You could have called me Mr. Sunshine on my last trip. I allowed a family of five to go ahead of me and helped an older woman hoist her bag into the compartment overhead. I’m not choosy about where I sit. I prefer to be near the front of the plane, so when I saw two seats open, I tossed my carry-on up top and asked the man in the aisle seat if I could grab the window.
He wore squarish glasses and still had some of his dirty blonde hair languishing on the top of his head. I repeated my request since he didn’t seem to hear. Sighing audibly, he aimed his eyes at me as if I had just insulted his sister’s new hairstyle. He rose rather slowly, then stepped into the aisle barely enough to let a man half my size through, and I wasn’t half as large as he was.
As I wedged myself in, I saw that he had claimed his territory by stowing objects under all the seats except his. What do you do with a guy like that? Anyone flying in the past decade knows that most flights are full or oversold, and trying to save a whole row for yourself is like attempting to hoard the cake at your cousin’s wedding. The dude said nothing as I slipped his little man purse over to the neutral zone between us. I wanted to continue being Mr. Sunshine, but I felt dark clouds moving in.
I studied him, trying to figure out why he was being such a douchenozzle. He had stains on his shorts but a relatively clean shirt. He was reading a hardback copy of Hotel Pastis—not a terrible novel, but when the flight attendant came by to take drink orders, he demanded a full can of Diet Sprite with a tone of voice usually reserved for misbehaved pets.
I didn’t want to hate him or even dislike him, so I opened my own novel, Tumbledown, and escaped into the plot. The novel centers around a counselor at a psychiatric hospital and the complicated ways he deals with his patients and himself.
I thought my row mate would have to check in to a real hospital when he started coughing. It sounded as if he had a ball of steel wool nestled in his lungs and was desperate to dislodge it. His hacking was deep and liquidy, so I placed my hand over my mouth and nose, pretending I was stifling the longest yawn of my life. He deposited a healthy dose of phlegm into a tissue and threw the sputum ball casually onto the tray in the unoccupied middle seat.
I stared at the dripping bloom, hoping he would somehow register my disgust by proxy. Nothing. We teach our children to be kind and non-judgmental, especially when it comes to strangers. We also teach them to be sanitary. The flight attendants came by twice with their white plastic bags, and he failed to rid my life of the wet ugliness.
When he got up to go to the bathroom, I wanted to yell: “Take your shit with you,” but I was raised in a white, repressed manner where, instead of making a scene in public places, you just stew. So stew I did. My stew was chunky and spicy, full of angry ingredients fighting other angry ingredients over an open flame.
By the time he threw away his foul leavings, I was pretty steamed and ready to exit the aircraft. He clutched his two little bags and one of those metal cane contraptions that unfold into the type of seat overweight people use when they grow tired of walking around a museum or medium-sized hotel lobby. He ambled down the aisle and once we hit the jet way, he demanded a wheelchair.
The female porter obliged, and departing passengers were held up as he got settled for his free ride with his bags perched on his lap like a wealthy woman’s dog. The porter started pushing but couldn’t get the chair over the lip of the ramp. I could hear her labored breath as she strained to roll the dead weight across the hump. I don’t believe in karma, but I believe in irony. What else could I do?
“This is my life,” I thought as I rolled my bag to the side and grabbed the two handles of my temporary nemesis’ delivery device. I pushed as hard as I could, and then I started coughing.