I was sitting in the aisle seat. My mom, my step-dad, and my then five-year-old half-brother, Sean, were sitting in the row beside me. We were on a five-hour flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii for my cousin Tammy’s second wedding. The weeklong festivities were to include several hours of unplanned, awkward familial get-togethers: snorkeling, eating, boating. We would be the incredibly sunburned family probably wearing (dear God, hopefully not) matching Hawaiian shirts or shell necklaces picked up at Hilo Hatties, where we would be inevitably forced into cracking open an oyster only to find—ah!—a pearl that would of course need to be made into a necklace or pair of earrings—“Would you prefer gold or silver?”
The two seats to my right were unoccupied. I prayed that they would remain empty so that I might stretch out for the duration of the flight. I could sense that the flight attendant was ready to close the door of the plane, but before she could, a woman carrying two children rushed into the plane in a flurry of activity.
The woman couldn’t have been a day over 25. She was freshly spray-tanned, and her bleach-blonde hair looked newly dyed. She had bright blue eyes, underneath which were flecks of mascara that had fallen onto her cheeks. Her infant was slung over her terry cloth Juicy Couture tracksuited right hip. In her other hand, she had a rumpled McDonald’s bag and the wrist of a three-year-old girl.
As the three of them apologetically crawled over me into their seats, my happy stretched out flight dreams ended.
The infant sat happily cooing on her mother’s lap in the window seat, and the three-year-old stared up at me with inquisitive eyes. As we took off, the infant began to cry. The woman was quick to apologize. As soon as we hit cruising altitude, she looked at me and extended her hand.
“I’m Amanda,” she said.
I shook her hand and brusquely replied “Katie” in a way that hopefully conveyed my lack of casual conversational skills. My 16-year-old, socially awkward self hadn’t worked out the finesse of airplane conversations.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
As soon as the word “Pasadena” left my mouth, the man sitting in front of me turned around and said that he and his family were also from Pasadena. His name was Rick. He worked at Parsons. He was attractive, mid-40s, with streaks of gray in his blonde hair. He was traveling with his 14-year old daughter, Hayley, and his 16-year old son, Michael. The man asked my name and asked me about the Claddagh ring I was wearing. As soon as he saw it was positioned outward, indicating that I was unattached, he said, “This is my son, Michael. He’s 16,” to which I gave no reply and reminded myself never to wear my Claddagh ring ever again.
As Amanda and Rick began talking and flirting, I did my best to tune them out, but my seating situation put me in the middle of things. Rick, seated immediately in front of me, had turned around and sat up in his seat to face Amanda. Hayley had done the same. Amanda and her kids happily ate their McDonalds, and I attempted to read.
This went on for an hour, and finally Amanda decided she needed to use the restroom.
“Would you mind holding her for me?” she asked.
I had been reading, and had not realized she had directed this comment toward me. When I looked up, Rick had returned to his seat, and Hayley and the little girl next to me were playing peek-a-boo.
“I’m not…uh, sure.”
“I’ll be so quick, I promise!” Amanda crawled over my lap and deftly placed the struggling pink infant in my arms.
I knew what to do with kids. My half-brother was born when I was 13, and so I knew what holding a baby meant. The baby was kicking wildly, so I let her stand on my knees. She was cooing and joyously pulling at my hair when my mom appeared at my side.
“Whose baby is that?” she asked me, looking hopelessly confused.
Before I could open my mouth, I felt something hot seeping down the front of my (formerly favorite) t-shirt. The round-cheeked baby had vomited the milky contents of her stomach on me.
Before I could react, Amanda shrieked “Oh my God, I am so sorry!” and took the baby out of my arms. I unbuckled my seatbelt and faced my horror-stricken mother.
We were a spectacle: the gawky teenager covered in vomit, the crying mother in pink tracksuit, and my mother running down the aisle to get a flight attendant and some paper towels.
Fortunately, my mother had packed an extra shirt, which she gave me. This did not change the fact that I had vomit in my hair and smelled like something that had crawled out of a baby-infested sewer. I wanted to be pissed, but mostly I felt tired and disgusting, and I just wanted to be off the plane. The terror on Amanda’s face was enough to make me not want to feel angry.
A few days later on the island, I saw Amanda. She and Rick had hit it off, apparently: he was squeezing her waist as they picked out pineapples. Amanda turned and looked at me. Her beautiful face was more tanned than it had been before, but her countenance was scared, vulnerable. I didn’t care about her baby’s vomit, and I didn’t care about Rick in that moment; I felt sad for Amanda, and for what her life had been reduced to: picking out genetically-altered pineapples in the Safeway.