It’s not that the plane is crowded or that you will be stuck in it for the next 10 hours or that you will not sleep because of the crying baby three rows up or the cramped seat or the fact that you simply never sleep on planes because of the twisted anxiety-fantasy you have that your help will be needed in an emergency and you will be one of the few people calm enough to do so, will have your wits about you, will know how to activate the exit-row doors and help the elderly out of the seatbelts and into the evacuation slide.
It’s not the one wobbly overhead compartment and the strange noise coming from the engines or the flight attendants’ falsely cheery faces or the lack of general ventilation or the tight quarters of the bathrooms and the unreasonable fear you have that the bathrooms at the end of the plane, where you are now sitting, are just barely holding on, could fall off in a heartbeat.
It’s not the occasional turbulent patches or that you will be flying with no visible land mass beneath you or your general lack of understanding all these years about how planes even work, how an aircraft carrying more than 300 bodies and God-knows-how-many thousands of tons of cargo manages to stay aloft in the first place.
What it is is that there’s a man sitting one row back and to your right who is frantically, obsessively swaying back and forth, rubbing his hands over his forehead, looking skyward and chanting what sounds like a rush of Arabic because you think you hear the word “Allah” a couple of times, and as the plane takes off, the man’s voice rises in pitch and intensity, and his eyes roll back into his head and his whole body shudders epileptically, and suddenly he grabs for something in his front shirt pocket, something in a small round tin box, which he clutches to his face and rubs into his cheeks, and there’s more chanting, more chanting and eyes rolling heavenward, and you have no idea what’s in the box, or what he is getting so feverish about, this ever-so-slight wailing erupting from him, and you look to your left at your lover who is calmly reading the dinner menu and adjusting the overhead fan, and your mind races to a moment that may or may not come, and you wonder if you have it in you to wrestle an old man to the ground, plying from him the piece of business he holds in his hand, you wonder if you could throw yourself to a task like that, disarming a dangerous stranger spouting Arabic to the heavens, and most of all you wonder if you will recognize the moment if it comes, when the balance will tip enough to force you into action, when the chanting, rocking man will leap out of his seat and do something to change your life forever.
But then the plane stops climbing and levels at last, and the dense white clouds are far below, all those miles already behind you, and everything just pure blue sky now, the engines relaxing into a hum, the baby nursing or asleep, and the man with the tin box and the heavenward eyes and the urgent Arabic is now adjusting his earphones and tuning in to Shrek 2, which is to say he is no longer posing an immediate threat, because his arms are lying still on his lap and he is silent, his small tin package disappearing back into his shirt pocket. You see the small bulge there, an outline of silver metal tucked away behind a film of Egyptian cotton and you think about the green glass ring you have brought on board, this augury of safe passage you always carry which you have secreted away during takeoff in the palm of your hand. You think about the small prayers you have released in tight and dangerous spaces, the fibrillating pleas you have uttered into the darkness, what you have clutched to your body in your hour of need, every bargain you have struck with God to keep you awake and alive and here for another day, and then another.