Letter from an Airplane


First Person

Liane de Pougy, Paris, 1890s.

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of your favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Dear Friends,

There are moments I suspect we are not living in the Golden Age of Travel.

I speak as someone who enjoys nearly everything, mind you, from the novelty of sipping in-flight tomato juice to the thrill of meeting the passenger in the next seat. But even I (a half-wit, apparently) found last Tuesday’s flight to Portugal less than easy going.

We cut it close; my traveling companion, Matthew, was late to meet me and the result was the sort of last-minute dash that’s both exhilarating and draining. I was allowed in an accelerated line for irresponsible travelers but found myself behind a man who not only seemed in no hurry but had to remove three pieces of heavy jewelry, one at a time, each time the metal detector went off. He did so with an infuriatingly sanguine smile. I hated and envied him. Passengers were boarding when I sprinted up, some ways ahead of Matthew. The gate, C71, and the plane were absolutely crammed with some forty assorted kids, ranging in age from about eleven to fifteen. One of their chaperones, a hearty lady in a tracksuit, explained to me they were on their way from Indiana to an international cheerleading competition three hours outside of Lisbon. When I arrived at 29A (aisle) I discovered the middle seat, intended for my traveling companion, was occupied by a tween of some thirteen years. She and her friend regarded me with terrified bravado. “If you’re sitting here,” one of them said quickly, “you should know that we have to sit together. We’re roommates.”

“Well,” I said, “that makes sense. Let me see if my boyfriend would mind switching with you.” I sent him an urgent text message. And being a man of consummate good nature, he readily agreed, and gave them a friendly smile to boot. “That is so cute!” screeched the girls to him. “That is so sweet!” I couldn’t help feeling I’d been robbed of my share of credit.

I soon had reason to regret my impulse. The girls, Emily and Amanda, were prone to fits of hysteria. There were three bouts before the plane took off (although in fairness, we were delayed for an hour). The PA announcement set them off. The boy behind them, obviously, did, too. Naturally, 21 Jump Street was more than they could handle. (There was a very good selection of movies, although I couldn’t help questioning The Bucket List’s inclusion under “classics.”) I was never a very convincing teenager, and I felt now exactly as I had then: uptight and judgmental, albeit without the mysterious sense of frustrated shame I’d always felt for my peer group. I peered at them over my glasses and prissily busied myself with a Portuguese phrase list I had made and a book on marine cryptozoology.

One bout of hysterical laughter was so violent that the flight attendant, a pleasant ash-blonde of a certain age, came over to investigate. Upon perceiving the situation, she offered me a free minibottle of wine, a priori. “Are you twenty-one?” she asked, belatedly.

“I’m thirty-one,” I said.

“You go, girl,” she said, obscurely.

For the rest of the trip, whenever she passed me, she would say, “There’s my thirty-one-year-old red-wine drinker.” I tried to be game.

My seatmates occasionally posed questions to me. “Will we get food?” they demanded. “Can you get up?” They always asked this exactly when the drink carts were in the aisle, which demanded a series of complex negotiations. I made the mistake of offering them a spritz from my little Evian bottle (which always makes me feel very cosmopolitan). This resulted, predictably, in a water fight and ensuing hysterics.

During one of their inconveniently timed trips down the aisle, I availed myself of the opportunity to visit Matthew. He was pleasantly ensconced between a Japanese businessman and an octogenarian world traveler from Galveston in bejeweled glasses, with whom he had apparently become fast friends. The next time I came by, he was asleep.

I don’t sleep well on planes. Instead, I watched The Vow, in which Channing Tatum seemed to me badly miscast as a bohemian, and read the journals of Liane de Pougy, who was one of the most celebrated demimondaines of fin-de-siècle Paris, before contracting a noble marriage and ending her life as a Fransiscan. I flipped through one of my guidebooks and concluded, regretfully, that my dream of finding lots of shops selling silk nightgowns made in convents was probably unrealistic. The girls had subsided into exhausted sleep on the pillows they had carried with them. They also had a cow-printed fleece blanket that they shared. A very large old man with two of those heavy-duty glasses cases in the breast pockets of his sport shirt roamed the aisles with a sort of heavy dignity.

In the air, we are somehow left exposed: the sum of our clothes and our baggage and our headphones. At the mercy of other people’s judgments and the flight attendant’s whims, trapped in our petty choices of book or shoe or ChapStik. I go through a hundred love affairs and feuds on every flight. If someone hefts my duffel into an overhead bin, in that moment I am his devoted slave. If someone else should dart into the aisle ahead of me to gain a few seconds at the baggage carousel, I hate with all I am capable of. Very leveling, and I’m not even talking about the equalizing effect of pressurized air or turbulence, let alone something worse. Someone who can sleep, in such moments, is living a better life than someone who cannot. I never can.

Can I admit I like the irrationality of that terrible breakfast some three hours after the awful dinner? I know I have said I like everything, but there is something particularly pleasing about something so silly done with such absolute authority, such forceful manipulation of time. I watched Lady and the Tramp.

One never looks worse than in an airplane mirror. I felt like an old courtesan, possibly due to my reading matter, as I put on blush. I hugged Emily and Amanda when we disembarked. Matthew’s seatmate had confided to him that one of the perks of age was being met by a wheelchair, although she was perfectly ambulatory.

It is empowering to disembark; no wonder we are all overeager to get up, the same way actors are always wild to direct after careers of being bossed around. I held my bag and started to move and felt like a person of agency again. We began to regain our dignity. “Good-bye, my thirty-one-year-old red-wine drinker!” screamed the stewardess.

Yours as ever,