She never asked for window seats. In fact she avoided them. She liked aisle seats because it was easier to escape people. Sometimes she would go to the airplane bathroom and wash her hands for fifteen minutes so she didn’t have to talk to the grandmother in the middle seat. But today she had a window seat and thank god she had work to do because the man in the middle seat was shaping up to be a problem. He kept stretching his legs and rubbing the arm rests and inhaling in a way that sounded like he was slurping something. He was in his middle age with a fuzz of blond hair and a receding hairline, and he kept glancing first at the the man to his left who had fallen asleep as soon as he sat down, and then at over her. She pulled down the tray table, slapped a packet of paperwork on it, and propped up her arm to block him out.
The plane jolted free of the gate and the man in the middle seat writhed like a worm plucked out of garden soil. The stewardess gestured vaguely at the open tray table and, snarling into the crook of her elbow, she pushed it and slipped the paper into her lap. The man in the middle seat saw this as an opening to say, in a voice like a pan flute, “Excuse me, ma’am, excuse me.”
She looked up, but not before pausing to feign finishing her paragraph. It was a lie. She had realized right away she was missing the invoice she needed to read this. The two points of focus she could chose from on the man’s face was the damp place between his lip and his nose, and his pale wet eyes.
“Would you mind terribly holding my hand?”
She clicked her pen closed. The man in the aisle seat snored horsely and she felt honestly that that was the best answer she could give.
“I don’t mean anything by it, it’s just I don’t—” The plane hit a bump in the tarmac and he pulsed his hands on the armrests. “I don’t like this part.”
This was really the worst bit about planes. Why did people let themselves become trapped in a metal tube full of other people they didn’t know who always wanted unreasonable things from one another? She moved her pen from one hand to the other and held the closer hand out in the airspace of the middle seat. He grabbed it without hesitation and pulled it down onto the armrest which was still slick with sweat.
“Thank you,” he said.
Outside was a band of black under a band of blue, coursing by like spools of ribbon. She thought about washing her hands.
“What are you traveling for?” he asked. She sighed. Why did close proximity always make people feel compelled to chat?
“Oh. You must have an interesting job.”
“Not really. You?”
“I’m going to visit my son.”
A little smile worked its way through the anxiety on his face.
“Maybe it would be easier for your son to visit you?”
“Not right now. He’s too sick.”
The plane was taking a long time to find the runway. Planes always did. It was jaunting down the tarmac, turning first one way and then the other like a dog sniffing out a scent. The man in the aisle seat had stopped snoring and showed no signs of life at all. She considered asking the man in the middle seat if he thought the man in the aisle seat was dead.
What was it all about? The longer she sat with her palm pinched in this man’s fingers, the more she felt compelled to say something. That compulsion to speak that everyone was socialized with, the one she tried very hard to reject.
“So you don’t like flying,” she said.
“Not so much, no.”
“Are you afraid of heights?”
“I’m afraid of planes.”
“You know they don’t go down too often.”
“There’s all kinds of safety measures.”
“Oh I know.” He twisted one ankle over the other. “In fact I would quite like to fly more often if I weren’t so afraid of flying.”
She frowned and turned her head towards the window. With a lurch and a scraping sound the plane lifted off the ground. The man squeezed her hand and inhaled through his teeth.
“It’s okay. It always does that.”
“I know. Oh, and don’t worry. I’ll be alright as soon as we level out.”
“Then you’re fine?”
“Well I’m better. It takes me a while to adjust to the idea.”
“Of leaving the ground.”
She hissed and shook her head.
“It’s just that everything you know is down there. Everything you love.”
She looked down at the blocky roof of the airport and tried to think about everything she loved.
“It’ll still be there.”
“Oh I know. But isn’t it just the strangest thing?” His breathing was shallow and mechanical and his eyes were closed. Without opening them he said, “What does it look like?”
She put her nose on the glass.
“Everything is pretty small. There’s a lot of traffic. Cars always look slower from high up. I think you could see the park from where you’re sitting.”
“No, I won’t look. That’s why I don’t like window seats.”
She looked at him. His eyelids were trembling a little.
“Neither do I.”
On the ground the cars were round like little bugs and they were all silver under the sunlight. There were people in the park.
“Don’t worry,” he said, in a voice that was almost sleepy. “Soon I’ll let go.”