Anyone seated in rows 8 to 12 was wrong to assume that my disappearing salad would be the most compelling diversion on flight 2369 from Dallas. It was a chickpea salad in a little plastic container and because I was seated in a bulkhead seat, I set it on the ground for takeoff. Originally I had put it on the empty seat between me and the man by the window. Then the man layered down to a T-shirt and folded his cashmere sweater neatly beside my salad, which had a lot of dressing sloshing around, and I thought: this won’t end well. So I put the salad on the ground under the middle seat and forgot about it.
I fly too much these days, spend too much time trolling the restaurants and shops in airports, seeking portable meals that straddle the abyss between healthy and treat. Healthy because I fly too much and treat because of the hazards of air travel. Every meal could be my last.
I can’t think of other places or times or events in my life that have had this same effect. Planes leave me feeling both utterly detached from my busy, terrestrial life, yet so keenly alive to its fragility. Countless numb hours clad only in air and steel and the emanations of strangers — I’m the jaded frequent flyer, but also resigned to the likelihood that I’ll die in an airplane.
I almost always cry in-flight or at least get misty-eyed, usually over something utterly undeserving. Food tastes different, more intense. The invented lives of the people around me seem so unbearably rich and unknowable. Corny movies or novels, even the photos I scroll through on my phone to pass the time, cut me deeply in a way they never would on solid ground.
It’s superstition, I know, but whenever the plane takes off I like to make a point of looking earnestly out the window, at the streets, homes, and mountains peeling away from our wings, and remind myself that air travel is a total mind-fuck. To forget or downplay this is to summon catastrophe. “This is the Miracle of Flight,” I’ll murmur to myself, or to my husband if he happens to be accompanying me. Even if he’s in a different row, he can be counted on to turn his head and catch my eye so I can mouth the words at him: Miracle of Flight. That’s my puja tendered. My neuroses assuaged. My ritual offering to the god of safe landings.
In the meantime, as the airplane climbed the clouds, my salad vanished. It wasn’t near my feet or under the middle seat. I popped my head up and asked the people seated in row 9 if they had seen a chickpea salad slide by. They had not.
I had to wait for the seatbelt light to be extinguished before I could stand and make some sheepish inquiries of row 10 and 11. A massive man who looked like he might never have eaten a chickpea in his life kindly huffed out of his belt, got down on his knees, wedged his formidable trunk down between the seats, and sure enough spotted my salad nestled in the folds of a backpack belonging to a dozing teenager in row 12. The big man stood up, presented it to me proudly, and I held it aloft like a medal while everyone cheered.
Or something like that.
It would have been an hour or two later that an abrupt streak of movement made me look up from season 1, episode 3 of Downton Abby on my iPad. A muffled cry, followed by panicked shouts and instructions bleeding through my noise-cancelling headphones.
A grandmotherly, heavy-set woman across the aisle two rows back had collapsed. Flight attendants were cracking into first-aid kits and fumbling for meds, defibrillators, oxygen masks — anything they could put to use. An IV drip of some sort was inserted while a helpful man in the row behind held the bag of fluids over the woman’s head in much the same way I’d hoisted my salad. Doctors were rustled up from the passenger list and the purser came over the loudspeakers, inquiring nonchalantly whether anyone on board had a glucometer they could spare.
They must have been able to stabilize her because very soon the drama seemed to slide back into second place behind my TV show and I all but forgot about the ill woman until our plane landed in Vancouver and the first officer asked everyone to stay seated while the emergency personnel boarded the plane. As the paramedics were loading her semi-conscious onto a narrow wheelchair, a man in a Canada Customs uniform rifled through her purse then began reading her passport details into his walkie-talkie. I didn’t catch her name or nationality, but I did hear her year of birth — just 4 years older than me. Not an old woman by any stretch, and probably not a grandmother. I thought of all the private ways in which I do and do not fear flying, all the fiery deaths I’ve imagined for myself at 35,000 ft. And then there’s just this, faulty human parts and pieces, airborne or not. Asking for miracles.