The Empty Seat
August 3, 2018
I knock on the aluminum fuselage as I step onto VS024.
Nonstop LAX to Heathrow, that hollow bok-bok serves as my ritualistic surrender of all free will as I step from free land onto the totalitarian nation of Modern Air Travel.
The flight attendant’s smile fades as she sees the guitar case in my hand, eyes rolling just a few degrees upward as she takes my trusty Tele from me and stuffs it into the first class closet among the Versace and Gucci.
I am directed to the right, and back, ever back,toward the steerage class of the plane. As I pass, I sneak a glimpse at the Upper class sleeper cocoons where a jolly bunch is already sipping mimosas and changing into pajamas.
And then the walk of shame past the Premium Seats, where that lot are already seated and going through the in-flight menu, savoring every extra perk they can squeeze out of the extra 800 bucks they dropped on this leg of the journey.
The seats get smaller, tighter now, and the low growl of humanity grows in proportion. The horizon draws to an inverse triangular perspective to the very back of the plane, seats packed so tightly together they meld into a singular pinpoint of torture.
I take the seat on the aisle, thankfully bulkhead exit row with no knee crunching seat in front of me. I am first on this island, two empty seats between me and the obround window that shows Los Angeles shimmering through spent jet fuel.
My reverie is shattered as a frazzled woman stops at my row. She squints up at the row number, takes the window seat. She slips off her sensible travel shoes and puts on her Bose noise cancelling headphones, gives a terse nod and smile as I do the same. The unspoken signal of the experienced traveler: I have acknowledged you. However. We shall not communicate again.
Our eyes meet as we glance at the empty seat between us, shrugs of hope exchanged. Our world for the next tenhourfortyminutes has been condensed to mere centimeters of precious territory. And those 16.8 inches of unclaimed land between us would make all the difference, the two armrests allowed without the passive aggressive wrestling match between elbows, a luxurious acre of land to be planted by sweaters and magazines.
Maybe this is a good thing. You know, to appreciate your life out there.
Your immediate world is concentrated now, the very allowance of air upon your skin, the extra ice cube in a plastic cup. Your bodily functions timed to avoid the humiliation of a bowel movement mid Atlantic. Each movement is amplified, the grace of an extra 4 ounces of lukewarm coffee a blessing.
The man who insists on using your headrest as a crutch each time he passes by: I will kill you!
And now the delicious torture of the wait. The seat sits still vacant, as we stare down each approaching passenger. I hold my breath as one after another person passes me on the aisle, shaking their heads that they didn’t have the foresight to drop the extra 80 bucks for an extra legroom seat. A big man pauses at our row and my heart stops. But he only adjusts his poor belt and moves along. I turn to the lady and we share a quick nod of relief.
We are now married in our silent prayers to keep this seat open, this jewel-like empty space between us all the way across the continent.
The boarding has slowed its grumpy parade now, a few stragglers rushing back, blessedly beyond our row. It looks like we may goddamn win this one.
It is exhausting.
But here comes the last of the passengers, and be damned if it isn’t the young Brit couple I wondered at in the TSA line. Imagine, traveling with 2 infant twins! They stop for a moment at the bulkhead seats across from us, already occupied by a couple with a toddler and newborn themselves.
“Dammit Hugh,” says the young lady. “I told you that wasn’t the front row you got. And now what are we gonna do?”
I can tell they are on their way home now, probably after some incredible event–a wedding or the funeral of a rich uncle–that would persuade them to fly half way across the Earth with 2 babies.
The man, all sunburned Anglo cheeks flushed redder still by the 2 drinks he snuck at the lounge, just shakes his head in disgust. “Are you kidding me?” he says to the whole cabin, “Who do we talk to hmm?” I turn my eyes down to The Big Takeover magazine in my lap, though I am wholly invested in this drama. Then to his wife through gritted teeth, “For fuck sake Lisa, just sit down, will ya?”
The babies now squirm in their parents arms, as if they know the ordeal in their immediate future, and the next eighteen years or so beyond that.
“Oh nice.” she says, “why don’t you have another cider, you bastard.”
We are a shameful audience, all thinking it would be awful nice if someone were to give up their seats, yet no one quite willing to make that effort.
The flight attendant comes to them now and offers a row together and they head back further into the bowels of the plane. The doors are shut, and we have won this incredible lottery. I consider how much this means to me, sniff back a tear of relief.
Perhaps the stress of commercial flight has made us this petty, religiously grateful for the smallest of favors.
We start to taxi down the runway, and one of the babies behind me starts screaming, soon joined in piercing harmony by his sister. I switch on the noise cancelling feature and shut myself off from this tragedy, while the attendant snaps shut the curtain dividing us from the Premium Class.
It is a miracle really. We have each resigned ourselves to sitting here, still.
Any sudden freak out or trace of normal human behavior would be penalized with–hell, forget a threat to our safety– an emergency landing far short of our destination.
We have signed this contract in blood: Everybody, be cool.
And then we are all hurdling along the night sky, each of us surviving the minutes that slowly tick toward our final release.
Together in this tube, yet each on our own journey.