I am a frequent flyer and frequently a problem flyer. Security has asked me to step into “special” screening lines so many times that I have just come to expect situations. But I never assumed I had encountered an abnormal amount of horrendous happenings until the people in my life started to tell my stories to others, as if they didn’t have their own.
On the way to Madrid, I sat sideways in the bulkhead for 14 hours because the woman next to me needed the “crib,” which, in its design, assumes the baby will be traveling with both parents and extends across two seats. On my flight home from Israel, an overweight woman behind me, unhappy with her smelly row partner, got up every half hour for 13 hours, pulling my seat down to boost herself up, releasing me forward violently like a slingshot. On that same plane, an Israeli flight attendant slammed my entire hand in the overhead compartment, and male Orthodox Jews refused to sit next to women. Because of a miscommunication on a flight to Milan, I was held on the plane after landing and was almost thrown in jail. Once, right when the wheels hit the ground in Lisbon, the right wing of the plane dipped hard and hit the runway. In Chattanooga Miniature Airport, I waited for 12 hours until the plane I was supposed to board could be struck by lightning on descent, adding another 12 hours to the delay. Most recently, 50 Iranian refugees “secretly” joined my return flight from Istanbul, only after being separately escorted, specifically questioned, and selectively bomb tested. Finally, and seemingly lame after all these examples, I’ve been on two flights in which a passenger has smoked, or tried to smoke, a cigarette.
While on a red-eye to my grandma’s funeral in Milwaukee, I wrote in my journal while sobbing, taking breaks only to wipe the snot trail stalactite from my nose. I didn’t dare look up because I did not want to mime to the non-English speakers next to me that I was going to my last grandparent’s funeral and I had to give a speech. When the captain announced our descent within the hour, I looked up and noticed the little old man next to me had taken his cigarette pack out of his jacket.
He must be excited, I thought, as he smacked the pack against his palm, the universal motion of smokers. But then, he opened the pack, took out a cigarette, put it to his lips, and inhaled deeply. Damn, he must really be excited, I thought, glancing up to notice the seatbelt light glowing and the signature “no smoking” sign dark. I couldn’t believe they assumed everyone had flown before. Then I laughed at myself—the girl who usually pokes fun at the people who somehow make it all the way to the front of the security line without reading, hearing, or noticing that they have to take their shoes and belts off and get their liquids and laptops out. Right as I finished pointing out my irony, the old man reached in his shirt pocket and took out a pack of matches. Uh oh. Begin slow motion.
The old man ripped off a match, held it to the magic strip, folded the pack on itself, and pulled. I watched in disbelief. Fire. I see fire. I see fire headed towards the cigarette dangling in the old man lips. I latched onto the armrest and gasped in an incredibly large amount of air and then, almost like a reflex, I leaned over and blew all that air at the flame. The flame vanished, a tiny trail of smoke in its wake. Then, as if perfectly scripted, we slowly turned toward each other with similar looks—part disbelief, part pissed—and I said “no smoking” as slowly as I could while pointing to the darkened cigarette sign. He didn’t care, or pictures don’t translate as well as we think, because he looked at me, turned back to his matchbook, and lit another match. And just like before, I leaned over and blew it out. Another trail of smoke.
Apparently, this old man wanted to fight. So, bravely, I reached over him and got his wife involved. I don’t know how she hadn’t witnessed the whole thing in the first place; perhaps she was “resting her eyes” like my grandma used to do. But once she saw the cigarette in her beloved’s lips, she snatched it from his mouth and broke it in half. He took out another cigarette and put it in his mouth and she just pulled it out and broke it in half again. I wondered how many cigarettes he was going to waste in his stubborn act of war. Then she ripped the matches from his hand. They yelled at each other briefly in an interesting tongue, and the scuffle was over. The old lady leaned over and said “thank you.”
So she does speak some English, I thought. “No problem,” I said, “have you flown before?”
“Yes. He’s just impatient.”
“Where are you from?”
“Iran,” she said, “and we’ve been flying for days.” Which feels like an exaggeration until you’ve done it.
Iran? I said to myself, Surely you don’t want me telling anyone that your Iranian husband was lighting matches on an American plane. It’s not like our countries hold hands and skip through the desert.”
“Tell him he will go to a very nasty prison for a very long time if he keeps trying to smoke that cigarette,” I said, not as a threat, just scared that the little old man who just wanted a damn smoke would be ball-gagged and tortured for it. (This was during the George “Dubya” Bush presidency, when Gitmo was especially popular.) When I attempted to charade handcuffs, the old man finally understood.
A few minutes later, the woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder. “Your face,” she paused, “when he lit that cigarette, was hi-la-rious!” She pounded on the back of my seat, “And I thought I’d die when you blew that match out. Twice! Ha!”
“Thanks,” I said, “and thanks for the help.” Who the hell would watch that and not help? I am glad the old man sat next to me and not her. Would she be telling me how funny it was to watch me leap over a row of chairs to blow his match out? Was she not terrified of plunging to a fiery and asphyxiating death?
We landed without further incident and I was thankful my father hired a cab to pick me up. But the cabbie forgot and fell asleep. So I waited, which is the universal action of airports, on the curb, in the dead of night. Behind me, barely outside the baggage claim door, the little old Iranian puffed away on all his half-broken cigarettes.