I flew down to southern California to meet my new niece. Here she is.
Cutest thing ever, right? Holy crap, this kid is cute. In this photo, she’s about to get a bath.
I took the trip because obviously, I needed to go eat the cute little baby, but also because I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel again. I’m getting uncomfortable, but I can still move around. I’m still portable. Soon enough, I’m going to burst, then have my own little frog babies that are going to make me immobile for the next 18 years.
The airline I flew on doesn’t allow you to select your own seats unless you pay extra for a seat with more room. So I got a seat assignment at the gate. It was in the farthest back row. The very back row. And it was in the middle, which is always the suckiest seat when traveling alone. The flight was only two hours, but I did forget my book. So I settled in to think my own thoughts and stew in my own juices.
I saw a young teenage girl take the window seat in the row in front of me. She was at that leggy, skinny awkward age, with glasses and mousy brown hair. A woman coming down the aisle behind her squealed with delight. “Ooh! You get to sit next to me???” she said. The woman had a floppy cap, bangle bracelets, and two-tone hair. She had a big shiny purse and shiny nails. She was sort of tan.
It stuck me that maybe the woman and the teenager didn’t know each other well. There was a man that came down the aisle behind her, he was tall and athletic looking, and also sort of tan. He actually sat in the middle, between them. I pegged them as Californians, going home after a trip to Oregon.
I realized very quickly that the woman was a nutjob. There was no subtlety or finesse about it. And I immediately understood why the guy sat in the middle, between the teenager and the crazy lady. The teenager looked out the window with headphones in her ears. And the woman began poking her. “Lauren! Lauren! Are you excited? Aren’t you excited? We’re on a plane! Have you ever flown before? When was the last time we flew? Isn’t this exciting?”
Lauren flinched and curled up more tightly in her seat. She shushed at her. The woman was giddy. And I realized, this woman was her mother. “I think you were five, the last time we flew. Isn’t this so exciting? Can I smoke in the plane?”
The dad, in the middle, shook his head. The woman took out a case with a pink electronic cigarette inside.
“Mom, no, you can’t smoke on the plane,” hissed the teenager.
“What, even an e-cigarette? Why not?”
“You just can’t. Not on a plane.”
The woman sat and jabbered for a bit, and I decided not to try to follow their conversation too much. From my vantage, sitting behind them, I could see the mom’s face, looking at her daughter, and the teenager’s face, looking back at her mother. It took mere seconds to understand years of history. I didn’t need to watch too closely.
Everyone was seated, the door of the plane closed and we began pushing back from the gate. The woman was playing on her cellphone and a flight attendant breezed by and asked her to shut it down.
“I can put it on airplane mode,” the woman said.
“No, you have to shut it off,” said the dad.
“What? No, I can put it in airplane mode, can’t I?”
“No, you have to shut it off completely.”
“I can’t believe this. Really? What is airplane mode for, then?”
“Mom, you have to shut it off, they say to shut it off completely.”
At this point, a stranger in another row said, “You have to shut off your phone.”
“What, really? Really? Angry much, everyone?” The woman’s voice was raised and carried over the back of the plane.
Lauren, her daughter, shushed at her mom.
“Don’t shush me!” The woman’s voice got higher. “Don’t ever shush me! Ever!”
And it was right around this time I figured this woman was somehow, someway, going to cause the plane to crash.
“I can’t believe this, I’m getting yelled at by strangers, and my asshole husband is yelling at me because you can’t use airplane mode on an airplane. Really?”
“Shhhhhhh!” The daughter hissed.
The woman conjured a face of disbelief, sarcasm and loathing, and pointed it at her daughter.
“Really. Really? Really,” she said, as if she could just not believe what grievous injury she was enduring.
The daughter put her headphones back in and gazed out of the window. The father sat stone silent between them.
We taxied to the runway and the plane suddenly throttled forward, pressing us all into our seats.
The woman poked at her daughter. “Lauren! Lauren! We’re taking off! Are you excited? Are you scared? Nervous? Look at that! Look out the window!”
“Mom, stop it!” Lauren was looking out the window. And perhaps she was nervous. Her mother needled her mercilessly.
“Wow, look at that! Lauren! Lauren!” She poked at her daughter.
“Mom, leave me alone!” She swatted her mom’s hand away.
The woman relaxed back in her chair. She again glared at her daughter incredulously.
“Wow. Just, wow. You know, I’m just excited. I’m excited that my daughter hasn’t flown since she was five. Really? Just, wow.” She continued to stare at her daughter.
Lauren gazed out the window.
The father sat in the middle silently.
This was going to be the longest two hour flight ever.
It’s remarkable how well you can get to know someone in a blazingly short amount of time. Not even because you are making assumptions or filling in details in your own mind. But because they absolutely demand your attention. They want you to be focused on them. And to be in their presence, is to witness a spectacle.
Though, of course, I did begin to draw my own conclusions, not limited to guessing that this woman was drunk. She may have even been an alcoholic. But I figured she had to be under the influence of something. Sure enough, as drink orders were being taken, she asked for a Bloody Mary. It was 7:30 in the morning. When she was done with the first one, she got another.
I pulled away from watching them, though I really had nothing better to do. I couldn’t hear everything they said to each other, but I could see their faces, which told more of a story than hearing their words. The daughter with the headphones, staring out the window. The mother antagonizing, instigating, and badgering her daughter.
I heard the words “Really? Really. Really? Wow.” Over and over again. Like she just couldn’t believe her daughter. The mom would get bored, and remember she hadn’t said it in at least five minutes. And she would start up again, looking at her daughter. “Really. Really. Wow.” She would squint her eyes at shake head her in mock disbelief.
The daughter, for her part, pressed as tightly as she could to the side of the plane, trying to fold herself into the smallest possible space. The dad silently sat in the middle.
The woman tired of this game and fiddled with the TV in front of her. She squealed when an interview of George Clooney came on. A dozen heads turned in the back of the plane. “I love George Clooney!” Later, another huge shriek from her. “I love The Price is Right!” It’s my favorite show!” She bounced in her seat. She yelled and cheered when contestants on the show won. Other people on the plane exchanged glances.
Her daughter would shush her, “Mom! Shhhhh! You’re making a scene!”
“Don’t shush me. Don’t ever shush me. Ever.” And then she’d play the “Really? Wow.” game at her daughter for a while.
The flight attendants were remarkably absent through a lot of this. I don’t know if they have a policy not to engage crazy people, or if they are trained to be polite until a passenger becomes a safety risk. The woman got up once to use the restroom with her e-cigarette. Then she wandered drunkly up the aisle, unable to find her seat.
By the end of the flight, the mother and daughter nearly came to blows. The daughter was looking out the window as the plane began to descend. The woman shrieked, poked her daughter and bounced in her seat. She leaned over her husband to peer out the window and poked, poked, poked her daughter. “Lauren! Look! It’s Los Angeles! Look at the palm trees! Look at the swimming pools! Look! It’s right there! Are you excited?”
The daughter swatted her away and tried to fend her off. The mother assumed her incredulous look. Then she sneered, “Are you nervous about landing? You haven’t flown since you were five. Aren’t you scared? Aren’t you nervous? Look how close we are! Looks like we could crash!”
The father said some sharp words to the woman. She turned her venom on him.
“Really? You’ve been sitting here this whole time and you can’t even be here with us? I just want to share this moment as a family, our daughter hasn’t flown since she was five. I’m just excited and you have to be an fucking asshole.”
“Don’t you shush me. Don’t you ever shush me.”
The plane landed and we taxied to the gate. We came to a stop and the passengers busted out of their seats in a cacophony of clicking seat belts.
The woman jumped up.
“I need to get off the plane.”
“We have to wait. We are in the back of the plane.”
“No, I need to get off the plane right now!”
The man sitting in front of her turned to look at her.
“Lady, you need to calm down.”
“What, me?” she said. “I don’t think you know what’s going on here.”
“Lady, you need to calm down.”
“I can’t believe this. I can’t believe strangers on the plane are yelling at me. You don’t know the backstory. You don’t know anything. I need to get off this plane!”
The husband said, “It’s going to be a while, there nothing we can do.”
The woman turned away for a moment. Then she exclaimed, “I’m having a panic attack! I need to get off the plane! Strangers are yelling at me, and my husband is a fucking asshole and I’m having a panic attack right now!”
It happened that this airport deplanes from both the front and the back exits. So just as the woman was freaking out, the back door opened. She shoved her way out.
The father and daughter calmly collected their bags. The father said to the man in front of them, “This is what two Zanax and two bourbons will do.”
“And two vodkas. You forgot the vodkas,” chimed in the daughter.
The father and daughter walked in front of me as we trudged down the gate. The mother was nowhere to be seen. But they didn’t seem concerned.
I wanted to pull the daughter away and give her some sort of advice. The kind of advice strangers give, that magically transforms a person, and sets them on a lifetime path of success and emotional good health. I wanted to tell her to hang on. To be her own person. To keep perspective. To not give in. I wanted to tell her to just hang on long enough that she could escape, so that her mother’s craziness wouldn’t infect her forever. I wanted to be the wise, magic apparition that told her everything was going to be okay.
But I didn’t say anything. It’s none of my business. Everything is going to be okay. I don’t need to be the one to say it.
But if I did have a moment to speak with her, I maybe would have given her one piece of advice. Just four words.
Write it all down.
Sweetheart, write it down.
Also, everything will be okay.