Close Quarters – Baby brother, Cooper, comes to the rescue for Shelley on a cramped fight to L.A. Photo by Shelley Powers
By Shelley Powers
I hold doors open for others; I don’t cut people off in traffic; and I send thank you notes.
I always try to be both considerate and polite in every part of my life. Except, that is, when I’m on an airplane…then, I’m a voracious seat hog.
I don’t want to hog seating or crowd anyone with my ridiculous girth. But…sigh…I do. And, for that reason, traveling via airplane terrorizes me.
Take-offs? Landings? Crazy schedules? Child’s play.
But a 17-inch seat in economy class? Absolute torment.
Now, I realize that I made my super-sized bed, so I must lay in it. I get it; it’s my fault I’m overweight. The world doesn’t owe me anything.
This is why—in everyday life—I steer clear of booths and stadium seating. I give wide birth to others in crowded places and try to not let my fat be a factor to anyone besides myself. (I would tell you I’m trying to lose weight…but that’s another topic for another time…and maybe even another blog.)
But, when it comes to air travel, my options are as limited as a fat girl’s clothing selection at The Gap. I’m forced to cram myself into whatever seating is available for the hundreds of dollars it costs to fly coach to visit relatives or attend work conferences.
So, I try to make the best of it and be as considerate as I can by following some simple rules and guidelines.
- Book a window seat so as to make use of the precious few extra inches between the armrest and the wall of plane;
- Board as soon as my group number is called so I can be buckled up when my seatmate arrives and I will not have squeeze past that person and make them wait while I work up a sweat trying to get situated;
- Discreetly ask the flight attendant for a seatbelt extender as I board; and
- Sit with my arms crossed and make myself as compact as physically possible for the entire flight.
But my most crucial guideline comes after I’m loaded and locked in…I start praying.
“Lord, please, send me an understanding seatmate. Please, let someone kind sit next to me. Please!”
Having someone who loathes my existence sit thigh to thigh with me for hours on end is my biggest travel anxiety. And I had to face this anxiety head on when I flew from Mississippi to Los Angeles to visit family this past spring.
I was looking forward to meeting up with my brother, Cooper, who was flying in from New Orleans to our connecting flight in Texas. I hadn’t seen him in months, so we were hoping to finagle a way to sit together. We met at the terminal and made a plan to see if one of my seatmates would switch seats with him, but, as soon as we boarded (which was later than I had planned, as I was hanging back with Cooper), I realized that my two seatmates—a well-dress, older white couple—were already in place and probably wouldn’t be willing to sit separately.
But Coop was determined. He explained that we hadn’t seen each other in a long time and tried to ploy the man with his exit row seat and its extra leg room, but the man stood there quietly, unimpressed and unsympathetic. The woman, on the other hand, was very vocal. She literally huffed then whined, “Why would we want to do that? We’re together!”
I waved Cooper on and said under my breath, “Let it go, but thanks for trying. It’s okay.” Then I smiled at the two people who I was to share my life with for the next three hours and asked if I could squeeze by and get to my seat.
I lifted the armrest between my seat and the other seat so that I would fit, then I tried to be as swift as possible with the seatbelt. As I was trying to shove every bit of my body into any unoccupied crevice of my seat, the woman huffed again. I looked at her and smiled apologetically.
“Are we going to be able to put the armrest down?” she asked in what was possibly the snottiest tone I’ve ever heard.
I was surprised she had to ask. It didn’t take a physics professor to clearly see that the armrest couldn’t be lowered. I grimaced as I said, “No. I’m so sorry.”
She huffed again and plopped down in the seat next to me.
I completely understand that nobody wants to be crowded. And I also understand that she paid for her seat and I was taking up mine and a bit of hers. If I could have stopped my hips from spreading over to her seat, I would have gladly done it. But there was nothing I could do but apologize. Thankfully, we weren’t touching, as she was very tiny.
I sat with my arms folded, pulling my body in as much as I could as I listened to her admonish me to her husband in a loud and abusive whisper.
“This is ridiculous. Huff. I can’t believe this. Puff. Tsk. Ridiculous!”
I could feel the tears brimming my eyes. I felt pathetically small and selfishly large at the same time. As with many overweight people, my main issue isn’t with food and exercise as much as with feelings of low self-worth. I struggle with it all the time.
And sitting in that plane on a hot tarmac in Houston, Texas, holding my legs together as tightly as I could and leaning with crossed arms into the space between my right armrest and the wall of the plane…what was left of my self-worth had nowhere to go but out the window I leaned against (and longingly wished I could crawl through).
After about three minutes of stewing, the woman announced to her husband that she was going to “take the other seat.”
I was so relieved. Cooper would be by my side and all would be well.
As the woman got up, I said, “Ma’am, I am so sorry.”
She said nothing as she walked away.
Her husband, who had stood to let her out, kept standing in the aisle and I cut my eyes at him slightly to see if he was waiting for Cooper. But all I saw were his eyes staring at me in disgust and his mouth contorted into this shallow scowl.
I quickly looked forward. I have never felt so ashamed and awful in my life.
Cooper made his way down the aisle and politely said, “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your wife letting me sit with my sister.”
The man never turned his gaze from me, as he slowly chewed on these words, “Well, it wasn’t her choice! She likes to leave the armrests down so she can nap!”
Coop said nothing in response to him; but, instead, took his seat next to his sister, who now had tears running down her face and said, “Shell, forget them. They’re @$$holes.”
I’ve never loved that kid more than in that moment.
The visit in L.A. was great (my two youngest brothers and I flew out to surprise our other brother, Beau, for his 40th birthday) but, as time drew near for the flight home, I grew nervous. When I got to the airport for my 7 a.m. flight back to Houston, I focused on all my guidelines.
- Board as soon as I’m called.
- Ask for extender before sitting down.
- Strap in quickly.
- Lean toward the window as much as possible.
- Suck in my fat and hold tightly until we land.
- Pray fervently for a kind seatmate.
One by one, the other passengers boarded and I played seatmate roulette. Would this one be polite? Would that one call me names?
And then down the aisle came a handsome, young black man. He looked to be in his early 20s and had wild tattoos inked all down each arm. His hair was twisted into short dreadlocks and he wore jeans, a polo shirt, and a leather jacket.
He looked like an Abercrombie model.
After some discussion with the people seated behind me, he plopped down in the seat next to me.
“Oh. Are you sitting here?” I asked, curious about his discussion with the other passengers.
“Yeah. I was confused which seat was mine.”
“Okay. Great,” I said, as I patted his muscular shoulder. He definitely was not a waif, and we were filling both seats to the edge of each armrest. “I’m sorry I’m squishing you. I’ll try to be a good seatmate.”
“Pfthhh. No problem. You can lean on me and I’ll lean on you, and we can take a nap!” he said, as he awkwardly held up his right hand in our small space. “I’m Brandon, by the way.”
I shook his hand and smiled (I wanted to hug his neck). “You’re awesome, Brandon. I’m Shelley. Thanks!”
We chit-chatted just long enough for me to learn that he was heading to Louisiana to visit family and was a little unsure of himself because he hadn’t flown since he was a kid. The flight attendant told everyone to put electronic devices on airplane mode and he asked me if he had to turn off his iPod. I told him it was fine.
Then, before I knew it, he balled up his leather jacket as a pillow and leaned his dreadlocked head against my left shoulder and fell sound asleep.
And I went back to praying. “Thank you, God, for Brandon. Thank you, God, for Brandon. Thank you, God, for Brandon,” was all I could say.
I mumbled my prayer and watched the clouds float by my window. My hip opposite Brandon was numb from being pressed against the metal armrest, but I didn’t care. I didn’t feel judged, and it was wonderful.
And then, somewhere hanging in the western sky, I finally drifted off to sleep, leaning on a stranger who would never realize the gift he had given me 30,000 feet above the rest of the world.