The plane that takes me from Philadelphia to Toronto is a surprisingly small one. The short flight lasts only an hour and twenty minutes. It actually takes longer to go through customs and security than it takes to fly and now I have a Canadian stamp in my passport. Not something I ever yearned for or, in hindsight, care much about. Canada is just that state above New York. I’ve paid for things in America with Canadian money by accident and with a shrug upon realisation. A nickel looks the same as a Canadian 5 cent piece, and they’re worth almost the same too. Are we really that separate? Aren’t we like half-siblings or something? We share mother England, but Canada’s father is France and our father is, well either France or Spain, mum never was very clear on that account.
On the plane, I am tucked into my bulkhead window seat. It is my favorite seat. My legs are short enough that I can stretch them out, turning the wall into a high foot rest. I don’t have to worry about a person in front of me leaning into my space. And the best part is that the tray tables are in the armrests, which makes the armrests immovable and solid – nothing can slide underneath them. In the bulkhead seat I never have to feel the hip-fat of the person next to me oozing into my space.
The woman next to me sits down and immediately starts speed reading through a copy of USA Today. One section after another, she snaps and rattles the paper like she is pissed off at the entire country for having such crappy news. Maybe she is Canadian and she’s annoyed that the only mention her country receives is a tiny blurb on the back of the first section, under the weather, about Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor.
There is only one problem with sitting in the bulkhead row. The flight attendant generally gives the safety demonstration while standing right in front of me. In any other seat on the plane, I feel free to ignore the speech. At this point in my flying life, I know that my seat cushion can be used as a flotation device. I know how to pull down the mask to start the flow of air, and that the bag may not inflate, and to put my own mask on first before assisting others.
In fact, I know a lot about flying. My father and mother both had pilots licenses when I was little. They owned a small plane they’d use to fly all of us kids down to North Carolina to see Grandma and Grandpa. I remember my dad taking a lesson once, and maybe I’ve got this mixed up, but in the memory I am in the plane with him and the instructor has given him a mask to wear that will block his view of the windows. The point was to learn to fly by instrumentation only – learning to trust the dials and such, instead of what you could see, so you could fly in low fog and still land the plane. That mask terrified me. I hated the idea of my dad not being able to see. My own sense of safety relied on my trust in his ability to control the plane, and with the mask on, that control seemed diminished. My sense of security depended on a man who was flying blind.
Safety is something I care a lot about, especially while traveling at 500 miles an hour in a metal tube 30,000 feet above the ground. I don’t pay the strictest attention to the flight attendants spiel, but only because it is so familiar. But on this flight, in my bulkhead seat, with the attendant standing not three feet from me, I pay attention. Because to do so otherwise would be rude.
No such qualms enter the mind of my pulp-news devouring neighbor. She crinkles and folds and unfolds and sighs and scowls her way through at least two sections during his talk, and she is sitting even closer to him than I am. Her rudeness shocks me. To make up for it, I pay more attention than usual to the attendant’s words. He is so obviously bored. He is so obviously not interested in what he is doing. In every story where people survive plane crashes, it is always because of the know-how and bravery of a well-trained flight attendant. But I can’t depend on this guy. He’s practically asleep on his feet. I notice than that he is a bit overweight, and that his shirt is partly untucked. I’m suddenly terrified.
I’m back on that plane with my father and the instructor. My father is wearing the scary mask. I’m upset and my father is annoyed with me. And then the instructor turns around and looks at me with a smile. He says, “Guess what, at the terminal, they have ice cream. Would you like some when we get there?”
And as odd as it sounds, that made everything ok. Because he gave me something to focus on, something tangible and specific that would happen after the current-scary-uncontrollable thing was over.
I fly a lot, but I’m always afraid. There are too many things out of my control. I get through it by thinking about what I’m going to do after I land. I can’t do anything about this bored, unkempt, unreactive man on whom I must depend for safety and refreshments. I can’t do anything about the rudeness of the news-fiend sitting beside me. I can only project myself an hour or so into the future. I close my eyes and I think about what I’m going to order from the room service menu when I get to the hotel. Maybe I’ll get ice cream.