Airport Series #8: Red Eye
She makes her way down the aisle in the world’s slowest two-step, one black leather Keds foot forward, second black leather Keds foot joining. The line of restless passengers behind her now stretches back through business class to first, and still she inches forward. She pushes her herringbone rollaboard ahead of her with her matching pocketbook atop, as if that’s the precious cargo she is protecting, not her bent-forward body in its charcoal denim pantsuit, not her lined face still with grave concentration and topped with wiry white.
That’s not your grandmother, I tell myself as I watch her inch ever closer. She’s not the one to protect you. That’s someone else’s gran. Leave her be.
But I can’t.
I slide out of my window seat and present myself before her.
“How about I help you with your bag, miss?” I ask.
The guy in the suit right behind her stage-whispers, “Please say Yes,” but she shows no sign of hearing him. Instead, she runs her eyes up my blue-jeaned legs to my face, and glares there.
“Young man, you are blocking my way,” she says.
Her eyes are obsidian behind her wire-frame glasses.
Just win her over, and you’ll make it straight to McLean without incident, my inner bargainer pipes back in. I shake my head to silence him and focus on giving her a big sheepish smile.
“I was just hoping you were my seatmate and we could get all settled in,” I said.
I see her take in my surface shagginess — hair wild from two missed barber appointments, slight stubble left behind by the hospital’s blunt electric razor, forearm tattoos intended to turn scars into art — before settling on my Sheriff Woody t-shirt. Her face softens the way I hoped everyone’s would when they saw the world’s corniest cartoon character in his best “you’ve got a friend in me” pose. Even if they never really saw any of the Toy Stories, even if they hated movies like that on principle, they liked Woody well enough to think I was okay. And that was the point.
“Well, if you’re in row 22 — “ she said, nodding toward the boarding pass sticking up from the outside pocket of her purse.
“Close enough!” I say. “May I?” She nods as I reach for the handle of her rollaboard and pick it up. I pause as I swing around so she can retrieve her purse before I carry the suitcase aloft back 10 rows to where I was sitting. “Seat C or D?” I call back, then turn to see her right behind me. “Right or left?” I ask more softly.
“Right,” she says. I see her scrutinize the row number. “But –”
I slide her suitcase into the overhead next to my backpack, then duck into my window seat. I gesture toward the aisle seat. “I’d be honored if you’d join me.”
I can see that she’s now calculated she’s technically assigned two rows behind, but how many times have I swapped spots to let other people’s family members sit together? Lots. At least two I can remember specifically.
I bring out that sheepish smile again. “We’ll work it out with whoever shows up,” I say. “Anyway,” I drop my voice to a whisper, “squatters’ rights, am I wrong?”
She locks eyes with me again, and this time there’s a little warmth. “They say possession is nine-tenths of the law,” she said, “although that’s technically not accurate.”
I extend my hand for a fist bump and she rests her hand on mine for a second. Paper over rock.
“I’m Noah,” I say.
“Florence,” she replies.
“And where are you–” we say it at the same time, then give an awkward laugh the way people do. I make a half bow in my seat and gesture for her to continue.
“Where are you headed tonight, young man?” She sounds only marginally interested. I’m not going to have any trouble with her.
“I’m starting a new program tomorrow,” I say. “In the Boston area.”
“Not Harvard? Graduate school, perhaps?”
“Affiliated with,” I say. It’s all true, McLean has a Harvard Medical School connection, but I’m ready to get her focus off of me. “And you? Visiting family?”
“My son’s wife has decided I need to revisit my hometown before I die,” she said. “Because they’ve ended up back East this transfer, I get a forced fun trip down memory lane. To Lowell, Mass of all places.”
“Lowell, hmmm –” I say, eyes turning inward, scanning memory.
“Known for textile mills, Jack Kerouac, crack,” Florence says. “In that order. Nothing of interest.”
“Well, Kerouac?” I make my voice light.
“Alcoholic ne’er do well turning out drug-addled drivel,” Florence sniffed. “Who also got out of Lowell at the first opportunity and never looked back.”
“Like you?” I see the skein rolling toward me, and I reach out to catch it.
“Not quite.” Florence snatches it back and puts it deep into her pocketbook, from which she now extracts a paperback book of crossword puzzles and a ballpoint pen. She leafs through several filled-in pages to a clean one, and focuses in.
I turn away from her then, lean back in my seat and look out the window. It’s deep night now outside on the tarmac at LAX, the baggage loaders and plane-guiders making their way through the black-on-black guided by headlamps on their helmets, headlights on their electric carts. Ringing us in the near distance like an optical illusion is the glow of the freeway, the city. Beyond that, the long darkness of the American night as we cross the hours into dawn. Five and a half, to be precise. Just shy of one dose.
“I suppose I shouldn’t get too comfortable,” Florence says, relenting.
I turn back to her. “Why not?’
She gestures with her pen hand toward the empty middle seat between us.
“Oh, there’s no one booked there,” I say. “I checked.”
“These things sometimes change at the last minute.”
“It will stay empty.” I know this because my uncle who bought my tickets, who arranged my hospital stay and paid for it up front out of pocket, also booked the middle seat so I would have what he called a comfortable journey. He was worried I’d fritz out somewhere over Nebraska if I felt too boxed in, or had to sit next to an asshole. Uncle Michael, he had my best interests at heart, or at least the best interests that money could buy.
Florence considers for a moment, and then turns back to her book of puzzles. “My daughter-in-law offered to upgrade me to first-class with her frequent flier miles, whatever that means. I told her that was wholly unnecessary. Thank you, Mr. Noah, for letting me benefit from your, what do they call it, travel-savvy.”
“And thank you, Miss Florence,” I choose my words carefully, “for being my bulwark against blowhards, busybodies and chatty-cathies.”
Florence lets out a dry chuckle. “What makes you so sure I am none of those myself?”
“Just a hunch.”
The person whose seat I’ve purloined for Florence turns out to be a woman in a business suit accessorized by a Dodgers baseball cap over her frosted blonde flip and a travel pillow around her neck, done for the day and ready to crash. I can almost hear the Ambien rattling in her shoulder bag. “We were hoping you wouldn’t mind swapping for 24D –” I say as she pauses next to Florence. Her eyes dart between the two of us as she makes some mental calculation, then she shrugs and keeps moving. Florence seems impressed with me, and that’s all that matters for the moment.
We hear the flight attendant’s announcement about the doors being closed, and feel the gaining motion of the plane. So slight and smooth for such a large vessel, ever so gently nudged in the correct direction by the ground crew with their light batons, like a dinosaur ballet.
The safety video comes on the seatback screens in front of us. It’s one of the cute cartoon versions that the airlines have deployed lately to get people to watch in spite of themselves. I see Florence leaning forward, expression both grave and puzzled.
“But this is hardly a matter for children,” she mutters.
I reflexively run my hand over my Sheriff Woody T-shirt, but she seems not to have made the connection. She just shakes her head and turns back to her puzzle book.
As the plane glides into liftoff, I watch out the window as the concentrated glow of the 405 Freeway fades into a pale ribbon and then gives way to the blocky sparkle of further suburbs and then desert. A tall, bronze-skinned flight attendant comes by with blankets, pillows and sleep masks for sale, looking like a male model forced to hawk peanuts at the ballpark. Florence ignores him and I shake my head with a smile I hope is wry. We barely register.
Then the cabin dims into the silky gray of late twilight. Here and there overhead lights pop on. I reach up to our shared switch and look over to Florence to see if she wants hers on, but her chin is now bobbing on her chest, her glasses slipping down her nose. I drop my hand, lean my head against the window, and let the darkness fold around us.
I won’t sleep, I know. My nerve endings are crackling. But five hours of this guarding silence I just might be able to handle.
“Sir! Excuse me, sir.” The fingers rocking my shoulder are slender but strong, and for a minute I think it’s meds time at the hospital again, another 2 am wakeup with four pills in a mini paper cup and a slug of orange juice to hasten the transaction with its metallic bitterness. But as my eyes gain focus in the cool dim I see the purple epaulets of the flight attendant’s uniform and a name badge. Thanks for flying with: Miguel.
I sit up straight. “What’s happening,” I loud-whisper. “What’s wrong?”
“Sir, your mother?” Miguel sees my confusion and gestures to Florence’s empty seat. “Your Abuela maybe?”
“Wait, where did she go?” I rise up as far as my seatbelt will let me, scanning the aisle to either side of Miguel. “Is she okay?”
“If you would come with me, sir,” Miguel is saying. “We could use your assistance.”
I follow him toward the back of the plane. Miguel moves with the practiced grace of a soccer forward, while I have to concentrate hard on not banging into the jutting feet and elbows of my fellow passengers rendered sloppy by sleep. We enter the galley and stop at a knot of Miguel’s fellow flight attendants in front of a lavatory door, its red In Use indicator slid partly to green.
“What –” I look to Miguel and then back to the door. “She’s in the bathroom?”
“Senora seems to be in some distress,” Miguel whispers.
You are not equipped to handle this, I tell myself silently. You must leave it to the experts.
“God damn it all to hell,” I hear Florence say from inside.
I get as close as I can to where the door meets the wall and lean my forehead against the metal sheathing.
“Florence?” I say. “It’s Noah, your seatmate. Are you okay?”
“This is none of your concern, young man.” Her dignity rings like polished marble. “Please leave me be.”
I am about to shrug my way back down the aisle when I hear what could be a choked-back sob. I know that sound. I’ve made that sound, when everyone is finally gone but I still can’t catch an even breath.
I crouch down a bit so the sound is ear level. I smell the chemical tang of the blue airplane flush water, combined with the intercontinental piss of hundreds. I imagine Florence’s black Keds angrily toeing the wet residue of the floor.
“What’s going on, Florence?” I say. “Do you just want to hang out in there, or is something not working like it should?”
I hear her ragged breathing.
“There’s still three hours left before we land, and I think we’ve earned the right to be comfortable,” I say. “Stretch out in our seats, grab a couple of those crappy red blankets and some extra pillows…”
I catch Miguel’s eye and dig in my back pocket to hand him the debit card Uncle Mike loaded up for me for this trip, just in case.
“They’re giving away the goods for free now, the flight attendant says,” I say. “I just nabbed us three each.”
I hear Florence’s tut-tut.
“So can I escort you back up the aisle to take advantage of our ill-gotten gains?” I say. “Please. I’m getting vicarious claustrophobia back here.”
That’s when Florence hisses, “There’s been an accident.”
I look back up to see if Miguel or the others have heard, but they are busying themselves with galley tasks, studiously not looking my direction. Florence is my problem now. Proximity is its own punishment.
Because now I imagine what the other side of this door would look like if I had an “‘accident.” Dull discarded razor, pills in a puddle of drool, torn plastic bag over face. I press my hands against the hinges and work hard to keep my voice light.
“What’s the damage, Flo?” I say. “Is it a blood mop up? Or puke?”
She lets out a long, irritated sigh, weighing her words. “Another liquid.”
“Ah, the kind this particular part of the plane was made for, you mean.”
“Yes. But my prescription was supposed to — forestall matters overnight.” Her voice is tight with exasperation. “The doctor promised.”
“Maybe the altitude interfered,” I say. “It’s definitely messing with my medication.”
There’s a sharp silence. Florence might be considering what kind of drugs I’m on and why. Or she might be irritated by my butting myself into her story, as is my bad habit.
I hear her exhale, finally.
“For whatever reason,” she sighs, “here I am, wet through. It’s humiliating.”
I stand up, a plan formulating.
“It doesn’t have to be,” I say. “If you had a change of clothes, no one would be the wiser.” My inner bargainer pipes up, out loud this time. “In fact, if you let me fetch whatever you need from your bag, we will never speak of it again.”
Florence is silent. I imagine her mentally rummaging through her herringbone suitcase, no doubt packed in planned outfits for the days ahead, with special pockets zipped away for underpinnings and accessories. A puzzle solved in advance.
“I could change into the tracksuit my daughter-in-law sent me. It’s hideous.”
“Would serve her right to see you come off the red eye in that,” I say, with a surge of pity for the woman.
“No, I won’t give her the satisfaction quite yet.” Florence is tapping her fingers on the washstand. “I’ll go with the plum-colored blouse and slacks that you’ll find right at the top.”
“And for…underneath?” I feel my face flush
“There’s a baggie marked ‘Sunday,’ I’ll just work a day ahead. You need not look inside.”
“And for your feet?”
“There are socks in Sunday. The Keds stay.”
I take a deep breath, stand to full height. “You’ve got it, Miss Florence.”
“My thanks to you, Mr. Noah.”
I look back toward Miguel and flash him an A-OK sign, followed quickly by other hand signals meant to indicate it will be a few minutes, and I will be right back, and please keep an eye out but do not disturb. Not sure if he gets any of that but he nods assent.
I tiptoe my way back up the aisle to my row and pull Florence’s bag down from the overhead. Then I reach back in and open my backpack to extract the black string sack I got in my last good week of last year, at the end of the Out of the Darkness race-walk in Santa Monica. The sun on the Pacific glowed differently that day, like a promise not yet claimed, and so not yet broken. I even beat my personal best by making it all the way through the race without panic breaks. I’ve brought the bag along to store my phone and wallet and travel documents in when they make me hand them over at McLean. I know the check-in drill by heart now. I know they’ll take every bit of my armor, socks and Woody T-shirt included, and ball it away in a trash can liner like so much detritus. But this time I was going to draw the line at the pathetic institutional plastic bag.
I slip Florence’s clean clothes and accompaniments into my keepsake sack, sling it over my shoulder and head back down the aisle. I’ll suggest that she swap out the wet stuff and maybe even drop the whole dolorous bagful into the trash chute, the one beneath the “Please clean up after yourself for the next passenger” sign.
We’ll figure the rest out before we touch down at sunrise.
Mickey Revenaugh‘s “Red Eye (Airport Series #8)” is part of a collection initiated during MFA studies at Bennington College. Mickey’s work has appeared in Vice, Cleaver, Tishman Review, Chautauqua, Catapult, and LA Review of Books, among others. She is a semi-finalist for the American Short Fiction Prize and finalist for both the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Penelope Niven Award at the Center for Women Writers. In addition to the MFA, Mickey holds a BA in American Studies from Yale University and an MBA from New York University. Mickey lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.