She was tiny. Second row, window seat, giant black parka occupying the seat next to her, she was perfect. I ignored the cowboy across the aisle joking that he’d saved a spot for me; my seat partner had been determined.
As I removed my jacket, she informed me of the estimated 25 empty seats on the flight, excited about that fact, and equally proud to have gathered it. We each assumed unwelcoming positions, huddled toward the middle, small bodies made to look aisle-encompassing, hoping to deter a middle-seat occupant. The few times she spoke to me by the time the doors were closed told me we’d be conversing a bit through the flight, and for once, I wasn’t going to mind.
She watched me intently as I buckled my seat belt, expressing that she couldn’t figure out how to get hers buckled. I leant over to instruct her, watching the bird-like veins move over the outlined bones in her hands when I realized she knew how, but was too weak. Someone clearly accustomed to others helping her, she feigned slight annoyance at her weakening body and modestly thanked me when I reached over to buckle her myself. I noticed everything she was wearing, from her loafers to her two vintage bags, was black, save for the white sweater she was drowning in. Same as me. We were going to be friends.
Upon seeing the cover of my Dwell magazine, she asked about the “small spaces” headline, then proceeded to tell me of the efficiency apartment she was on her way to move into. The smiling, wide-eyed nod accompanying the “one-way flight” detail provided of her travel was mirrored in me, and we swapped background stories quietly. She was on her way to live near her granddaughter, to meet her great-granddaughter for the first time. She used to dance. I could picture it. She delighted in my plan to surprise my dad after two-and-a-half years by just showing up.
I asked her name. Dee–Delores. Rapture. My Delores. My Lo. My Lolita.
Naturally a hermit, I continued to read, giant headphones secure. Dee put on her sunglasses and attempted a nap, turning to me to spill thoughts every few minutes, even passing her pillow over so I could feel how warm the sun was making it. When drink orders were taken, she whispered, “Good for you,” when I ordered just a diet cola, as she followed me with a vodka tonic. I told her I’d just reached my vodka quota for the day with two morning Bloody Marys during my layover in Chicago, to which she offered a heartier, “Ah. Gooood for you,” with an approving wink.
We ignored trash service the first two times around, as we each consumed every last ice cube in our cups. Finally, someone who understands. She ended up calling the flight attendant to order another vodka tonic, and I considered the small amount of alcohol in airline beverages–her body couldn’t possibly handle much. As he handed it to her and refused her payment, she thanked him graciously and we shared a wink. Used to it.
Dee began telling me about her sunglasses, and I disclosed my relative obsession with collecting them. She asked to see the pair I’d brought, so I put mine on. They were even bigger than hers. She liked the way they looked on me. We wore them the rest of the flight, tipping them down our noses to talk to each other, giggling all the while.
I felt slightly lunatic. But from our temporary home in row two, my Lolita and I were lunatics together. Two old girlfriends separated by sixty years, too occupied by each other to be bothered by anything less fabulous than ourselves.
Friends for flight.
I eat something hot. Not any hotter than I’ve had before. But shortly after ingestion, I feel a burning under my sternum. It’s probably nothing.
Looking at the back of my hand, I begin picking at what looks like a whitehead emerging from my oddly-transparent skin. I am able to actually pinch what’s coming out and start pulling. Over two feet of substance comes out, but it’s unlike anything I imagine naturally produced in my body.
It looks like white smoke–like a beautiful, thick, milky, opaque, curvy, twirling length of smoke, as produced by a incense stick the size of a baseball bat or something, but it felt like rubber. It floated and moved like smoke, but it stayed perplexingly horizontal.
I become aware of being at a house with a few people I may know. And this heat in my chest grabs my attention again. I can feel it actually causing burns inside my ribs, and my sternum is hot to the touch.
It hurts physically, because I’m burning from the inside, and it hurts psychologically, because I know I was the one who put this attack inside my body. And once it was in there, I couldn’t get it out.
At the center of my chest, my skin is thinning, and I realize the food is burning a hole through my chest to get out of me. I frantically ask people what I ate, while trying to remain visibly calm, because I’m not sure anyone else can see what’s happening.
Because I’m not actually sure it’s happening.
The burning finally reaches the surface. Imagine holding a lighter under the center of a piece of construction paper and watching what happens from above. Blackened skin, curling outward from the center. A flame rising triumphantly. The hole spreads to a few inches in diameter. I look up for help or to see if anyone can see what is happening.
And I wake up.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a mermaid. I had no delusions about being a ballerina; my mother was sure to squash those quickly by letting me know just how big I was going to be, bless her. There’s a movie about a kid who turns into a mermaid when he turns 13, and I hoped, at a soul level, through my own thirteenth year that I would turn too.
Coming to terms with the reality of being human for the rest of my days, I then wanted to be a mom. Through high school, all I did was try to be older than I was, and I worked with kids as much as I could–babysitting since age ten, peer counseling, youth group leader, working in a daycare for two years and eventually managing it, full-time nannying, Sunday School teacher, etc.
Toward the end of high school, I wanted to be a band director. I was already basically running the band program, was well-known region-wide in the band and drum corps circuits, and could command 200-member ensembles like I’d been doing it for years. But eventually, I realized I didn’t want to deal with shitty sixteen-year-olds every day. I hated playing my instrument, and all I wanted to do was conduct and teach. Music degrees don’t work that way. So I completed my year at a private Christian university and didn’t go back.
Then, I just wanted to be happy.
I garnered an intense and unexpected interest in fashion, and I realized my writing really was different than others’. I wanted to see my dad. So I moved across the country and found my current job. I was employee number seven, so we were all playing multiple roles in the company. Hired for my writing ability, “people skills,” and social media agility, I started in customer service, writing on the company blogs on the side. I eventually took over working with bloggers, and now I am completely out of customer service, doing marketing, promotions, and search engine optimization full-time.
And I’m pretty happy.
I’m relatively comfortable with who I am, though I wish I could be better for those around me. I believe I contain the most contrasted juxtaposition possible between endless empathy for others and utter selfishness. But it’s not spiteful selfishness. It starts as “just how I feeeel ” and is revealed by those I love, all of whom are smarter than I, it seems, as completely ridiculous.
So I guess I’d like to be less selfish and more secure when I grow up. Loathe myself less. Require less punishment.
We’ll see how I do.