Sitting at the gate before my plane to Cleveland boarded I looked, as usual, for the person who was going to kill me. There’s one—at least one—on every flight: the man acting a little too nervous and asking the attendant too many questions, the woman who stays in the bathroom for a little too long, the couple across the aisle who is just a little too friendly, always offering you a stick of gum. I wonder how they’ll do it: with a bomb or a gun, storming the cockpit as the passengers in first class cower in fear or try to restrain them. There might be a water landing or a fiery crash in a forest. Maybe it will be instantaneous and we won’t feel a thing. The last words I’ll utter to the person sitting next to me change each time: a dramatic But I’m still so young, I’ve never even really been in love, a frantic call for help—or maybe I’ll be too distraught to say anything at all and my voice will catch in my throat and the whole thing will be over in silence.
It was easy to locate this flight’s object of suspicion. A man wearing a navy blue New York Giants hoodie and a matching hat walked into the waiting area a few minutes after I did and immediately engaged a stranger reading the sports section of the newspaper in a loud conversation about his team’s recent loss. I couldn’t hear the man’s replies because I was on the phone to my mother, saying goodbye again, but I saw the other passengers look up in annoyance at the volume of the exchange. Next he turned his attention to his luggage, a large black suitcase on wheels. He unzipped the main compartment and rifled through a Ziploc bag filled with orange prescription bottles, their white safety-lock caps glinting at me through the plastic. He couldn’t find what he was looking for, and repeated the action in each of two smaller pockets filled with more bottles of medication. He’s crazy, I thought, wondering if I should tell the TSA officer at the desk. She was staring off into space, completely unaware of the potential terrorist not ten feet away from her.
When my cousin flies she has to mix Ambien or Tylenol PM with a few mini bottles of airplane alcohol in attempt to escape consciousness for the duration of her trip. I’ve never had to resort to anything mind-altering; usually cranking up the volume of my iPod, pulling down my hood so that it covers my whole face, and closing my eyes is enough to keep me calm. Traveling with my family when I was young, we would all hold hands during lift off, my parents’ fingers interlocked across the aisle because the four of us couldn’t fit in one row. This became embarrassing as I got older, and my father complained that it was an irritatingly superstitious ritual. “I don’t understand why some people feel the need to pray when the plane’s going up,” he told me once. “It’s not like doing that’s going to save them.” I assured him that I agreed.
The plane was a tiny one, meant for short commuter flights; in her high heels, the stewardess nearly grazed the ceiling with her head. I made my way down the narrow aisle to seat 11C. It wasn’t until I was midway through the act of sitting down that I saw who my seatmate was: the too-loud, medicated Giants fan.
“You want the window, honey?” he asked; apparently he was a pervert, too.
“I’m fine in the aisle seat. I mean, if that’s okay.” I could feel it in the pit of my stomach, the urge to run in the other direction, the dread of not being able to.
“Oh, that’s fine, honey.”
I took out the reading I needed to do for class and pushed my backpack under the seat. When all of the other passengers had boarded the plane I noticed that there was an empty row right in front of the lavatory. I wondered if it would be too obvious to switch.
Giants guy was looking out the window, stroking his long white mustache as he studied the sky.
“It’s alright here, but it’s supposed to be raining in Ohio.”
“Isn’t it always raining in Ohio?” I managed a weak laugh. “I just hope we’re not late; I have to catch a bus fifteen minutes after we land.”
“Where’re you heading?” he asked, and I told him, wondering if it was a good idea.
“My lady is coming to pick me up—we can probably drive you.”
“Oh no, that’s okay,” I said quickly. “Thanks though.”
He fell silent and I kept my eyes glued to my book in case he tried to engage me again. He was quiet until we were in the air, but as soon as the plane leveled he continued talking.
“Yep, those clouds. We’re going right into the storm.” He was staring out the window. “I saw on CNN that they’re supposed to have a tornado warning in Chicago.” He registered what must have been a look of horror on my face. “I don’t mean to scare you.”
Well you are, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I had to pee, but I was afraid to leave my seat. Silly, I told myself. He can’t steal from you on a plane. Where would he go with what he took? The man across the aisle was snoring, oblivious should I need his help.
“They’re cracking down on thieves,” my seatmate said, as if he had read my mind. “Identity thieves. I saw it on CNN. Much worse than bank robbers.”
My mother believes that if there is a reason for you to get somewhere, you’ll get there. I had made this exact trip, back and forth and back again between Philadelphia and Cleveland, several times over the past four years since I’d started college, and she had often told me that I’d have a safe journey simply because she needed me home with her. I had to get there, so I would.
The same was true when we went to a family friend’s bar mitzvah in San Francisco or a wedding in France: it was guaranteed that we would be fine because we had to make it there for the event.
There was nothing that was calling me back to Ohio this time. Finishing the revisions of my senior thesis? It didn’t seem like enough.
The flight attendant was pushing the beverage cart toward us. “I hope they have drinks on this thing,” my companion had informed me before take-off.
“Do you sell liquor on this flight?” he asked as she came up to our row.
“Yeah. What kind do you want?” She had long blonde hair and wore dark eye shadow that matched the pants of her uniform.
“Do you have Jack Daniels? How about a Jack and 7-Up?”
“Is Sprite okay?”
“That’s just fine.” He handed her a ten-dollar bill. “Are you allowed to get tips?”
She giggled. “Um, I guess so. If you’re giving them!”
“You can keep the three dollars,” he told her as she poured the drink. “Let me tell you, honey, I got some good news yesterday.”
“What was it?” Her tone suggested that this was not the first time she had had to listen to passengers’ stories unwillingly. He’s nuts! I wanted to scream at her. You know now, too!
“Yesterday they told me that my cancer is gone.”
I concentrated on my reading like I had never concentrated before, keeping my eyes on the page, word after word.
“That’s great news, sir. Congratulations.” She turned to me. “Can I get you anything?”
“No.” I shook my head. She pushed the cart down the aisle.
I couldn’t read after that. Next to me he was examining Sky Mall intently, licking his thumb to turn the pages. His fingernails were a strange yellow color; they looked like they had been bitten down by the sharp teeth of a small animal, like they were rotting off.
“I always want to buy everything in those magazines,” I ventured. I felt like I owed it to him. “They make it look like it’s all stuff you need.”
“I know, but who wants to spend two hundred dollars for this kind of shitty jewelry,” he said. “I like this though.” He pointed to an overpriced panoramic print of a field with pink flowers.
“This one’s nice, too.” It was the same painting, but of a bridge in Manhattan.
“The treatment center is gonna send me to New York,” he said. “They’re gonna pay for it and everything. I’ve been there before, just for the day, but my lady, she’s never been. We’re gonna see the Empire State building.”
“You could go to Ellis Island,” I offered. “There’s a great museum there now.”
“I heard that. This one survivor I met…” His voice trailed off as he became distracted by the view outside the window again.
“Yep, going right into the storm. They’re having a tornado warning near Chicago. I don’t mean to scare you.”
I didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter because he was talking again.
“I’m sorry if I said that before. My memory…the radiation.” He lifted the Giants hat to reveal his head, smoothly bald except for a few straggly gray hairs. There was a thin white scar above his ear; I wouldn’t have thought anything of it if I hadn’t known.
The feeling in my stomach came back. Like when you’ve had too much sugar and you can feel your heart in the middle of your body, going and going. I could tell him, I thought. I could tell him right now, and no one would know. The man across the aisle was still asleep; the woman sitting alone in front of us was slumped over her book, out. Nobody would be able to hear above the roar of the plane’s engine, anyway. Sitting side-by-side like this, he couldn’t see my own scar, cutting just below my Adam’s apple, a little faded after three years, only visible if you’re looking for it. I could tell him, I thought.
“Do you think I can take this?” he asked, gesturing to the magazine. “It says here that it’s complimentary. That means it’s okay if I take it, right?”
“It’s yours,” I said.
Here are the things I remember: a fine needle aspiration biopsy, being told to count backwards from ten, my father spoon-feeding me broth, the sleep-dream of Percocet, my doctor saying You won’t lose your hair. The pill I take each morning means that I’ll never forget. This is my baggage, my case full of bottles and tablets. This is what I carry with me.
We were beginning the descent now. He hadn’t said much since we’d finished going through Sky Mall and I hadn’t said anything either. I searched the pages in front of me absently, unable to absorb the words. Cleveland was materializing below us, out of the clouds, gray as ever but there nonetheless.
“I guess we missed that storm,” he said.
Beneath the wing I watched the airport getting closer, all the nearby hotels, the cars with people in them. I imagined their chests rising and falling, too small to see.
“It was nice to meet you, ma’am. I can see about giving you a ride back to school.”
“Oh, please don’t worry about it. I’m meeting friends,” I lied.
“Well you have a safe trip.”
The wheels of the airplane thudded against the tarmac.
“Please keep your seatbelt on and securely fastened until we reach the gate,” the flight attendant recited into the loudspeaker.
I could have wept. We had made it. We had survived.
Arielle Kaplan was born and raised in Philadelphia (with a stopover in England) and currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. She attended Oberlin College and received her M.A. in education from Tufts University. She spends the school year teaching sixth grade humanities and the summer traveling as much as she can.