by Emily Dische-Becker

According to my mother, I had sworn off all forms of organized religion, and God’s very existence, by the age of four. Initially, the characteristic attributes of the Almighty were transferred to Mary Poppins, who I believed was all-knowing and vengeful. Our babysitter took advantage of this, sending us letters every day penned in the name of the indignant Disney nanny, detailing our misdeeds, compelling us to behave. Later, my fear of cosmic punishment grew amorphous, and so I tried to ward off misfortune by embracing standard commandments, such as Thou Shalt Be Generous Toward Strangers and Thou Shalt Not Be a Greedy Pig.

These, however, only apply on land. In the air, all social mores are naturally suspended; because flight is a matter of life or death. For this reason, and despite the extra legroom it affords, I always decline to sit in the emergency exit row on airplanes, where it is stipulated that one help others in case of accident. I have no intention of helping anyone get off a burning wreck before saving myself, but I’ve found that admitting this fact while the safety rites are being read will get you moved to an undesirable middle seat (my word processor tried to auto-correct this to undesirable Middle East).

On an airplane, I will shamelessly pursue any material gain to alleviate the discomfort of being sardined into a death trap with 230 wretched strangers.  And there are others like me: frequent fliers without the class benefits. Those of our ilk lie in waiting until everyone is seated, and then find a better seat or row, and occupy it. We recognize eachother’s darting eyes scanning the aisles before the airplane doors close, and salute each other after a brazen takeover.

Then there are the others not adept enough at flying who are left sandwiched in next to their sweaty seat partners. They are often embittered and  envious of our conquests.

And so it happened that one of these resentful passengers tried to intrude on the comfy lair I had arranged for myself on a recent flight from Berlin to Doha.

My original seat wasn’t all that bad  – a two-seat row  all to myself. But the adjacent center row boasted even better real estate: four empty seats. And so when the doors closed, I naturally moved there. An astute couple who had been seated behind me followed suit taking the row in back of mine. We bantered about our good fortune, and I soon got comfortable, stacking all the pillows on one side, wrapping myself in blankets galore, to try to sleep – and forget.

About 45 minutes into the six-hour flight, a young woman came and dropped her book down on the final seat in my row. Smack, it hit the upholstery. I raised my head and inquired as to what she was doing; she wanted to sit here (indicating with a sweeping gesture that she intended to seize the area that the bottom third of me was occupying) to “stretch her legs out a bit.” I  suggested she instead take the two-seater that I had vacated, where she could have the same amount of space all to herself.

She glared at me and her eyes narrowed: But I want to sit here. – But it’s really the same thing if you sit over there, I countered. She issued a host of excuses about a special meal she’d ordered and about not wanting to move her suitcase, which I volunteered to move for her, until she finally announced to the whole cabin in a shrill voice: I think you are SELFISH.

Fine, I said. Are you trying to teach me a lesson, or do you actually want a more comfortable place to sit? (willst du mich erziehen?)

I want to sit here! she whinged. – Um, is this your first time on a plane? I feigned curiosity. This isn’t a social democracy, you know.

A silent staring match ensued, until she leaned forward and rang the bell to summon the stewardess, and proceeded to whisper in her ear in front of me. The stewardess looked puzzled, indicating that she couldn’t get involved in our dispute. And so, I laid my head back down and stretched out along the three seats; believing that I had deterred her, I fell asleep.

On planes, minor aggravations can quickly erupt into major confrontations. It’s like going home to stay with your parents for a spell, knowing in advance that you will helplessly regress, lose any sense of adult agency, and fall prey to ancient provocations. You can convince yourself you’re all grown up now and can defuse, rather than escalate, a silly argument over whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher (compared with the other incorrigibly truculent members of your family), only to toss all good intentions to the wind.

And so it was on the plane. I would stay and fight for my seat(s) until the bitter end.

I was awakened when the armrest between the two center seats I was occupying slammed down on my leg. I waited a second, then pushed it back up again. She slammed it down again. This time I kicked it up. I felt her feet sliding along the seats and digging into my shins. A kick. I kicked back, and raised my head: “Have you lost your mind?” I hissed. “Listen, you little snitch: Stop kicking me. I have to work tomorrow and need to sleep.” I considered lying about my profession. I am a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, you monster! Children in field hospitals will perish if I don’t rest. She was seething with contempt, but replied in a saccharin little girl’s voice: “But why are you so bothered by me? I don’t mind sharing the space with you.”

This prompted an Austrian man to get up and announce that he, too, thought I was selfish. He turned to the woman and declared, with a breathless appreciation for her commitment to the good fight: “In my opinion, you are right.” This alliance, at once new and time-tested, didn’t help my mood. “I don’t give a shit what you think,” I growled. “Mob moralists.”

I laid my head down again, but didn’t sleep a wink for the rest of the flight, expecting other passengers to enlist in their campaign against me.  United by ancient contempt, my two enemies struck up a conversation that lasted until we landed. In the meantime, every time I dozed off, I was awakened by the seatbelt buckle clunking on my ankle, which I endured with a smile, or by the weight of a stack of books she’d arranged on top of my feet. Turning every once in a while, I’d toss the books off. She was not the type to be discouraged: lovingly, she re-arranged them, while chipperly conversing with her new Austrian friend. Neither of us slept.

When the lights went on and I sat up and returned to my original seat, the newly-found couple were planning a backpacking holiday together in Sri Lanka.

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