Five hours with Lee, the Nervous Flier


23J was my seat on a recent LAX to JFK red-eye flight.  23J is one of my favorite seats on those gigantic 767s, and one of the reasons I keep up my Preferred Status on that airline that rhymes with Shmamerican.  23J is one row behind the exit, happily perched on the wing, in the middle of both the galley and the bathroom.  23J is like owning a rent-controlled apartment in NYC’s West Village.  23J is prime real estate.

Perfectly prepared to settle into 23J for a long winter’s nap, neighboring seat 23I was still open with less than five minutes before we were supposed to push away from the gate.  S.C.O.R.E.

And then up the aisle walked Lee.

Lee was a scruffy blonde hottie wearing flip-flops and ripped jeans holding a boarding pass for 23I.  He paced and offered a nervous smile as our eyes met.  He fumbled with his bag.  Sat down.  Stared at the seat in front of him.  Stood up.  Sat down again.  Stood up and went to the bathroom.  Sat down, again.  Struggled with his seatbelt.  Stood up.  Approached a Flight Attendant.  Sat down.   If I were an Air Marshall, he’d have totally been on my watch list (because he was gorgeous, the term “watch list” might possibly have a double meaning, here…).  After what seemed like an eternity, he finally sat down, exhaled, turned to me and confessed, “I really hate flying.”

Hey, I will be the first to tell you, I hate heights.  Put me on the top rung of a 7-foot ladder and I’m shaking like a leaf.  But strap me into a titanium cylinder, hurdle me through the stratosphere at 600 miles an hour, 30,000 feet up, and I can somehow remain happy as a clam (my next blog: are clams actually happy?).  But as someone who doesn’t mind an airplane, there’s nothing worse than sitting beside someone who hates flying.  Truthfully, I think it’s because we ALL hate flying.  Some of us have learned block out the fear, distracting ourselves with music, magazines and sleep (and some of us just take a lot of prescription drugs).

Maybe it was the way he optimistically wore his Havaianas as he headed for 32 degrees of NYC cold, but there was something about Lee that made me want to give him a hug.  I had no desire to roll my eyes, turn over and pretend he wasn’t there, or turn up my headphones.   For whatever reason, we were in this together.  I took it upon myself to be his sponsor for the next 5 hours, and that said, here is what five hours with Lee the nervous flier taught me:

1. DO let the person beside you know that you are petrified.  That way, when you hit a patch of turbulence and instinctively grab your neighbor’s hand, it won’t come across as intrusive.  Okay, it still might, but at least they’re prepared for it.

2. DON’T smell like the loser of a marathon game of beer pong.  Lee smelled like a sports bar on Superbowl Sunday.  What is the rule, again?  Beer after wine, you’re doing fine; beer before a red-eye and you’re going to wake up feeling like a piano was dropped on your head.

3. DON’T ask the person next to you if we’ve taken off yet when we’re obviously taxiing full speed down the runway.  “Yes, Lee, we’re actually just driving really fast to New York.”

4. DO ask the person in the window seat to close the blind if having it open triggers a panic attack.  Believe me, they won’t care, especially if they know there’s a chance you’ll exclaim, “Oh my God, are those parts on the wing supposed to move like that?” during lift-off.

5. DO plan to sleep.  Remember when you went for long road trips as a kid and your mom said, “If you go to sleep we’ll get there sooner?” … that Mom-Logic actually works on flights.

6. I don’t care how much you have to pee because of rule #2, DON’T get out of your seat before the seatbelt sign is turned off.  Not only does it scare the heck out of the rule abiding citizens around you, the Flight Attendants suddenly hate you.  That means as your neighbor, by default, the Flight Attendants suddenly hate me and I get very anxious when I think people don’t like me.  Plus, when my audio jack doesn’t work, I’m sitting beside you which means nobody cares.

7. DO apologize if you end up spooning your neighbor while you both sleep.

8. DON’T pretend like it didn’t happen when we both wake up caught in the pose.  We were both there when your arm was completely wrapped around my upper body as you rested your head on my shoulder.

9. DO engage in conversation with your neighbor when the seatbelt sign comes on half-way through the flight.  You wanted to talk for the first hour and 45 minutes of the flight, now is not the time to clam up. There’s a good chance your neighbor, Ms. Experienced Flier, knows what’s coming.  Believe me, this is not the time to want to read.  She is trying to take your mind off of the upcoming 17 minutes of the worst turbulence she’s experienced in about 7 years.

10.  DON’T discuss the physics behind plane crashes while we’re landing.  Sharing this sort of Rain Man knowledge is not appreciated by anyone within earshot while we drop 30,000 feet in 9 minutes.

And finally, for real?   DON’T worry.  Flying is honestly one of the safest forms of transportation.  This’ll hit you the minute we’re allowed to turn on our phones, which means being able to check our email and text messages and new HelloGiggles posts, which means everything in the world must be fine and good and the way it should be.

As we pulled into the gate at JFK and the rest of the passengers bounded out of their seats, Lee hesitated.  He turned to me and grinned a proud grin for himself.

“That wasn’t so bad,” said Lee the nervous liar flier.

 He gathered his belongings from the seat-back in front of him and stood, grabbing both his and my bag from the overhead compartment.

“Thank you,” I offered as I grabbed my bag from him.  As we walked toward the exit, Lee was thanking everyone: Flight Attendants.  Pilots.  Ground Crew.  Fellow passengers… anyone who could have been even remotely responsible for his arrival at JFK.

Lee shook his head.  “No.  Thank you…”

As we headed to baggage, he admitted: “I feel like I owe you a coffee?”  (Um, honey?  After that unconscious cuddle session, we’ve advanced to dinner and a movie and you’re paying).

Alas, I’d ended up on the red eye to maximize my LA-time and had to go directly to work.

“See you next time, then?” Lee the nervous flier smiled.

Dear Lee, believe it or not, I had a wonderful time, and thanks for asking for my number, I totally will grab that drink, but next time?  Honey, I recommend Amtrak.

Featured image via koreamusicwave