8/17/16, JFK ✈ ARN
At take-off, I resign myself to quiet terror. My usual mode during air-travel. If I think of the disaster, the disaster won’t happen. I usually cry openly, silently. I plan for the possibility, let my seatmate know before it happens. I just want to let you know, I’m a nervous flier – please don’t worry if I start crying. It’ll pass. This often sparks some compassion. I have had strangers tell me they “understand completely,” or tell me they are relieved I would say so, that they’re the same way but too embarrassed about it. Once, I held a man’s hand when he smiled and offered it to me. This comforted me so greatly that I am certain that man was an actual saint. I feel him now each time I fly, though I can barely remember what he looked like. On this flight, I notice the woman next to me at the window is holding a siddur. When I warn her to expect some light weeping, she asks if I’d like her to say תפילת הדרך, the prayer for safe travels for me. I say, yes, please, and she takes my hand.
We talk and I calm down. She is a high school guidance counselor in Queens. She is flying to Reykjavik for a brief vacation alone. I know it sounds basic, but I’m just doing the guided tours. I really want to go to the Blue Lagoon. It is basic, but I am not about to ruin anyone’s long weekend, especially not when the person just invoked the will of god on my behalf. The Blue Lagoon looks beautiful in pictures, I tell her. This states an aesthetic truth, but is not really a compliment. If you were to turn the camera from the ice-blue water steaming at the cold surface between ridges of black rocks, you would see the factory buildings and towers of Iceland’s major geothermal power plant. The Blue Lagoon is a cooling pool for the plant’s non-toxic runoff water. Not very grammable.
I tell her that I am headed to Sweden for a six-month study trip. That sounds fantastic! Are you Swedish? No. I didn’t think so, not really any Swedish Jews. Actually… Do you speak the language? Yes. Mostly. Everyone speaks English. I hear it’s beautiful there. And it’s so safe. I am not sure what she means by this. Or, I know exactly what she means and just hope she doesn’t really mean it or hasn’t actually said what she has, that she won’t continue with some version of what I know she’s about to. Honestly, I was a little scared coming on this trip. I usually fly El Al, because I know they have the tightest security. You never know who they still let on some flights. By this point, I am sure I know exactly what she means, but still want her to say it. I ask for clarification and she obliges: it just freaks me out to see Muslims on planes. I ask, do you mean Arab people? To which she responds, yeah, same thing. Terrorists.
When I was sixteen, two passenger jets crashed into a pair of nearly identical, very tall buildings at the southern tip of an island 150 miles southwest of where I sat watching it happen on repeat on a TV bolted high in a corner at the front of my Latin classroom. There were many people in the planes and even more in the very tall buildings. The aftermath of this event would affect those beyond this 150-mile radius, namely, the entire global population. At the dawn of the new millennium, nations redefined the reasons for their ongoing and new conflicts. Over half a million people died in the subsequent Wars on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. In some countries, the number of civilians killed far exceeded military deaths. At home, the US mediated these realities through a heightened surveillance state, symbolic action, and strange visual patterning. Troops were blessed, flags were flown, magnetized cut-outs of yellow ribbons were attached to cars, days transcended their names to become colors – green, yellow, orange, red – arranged along a continuum from relative safety to severe risk. Due to ongoing anxieties about international travel, my high school Latin club canceled its scheduled trip to Italy.
My seatmate on the Icelandair flight gestures toward 9/11 without saying it outright to offer some context for her racist fear. It is not the first time I’ve heard something like it, not the first time I’ve witnessed Arab people imagined as a dangerous enemy through all but those words in casual conversation. This is the first time I’ve had to hear it mid-flight, when the conversation seems especially charged and specific. Such is the lasting power of the event fifteen years later. I tell the woman I’m not sure I know what she’s talking about because I do not want to be rude outright. There are four and a half hours left until we reach Reykjavik and this flight is full. I can’t escape. You know what I mean. Fuck it. I tell her I’m Arab. No; I thought you were Jewish. I am. Uhh… and how does that work?
I have a problem. I think too much or too hard about what I am, where I come from, how people perceive me, but am morally opposed to having the conversation with people if and when they ask about my “background.” It’s a joke that mixed and white-passing people love talking about the existential peculiarity of their experience as if it’s something that interests other people. Well, being ethnically ambiguous… I start to say, before I forget whether this is a punchline or a powermove. I know there’s no point in talking with my seatmate, so I just groan and turn my head toward the aisle, staying silent under the thin warmth of a blue polyester blanket.
7/??/10, JFK ✈ BOS
The man sitting next to me on the aisle looks unusually pink. It is either a sunburn or his natural color. Or the ruddiness of alcohol. It is morning, but I would not begrudge anyone a drink to calm the nerves while flying. He is wearing a pink gingham button-down, which only exacerbates the blush spread over his neck and face. Like his blood is somehow shining through his skin’s pale surface layer. He wears his thinning white-blond hair gelled and combed. Like gay Guy Fieri. He looks weathered, maybe twenty-five years my senior. My paleness appears less pink than his, more undercut with ochre, olive, but to be fair, I have not been drinking. I am, however, stoned – which somehow helps me control my own panic and thoughts of impending doom.
The airplane’s engines suddenly shriek – the sound shakes the plane into motion. As the craft straightens onto the runway and begins to accelerate, I tear up, start deep-breathing. I am prepared for this. I pray to myself in circles. I cross myself (it just feels right) while trying to hide the action from observers. I am at the window seat, so the man next to me can just see wet tracks form from the corner of my right eye in three-quarter-turn away from him. He taps me on the shoulder and extends his hand. His fingers are short, his palm is wide and square. I reluctantly let my fingers curl around the strangers’. Their cold is a shock. I think of whips of rain hitting me hard and sudden. His smile is outsize, makes him appear too eager.
My heartbeat and anxiety slow as we break through the cloud cover and reach 36,000 feet. He asks me my name, what I do. When I say, “I write for an internet news/blog network,” he replies, “Ooooh! New media!” which makes me LOL. I have never heard anyone that did not lack self- awareness or intend ridicule call it that. I manage a kind “yep” and a genuine smile.
“You’re a writer?”
“I write things but I think technically I’m an editor.”
“And what brings you here today?”
“I just moved my boyfriend cross-country and now I’m going back home.”
“And now he’s in LA and you’re staying in Boston?”
“No, I’m moving to Philadelphia when I get back.”
“But you’re not going to LA?”
“So you broke up.”
He laughs in loud barks, onomatopoeias, HAHA. A mother and daughter diagonally across the aisle look back in our direction.
an artist, I do design, but I’m writing a novel. Just something for myself but my friends say I should think about getting it published.”
He tells me the plot of his novel, which is basically Twilight goes to college crossed with 50 Shades of Gray but everyone’s gay and either a warlock or an incubus. “It’s very sexual, very open,” he tells me. “I want it to feel real.” To which I respond, “Oh, like Tolstoy.” He howls again. “You’re funny. Cute and funny.”
He asks for my email and I give him a fake address. There’s more conversation, which would seem aimless if his questions didn’t all gravitate toward the sexual. When did I come out? When did I know I was gay? Am I a top or a bottom? Is my relationship open? I tell him I’m sleepy as a way out. The excuse is true, though: I am sleepy. A side-effect of the weed or the sweeping life changes I’m vaulting through. Or his curiosity. The burden of having to reveal anything about myself to strangers.
It’s easy enough for me to fall asleep on airplanes: the recycled air, the hollow feeling that suffuses my body in the time-lapse of flight, the constant rush of wind around the wings, the hum of mechanics working underneath the seats. I’ve only dozed off for five minutes when I feel the man’s hand on my shoulder again, gently shaking me awake. I manage to hide my panic – the disaster is here – and ask him what’s wrong.
He has a special power, he tells me. Not a power, just a knack. A talent derived from experience. The burnt-pink man says he’s “sucked so many guys off,” he can determine “what any random stranger’s cock looks like.” He says the shape of mine eludes him. “I can’t figure out if you’re Jewish or something else – mixed or maybe just really Italian? And I figure, since we’re going to Boston….”
Growing up in a body which has a penis, being instructed to build identity around this body – its socio-historical role, behaviors, and aura – having had ample opportunity to interact with other male-coded bodies (some clothed, others not) in ways that ranged from hot to terrifying, with interacting with male strangers usually falling somewhere in the middle (which is not exactly neutral), I am often shocked but rarely surprised by what comes out of men’s mouths.
??/??/8?, BDL✈ ABQ
I am very young. Maybe three. I am so little, I can barely remember anything. Brief sounds and flashing images. The whir of the engines. A storm contained somewhere underneath my seat. The small window on the wing that repoussoirs the white of the sky. I am on a plane. Is it my first time? My mom is here. My dad is not, and I miss him. We are somewhere over the desert, headed to New Mexico. We will land soon. The pilots have initiated our descent and I squirm in my seat, my body resisting the swift downward motion it cannot trust. My belt is loose no matter how tight my mom pulls it. Standing up, I lean over the legs of the man in the seat next to me to reach the window. I do not fear strangers. Everyone in the world exists to protect me from disaster I can sense but not perceive.
The weight of my kid body is pushed entirely against this man’s thigh. He does not mind. He laughs softly, then gestures to lift me up onto his lap. Scrambling to balance my knees on his other leg, I ascend. From this angle, I can see the expanse of dirt dotted gray-green with sparse growth, the ridges of mountains slowly pushing up toward us, houses on the outskirts of the city rising into tall, distant buildings. Hovering between us and the ground, an enormous bird appears, its wings spread black against the orange ground. It’s following us. I am terrified and jump back into my seat, where I curl into a ball and start to cry, loud bawling.
My mom cannot comfort me. I cannot stop crying. The man looks out the window, and when he sees the bird he laughs. He taps my shoulder and my whimper subdues. “It’s the plane’s shadow,” he says. “Just a shadow, like you have a shadow.” He turns on the overhead light, pulls out his tray and tries to shadow-puppet his explanation, twining his thumbs together with his fingers stuck in imitation of wings. It’s too bright in the cabin for shadows to form. I am not too young to understand his point without the visual, or to remember this as the point I stopped crying. Of course I know what a shadow is.
My mom smiles at the stranger, who smiles back and puts his tray table up. I was staring at him the whole time. He laughs when he notices. Says something like “little guy, you wanna hold my hand?” I do not nod or speak to respond, but I feel my arm extending toward him of its own volition. His skin is warm and slightly rough. Tender. My hand is so tiny, it fits entirely within the nest he makes when he folds his fingers across his palm.