“I can’t stand sitting next to two people in a row. I have an uncanny sense of smell,” I explained to the Jet Blue phone reservationist. “There’s got to be an aisle seat somewhere on that plane.”
“I only have two windows left. How about a more leg room seat?”
“That won’t help. I can smell other people’s saliva even when their mouths are closed. Just knowing they have saliva bothers me. And I become very suspicious on planes. I report people constantly. I’m a nuisance. It’s in everyone’s best interest if I only have to sit next to one person at a time. Please find me an aisle seat. I’m begging you.”
“You’ll only be sitting next to one person if you keep your window seat.”
“It’s not the same. The window seat is a trap. There’s nothing but scalps everywhere. The aisle seat is like having my own apartment. I can face out and breathe in the fresh aisle air. I can see the flight attendants opening cans of soda and slamming cabinets shut in the kitchen. It’s like a live show.”
“I’m sorry,” she lied.
As soon as I got to my seat, I put on my headphones and opened my book, “The Language of Flowers.” I purposely brought it on the flight hoping an orphan who hits her bus driver over the head with her backpack would be enough of a distraction in case the person sitting next to me did something horrible like cough or scratch her leg.
As my soon-to-be seat mate approached our row, I could see he was a man dressed as an old woman. He was carrying a stiff pocketbook, obviously not real, and he had on a black, wool kerchief that completely obscured his face. It was one of the worst disguises I’ve ever seen. He didn’t even bother to shave his mustache. When the flight attendant asked him if he needed help with his bag, he shook his head and wagged his finger to pretend he didn’t speak English. But then I saw that he had on this dainty little gold bracelet watch. It was too good of a prop to be a fake. The man was a woman.
I relaxed a little, but as soon as the old woman plopped herself down next to me she sighed as loudly as a person could possibly sigh without shouting. She was the type that would have me doing favors for her the entire time, and I’m just the sucker who would do them. All I wanted was some private time to read my book and learn everything about the language of flowers.
I turned the page and quietly mouthed the words aloud so she would know I was concentrating on my translations:
Mistletoe: I surmount all obstacles
White poplar: Time
I smashed myself against the window as best I could to avoid any kind of physical contact, but she spread herself out so far, her upper arm was immediately touching mine. Married couples don’t sit that close, but she was obviously from a country where it’s perfectly normal to rub up against a stranger.
I casually stood up to brush some imaginary crumbs off my lap hoping she’d politely take the hint and adjust herself accordingly, but she wouldn’t budge. From a standing position I was able to see why she had to lean on me. It was her floor length puffer coat. It was too bulbous to be contained. The top half of her body mushroomed so far over the other side of her seat she had to tilt toward me to avoid completely falling over to the other side.
I sat back down and tried to read, but something started to smell like salami. I wasn’t sure if was her body or if she had a sandwich somewhere on her person. The temperature on the plane had risen considerably and I pictured her slowly decomposing until just her coat was left.I don’t know how air works, but her coat was either filling up with carbon dioxide or she was slowly sinking into it causing it to balloon out even more in my direction. I wedged my sweatshirt between her arm and my body, a subtle indicator that she had wandered way past any kind of ethical human boundary and that we were now enemies.
She showed no signs of being insulted. She remained completely inert. She couldn’t even change her TV channel. She was stuck there watching Family Guy, and I began to suspect the whole thing was an act.
Her handbag was partially opened on her lap so I did a quick eyeball search for explosives. There was nothing as far as I could see, but people don’t just leave bombs out where you can see them. They tuck them in.
When the flight attendant delivered our snacks I looked up pleadingly, hoping she might take pity on me and ask the woman to remove her coat, seeing as how it was occupying such an unfair portion of my seat, but then I remembered that flight attendants don’t have feelings.
I focused on my book and found myself folding my seat mate into the story. What if she had just been adopted as an elderly woman and was being transported to her new family? Maybe she’d been hired to replace an aunt or a grandmother who had recently died. I pictured her growing old in her orphanage, somewhere in Romania, having to avoid cruel childish pranks like the time a bunch of other orphans set her bed on fire, until just a few days ago when she got the phone call, at age 79, that someone finally wanted her.
I started to take pity on her in the same way I feel sorry for bank robbers on TV as they’re being taken to prison. I always want to hug them for having such bad luck.
“She may even be blind for all you know,” I thought to myself, and just then, almost as if she knew I’d forgiven her, she turned to me and handed me her bag of chips.
At first I thought she was just flat out giving them to me, but then she looked up at me with her sad caterpillar eyebrows and graying little mustache whiskers and mimed that she was unable to open the bag by herself. She smiled hopefully, knowing, despite everything, I would be there for her if she asked. It was the Language of Airplanes.
Potato Chips: Forgiveness
I wasn’t really all that busy anyway. My mind had already wandered off my book like eighty times, and I felt it was the least I could do for having shunned her for accidentally touching me, and then accusing her of being a man and then a terrorist.
I opened the bag and handed it to her. I watched her place one broken chip on her tongue, and just let it rest there like a Listerine tab.
“You’re gonna need to chew that,” I said, patting her sleeve.
As the plane hit the ground she squeezed my arm, and I put my hand on hers.
I looked down at her feet and saw that she was wearing rubber boots. The pilot had just announced that it was 81 degrees in Florida.
She pointed to the knot under her kerchief to indicate that I should untie it. Then we both stood up, and I helped her off with her coat.