Travels by Myself
The harried young woman looms over her ten-year-old son, saying, firmly, “You have until the end of this flight to do your homework. And don't talk to me like that. I won't stand for it.”
Since I was scrambling to stuff my luggage anywhere I could, I hadn’t heard the “talking to her” that had gone on. I had to secure one of those all-too-scarce overhead bins for my carry-on luggage. Most bins appeared to be full. People entering took the first bin they saw, never caring it wasn’t for their seat.
“I don’t know why you get so upset.” He’s pouting now. Head down, he looks like a child who may not grow up to be a very pleasant adult. She’s continuing her diatribe and this poor boy must sit and listen. I’ll bet she’s a stepmother and he’s wondering why someone doesn’t save him from her. Still, he makes no response to her railing.
“Don’t talk to me like that. Just get to doing your homework.”
The din dies down as the flight attendant goes through the cabin, closing the overhead compartments with a resolute slam that tells all they’re full.
“Is that a bag there?” Sweat appears on the flight attendant’s face. A twist of the head and pursing of the lips indicated the true intention of the question. “Are these your things? You can hold onto your coats. Let’s see what we can do here.” Sounds like an auction coming up.
The elderly woman clings to her coat as though it were a child of hers. I could almost hear her whispering to herself, “Maybe they'll let me keep it or I might never see it again.” Satisfied, the flight attendant disappears with her bags and began looking for a place to stuff them. The woman watched anxiously as the man with her, a Jose Ferrer look-alike, contented himself with fiddling with his pen, looking at it as though he had never seen one before. A new Mont Blanc with its shiny cap, the pen held his complete and undivided attention.
“Is that another bag?” The flight attendant, back again for another inspection, is a bit firmer this time, believing they have somehow tried to hide a bag from him. The elderly couple reacts as though the flight attendant is about to mug them and take their carry-on luggage. The concern is written all over their faces. If you're not booked in First Class, it’s part of the trauma of traveling with carry-ons.
I’d been on too many flights this year, but none of them had prepared me for Mr. Baby and the characters on this flight. True, they were mainly the same types of business personnel carrying their suit bags, their rolling carry-ons and their computer cases. Pretty much the same, but there was a sprinkling of others. This flight, to LA, had to be different. Of course, it did. Who would call a child by something other than his name, if not an LA mother?
Ok, I’m being unfair to LA mothers, but too many of them care more about looking good than caring for their kids. Bash me, if you wish, I’m used to it. Thirty years in the field of psychology and I’ve been called a lot of things. I’ve been burned by lit cigarettes when I tried to intercept a call to Alaska on the house phone of a mental health center. Once I was warned that the woman I was with could “kill you fifty ways” as we sat in a hospital kitchen area. I didn’t doubt her creativity because I knew she’d already killed one man and almost did away with her psychiatrist. Well, gossip was that he did try to sexually molest her. Did he deserve death? Not my call, please.
Free from the menacing world of institutional mental health, I was headed to California for a much-needed vacation among those with low humility. At least they wouldn’t threaten to kill me fifty different ways; they’d only think it as they dawdled over their dirty martinis or whatever the drink of the moment was. Smiling faces can hide so much, it’s amazing. When acting is your business or you’ve inhaled so much of the entertainment industry, it’s quite natural to smile and not mean it. Did any of them know about the Duchenne smile? Probably not.
All I knew was I was off and it would be a world away from the gray, poorly lit small spaces where people lingered in pharmacologic stupors. It would be a great escape for sure, no motorcycle involved.
No, I would not be bringing anything more than jeans, shorts, tees and personal care products, so I’d be traveling light. After all, this was a vacation, not an audition. Yes, I have gone to auditions, and they are horrid experiences where frightened people sit around and try to look confident even when they know they’ll probably not get the gig.
In this plane’s First Class, partially seen through the hanging curtain dividing “them” from “us,” I see an overstuffed young man leaning back in his leather seat. He takes the glass of orange juice the flight attendant offers and drinks it down in one gulp. The seats are arranged two to a row, and the young man fills his seat completely. His ample belly hangs down over his waistband. The Turnbull & Asher shirt struggles to maintain the cascade of flesh beneath it while the Tiffany silver buckle on the belt struggles to do its share in the battle.
Meanwhile, in Economy, or whatever class they are calling it these days, the cabin crew attempts to maintain order with passengers who are already grumbling.
Flight attendants scratch their heads, have you noticed? They also blow their noses while serving food. Why does this remind me of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence? What makes that line stand out, the one about not using anything other than a silver knife for cutting cucumbers? I don’t know.
“Mr. Baby’s tired, isn’t he?” The voice of the young mother sounded sympathetic, but I felt that Mr. Baby must surely be a toy. Perhaps he's some dream of a toy manufacturer's fantasy. This toy, the perfect baby, would cry, wet, and, possibly, vomit on command. But, please, not all over the Donna Karan suit mommy is wearing.
The cry sounded real. Was I out of touch with the world of toys and the genius of Mattel? It had to be a baby. But who would call an infant, "Mr. Baby?" Have we become that removed, that refined, that cultured, that even a baby, little Marys and Roberts, and Charlies and Harrys, are now Mr. and Ms. Baby? Oh, well—this plane was headed for the West Coast, and she was a California mother.
The flight seemed uneventful except for Mr. Baby, who was crying uncontrollably and kicking. I accepted the headset the flight attendant offered to me, even though I had no interest in the film, but perhaps it would muffle Mr. Baby and his incessant screams. California mommy looks at the headset as though it had cooties. But, on this plane, it was free, so she took it with two fingers, whipped it with a disinfectant towelette from her purse, and sat back.
I was bored, and I began to give my imagination free rein. What are those insistent “pings” that ring on airplanes? Have you ever wondered? Is the captain telling the crew that they will have to abandon ship or that he has to go to the powder room or wants the flight attendant to prepare for landing? Is he telling the crew he wants more coffee or he forgot where he’s supposed to be landing today?
Do they have a series of “secret” codes that would let us in on all manner of stupid things, if we only had the knowledge? I was tired of all this secret communication, of Mr. Baby and his crying, the dinky little snacks and the people moving their capacious hips into my space in these things they call seats.
Who is that “average passenger” they use to decide the width of these seats? Is it that “average woman” for whom they make all those size 8s or 10s, 12s and 14s? I never fit into any of them, seats included. Then, of course, there is that store that makes size 2–3s. I told the saleswoman I must have stopped in the wrong store. “No, dear, believe me, you are a size 3.” Well, I’m not, but who’s arguing when they drop your blouse size by 10?
I wanted to fling off my seat belt, in apparent violation of the lighted sign, run up into First Class, and demand to use their restroom. Have you ever noticed how they guard that restroom? Even when no one is using it and the conveniences in the Economy section are full, they still won't let you use it.
So, for something like $2,000, I could buy the right to a WC reserved expressly for the anointed. One wonders about the elegant tushes that linger there. Was there something special about that restroom, too?
Oh, I was in fine form. I would refuse to take my seat in Economy, I would demand decent meals, and put my seat into the fully reclined, not upright, position. Who cares if I would be lying almost face up in the lap of the passenger behind me?
I wanted freedom on this flight, but, of course, the voice of Sister Irenita Marie called out loud and clear: “Stop being a bold, fresh piece.” I stopped my fantasy dead in its tracks. Sister was right; I would behave.
Mr. Baby continued to cry fitfully until he exhausted himself or was filled to the epiglottis with all that milk his mother was dutifully pressing on him. A loud roar was reduced to sobs and then to soft little moans and then, finally, silence.
Was Mr. Baby asleep in a milk-induced stupor, or had his mother drugged him? Who knew? He was quiet for the rest of the flight, and I stopped allowing the beast inside my head to run rampant with my senses.
I quieted down, too. I busied myself with scrutinizing the elaborate flight patterns on the back of the safety instructions, which I had pulled from the seat pocket. In the in-flight merchandise magazine, I looked dutifully at all the "wonderful" things I could squander my every cent on.
I wondered if these items were indeed only for "in-flight purchase," or could anyone who hadn’t had their sanity taxed by Mr. Baby buy them while on the ground? Was this an actual reward for what I’d just suffered through? No, anyone could buy them. No exclusivity here.
Hopes dashed, I listened to the captain drone on about what we could see if there weren’t so many clouds in our way, and how we could expect to be landing “shortly.”
I know that most of us would think of “shortly” as meaning that something would happen within a specific length of time. In airline lingo, however, it means whatever it means.
Airline lingo is similar to how we think about IQ tests. When someone asks what an IQ test measures, we dutifully answer, "An IQ test measures whatever an IQ test measures," and hope that they won't take us away in a clean white jacket complete with lovely buckles down the back.
Yes, I'm a psychologist. Still, even psychologists have their limits and, no, we don’t sit passively while patients call us all sorts of names.
Inside, those of us who have blood coursing through our veins may even fantasize about seizing the opportunity to let our patients find someone else or suggesting that they might like a referral to someone else.
Of course, that means less income. Still, I've always thought that my mental health is important, too, and income cannot compensate me for tolerating the boorish behavior of people who think I’m a paid whipping girl.
The plane landed, and I learned that "shortly" actually meant twenty minutes on this flight. I grabbed my bag from the overhead, trotted off the plan, and left Mr. Baby and all my fellow passengers to their own devices. It was pleasant to feel the sting of the Los Angeles air in my eyes.
One thing I knew: I'd be back, and who knew what adventures awaited me on that return flight? I could only hope that Mr. Baby was home to stay in LA.