Many people who fly are concerned about what they might hear as they’re traveling from destination to destination. They don’t want their flights ruined by the squalls of a screaming baby or a snoring man whose love handles crawl over the armrests. I was recently on a flight, however, where my main concern was more about how no one else heard what I did. Like someone seeing a ghost in an old house or leprechaun in the woods, I really needed a witness.
My fellow travelers and I were on a flight the airline referred to as “regional.” What that really meant was a tiny pillbox of a plane only four chairs wide with overhead compartments the size of pillows. I was seated next to a man who was a self-proclaimed civil engineer on a military base; he was the kind of nerd who was both overly polite and nervous enough to commiserate about things that didn’t require empathy.
“Oh, you’ll be travelling all day,” he said to an older couple across the aisle who were on their way to Vancouver.
“Sure, but we’ll be on a cruise by this time tomorrow,” the man said, smiling.
“You’ll be exhausted,” the civil engineer said.
“We’re staying in a hotel tonight.”
The couple had to convince him that their holiday was perfectly safe, thank you, and they had nothing really to complain about, so he might want to pull something out of his Game of Thrones messenger bag to occupy himself.
The civil engineer didn’t try to chat me up because as soon as I was settled, my nose was in a book and my ears were otherwise occupied listening to a playlist made by a friend. I saw him look over as if to console me about my unfortunate choice in footwear or hair that was overdue for a cut. I, however, was happy in my antisocial cocoon until I was told to turn off my iPod because the latest Phosphorescent album just might crash the plane.
After unplugging, I heard what sounded like two cartoon voices right behind me. The man had a droopy western drawl while the woman delivered an LA accent straight out of Valley Girl. The tiny plane didn’t allow for any turning around; in fact, I couldn’t really see much besides my bespectacled engineer and the legs of the happy cruisers. The Valley Girl was extremely chatty, talking about her life as a traveling surgeon and her recent dating woes. The Cowboy was sympathetic. He, too, had been dating. In fact, he was on his way to meet a lady friend right this darn-tooting minute.
It’s a stupid habit, but I often hold my palms in the air in a “Can you believe this?” gesture even when I’m alone. Even though we had barely punched a hole in the sky, the conversation was already perplexing. A traveling surgeon? For what, I wondered? The woman sounded no older than 12, with the kind of teenage language peculiarities you rarely associate with someone holding a scalpel. Their conversation was alarmingly intimate even though they had met mere minutes before. Sadly, my engineer didn’t notice. He stared straight ahead even after my awkward hand jive. Then, the two started drinking.
I have no problems with folks imbibing at 30,000 feet, but after a few rounds, the two accelerated their cozy interface.
“Have you ever tried one of these?” the woman asked.
“No, I heard about them though,” the Cowboy said.
“Here, try it.”
The way they spoke sounded like they were sharing bodily fluids in some lost highway hotel. I tried to peer through the space between my seat and the engineer’s to see what the communal object was, but the sliver of light was too narrow. Then, I smelled something cool and musky at the same time.
“You’re so awesome,” she said, giggling. “How awesome are you, sharing this with me?”
I shot the engineer the hairy eyeball. How could he not notice the full sensory spectrum we were getting. I could hear them inhale and blow tobacco-tainted steam in the cabin air. Channeling the Cowboy, I understood it was one of them there newfangled electric cigarettes. I swore the steam would set off some sensor or alert the air marshal, but no such luck.
“Do you think he’ll like me?” the Valley Girl asked, referring to her blind date in New York the next day. She’d told some crazy story about looking up New Mexican singles on Match.com but randomly ended up arranging a date with a Korean man who lived in Manhattan.
“With your personality,” the Cowboy started, his speech already slurring a bit from the cocktails, “there is no way on God’s green earth that he won’t like a gal like you.”
“I’ll eat my hat if he don’t.”
How could my seatmate not notice two strangers drinking and smoking and eating hats on a jet? I held my hands up again and double-eyeballed him. Still nothing. I usually enjoy my time on planes; the hours alone allow me to sit and read and listen to music or catch up on a podcast I haven’t had the time to focus on. On this flight, I was too distracted to do any of these things. Instead, I struggled in disbelief as the pair behind me argued whether he played the role of boyfriend or older brother in her past life. Just then, a flight attendant walked by the duo and said, “Excuse me, you can’t do that here.”
“Finally,” I said, in want of an onlooker more than someone to rain on their parade.
“Excuse me?” the engineer said, waking from his coma.
“Too late,” I said, and turned away.
Rob Wilder’s most recent book is Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Daddy Needs a Drink appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Santa Fe Reporter.