A four-hour flight home. Window seat. Perfect. A bird’s-eye view of the planet. Or perhaps just the clouds. Either way, the window seat of this 737 provides a place to lay my head. Perhaps a nap. Sleeping on a plane is not really sleeping. Whatever it is, it needs its own word. An ugly sounding word. A word uncomfortable on the tongue.
The two seats between me and the aisle are filled by a dad, a mom, and a baby. Dad is bearded and long-haired, wearing cut-off shorts and Mick Dundee’s hat. Mom might have sung for the Eurhythmics in a taller life. Her spiky, bleached-blonde hair is dyed blue, matching her eyes, which I assume came that way. Her tank top reveals random tattoos on her arms, neck, and chest. Dad’s arms are also betatted. Left arm is nearly a sleeve. Baby is fat and healthy. His mostly bald head will one day be covered in red.
They get settled while I read Cormac McCarthy. Mom asks what I am reading. I tell her. She asks if it is good. She doesn’t like books unless they’re exciting. This one may not meet her qualifications.
Mom is worried. It is never clear why. Once she’s settled in the aisle seat, she relaxes. She feeds the baby while Dad starts a movie on the screen in front of him. My screen doesn’t work. Dad gives me some advice to fix my screen. It doesn’t work. No movies for me. No worries. They don’t have Cormac McCarthy anyway.
I settle back into The Road until Mom interrupts to ask me something I don’t remember. She elaborates for a sentence. Then stops. She struggles to find the words and gives up. She is wise. She stops talking when she has nothing else to say. I want to commend her for her prudence. I refrain.
Baby cries. Not the cute glad-there-is-a-baby-next-to-me cry. The other kind. Mom is worried again. She apologizes to me. Both lying and speaking truthfully, I assure her I don’t mind. I have six kids. I show her a picture. She believes my truthful lie and relaxes again.
Mom feeds the baby. Dad takes him to be changed. Baby is happier now and falls asleep. I stop drinking my coffee, hating the thought of needing to get up to go to the washroom. If I stop drinking now, perhaps it will all absorb, leaving no need to interrupt Baby’s slumber.
A few minutes into the flight we see Mt. Hood to the south, growing smaller and ultimately disappearing behind the edge of my little, round window. I press my forehead against the glass, straining for one last look. The crests and troughs of the high desert now ripple the landscape. A dirty ocean of swells and gullies, rising and falling as they etch the earth.
Dad returns to his movie. Mom returns to intermittently interrupting my reading to offer short, disconnected thoughts. She dares to interrupt my book about the need for community on long journeys in order to build community on a long journey. She is sweet and wants to chat. I put the book away and wait for the next sentence. We chat for a bit about work and parenting. We both smile at Baby’s antics.
Lying in Dad’s lap, Baby awakens and watches me. The plane banks towards the southeast, and the sun shines through the windows slightly, brightening Baby’s face. Not enough for him to squint, but enough for him to notice. I lift my hand, casting a shadow on Baby’s face. He looks at my dark, five-fingered mobile and smiles.
I begin to wiggle my fingers, waving my hand back and forth slowly. He is enamored with this game for much longer than I expected. Baby looking cute and me feeling useful, I continue waving, imagining myself a toy in a crib.
Mom notices and smiles. I notice her noticing and say, “I feel like a…” …pausing to find the word “mobile.” Before I can find it, she interjects, “magician.” Her interruption is welcome. I like her word better. For the remainder of the flight, I am the magician who casts spells on babies. This is much more satisfying than “mobile.” Mom is like Chesterton, recognizing magicians casting spells while soaring above the earth. I am more like Wal-Mart, providing products to distract babies on airplanes. Mom wins.
My magic fades. Baby fusses. Mom grows uncomfortable at the discomfort that Baby’s cries are inevitably causing. Mom’s discomfort makes Dad uncomfortable and he begins to fuss about the baby’s fussing. Angelic creatures cleverly disguised as flight attendants arrive to soothe the baby. Walking him in the aisle for a bit, Baby’s cries become coos again. The angels have done this before. They know babies and moms and passengers on four-hour flights. Mom is grateful. Dad is grateful. The universe is grateful.
I return to reading The Road until it ends. A good man dies. A good boy lives. And good people find him. Mom watches Zootopia on her seat-back screen. It is a movie about predation and living together in community. Kind of like my book.
Four hours into our four-hour flight, we land. Apparently on time. The captain reminds us how on time we are and how this airline is the most on time of all of the airlines. He says this a couple times, perhaps hoping the idea will stick.
People on planes are funny. Usually wanting to talk more than I want to or wanting to talk less than I want to. Hardly ever does it fit just right. Sometimes. But hardly ever.
Come to think of it, people not on planes are funny. Community is finding the balance between public and private. Between comfortable and uncomfortable. Between loving yourself and loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
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by David Kern
by David Kern