“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We would like to welcome you onboard this flight to San Francisco. Flight duration is approximately 4 hours and we are expecting a fairly smooth flight today. Please remember to fasten your seatbelts and there is no smoking at any time. Once again we thank you for choosing to fly with us today and we hope you enjoy your flight.” Ding. The seatbelt sign flashed above my chair. I had buckled mine the second I sat down, buckling it and then re-buckling it probably a hundred times in the last twenty minutes, just to make sure it wasn’t faulty. The older man next to me had fallen asleep with his head rested on the window. How anyone can fall asleep on a plane, let alone before it even takes off, is a mystery to me. I felt quite claustrophobic; the plane was small, only two seats going down each row on the left and right, and a tiny aisle in between. And yet the old man didn’t seem to mind the lack of empty space.
I could get off right now.
I knew it wouldn't do me any good. I was smarter, stronger than that. First of all, getting off that plane would most definitely lead to me losing my job. This was my first time traveling for the company. I didn’t want my fear to get in the way of a promotion. Second, it would look incredibly suspicious if a man my age left his carry on bag, unbuckled his seatbelt, and made a run for the exit. But that didn't stop me from desperately considering it.
The engine from below was loud and made the whole plane vibrate. Slowly, the plane moved backwards away from the gate and onto the runway. Outside I could see a few men in bright orange shirts, directing the pilot on where to go. I stuck a piece of wintermint gum in my mouth and gripped the armrest so hard that my knuckles turned white. We started moving, slow at first. But it sped up quick, we were going so fast that the next logical step was to fly. It’s too late now. I shut my eyes and rested my head back. It felt like I was going to throw up.
“Sir, can I get you any coffee, tea, or water?” I jumped and looked up; standing in the small aisle was an older woman, maybe in her 50’s, smiling at me with bright red lipstick to match her bright red stewardess outfit. I shook my head and watched as she moved up to the next row, repeating the question.
I pinched my arm to make sure I wasn't dreaming, or dead. I’m not sure why people do that in the movies or comic books, it never made much sense to me. But the pinch hurt, so it must have meant I was safe for now.
I peaked over the shoulder of the old man next to me, looking out the window. There was a soft layer of clouds floating below the aircraft, which in all honesty was very beautiful. Eventually, the cotton candy-like clouds disappeared, and I saw land that looked dark and brown and empty. I could feel the plane shifting, hitting bumps.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be experiencing some turbulence for the next few minutes. I have turned the seatbelt sign back on until we are all clear.” The captain's voice was low and unrevealing. I was starting to feel sick again. The seat pocket in front of me had a complimentary barf bag sticking out. I held on to it just in case.
The man next to me was still asleep. He had his coat bunched into a pillow, rested against the wall of the plane. The position didn’t look very comfortable, and I was surprised he hadn’t woken up yet. The plane ride was rough. The bumps in the air were frequent. My little white paper bag was already propped open and in my lap.
The cotton candy clouds had come back, but this time they were dark and grey. They surrounded the plane, and I could barely see further than five feet outside of the window.
I turned around in my seat almost too quickly. Rushing by me was a large metal cart, rolling on its wheels down the aisle, from one side of the plane to the other. I hadn’t realized how slanted the aircraft was. All of the coke cans were falling off of the top of the cart, rolling down after it. It hit the wall on the back of the plane, running over everything in its path and denting a portion of the planes paneling. The flight attendant with the bright red lipstick ran after the cart, trying not to trip in her high heels.
I began to throw up.
I hadn’t felt so sick in years. The last time I had felt this bad was the day after Italy won the world cup in 2006.
“This is your captain speaking. There seems to be a storm on our path here to San Francisco, and it wasn’t on our radar. We are going to do our best to get you out of here and landed safely, likely somewhere in New Mexico.”
The turbulence was getting out of hand. It began to feel violent. The old man next to me was shifting, and soon lifted his head up. He saw the storm out the window, and could clearly feel the vibrations it caused on the plane. And he most definitely could see me throwing up, if he wasn’t able to hear it.
“Excuse me, sir? Are you alright? What’s going on?” The old man seemed so calm. I threw up some more.
“...storm..” I managed. He didn’t say anything else. He simply leaned his head back against his headrest. Eventually I stopped throwing up.
Oxygen masks dropped down from the ceiling and a few people started to scream. My barf bag, too full to close, fell out of my lap and on to the ground when we hit a bump. The lights on the side of the plane’s aisle went out. It was our only light source, and everything felt so dark with the storm outside. I could feel the plane tipping uncontrollably. Another wintermint piece of gum.
I thought about the old man next to me. I had to focus on anything other than what was happening. I wondered why he was going to San Francisco. Could he be visiting his grandkids? Did he have a wife at home, who had no idea what was going on right now? Maybe they had been married happily for 50 years, and he was go to San Francisco to buy her favorite painting for her.
I thought of the time in the third grade when our art teacher, Mrs. Higgins had us study Vincent Van Gogh’s piece Sunflowers, and then we all painted our own version of it. Later, we sent them to a local children’s hospital, and they were hung in the hallway for everyone to see. I never signed mine, because I was afraid someone would make fun of my mediocre painting.
I thought of when I lost my first tooth, and I woke up surrounded by glitter and a dollar under my pillow. It was one of the most magical things I had ever experienced. My mom explained that the glitter came from the tooth fairy.
I thought of my graduation from the University of Wisconsin. How all those years of stressing about exams and papers really didn’t matter. I should have said yes to going to those parties my roommate invited me to.
I thought of my first kiss, and how I was too worried what she thought of me, so I never talked to her again.
I thought about this old man, and how quickly he fell asleep on the plane. He wasn’t scared or worried. He never was, and he still isn't.
We landed somewhere in Colorado near the mountains. All of us had our oxygen masks on. The luggage all fell out of the overhead compartments during the landing. A few of us were injured, but nothing was too severe. We all walked off that plane a little bit different. I walked off with a small scratch at my temple, less afraid. The red lipstick stewardess lady walked off with a story to tell her grandchildren. And the old man walked off a little bit wiser, and continued his nap once we were settled in the Colorado airport.