The Middle Seat

A week ago I was on a flight to LA sitting next to man who was a big old hunk of meat. Wearing only an undershirt, and a jungle of armpit hair a few inches from my cheek, I sat the entire flight, pouting in my head while his sand paper dry elbow rested near my ribs. He looked like a wrestler meets Bruce Vilanche, His skin was beet red and to my rapture he also sported a sour wet cough. I couldn’t help but hate him for his choice of clothing. Every time he adjusted the air vent strong fumes of deodorant stung my eyes and nose. I hated him. Spent the entire flight sulking, inside my head. I’d never be out right rude to the man, for I’m sure the flight was plenty uncomfortable for him too. The lady in the window seat was small and asleep, so I took advantage of that arm rest. Although, every move he made, made me grind my teeth, I couldn’t help but see him laugh and wave at a baby a few rows ahead. He was just a big friendly red lobster, and I made peace with his scaly elbow. 

It seems ridiculous to complain about a flight right now. My plane wasn’t blown up, and none of my loved ones were either. Flights can divorce you from humanity. They can make you want to slap a bald head sitting  in front of you for no reason other than the inescapable close proximity. I strongly believe that the discomfort of planes exists in first class too. I was on a red eye flight once where at two in the morning the flight attendant just kept yammering about how good pole dancing was for you. Her pole dancing ranting and raving kept me up the entire flight and the rage I felt towards her still keeps me up sometimes. Fortunately, on my way home from LA, I had quite the opposite experience. Usually when I say, “I had a good flight” it means that I had the window seat and the person next to me was small and didn’t talk to me, but this was really a good flight and I talked for two and half hours of it. 

I had the middle seat towards the back of the plane.I slowly made my way to my row. In the aisle seat, was a very pretty Muslim woman with her small baby leaning into her pillowy chest. With a polite frozen smile on my face I moved to the middle seat, that’s when I met Shanya. She had reddish blonde hair done up in a messy bun and her ice blue eyes darted around as though she was counting the number of passengers on board. “Wonder when we’re gonna take off? Ahh, there are so many planes in the sky!” She looked about 16, wearing a Hard Rock Cafe shirt and holding an ugly furry purple stuffed animal monster thing. Her nails were thick square acrylic, hot pink with flowers on the thumbs. I didn’t know who she was talking to at first. It’s rare for young people to talk these days to strangers. I sure as hell didn’t. I remained quiet, mentally preparing myself for yet another miserable middle seat flight. After awhile when the remarks didn’t stop I decided she was talking to me. “I hate taking off! This is my second time on an airplane!” Oh, shit I thought, now I get it. I’m gonna have to deal with her panic attack maybe even a seizure. “It’s going to be fine, we’re completely safe.” I said hoping it would end there.  The baby to the other side of me was so adorable and smiley I got distracted fast by his friendliness and so did Shanya. She reached across me to pinch his face. “Ouch” I  thought as her nails seemed to dig into his cheeks, but he didn’t seem to mind. The plane took off without her freaking out to my delight and I assumed it would be smooth silent sailing from here on out. The baby had fallen asleep and made it look so good. I was going to look at sky mall, shut my eyes, and just have a good long think about my favorite foods past and present. “This was my first trip out of Minnesota.” Shanya went on to tell me that her parents had flown her out to LA to stay with her Aunt and Uncle as high school graduation present. “Did you have fun? where’d you go?”  I reluctantly began to surrender to Shanya’s persistent yammering feeling like Mother Teresa. “I went everywhere!”, she said. “I went to the Hard Rock Cafe, Madame Tussaud’s, Disneyland.” What a horror show, I thought to myself. “That sounds so fun!” I said. She talked to me about her friends back home. I have never felt older than an 18 year old before. “Mary is nice, she turned 16 in March, but I really like Denise her birthdays August 16. She put pink highlights in her hair. ” The girl kept telling me all her friends birthdays as though the dates gave me any insight at all, but admittedly it was very cute and charming.

She commented on how my name suited me. “I’ve never met a Bridey before.” “I’ve  never met a Shanya before” I told her. “Really? There’s like 5 Shanya’s in my grade.” Shanya said that she lived in a really poor neighborhood where meth and heroin were more plentiful than marijuana. Her father was Native American, Ojibwe, and they were a pot friendly family. She said she was happy her uncle was in jail because he was so overprotective. Wow, a lot of dark details flowing out of this girl. Perhaps she had never talked to someone who had zero connection whatsoever to her hometown. This was after all her first time out of state.  She asked me what I did, and I was purposely very vague. I didn’t want the flight to turn into a painful “What movies have you been in?” flight. I think I told her I wrote for a newspaper or something, a white lie. I apologize.  After doting on the baby some more, Shanya asked me if I had ever been in a fight. “No, never even close. My sister and I slapped each other a bunch as kids, but I’ve never thrown a punch before.” She told me she had beaten the shit out of some girl who was starting rumors about her, and that “a 25 year old guy” had to break it up or she would have just kept punching. Her story was violent and made even creepier by the unashamed and  tickled way she delivered it. She was a strong meow mix of sweet naivety and broken insanity. I looked at her arm and it seemed kind of meaty, bloated with some bruising and red dots that may or may not have been from drug use. “Do you want to get a tattoo?” Shanya asked excitedly, revealing a very crooked toothy smile, chipmunkish and sweet. “I thought about it once, I wanted an astronaut on my butt.” I said. I’m not proud of that statement, but I thought it would amuse the girl.  “OH! I want a dream catcher on my ribs that says “I will rise above” because I am going to overcome my demons.”  That  just sounded like a regret to me, but Shanya was being very honest and all the judgement or whatever I had that stalled out these types of conversations in the past evaporated. I was just there talking to this soul above the west, above all that is anchoring us to who we are. The mother next to me said something I couldn’t understand and then pointed to the restrooms, I said “oh yea”, thinking she was asking my permission, then she handed me her sleeping baby. It was a beautiful thing, this trust in my row was almost too much. Three very different women, all sharing and trusting. An ever present loneliness that always seemed natural and necessary went away.

“Are you religious? I’m agnostic, a lot of people think that’s the same as atheist.” “I was raised Catholic, but I don’t practice anything, although I feel like going to Church a lot for the meditation of it.” I said, an honest truth that I don’t share with a lot of my friends for fear of judgement. Church isn’t cool, but it can be nice. Shanya thought for a second and then said “I feel too guilty going to Church because I doubt him and it’s rude to go into someone’s house and doubt him.” Then she said, “The way I see it, it’s like were all free falling and we might have a parachute in our backpack or we might not, I’d rather not know.” This girl was nut-job but reflective and surprising. Every silly teenager thought that spewed out of her mouth was followed by scattered foresight, blossoming wisdom like gushing over Adam Levine’s abdomen and then quoting Socrates. We talked a little about reincarnation. I told her I was on a flight once with this man who I was talking to mainly because I found him extraordinarily attractive. We talked about reincarnation and he told me that his two year old daughter would cry hard out of no where and when he asked her why, she would say “because all the buffalo are gone”, without ever being exposed to buffalo or anything. “Wow”, Shanya said. For the first time the whole flight, I saw her quietly stop and think.  

I am the type of person who doesn’t attempt a lot of things out of my wheelhouse, though I may want to. I’ve been wanting to learn how to sew since forever, as well as learn french. Out of the blue I asked Shanya, “Can you sew?” “By machine and by hand.” I knew it. I thought, this girl has a lot of what I’d like to have, this self assuredness and optimism.  She also told me to that I had to try butter and peanut butter sandwiches. “A layer of butter spread on one slice of bread and then peanut butter on the other! It’s delicious.” Hideous, I thought to myself, but who knows maybe one day when I’m sad and lonely I’ll think about Shanya and make myself one and I’ll be like HOLY SHIT! THIS IS GOOD! After we landed I directed her to Baggage Claim where she was going to catch a shuttle. We hugged and took a photo. She said to tag her in it, I made her spell out her name, but alas, I cannot find Shanya on Facebook.  But I will always remember her, this extremely different person than myself, but so beautifully human that our very different backgrounds held no weight at all. On that flight, I sat between who I once was and who I want to become- the mother, the confused young adult, and then next to the window seeing the world outside of Minnesota for the first time, the even more confused teenager, but we were all there for each other, and so there’s hope.