear this but feel it in my body, absorbed from contact with the plane through my feet on the floor and my body in the seat, from leaning against the wall of the tube. There is an occasional clattering and bumping as the wheels of the landing gear roll over inconsistencies in the pavement underneath us, and a loud white noise from air conditioning system blows over everything, making it impossible for me to understand the flight attendant when I hear her voice over the intercom. The lights inside the airplane dim.

Soon the roar and intensity of vibrations from the engine begin steadily to increase and the plane picks up speed, pushing me into my seat. I feel the angle of the aircraft change as the plane takes off, and in a few minutes we are thousands of feet in the air.

I feel no fear.

There have been times in the past when I have found journeys on airplanes unpleasant, and the captain’s warning about “rough air” has prepped me for a potentially miserable time tonight, but I do not feel afraid.

 

 

Almost all of the people in the seats around me are engaged with electronic devices, occupying their minds, but I sit here instead and breathe and feel the vibrations and the sounds around me for a few minutes until the lights inside the cabin brighten and it seems like I will be able to pull out my laptop and write some more without violating aviation procedures.

The woman sitting next to me in Seat 14C is wearing a denim jacket that looks like the one I have hanging in the closet by the front door of our apartment at home, but I didn’t bring mine on this trip because it’s February 5 and supposed to snow while I’m in Detroit – I brought a warmer alternative. The last time I made this trip to Motor City was during last winter’s Polar Vortex, and my memory of that trip is very cold. I liked Denim Jacket immediately when she sat down next to me though, I suppose because she chose to wear this jacket which is just like one of my own favorites. It looks identical – a stone-washed standard issue Levi’s denim jacket, or one in that iconic style. She has pale skin and freckles, brown hair tied back in a loose ponytail, and looks to be about forty years old. She’s wearing gray jeans and a white blouse with tiny black polka dots under the jacket, and her fingernails are painted bright red. Her shoes look like bedroom slippers.

Denim Jacket has spent the flight so far engaged with her phone, playing a colorful word search game. She now reaches into her bag which is laying under the seat in front of her, pulls out a takeout container and begins to eat some kind of stir-fried rice dish. She is eating this two feet away from me as I type and the odor of her meal is strong, almost overpowering, a sweet spicy Caribbean smell that I can’t help inhaling as I sit here so close to her, breathing in and out like I always do, inhaling the smell of her dinner with every breath. In a predictable reaction to this my stomach begins to ache and I realize that I haven’t eaten in about five hours – I’m hungry. It will be another two hours at least and probably three before I get dinner, after we land in Detroit, I make my way to the hotel, check in, and meet up with my colleague as we spoke about on the phone yesterday. Miles to go before I sleep.

As if it was scheduled beforehand, Flight Attendant shows up right on cue in the aisle ahead pushing the cart of snacks and beverages. Temporary relief is in sight! She soon arrives and informs us that we may choose a snack of either almonds or biscotti. I choose almonds, as does Denim Jacket. Flight Attendant hands us each a small plastic packet labeled “Classic Almonds”, and when she asks me what I would like to drink, I ask for seltzer with ice. Denim Jacket says “I’d like that too,” and she turns her head and smiles at me. It’s the first she’s acknowledged that I am sitting here, although our bodies are so close we’re almost touching, even though we’ve been sitting like this for over an hour now, even though we’re in a giant metal tube hurtling through the air at a rate of hundreds of miles per hour. But we don’t speak, she turns her attention back to her phone, and Flight Attendant hands us each our plastic cups with carbonated water and ice cubes and rolls down the aisle behind us.

I tear the corner of my packet of Classic Almonds and begin to eat them one at a time. I enjoy the salty, smoky flavor and the sensation inside my mouth as my teeth bite through each nut. Denim Jacket eats her Classic Almonds in a few handfuls and is finished with her packet before I begin on the fourth one in my packet. I try to count them as I eat them one at a time but this proves to be too difficult an exercise for my attention to sustain right now, and I lose track.

Thoughts about almonds arise in my mind as I eat. I wonder how many almonds are in this packet, and I estimate there are about two dozen, and imagine that it was someone’s job in the almond factory to count out 24 almonds and place them in each packet sitting in front of a conveyer belt as almonds roll by in front of them. Immediately I smile at myself and think that this is almost certainly not how these almonds got into my small packet of Classic Almonds – aren’t they measured out by weight, not number? This is the twenty-first century, filling these packets is an automated process.

I think about the fact that I pronounce the word almond differently than anyone I’ve met in the last thirty-five years, except for my wife. Everyone I meet pronounces the word almost the same as they would pronounce it in the name of The Allman Brothers Band but I pronounce almond as if it rhymes with salmon. And wouldn’t that be consistent with the practice of speaking English according to spelling conventions? I believe that I have done this since I was a teenager, and my idiosyncratic pronunciation is based on some memory of hearing it pronounced that way when I lived in California many years ago. My wife pronounces almond the same way, and our children learned to do this from us, but eventually they grew up and realized that nobody else does this, nobody they have ever met anyway, and why is that? From time to time we say the word and one of them hears and teases us about it. Why do we pronounce almond like it rhymes with salmon? I don’t know. My wife lived in California too, many years ago before we met, we have never been there together, did I learn to pronounce almond this way from her? I don’t know.

I finish eating the almonds slowly and drink the seltzer. The ice cubes knock against my teeth as I tilt the plastic cup to finish pouring the cold effervescent liquid into my mouth. I sense my ears adjusting to the change in air pressure but they have not closed up completely as they have done on some airplane flights I’ve been on. My arms and elbows ache a little from keeping my arms close to my sides for so long without stretching but there is nothing I can do about this right now. I flex my toes inside my Birkenstocks a few times. My lower back has started to ache too and I try to sit up and straighten my spine but it’s a difficult posture to attain in this tiny airplane seat, crammed against the window, typing on my laptop as it rests on the gray tray table in front of me.

I try to sip more seltzer from the plastic cup but I have drank all of it now and it’s gone, there is only ice left. I start to imagine drinking a cold beer at the hotel bar tonight when I arrive, but the plane begins to rock and my gut heaves. It feels so unpleasant a wave of nausea washes over me and I close the laptop and lean against the window, waiting for it to pass. I don’t remember ever puking on an airplane but there are times when this sensation has felt so intense I feared I was going to.

This is not going to be that first time. The “rough air” passes in a few minutes and I hear Flight Attendant’s voice over the intercom, informing us that we will be landing in Detroit soon, reciting her script about stowing our tray tables and making certain our seatbelts are fastened and to be aware that our belongings in the overhead compartments may have shifted during the flight. She sounds bored and tired. She tells us that it is snowing in Detroit and then she stops talking and walks down the aisle with a trash bag. I hand her my plastic cup as she walks by and fold my laptop, slide it into the seat pocket again, and put up my tray table.

I close my eyes for a few minutes and lean against the wall of the giant flying tube, breathing as always. I notice how the engine outside my window not only roars basso profundo but also emits high pitched whines at several different frequencies simultaneously and I listen to this for a while. Suddenly there is a loud cracking sound under my feet, a jolt I sense with the soles of my feet through my Birks, like melting icicles breaking off the edge of a roof and falling to the ground as the landing gear drops out of a compartment in the belly of the plane as it tilts forward and we plummet through the sky towards the ground. I peer out the window but everything appears to be hidden in mist. I close my eyes and wait, breathing. I hear only the mechanical whines and hums of machinery, nobody speaks at all as we wait together, and sooner than we expect the plane lurches as the wheels of the landing gear make contact with the runway. The flight is over, we are on the ground again, and the feeling of relief inside the plane is palpable, even though nobody says anything about it as conversations resume. As the plane rolls towards the gate the people around me unbuckle their seatbelts and prepare to leave, and when we finally stop moving they stand up and fill the aisles, impatient to get out as soon as possible.

 


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