Riding in Airplanes #2: On With the Story (And Full of Hot Air)

Dear CF,

I had intended to do at least two Riding in Airplanes posts in this little series. The second installment was going to be about the intimate conversations we have on planes with total strangers. Some coincidences have, well, incided that plan. So I’ve lazily decided to organize this post according to coincidence, which the OED defines as “the notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connexion” or, alternately, “Falling together.”

Coincidence the First: I saw the movie Up, which has lots to say about fears and flying both, though not in connection with each other. It also deals pretty eloquently with the problem of what makes us happy. Moreover, it does in miniature (and in 3D) what the “What Makes Us Happy” article does in The Atlantic: show you (albeit in dumbshow, and in sunnily idealized form) the trajectory of a life in its entirety with its attendant emotions, and asks what one has to ask after watching a story end: Now What?

If Star Trek’s plot is driven by dead women, so is Up‘s. But the latter has that rare and ineffable thing: respect for story and for audience. It’s not perfect: the movie retreats a bit from the near-Chekhovian territory of its real-life premise.  In deference to young viewers it refrains from pushing through the really grim questions—for example, where Frederickson will live and die, a problem which hovers like, well, a big blimp in the background and seasons the whole escapist adventure with poignancy—but it rather beautifully lets Frederickson let go of all those dreams deferred. (This isn’t About Schmidt.) Still, it gives two really deserving protagonists a way to channel, fulfill and (maybe most importantly) attenuate their visions so they don’t explode. The Spirit of Adventure gets deflated, but there’s remarkable beauty and power in balloons. If only Nero had had a chubby young scout stowaway aboard his ship!

(It’s also—and this is fodder for another day—an interesting counterpoint to the way in which excellence, mediocrity, godgiven talent and work are treated in The Incredibles.)

One last thing: an important maternal character in the bird is misnamed Kevin by the kid. I like this little acknowledgment of Pixar’s tendency (and maybe young boys’ tendency) to see an initially unsexed character as male not through malice but because that’s the unmarked choice.

Coincidence the Second: I read a short story by John Barth called “On With the Story.” It will not be clear why this is a coincidence until I tell you my plan.

My Plan: I was going to tell you about another recent airplane ride, one in which I realized, to my chagrin, that my seat was next to a woman holding a screaming baby.

I took the window seat and steeled myself. The woman bounced, coddled, cuddled and clucked the baby into silence. In minutes he was asleep. She looked at me, still jiggling him in her arms, and asked if I was with a group of girls seated in row 34. I said no. I asked how old he was. He wasn’t hers, she told me, he was her daughter’s. Who had just graduated from boot camp in South Carolina. She’s built just like you, she said. She’s tiny. She’s finding muscles she didn’t know she had.

The father wasn’t in the picture anymore; he lived in San Diego and had already gotten another girl pregnant. He claimed he couldn’t send any money because his mother was holding it all. His mother had, however, sent a gift card for the baby.

“Guess where it was to?” she said, giggling.

“Walmart?” I hazarded. “Target?”

“No!” she said, laughing even harder. “Toys ‘R Us.”

“Guess how much it was for?” she said, jiggling with glee.

“Ten?” I said.

“Five dollars!” she said, still laughing, and wiped her eyes. “What on earth can you buy at Toys ‘R Us for five dollars? I mean at least at Walmart you can get diapers.”

Her son, the baby’s uncle, was next to her. He was 12 and the youngest of her five children, whom she’d had with her ex-husband, whose in-laws, despite being Mexican, called her a wetback even though she’d been in the States ever since she was 8 months old. And had given him (when she was 7 months pregnant with their third child back in Mexico, where she’d taken the family to get away from these very same in-laws), a one-way plane ticket for him alone. And a brand new truck. In exchange for leaving her behind.

She told me about the three-day bus ride with her two girls (ages 3 and 1) while, again, seven months pregnant, to follow him. One time, when the bus stopped for dinner, she went into a McDonald’s for food and came out to see the bus pulling away with all her stuff aboard. The passengers on the bus made the driver stop and wait for her.

When she gave birth to her first child, the in-laws forced her to recuperate in their home. They wanted to safeguard their first grandchild. Her sister-in-law (their daughter) lived there too and had miscarried twins earlier that year. She bitterly resented not having given birth to the first grandchild, and yelled at my interlocutor for always interfering by cleaning the house or taking over the cooking.

One day my seatmate discovered a dead rat planted under her pillow, in the bed she shared with the baby.

“Was it the sister-in-law?” I asked.

“I think it was my mother-in-law,” she said, giggling like a little girl. “So we left.”

Her older daughters have both been in juvenile hall. “My girls are really bad at being bad,” she said. The older one, nineteen—“she’s not very pretty,” she said, “but she looks better after having the baby than she did before”—had gone in for three months for vandalizing a bathroom wall.

“How do you know it was her?” my seatmate asked the principal.

“Come and see,” he said, and walked her to the bathroom, where the daughter had signed her name to the graffiti.

The second one, “she’s really smart,” she said. “And real pretty. The older one isn’t that good at school and stuff; she’s more like me. But the second one was the first one I thought would get pregnant. She does all kinds of stuff with boys. She takes drugs. Especially when she went to live with her dad. He let her live there with her boyfriend. And now, I don’t know, I think it’s like prostitution. He lets this older guy live there, and asks that guy for stuff, and he lets that guy get her high all she wants and sleep with her.”

I say this is rape—he could be sent to jail. She says, jiggling the baby gently, “you can’t do anything, you know? They all go live with their dad when they get to be teenagers. Him and his parents used to always call Child Protective Services on me. They’d lie, say the kids were abused and stuff, until the people got tired of listening to them because they would check and it wasn’t true. One time they showed up at the door with a policeman to take the kids.”

Coincidence the Third: “It was lucky, though,” she continues, leaving the horrible situation she’s just described behind, and taking me with her, “I’d just taken a class the day before during the vocational rehabilitation and they told me you always have to look for the judge’s signature on any court order. So I asked the policeman if he wouldn’t mind letting me look at the order. He did, and it wasn’t signed by the judge. So he got mad at my in-laws and asked them what they were doing trying to make him enforce something that wasn’t legal. They started fighting outside. Then my husband came in the back door and tried to get back with me, sweet-talking and everything. I let him talk for awhile, then I ran to the front door before he could stop me and said to the policeman, ‘You know, while they’re trying to convince you I’m a bad mom, he’s here sweet-talking me trying to get me back.'”

She giggles delightedly. The baby wakes up and starts playing with my hair.

“‘Course,” she continues, “he sorta tried to get back at me all the time. My mom says it’s because he knows he hasn’t found nobody better. He only dates gueras, you know? Because of his parents. His second wife was a big fat blonde nurse. And I don’t like this one now. She’s blond but she’s Indian too.”

“So his parents must not like her?” I say.

“No, they like her.”

“But she’s not white? Don’t they only want him to marry white women?”

She jiggles the baby.

“I guess she’s just not Mexican.”

Back to Coincidence the Second and On With the Story: Despite the fact that I know that her fourteen-year old daughter has terrible stretch marks and that she herself was the youngest of ten children, born when her mother was 46, I never learned this woman’s name.

Today, as I thought about posting this, I read “On With the Story,” John Barth’s story about a woman going through a divorce reflecting on the difference between the relative ease of her parents’ middle-class lives and the comparative difficulties of hers. She’s forty and understands that while she technically has more life ahead than behind her, also understands that it will have more problems and less joy. She thinks about their latest legal meeting, the unpleasant details of the divorce proceedings, the splitting of their tiny nest egg, etc.

Coincidence the Fourth: She sits next to a man on the plane who seems to want to initiate conversation. She snubs him and reads a story, rather oddly printed in the inflight magazine, called Freeze Frame, which starts off with a woman going through a divorce, stuck in traffic, reflecting on how her soon-to-be ex-husband behaved during the divorce proceedings.

Startled by the similarities between her life and the protagonist’s, she pauses, then continues. The story goes into a complicated reflection on how even as she’s going at precisely 0 mph in her car, her actual rate of motion can be calculated by accounting for planetary motion, the earth’s axis of rotation, etc. etc. It goes into Zeno’s paradox and a bunch of other things.

Coincidence the Fifth: She and the man sitting next to her order the same drink, white wine and club soda.

Coincidence the Sixth: They happen to be on the same page of the story, and both make a nonsense utterance at the same time.

They start talking. And it is an amazing conversation about the story, which they start analyzing. She loosens up. She actually cries a couple of times.

Coincidence the Seventh: He confesses in the middle of all this that he is actually the author of the story.

They fall into a comfortable rhythm, where their hands can touch casually and they might (in one of the story’s possible endings) go to dinner together though nothing more—he is happily married this time round.

So at one level, it’s a story about coincidences and conversation, and how stories stop and start. And it’s about airplanes, where one is forced into unnatural stillness while moving at several hundred miles per hour. Freeze frames blurred at the edges, as the author (or Barth) says.

I have had dozens of these kinds of airplane conversations. It’s as if people have been waiting desperately for an opportunity to unload all this autobiography they’ve been carrying around like furniture in a flying (and sinking) house. As for the motive—the reason they want, like Up‘s Mr. Frederickson, to let it all go, and to a total stranger—well, that they supply themselves.

In Barth’s story an author ends up sitting next to a character he’s written. She wonders, as the story is ending, whether he’s jotting down notes about a story on her. (Having forgotten, for a moment, that she’s just read it.)

Up, Barth’s story, airplane rides generally—all these boil down to passengers, strangers, talking, and on some level they’re about weight, payload: ballast and anchoring and buoyancy and lightening. My great-aunt, whenever she flew, was convinced she had to help hold up the plane. She spent entire flights gripping the armrests, tugging them up, poking whoever was traveling with her for not helping. I feel like there’s something similar happening here. To be that high up, you have to let some stuff go.

Having been bombarded with the bricks and balloons of so many entire lives—in the case studies of “What Makes Us Happy,” in Shenk’s profile of Josh Shenk, in Up, in “On With the Story,” and in the endless bus rides and dead rats one encounters while riding in airplanes—I am stuffed to the gills with borrowed baggage and have no one to tell about it.

So, aboard our little electronic airplane here,  I told you.



(The first installment of the Riding in Airplanes series is here.)

4 Responses to Riding in Airplanes #2: On With the Story (And Full of Hot Air)

  1. Ms B U-S says:

    You HAVE to read Mary Gaitskill’s Girl on a Plane. Love the post, love your record of the lady’s story

  2. Millicent says:

    Ms. B U-S! Thanks, and thanks for the recommendation! Did you see that she edited this year’s Best American Short Stories?!

  3. tebirkes says:

    I have had the how many months are you? you look bigger than 4 months.

  4. Pingback: Freedom, Comparatively Speaking « Millicent and Carla Fran

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