By Adam Allegro
I cross a concerningly large gap into the plane and neither of the flight attendants bothers to look up. I heard once that flight attendants were supposed to be a line of defense against future debauchery or in-flight terrorism by greeting every passenger that boards, size them all up before takeoff. Instead, both were furiously pouring coffees and mixing little bottles of gin for the thirsty passengers in First Class. As I walk down the restricted cabin, the inhabitants seem to go out of their way to avoid eye contact with me. Further back, Business Class passengers are all but curious eyes, looking down on the lesser boarding groups as we squeeze past the outstretched knees and overinflated egos. I’m reminded time and again which class I belong to in this world, no matter what my service, education, resume or empathy really says about me. We are measured based on our bank account balances instead of our accounts of the world, and that’s a crying shame.
The exit rows are only half full, the $60 price tag deterring most regular travelers. The strong smell of airport whisky emanates off a canoodling couple to my left and I get more stares from more strangers on the right. I wonder what story they make up in their heads for me? Bodies thin and I reach my aisle seat on the right side of the plane, grab my book, stow my bag and sit down, knowing full well that I’ll need to get up in a minute for my seatmates.
I just spent the last four days in Florida with my lively family, including an energetic 2-year-old and hundreds of other consuming tourists somewhere on West Palm Beach. Three decades ago, my parents purchased a time-share wanted all of us to meet for “one last family vacation” before it expired. My mom chose Florida in the middle of hurricane season, not that any of the rest of us knew better; we’re California people. At least airfare was somewhat affordable, whatever that means today. It was an exhausting vacation (are there any other types?) and I just wanted to survive the flight and make it to my bed.
Before the flight, as I sat near my gate reading a book, there was an announcement about a full airplane and complimentary baggage checks, followed by a rush of well-dressed men and a woman to the gate desk. Having paid to check a bag earlier after being told no, there weren’t any discounts for disabled vets, I felt down. I glanced around and a pretty girl sitting at the next gate caught my eye. She looked just like you did when we were younger. You were always patient and kind towards me, unlike many of our fellow Midshipmen at the time. I remember your smile more than anything, vibrant and sincere. You became a Marine Corps helicopter pilot and flew combat missions overseas in Afghanistan, then crashed and died with your co-pilot three years ago during a training exercise in San Bernardino County, California. The report I read said it was due to an improperly installed filter cover. I am constantly reminded of you in so many of these stranger’s faces, more so as time passes. I still don’t know why your death affects me like this… I’ve had other friends die. Lots of em’.
A man in his 50’s stops just in front of me and gestures to the window seat with the timid smile of a virgin traveler. I take out my right headphone and stand up to let him pass, anticipating unwanted conversation that never comes. A robust smell of discounted cologne trails his combed back, black hair as he squeezes past, reflections from bald skin sneaking through the moussed strands clumping together here and there. He’s wearing a green, blue, violet, and pink-striped, long-sleeved, collared dress shirt with the store creases still tight and holding. His energetic shirt is tucked in to worn, black slacks with no belt. He sits down, smiles at me again, and then turns to look out the window. Clutched tightly in his lap like its a precious manuscript is a children’s book, “The Adventures of the Gobbies”, undoubtedly for someone loved but missed dearly, maybe a result of distance or maybe estrangement. Regardless, he seems like he’s making a tremendous effort, putting his “best self” forward. I spend a few minutes thinking about the man’s life, creating his backstory and using my own family dramas and baggage as my drawing inspiration. I create quite a character and my eyelids begin to hang heavy as my mind meanders.
Distance is a weird thing. I remember six, seven-month deployments at sea, the isolation and the endless grind. It’s a different existence, a different reality. A few weeks ago I was talking to you while were waiting in line to get a second round of beers before a concert, our ladies chatting back at the table. After we ordered, you turned to me and asked me a question. You wanted to know if it was bad to yearn for the high deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, for the adrenaline, the camaraderie, the uncertainty. Family life in the Bay Area, as wonderful and safe as it was, lacked something integral for you. I thought about this over the following days and thought about my own experiences, my own wants and yearnings. To a different degree, I crave similar things. I don’t feel like anyone really understands who hasn’t the shared experience, and everyone with it, does. Maybe it’s the same reason so many police detectives drink.
I remember were navigating through the Northern Arabian Sea on our way to “patrol and deter” around oil platforms in the blistering Persian Gulf, the moonless night engulfing our mighty destroyer a she cut through the modest, slapping waves. Most of us slept in our coffin-like racks, more womb than bed, rocking gently back and forth with the rolling seas. Except for those on watch. They kept us safe and moving while we rested, which we repaid in kind when it was our turn to stand the watch. You were down in the secretive communications suite monitoring message traffic when someone discovered gay pornography on your personal laptop. Unsure and uncertain, the reality of a messy future rapidly forming in your mind, you went topside for a cigarette and you were never seen again. I can only imagine what it must have been like for you, to have your entire world pulled out from under you like that, isolated in this floating, steel prison in faraway seas. What it must have been like hitting that warm, salty water, your steel toed boots pulling you down. Did you take them off and tread water? How did the red stern light look through the splashes and gasps for air, hope waning in the distance? Did you change your mind and want to live? I’ll remember the questions so I’ll know what to ask the next time we cross paths in my nightmares.
I must have drifted off. We’re in the air now and the man next to me is staring out the window. Over his shoulder I spy a vast, southern sky, ripe with voluminous cloud clusters bursting with countless colors. I always envy the window seat passenger but can’t sit there because of my size and my busted back. The aisle gives me extra room, and since the middle passenger never showed, I get even more space. I feel like an old Basset Hound being let off the leash in a crowded dog park. When I look around the cabin it’s awash in the most vivid pinks and purples and roses and most passengers are either staring at a screen or sleeping. The man in the brand new striped shirt sitting next to me is still looking out though, lost somewhere between his own regrets and the expanse of this vivacious atmosphere unfolding before him. Soon its dark inside the plane and there are random lights dotted about which illuminate other restless flyers. I’m listening to a downloaded “This is: Haydn” playlist on my phone, scribbling in my notebook, wondering where all these strangers are going, where they’re from. All of the fantasies begin to make my brain hurt and I try to sleep again but can’t maintain a position for longer than a few minutes before the pain starts creeping in like a cuckoo, foreign trickery for a fragile songbird such as myself. I continue playing the hypnotizing game of looking around for the next hour.
The drink cart whizzes by on my right and I instinctively move in a slumped knee upon seeing it in my peripheral. As it continues up the center aisle, my mouth decides it wants a beer. Navigating a particularly depressing quartet on my playlist, my mind drifts from the past few days with family to the current Supreme Court fight to the state of civil discourse in this once-great country (not his version). I don’t even know what we collectively stand for anymore or what I gave over a third of my precious, finite life for. I start to feel down again, which kicks off a cycle of more reflection and bitterness. My eyes well up with salty, unwanted tears as I think about our polarized country, the division and the overall lack of empathy in the world. The gulf between us widens without any indication or mechanism of retraction. I think its clear which side history will remember which way, but that all depends on who controls the narrative, I suppose. Control the story and you control it all. I think of propaganda, of religion, of cults. Dopamine for those wrought with fear, opiates for the masses. “Th In K WHILE IT IS STILL LEGAL” I saw on a t-shirt a few weeks back. We are headed for something dark, I fear; I feel it in my bones. My mind strays further as the drink cart inches closer. I think about our Veterans and how disconnected this country is to the heroes who defend them. Perception is filtered through the lens of Hollywood and the news media and ends with the defense contractors’ final cut (need to shoot those bullets we’ve paid for because there’s an infinite number more on the way). There are now young soldiers fighting in a war that began before they were even born.
I take a deep breath and listen to more Haydn, the current number more soothing than the previous one and I close my eyes and embrace it. I float softly away in the comfort of moderate turbulence before being jerked quickly back by a gentle tap on my shoulder.
“Would you like something to drink?” asks an apathetic flight attendant through tired, overworked eyes. She’s been waiting on entitled American assholes for many long years and I don’t blame her for being mostly checked out.
“Whatever your strongest beer is,” I reply with a forced, cordial smile, removing my right earbud.
The woman, in her early fifties, kneels and picks up a can, looks at it through a squinted eye, then puts it back and picks up another.
“Fat Tire I-P-A ok for you, hun?”
“That works, thanks.”
I ready my card and she sets the beer down on my extended seat tray. The tiny, circular lip doesn’t look big enough to hold my drink during any intense turbulence. What if you have two cups? I swipe my card and pay my seven dollars, then pour a third of my beer into my tiny plastic cup, finding myself now with two drinks and one circular lip.
“Everything alright, hun?” she asks, sensing my melancholy.
“Oh, yea, just a long day. Things just seem different now…” I vent. I open up about how American Airlines makes me feel like a means of profit instead of a customer and she agrees with me. I talk about my military service and how frustrated I am with the state of the country, the false patriotism and fragility, the insecurity, the scapegoating and hate, the fear… The greed. And she still listens. I rhetorically ask if my twelve years in the uniform were for naught. She empathetically nods and it feels like her soft blue eyes truly care about my experience. I confess about our forgotten vets and the wars they continue to fight off the battlefield and about how isolated I feel in today’s world. I can’t believe I’m opening up so much to this stranger and I can’t believe she’s actually listening. After hearing to me tear out bits of my soul, the flight attendant looks down at me with warm, welcoming eyes and asks me a question.
“So, are you a deplorable too?”
What the fuck? Shock. . . I’m floored. I don’t even know what to say. I manage to mumble something.
“Um… no… wait, what? No… I’m… I’m fairly progressive - not a deplorable at all.”
Shock from her now. Warm and welcoming eyes become wary and cautious, disappointed almost. Her physical recoil is soft but noticeable and her whole demeanor shifts. She becomes more professional, more rigid. The sympathy and warmth is gone now. A distance results and once again I feel the sweet sting of isolation as it punches me in the gut.
“Thank you for your service,” says the flight attendant, no longer leaning towards me but standing tall, her attention waning. The words are sincere but obligatory, a safe response from those who haven’t towards those who have.
“I can’t refund your money, but would you like another beer, on me?”
The offer feels like a consolation prize, a Chinese-made, plastic wrapped toy that the dog ends up choking on.
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” I reply through a forced smile. For the next five minutes I stare at my beer and try to make sense of the encounter. Five minutes turns to ten and then to thirty, and the flight attendant never returns. I don’t think she does it on purpose, probably just forgets. She has baskets of other troubled passengers to serve, and even though my mouth is dry, there’s no ill will directed her way. She doesn’t come around to collect trash or to check to see if our seatbelts are buckled prior to landing, and her welcoming, blue eyes are absent when I depart the plane.
I look around at my fellow travelers who are bunched up in front of the exit conveyer waiting for their luggage and think about the 17 veterans who commit suicide every single day. The stat pops into my mind as I stand there blank-faced and exhausted in front of the American Airlines carousel waiting for my checked-bag to pop out. 16.8 if we’re being exact. It used to be 22, then 20, but went down to 16.8 after a VA report came out this year admitting that it slipped in active member suicides with veterans, mudding the message and further distancing itself from the heroes its supposed to be serving. Do we really care more if 22 vets commit suicide instead of 17?
My duffel bag slowly makes its way past the impatient hoard and onto my sore shoulder. Outside in the foggy night, I request a Lyft and get Bobby in a black Corolla. I call him when I see his car get on the freeway heading north towards the city. He yells at me and I’m not sure why, and I cancel, groaning at the $5 fee that I’ll need to dispute later on (which I’ll totally forget to do). I just want to go home. I request another car that arrives within a few minutes and before I know it I’m moving again.
I think of sleep and hope there aren’t any nightmares tonight. Maybe I’ll dream of something beautiful instead, something inspirational and uplifting. That happens sometimes but mostly its just nightmares or nothing. We’re zooming north past light traffic and I gaze out at the passing world and can’t help but think about the interaction on the plane. I decide to write about it when I have some time, which usually means it won’t happen. Maybe this time I’ll surprise myself, I think.
My Lyft drops me at home and I tell the driver thanks, drive safely. The recent bout of rains made the garage door swell again and it’s difficult to get open. I yank with a mix of pressure from my shoulder and my outer shin and it eventually opens. I stumble through the garage and into my sanctuary and, at last, I can finally relax, let my guard down. Dropping luggage in random spots along my route and stripping haphazardly, clothes strewn around the floor, I skip the shower and crawl into bed and snuggle up close next to my girl. I can feel her smile and it makes me smile and she exhales a happy sigh. I wrap my arms around her and kiss her neck tenderly.
“You’re back,” she whispers over the white sheets and between the darkness. “How was the flight?”
“Oh man… it was an interesting one. Do you want me to tell you or wait till tomorrow?” I ask, knowing full well I should wait.
“Tell me,” she whispers and I know she’s being kind.
I tell her about my flight, sparing no details. Where this sudden bout of energy comes from escapes me but I relive the moments and I tell my tale, venting emotion more to her than I would anyone else. Just before I get to the part about being deplorable, I hear a snort and an exhale, then a cough, followed by prolonged, rhythmic breathing. I chuckle quietly and stop talking, gently pull my arm out from under her right side, and turn over to look out the window. The moon, not quite full yet, lights up my side of the bed with a ghostly radiance. I stare the glowing ball just long enough to ingrain it in my vision, so that when I close my eyes, a tiny, turquoise flying saucer watches over me in my dreams.
Tonight, instead of death and division, hate and fear, I want to dream of hope. I want to dream about brotherhood and sisterhood among warriors. I want to see veterans bring other veterans out of the shadows and back into society. I want our public to listen to these warriors and their stories, feel their pain and anguish and isolation. I want understanding and empathy. I want to see billionaires investing in those who defend their fortunes and protect their business interests abroad. Let’s retrain our forgotten heroes for tomorrow instead of stepping over them in the streets today. Let’s remember their sacrifices, the sacrifices many of us never had to make. Lets remember that our country’s longest war is still going on today as I write this. I’m not sure if just saying “thank you for your service” is sufficient anymore.
Silence. Finally silence. The instant before I doze off, I exhale and ease into the stillness like it’s a hot, welcoming bath. I sink further down into the calm and the world washes away.