I could see the situation brewing from as far back as row 10. It’s always about a dozen rows out when one begins assessing seating assignments on an airplane, figuring out who you’ll be flying beside and who you’ll pretend doesn’t exist for a few hours. It’s also at this point when men - all straight men, every single one of them every single time - are hoping to spot a young woman on her way to a Sports Illustrated photo shoot in the Caribbean islands in the seat beside theirs. Sometimes this scenario actually occurs, although once you arrive at your seat, you realize your perspective was skewed and the model and her slightly exposed midriff is actually one row back. In any case, you’re at least hoping for someone worthy of one last all-or-nothing makeout session should the engines fail midflight or the tail wing pops off like in Lost.
On this flight, I got to sit beside a lady. And I also got to sit beside the infant daughter on her lap and her two-year-old son in the window seat. It was 11:29 p.m.; this was the final flight of my day. I also must mention that this woman was African-American because, without race, this is the story of a white man and a a white woman and a white baby and the moment they all shared together, and that’s boring. The woman greeted me, and yes, I’m going to write what she said like a Southern black woman would say it: “Oh, this man be thinkin’ to his-self, ‘Why’d they put me in a seat ‘side ‘dese two little kee-ids?’”
The kee-ids were of course going to be screamers, which they did as if being relentlessly beaten with a claw hammer once the plane began inching backwards. But I didn’t really mind sitting near wailing children. You can’t complain about sitting near ballistic kids on a plane, just as you can’t - or shouldn’t - flail your arms and get upset and shout the word “Fuck” when the car in front of you decides to brake, stop, and parallel park. “How dare you decide to park your automobile, I’m driving behind you! Can’t you see that, shithead!? Fuck!” Kids on planes and parallel parking are both simply part of the overall transportation process.
I did worry, however, that this woman would think I was annoyed with my seating arrangement: me, the lone male traveler late at night; and she, the woman with two small, very near-future howl-beasts. I also had concerns that, being a white man from Virginia, she perhaps had an immediate poor impression of me. And so, for these reasons, I had to make small talk to prove I was sincere, tolerant of kids, and let her know I was a good, non-racist white person who, despite that, does of course maintain stereotypes of all ethnic backgrounds, including those of white people. Especially those of white people.
“You from Richmond?” I asked. We were on the ground in Charlotte.
“Originally. Now I live in Jackson [Mississippi],” she replied.
“Oh! The town from The Help!” I didn’t say that, barely, though the word “Oh!” popped out and made it sound as if I was elated she lived in Jackson. But unless I wanted to discuss the Cash-Carter duet, I knew nothing else about Jackson outside of being the setting of The Help and it being a centerpiece in the Civil Rights era where some horrible, horrible things happened. None of these things made for protracted airplane chatter.
It’s unlikely this woman and I had any shared interests outside of the basics like pizza and movies, or having eyes. I got passive in my approach to find a connection, opening up the Kanye West album with the bright red cover on my iPhone in plain sight, hoping to catch her eye to let her know that I was hip on the hip-hop scene. Really my hip-hop interests are largely limited to West, but she didn’t need to know that I don’t own any Wu-Tang or Three 6. Either way, the screen went to black before she had a chance to glance over and realize I was on her side.
At one point she opened up a bottle filled with water and struggled to juggle the two kids while filling the container with Enfamil. I asked her to let me hold the bottle to ease her stress; initially reluctant, not wanting to be a burden, she caved and gave me the plastic vial while she scooped in some baby formula and fed her daughter. Both kids, soon after, fell asleep.
The lights flickered on as the aircraft began its descent, and the flight attendant told the woman that her two-year-old - asleep in her arms after having Houdini’d out of his seatbelt during takeoff and into his mother’s arms - had to be in a seat. The window seat was now occupied by the sleeping baby, and swapping the two kids would have meant more crying, more screaming. So I did what had to be done - for God, for country, for this woman, for the sanity of the other passengers on this flight who would become perturbed by the sound of a wailing child on an airplane at midnight, likely the same ones who get mad and swear when the car in front of them finds a parking space.
“I’ll hold your baby,” I told her.
Look, I’m no hero. But the look that came across that woman’s face, well, you’d have thought I’d erased centuries of racial tension in just four short words. She smiled and agreed, and handed over her young daughter to a white man who was only slightly more than a stranger. I held this kid and patted her back as the plane dropped through the clouds during a thunderstorm, roaring and bumping violently and making you hope the guy who bolted on the wings knew what the hell he was doing, all the while attempting to browse the Hammacher Schlemmer page in SkyMall. It got difficult trying to read about the specific dimensions of the dog crate end tables with this kid in the way, and plus she’d just puked Enfamil down the sleeve of my Gap shirt.
For a moment, as I held this child whose name I will never know, I imagined leaving it all behind: My job, my loving wife, my friends, everything I’ve created in Virginia, and following my seatmate back to Jackson. We’d get a small house on the river there, if Jackson even has a river, and I’d work in a corner office overlooking Jackson’s vast marshlands, assuming there are vast marshlands, and begin my screenplay, a love story about some armored truck robbers - a cross between Heat and The Notebook. I’d learn to drive a motorcycle and we’d get matching neck tattoos, though really it’d only be me getting one to match the Chinese symbol she already had inked on her sternocleidomastoid. We’d grow old together there in Jackson, just me and her and these two kee-ids and our matching neck tattoos and my armored truck love story, on a quaint river house if there’s even a river there.
Our moment together was almost over, though. After we landed it became apparent that, were I to give the kid back, she would have to wait for everyone to deplane before getting off. So I canceled that option for her, grabbed the kid in one arm and took my suitcase out of the overhead with the other, and walked both off the jetway. A coworker who had been sitting several rows ahead and deplaned before us was waiting for me, and when he saw a young black baby in my arms, was likely wondering how long we’d been in the air. The woman and her son and the baby and me marched through the airport and baggage claim all the way to a waiting Dodge Durango and the woman’s father - the infant’s grandfather - standing at the curbside.
I was told he’d never met his granddaughter before, and with a confused (“Whitey?”) but elated (“My babies!”) look on his face, gently took the girl from my arms. My seatmate put out a hand to shake as thanks; I extended mine, sour puke-covered Gap sleeve and all, and gave her a fist-bump. We’d made our connection.
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- betterversionofme said: Jeff, you is kind you is smart and you is important. Good story
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- fuiru said: This is splendid.
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- tessshebaylo said: I was panicking by like the third paragraph, but I’m SO glad you finally managed to work Skymall in there.
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- lafix said: AWWWWWWWWW
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