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Planes Don’t Need a Reason to Crash

On my Fear of Flying, Need for Benzos, Almost Dying

 

I’m not scared of terrorists — that’s an absurd and irrational fear. I’m afraid of my plane plummeting out of the sky like a typewriter from a skyscraper, my final moments spent in panic and sickening regret, surrounded by strangers too terrified to lie to me. This is an equally absurd and irrational fear, but it is one that does not call into question my anti-imperialism. I’m a hysterical idiot, of course, but a hysterical idiot with sound communist politics.

I haven’t always been afraid of flying. Once, as a teen, I was on a plane to Florida to visit my grandparents, and saw a flash of orange suddenly shoot out of the engine directly in my line of sight. A faint odor like burnt plastic wafted through the cabin. We turned around and flew back to the airport and I don’t remember feeling the least bit alarmed, even regaling my grandparents with the story when I landed. “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me!” I laughed, carefree and acneic, ready to hit the beach without a drop of sunscreen.

I can’t pinpoint when my mindset changed, but somehow a palpable and neurotic fear of untimely injury and/or death crept into my subconscious over the years. Everything that had previously brought me pleasure was now slightly fraught. Every sexual encounter became a brush with AIDS or pregnancy (which I know is not exactly death or injury, but it’s close enough). The outdoors were also suspect, as ticks became Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and mosquitoes became West Nile Virus. I used to ride horses — one of those luxuries generally only afforded to the very wealthy, but accessible to me as the rare perk of an extremely rural upbringing — until I convinced myself that every ride was an invitation to quadriplegia. Planes became the most obvious death traps, and while my aviophobia waxed and waned, I began taking benzos before every flight to ward off the worst of it. On this particular trip home from Indiana, though, I was unmedicated and alone.

The Indianapolis Airport is beautiful, in a sterile, Logan’s Run kind of way. The ceilings are so high as to give the impression of a futuristic concert hall, or perhaps even a church or temple — like a cult had formed to worship the inventor of the Roomba. Everywhere is pristine white steel and spotless glass. In the daytime it is lit almost solely by the sun, which pours through the high walls and massive skylights, and at night everything and everyone glows beneath gentle, unobtrusive bulbs. An overhead motion-activated light installation blinks soft pinks and blues as you glide along the moving walkway to the parking garage. In the Civic Plaza — the grand pavilion only an ingrate would refer to as a “food court”— a flock of identical curved lenticular discs hang from the massive domed skylight, like a school of cool blue fish, suspended immobile and dreamy over the ficuses and Starbucks.

It’s Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, smack dab in the middle of the Hoosier state—you can almost hear the Strauss and Gayaneh. It’s the iPort, by Steve Jobs, a queer sci-fi zen garden for the American Midwest. It’s a high-concept tampon commercial, promising new frontiers in feminine hygiene thanks to groundbreaking sanitary technology. It’s the motherfucking Indianapolis Airport, and it is the Xanax of architecture.

Unfortunately, it’s no replacement for actual xanax, so I began tweeting flip little messages at the Twitter followers who had supported me so warmly during my stressful day at LaGuardia a week earlier, to distract myself.

Preflight tiny booze

(I never did, fearing anxious nausea.)

Something in your pocket

(A direct quote from the little fascists at TSA.)

Start my own airline

(Utter bullshit, a fearless and cavalier facade being my signature coping mechanism.)

“Hello passengers, this is your captain speaking. Just notifying you that there’s some weather over New York right now, so we’ll be circling Washington D.C. until it clears. Should be about half an hour. Thank you for your patience.”

His voice was calm, and my flight mates appeared reassured. I focused on breathing, and trying to visualize calming imagery: the stoop of my apartment, my cats, someone else’s nearly full pack of cigarettes absent-mindedly left behind at a quiet bar. None of it worked, and I began to grit my teeth as my stomach lurched.

Weather, I thought to myself. What an evasive and inaccurate euphemism. Of course there’s weather. Weather is a constant state. They mean bad weather, but they don’t want us to lose our shit.

A baby in the row behind me gurgled happily, and I began to resent the fools around me for their confidence in the captain and his abominable flying machine. I remembered my mother’s first office job out of college — I would have been in elementary school — working for a model aviation magazine. She would take me in when she had overtime on the weekends and quiet engineering types would explain to me the principles of flight, showing me how to make beautiful and elaborate paper airplanes. Did I trust those nerds? They probably all had drones now. The skies weren’t meant for man, and this unnatural apparatus is a monument to his arrogance, ready to hurtle downward, crashing into a suburban neighborhood at the slightest mechanical failure.

We approached the “weather” (or it approached us), a massive wall of ominous clouds, their thick billows incessantly sliced by jagged flashes of lightning. It looked like the end of the world, and my fellow passengers were obviously distressed, nonetheless taking pictures and video out the windows on my side of the plane. My seatmate looked out for a moment, but ultimately she looked unimpressed. The captain came over the speaker again, his tone lacking its previous tranquility.

“This is your captain speaking…. the weather over New York… it’s not clearing. We can’t land in D.C. there are too many redirected flights… we need fuel.” At this point, he sighed anxiously, and it sounded like wind gusting through the otherwise silent cabin. “We need to go to the Philadelphia airport… our instruments aren’t working… because of the weather… we have to land in Philadelphia… we need fuel… I’ll talk to you again when we’re on the ground.”

Finally, everyone was on the same page, and I could be smug about our impending annihilation. It looked as if we were a few hundred yards from the mass of electrified clouds before the plane dipped into a maneuver I had never experienced. People shifted in their seats and I heard uneasy jokes as we took a dip so severe we had to be perfectly perpendicular to the ground, judging from the view I reluctantly caught out my window. The engines got louder and we suddenly accelerated. The baggage clamored in the overhead bins. We were fleeing the electrical storm with an urgency I couldn’t help but think should have occurred to the captain earlier.

The plane lurched forward, rising, diving and twisting as if on stormy seas. It was at this point my seatmate calmly made her acquaintance. “Are you going to New York?” she asked innocently. I said yes, I lived there, I had been visiting my mother. My seatmate lived in Connecticut, and was returning from an aunt’s funeral in Indiana. Her daughter was waiting for her at the airport; did I have anyone waiting for me? For some reason I lied, and said yes, because she wanted someone to be there to pick me up, and I didn’t want this stranger to worry. She was my mom now, in loco parentis at 39,000 feet.

We were finally getting away from the “weather,” but the plane dipped and climbed at alarming rates, and the engines roared at a volume that made conversation difficult. People strained to raise their voices yet still appear casual. A few rows ahead I saw a young woman was leaning over in her seat. She sniffed and wiped her nose. She was crying, silently, discreetly.

 

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“So how long have you lived in New York?” asked my seatmate, now with a tinge of interrogation to her tone. I prattled on with niceties on career and commute. She smiled with the sort of approval that only comes from mothers who don’t give it easily, the kind of mothers I’m used to.

A flight attendant approached the couple with the baby behind me. They were in an emergency exit, he said, and he’d like to reseat them somewhere else.The plane dived again. The couple moved, the baby gurgled happily. The crying girl in the seat ahead choked back an identifiable sob, and pulled out a tissue to bury any future ones.

My Sky-Mom peered out the window. “Rough flight!” she said loudly.

“Yeah,” I forced a smile, “I worry I’ll get sick if I look out the window. I don’t like flying.”

“Oh you’ll be fine,” my Sky-Mom said dismissively, and began rifling through her large bag, yanking out fruit, trail mix and granola bars.

“Here, eat this,” she demanded

“Oh, I’m fine thank you so much, I couldn’t possibly eat right now. I might get more nauseous.”

“Here. Eat.” insisted sky-mom with growing intensity. “Eat. You’ll be fine.” I took a granola bar and thanked her.

“You’ll be fine.” she insisted one more time. I was thankful for her dismissive care and no-nonsense tone. Had she shown any tenderness toward me I would have panicked further, assuming she was trying to make me comfortable in my final moments.

It was extremely quiet until a row back and across the aisle a woman opened her phone, hit some buttons and began speaking. I strained to hear her. She was also near an emergency exit.

“Hi, we’re having some problems… they say the instruments aren’t working. We’re landing in Philadelphia. I’m not sure when I’ll see you again, but I love you.”

Other people began to turn on their phones, and I heard someone else crying further up. Maybe in first class. My seatmate opened her own phone and left a brief message in a language I couldn’t understand. Her voice betrayed no urgency.

“You feel better?” asked sky mom after putting away her phone, “You’ll be fine,” she said confidently.

I got out my own phone and, though I had no signal, sent a message through Facebook, hoping it would go through before the plane crashed. It was brief. I said I was scared but trying not to freak out. I said that I loved them.

And then we landed. And everything was fine.

The pilot gave us the option to wait a half an hour or so until the plane refueled, or to get off in Philadelphia. I and about half the other passengers took our chances with the City of Brotherly Love, and ungrateful daughter that I am, I left without saying thank you to my seatmate, rushing into the narrow, demode halls of of the Philadelphia airport, which smelled of fried foods.

I ordered a bus ticket to New York from my phone, while classic soul played over the speakers, The Jarmels “A Little Bit of Soap.” I texted my mother video of the storm and a brief message, “I’m never getting on another plane ever again.”

 

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I took a cab to the “bus stop” —a throng of exhausted people on crumbling sidewalk in front of a vacant lot, and sat on my luggage before boarding. It was packed, and I was inexplicably seated next to another woman in a Sari, this one with a sleeping toddler on her lap. Ahead of her was her daughter, or maybe daughter-in-law, with an even younger baby, who smiled at me from between the seats.

My entire body seemed to deflate as I exhaled, and I had what felt like a moment of clarity. “I almost died,” I thought, a consideration that brought me first to soft chuckles, then to nearly breathless laughter I was forced to muffle with my hand and a tissue, while tears welled up in my eyes. I was elated. I wish I could dose or drink or snort that feeling again.

It occurred to me that yes, I actually would get on a plane again someday. I’d like to see the Norwegian Fjords, the Great Gardens of Japan. I’d like to see Paris, maybe with the person I messaged when I was sure my cause of death would be “weather.” For a giggling tearful moment, I was every bit the fearless adventurer I pretended to be.

It also occurred to me that it was possible we had never been in serious danger. The pilot may have just been completely lacking in empathy or interpersonal skills. That’s the sort of liability that could have caused a clamorous hysteria, but somehow only produced a purposeful hush. Flight attendants trained for the occasion did their jobs. People were scared, and everyone did their best to hide it. Everyone except that fucking pilot, who I hope receives a very nice pension from Delta after being stricken with some ocular degeneracy that maybe doesn’t exactly leave him blind, but will certainly force him into early retirement.

I happen to believe that solipsistic reflections are undignified at best and pathetic at worst. Frankly I think everyone seems to have far too many feelings these days, and it’s embarrassing to add to the emotional din with another personal essay. I called my mother while writing this, and admitted my anxieties at confessing such a ridiculously neurotic and vulnerable experience. “You’ll be fine,” she said — the perfect blessing, cobbled together from deceit, delusion and mercy.