The Woman in the Plane

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

As soon as the main cabin door was closed I made my move. Though I had already secured an aisle seat, I noticed that the middle section front row behind the bulkhead of this jumbo jet was empty. By moving quickly not only would I still have an aisle seat, but more leg room plus an empty middle seat to allow extra elbow room while crossing the Atlantic.

A nod from a flight attendant assured that my maneuver, though done at a time when we were supposed to be docilely buckled in, was OK. On matters of airplane seats I’m at my most evil, being not only calculating but also selfish. My new location was three seats across and I really hoped that no one would take either of the other two. That was not to happen, though. Before the plane started to move, a woman, big of stature who looked a little disheveled, as though she had just run through the airport, claimed the opposite aisle seat. Quickly she shoved her carry-on bag into the overhead bin and stashed her purse beneath the seat. Thankfully, the middle seat remained unoccupied.  
 
As the plane rumbled along the tarmac I conceded to myself that I would have to share middle seat space with the woman and that use of the seat’s tray table, which I had hoped to control might have to be time-shared. To my delight, the woman never even glanced at the middle seat. Once we were at cruise level she read magazines for a while and then fell asleep.

It would be easier for me to do cartwheels down the aisle than to fall asleep in a plane, so I just sat there pleased that I could stretch my legs, flex my arms, use the middle seat tray and stand up anytime I wanted without getting in anyone’s way. Meanwhile the woman slept. She slept through dinner, breakfast, announcements from the pilot and the shuffle of people standing in line for the nearby restroom.
She was even unfazed by two kids three rows back, one who continually screamed and the other who talked at decibel levels higher than the jet engines.

Her sleeping seemed normal until much later in the flight at that blessed hour when the plane began its descent. The cabin lights were suddenly turned on in the darkened cabin so that the attendants could make sure that everyone was buckled in, their trays were up and gear was stored. An attendant tried to get the lady to put her purse into the bin but she wouldn’t budge. Gently the attendant shook the woman, but noting happened. The attendant raised her voice and nudged the woman a little harder, but still nothing. As the plane descended, the attendant gave up, placed the purse in the bin herself and glanced in my direction asking me to tell the woman where her purse was. I nodded.

Suddenly I was the woman’s caretaker – and then I had a horrible thought: what if she was, you know, sort of like, well … dead. I stared at her for signs of life. She certainly slept silently. I thought I could detect slight movement, but that might have been from the plane. Then I had another thought that I was ashamed of myself for thinking. If she was dead, did that mean that we would not be able to get off the plane until some authorities came in to investigate? Was I now a witness? Would she have survived had she had more access to the middle seat?

I watched her closely as the plane’s wheels touched the runway: There was a slight bounce, not harsh, but enough to wake up anyone who might be sleeping, except for the woman who remained in her condition. She stayed that way as the flight attendant welcomed everyone to Charles De Gaulle airport and gave the present time. This is the moment when most passengers are primed, ready to bolt the plane at first notice, but the woman didn’t move. If there was going to be questioning I was hoping the gendarmes could speak English.

After eight hours afloat the plane approached the arrival gate and came to a stop. Then there was that beloved sound of liberation, the “ping” freeing passengers from captivity. I took another desperate look at the woman and discovered that her subconscious was apparently programmed to the ping. Her eyes shot open. She glanced in my direction. “Your purse is in the bin,” I told her. After all the time we had spent together I thought I might owe her another comment, but then, “I thought you were dead” seemed a little harsh.

People who are able to sleep so soundly for so long on planes either have inner-peace or lots of pills. I had neither. If only she could have shared whatever she had with the kids in the third row.

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