on flying

The jet engines roared and I was pushed further back into the uncomfortable aisle seat of the plane.

We’re going into the sky, people! Wake up! The sky! We’re freaking flying!

The flight was to be almost four hours long, headed East, gaining three hours as we flew. It was dark, midnight, and the flight attendants asked for the window shades to stay down, as the sun would soon be coming up. For that reason, I couldn’t watch, even from my aisle seat, as we left the ground. Instead, I closed my eyes and felt my body tipping. We were flying. There was no longer such a thing as “level” or “up” or “down”. If you’ve flown before, if you’ve looked out the window as the plane tilts, you know what this means. Flying. It’s very different from anything else.

Electronics turned off, forced into the 1800s by the man over the speaker, you lose track of time. You almost forget it exists. You want to, anyway, because the seat is uncomfortable and you don’t want to know that that nap you just took that seemed like it lasted for hours was really only fifteen minutes, and you are really not very much closer to your final destination, as they say.

No such thing as time, or space. And surrounded by strangers. The man in your row who couldn’t stop talking before take-off sits by the window, leaning against the side of the plane, dozing. The man who wore a cowboy hat on the plane  — is he a real cowboy? — who sits in the middle and is made of only arms and legs and keeps knocking his foot into your foot as he adjusts his sleeping position, attempting to make himself comfortable, and failing, and making you uncomfortable, too. All the rest of them, the boy with too-large muscles, the latino couple across the aisle who made polite chit-chat with the weird older guy who boarded the plane late with too much luggage, the group of three young brothers who are spread throughout the back of the plane, passing around bags of food and making the other passengers laugh with, “Marcus! Marcus! Can we eat yet?” Somehow you’re all not really strangers, at least while in the sky.

Long hours, what seems like hours, anyway, pass, and the voices over the speaker tell you many different things, things you’ll forget afterward, but remember again when you board another plane, even if it’s a month later, or four years: “The captain has turned off the seatbelt light. The captain has turned on the seatbelt light. We’ll shortly begin serving free drinks and expensive bags of pretzels. Please make sure your tray tables are stowed and your seats are in the upright position. You may now use your cell phone, if it is within reach. We thank you for flying with us today, and hope to see you again soon.”

The plane touches down, and you feel it, but you can’t watch the ground as it quickly grows larger. Someone opens a window shade rebelliously, and the plane is filled with light. Only then does everyone remember that’s morning, that time has passed, that we have just crossed our country in the air. Phones are immediately turned on, time is checked, people jump up to claim their bags and then stand, waiting. Gravity has returned, time has returned, and once again we are a group of strangers, ready to head to our final destination.

But flying is different. And although travelers part ways, although the man with the cowboy hat takes his cowboy hat and goes about his business, there will always be those strange hours when hours did not exist, when one day became another and we were in the sky and didn’t notice, and didn’t know. When time did not exist, and the only way to know what time it was was to look out the window  and wonder what state, exactly, was that tiny car driving in? And where was that person going? And did they see the other tiny car on the other street, not far from them? And would they ever meet that person they passed by, so closely? Would they ever know how close they came? Would we?

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