Holding Hands with Strangers

I treat the date of travel printed on my flight itinerary as an expiration date. I always manage to board the plane, but the fear stews, seeping out in trickles I believe to be visible to every person on the plane.

When faced with these drumming, panicked thoughts, I often feel compelled to turn to the person seated next to me. I may smile as I glance at him, for example. But it’s more likely that I’ll start right in on the unsuspecting passenger, searching for comfort, for anything I can cling to that will convince me that the plane is not about to plummet from the sky.

On one flight, I struggled to hold up my end of the conversation; my nerves breaking my speech into short bursts. My attention diverted to every noise made by anything, anywhere in the plane. Then, my seatmate began to try to calm me, slipping his hand into mine casually, but not with perverted swiftness. His hand was not offered with timidity or force or assumption. And he didn’t follow the line between his hand and mine with his eyes, tracing it back to my face, searching for or giving recognition.

I can’t even recall now which city he was headed to or which city he called home. I don’t even remember his name, and he probably wouldn’t recall mine either. What I remember most is not that I spent half of the ride in the brace position, or that the anti-anxiety medication took effect somewhere above Oregon, rendering my home decor magazine the most colorful and engaging piece of art I’ve ever experienced. What I remember is that his hand leveled my passage.

What more had I wanted, if not a hand to hold?

There have been others, too. On a flight from Denver to Phoenix a woman around my mother’s age asked if I’d like to hold her hand. She had a daughter with a fear of flying. I accepted and we held hands through each shake and rattle and jumble and jerk over the desert. After the plane landed, we quietly separated; I didn’t pull away, and neither did she—the moment was just over.

Now, I feel a stunted urge to thank you, Dear Ex-Seatmates, to mumble some parting words, to mark the cessation of our two-hour relationships. Because when I reached baggage claim, the elation of my mere survival and what can only be grasped by my anxious mind as magical transportation to my destination wears off amidst the normalcy of the airport. Travelers talking, eating yogurt—activities I once watched with a twitching eye for signs of impending doom at the departing terminal now appear ordinary.

I find that we are distracted by the mechanics of detaching ourselves from the tube. In the baggage claim, I’m ready to run out the door now that I’m aware of my freedom. Relief floods my body, followed by a ungrounded sense of victory. I made it, I say to myself, I cheated death! It is as if I’ve completed some long-planned goal, a race perhaps. Except this race brings no lasting sense of accomplishment—it is a game that I’ll play again and again.

So, Future Seatmates, I’m desperate for you to tell me that you know the secret to making the flight okay. The reality is that we recline within a metal tube, suspended with no net. And my motivation to engage you is selfish: a desire to dull the fear, to press the gauze against an evacuating wound.


Suzy still gets sweaty palms at the thought of an upcoming flight. Her blog is holdinghandswithstrangers.com.

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