We reach cruising altitude of 28,000 feet, according to the pilot’s intercom voice which sounds both relaxed and like it’s being strained through an iron sieve, like he’s speaking from inside a metal container. Which he is, I guess.
I press my armrest button, lay my weight into the seatback, hoping the person behind me is not long-legged. I wait for a cry of pain but none comes, so I relax (fly often enough and you will batter kneecaps, maybe have your own battered in turn). Occupying my usual aisle seat, I’m thankful the woman to my left is mercifully slight and there are no small children nearby. My hope of tranquility for the nearly six hours that hover between our present position, just above New York, and touchdown in Los Angeles may not be entirely preposterous.
I read a paperback while the woman beside me dozes and the young guy across the aisle constructs a modern city on his laptop. A flight attendant jars my concentration now and then with reminders that the captain has turned on, then off, the fasten seat belt sign. I struggle to remain absorbed in my book, but finally surrender to drowsiness and doze. The beverage trolley comes trundling along to awaken me. I take a Diet Coke, the woman next to me a cup of ice and water. She’s quiet and self-contained, gifted at invisibility, which I appreciate. I reward her by graciously getting up to let her out to visit the restroom. As opposed to ungraciously, of which I’m equally capable.
But my graciousness has limits. After eating badly at the airport, I feel bloated and the waistband of my pants is chafing my blubber. I’m heading to a conference with people I despise, the ghosts of a recent domestic argument haunt my brain, my teenagers are doing drugs, failing classes, and all of the above have whipped up a batch of self-loathing that can all too easily convert into loathing for those who test my patience. My neighbor hasn’t returned from the restroom. When she returns, I’ll have to get up to let her back in. Thus, I remain in a state of suspense, unable to relax. Her knack for invisibility, so benign until now, has gone malignant.
Repeatedly, I look down the aisle toward the rear lavatory, but to no avail. I know about the watched pot, so I grab my book and try to read, but it’s no use. It’s like not being able to relax until your teenager is in bed for the night. So I sit and wait, book in hand, one foot wagging at my knee like a dog’s tail. But my mind wanders. I think of my wife and this morning’s nastiness: “I wish you could try being me putting up with you for just one day!” So uncalled for. Even one day of living with me, evidently, is more than anyone should have to bear. She’s no pleasure cruise herself much of the time, but I don’t tell her she’s unbearable, I don’t put her down or call names or raise my voice and what in God’s name is this woman doing in the restroom?
How long has it been? At least fifteen minutes. I try to recall what she looked like. Straight shoulder-length blonde hair, I think. Age is less clear, somewhere in that increasingly curt and judgmental zone between forty and mid-fifties. A dry, desolate season with frequent cold spells. I check my watch. Check the aisle. What was she wearing? No idea. Something blue? A skirt. A blazer on top, beige? Was I as invisible to her? Probably. But I’ve had it, this is enough. I get up and head to the rear.
Maybe she decided to change her seat, found an empty one closer to the restroom. I’m sure that’s it. I scan left to right while moving down the aisle, but reach the plane’s rear and no sign of her. Every seat is occupied and none of the occupants resemble her even slightly. Standing between the two lavatories, I nudge the door of one, which folds in upon a vacant compartment. I’m tempted to relieve myself, but don’t want to miss her exit. Gently, I press the door of the other lavatory and it doesn’t budge. Aha.
I stand and wait. A flight attendant squeezes past to fetch refreshment items and I feel in the way. Other passengers come, use the vacant lavatory and return to their seats. I feel like a dope. It’s definitely been thirty minutes, maybe forty. I decide to return to my seat. Lifting my foot, something sticky tugs at my shoe. I look down and see blood pooling from under the lavatory door, a lot of it. And I’m standing in it.