Naked on a Plane

I woke this morning to the rumble of jets overhead, one of the sounds that marks the start of a new day here. It’s one of the perks of living a few miles from the airport but I didn’t think about the noise. I thought about some friends I got naked with for a few hours and never saw again.

And by naked, I mean as revealing as one person can be to another without removing a stitch of clothing.

There was the woman beside me who showed me her post-mastectomy, reconstructed breast and asked, “Would you like to feel it?”

There was the man behind me who told the story of how he walked away from his wife and daughter and never saw them again.

There was the man in first class who loved his wife and still desired her so much after twenty two years and three children he would sit on the floor outside their bathroom so he could see her emerge naked from the shower.

They were strangers on planes. I encountered them only once and in the time we shared, we were as intimate as only strangers could be.

If you are lucky, these moments can and do happen anywhere but I am struck by the number of times I’ve stumbled into these brief intimacies on airplanes. Perhaps when you pack people tightly enough together, the friction rubs some of that protective veneer away whether you want it to or not. There you are, shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-midback, sharing an armrest, breathing the scent of each other’s breath until you know what your rowmate ate for breakfast and how her stomach feels about it. For an hour or twelve or more, you occupy a village enclosed in metal, surrounded by nothing but clouds and sky. I can’t help thinking that I may die with these people. I check the hand of the person next to me and wonder whether it would be the kind of hand I’d want to hold on the way down or if the owner would want to hold mine.

Once I’m airborne, I understand in a visceral way that I control nothing. No one in my plane village does either. We are all in the hands of the pilot, upheld by the laws of physics and engineering and the grace of whatever diety controls the weather. All we can control is what we give and receive.

Like most of my fellow passengers, I work hard to avoid the burden of connection. I burrow into the book I’ve brought, the game on my phone, or the movie in front of me. Sometimes I try to sleep away the hours so that the time folds like a napkin and it feels as though I’ve stepped directly from departure to arrival.

Other times, though, I’ve been ambushed and then seduced by a stranger with something to share. Maybe they are picking up a signal I don’t even know I’m emitting. They may need to talk but more than I realize, I need something too.

When Mary invited me to feel her new breast, right there on the plane somewhere between Greensville, South Carolina and Newark, New Jersey, she taught me something about resilience, fearlessness and joy. (I did and you can read about that moment here).

John, the man who loved and desired his wife was unselfconsciously in love. The cynic in me initially thought that he was reminding himself of his obligations before he got swept up in a mid-flight flirtation. As we chatted, though, it became apparent that he was simply and unselfconsciously sharing, as though he wanted the last words that filled his mouth to be ones of love. As we talked, my own feelings of love and desire for my mate stirred and stretched like children let out to play.

I never knew the name of the man who left his family years before but his dead, matter-of-fact tone echoes now. He had no intention of returning. Ever. In fact, he  was about to leave his current girlfriend; by telling me his story he seemed to be saying, “This is who I am.” I had always wondered what it would be like to just walk out a door and never return. He showed me one reason I am glad I never tried to find out.

With each encounter I fell in love with life a little bit more deeply. Something in me that was closed had opened. I loved these people for giving that to me.

What are your most memorable encounters on a plane or anywhere else? Do you think you made them happen or were they pure serendipity?

5 thoughts on “Naked on a Plane

  1. If there are degrees of nakedness, those people making their astonishing reveals are looking mighty naked. The man with the flat affect who is compelled to confess is quite interesting.

  2. Betsy, this is breathtaking! I too have had similar experiences on a plane – although not quite like this – and I love how you attribute this to a lack of control. This will stay with me all day. Thank you!

  3. Elizabeth,

    What a wonderful piece. It reminded me of the many interesting people I have met through the years on the long flights to Greece. When I was twenty-one, I woke to a young boy, maybe early teens, holding my hand! We were both fast asleep! Another person who sticks out was a retired Air Force pilot who told me we were going to crash. Makes me want to write my own post now!

    The woman who asked if you wanted to touch her scar was a poignant look at a breast cancer survivor’s resilience (my mother is a twelve-year survivor so this hit close to home). Loved the man in love and shower scene. Beautiful writing, you captured these “characters” so well. Look forward to reading more of your posts.

    Kimberly :)

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