To the traveler in seat 7C,
I met your eyes for the first time in the Long Beach airport. Quarters were tight and flights were delayed. Passengers were irritated by closeness, strangers’ skin too near their own. Their faces twisted, then calcified with aggravation.
Our flight was oversold, and I was reassigned at the last minute to a middle seat. When the ticket agent handed me my new boarding pass, I looked at her pleadingly, feeling the full width of my size 28 body. I know, she said. I’m sorry.
I retreated from the desk, defeated. I remember looking for warm faces, desperate to find softness in the frustrated passengers that would flank me. Who could I trust to tolerate the breadth of me? Whose face bore the marks of mercy?
That’s where I found yours, bright and warm, nestled in a persimmon scarf. I think you met my gaze. I think you smiled.
I planned carefully, working diligently to avoid taking any more space or time than I needed. I couldn’t afford to give my fellow passengers more reasons to take aim at my body. I lined up early, checked my suitcase at the gate, took my seat quickly. I watched the passengers file down the row, again searching their faces for something forgiving. I saw your warm face again, and hoped you’d sit next to me. You took your seat, one row up.
Then my seat mate arrived. When he sat down, he didn’t meet my eyes. He adjusted the arm rest, assertively claiming it as his own. He needn’t have—I had learned that any free space belonged to the thin. My arms were crossed tight across my chest, thighs squeezed together, ankles crossed beneath my seat. My body was knotted, doing everything it could not to touch him, not to impose its soft skin. I folded in on myself, muscles aching with contraction.
Suddenly, he stood up, fighting against a stream of passengers in the narrow aisle to speak with a flight attendant, then returned to his seat, looking thwarted. Moments later, he got up again. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but there was an urgency in his face. I wondered what their summit had been about. He returned to his seat again, mouth straight and muscles tense. I considered asking if he was alright, but his agitation threw me. I was a young woman, he an older, upset man, the two of us in an enclosed space for hours to come. I had spent a lifetime learning not to put my hand on the hot stove of men’s agitation. Maybe you have, too.
He got up a third time. That’s when I heard him say unbelievable, his voice sharp with irritation. The fourth time, I heard paying customer, angrily over enunciated, all convex consonants.
He returned to his seat, and let out the sharp, belabored sigh of a wronged customer. He crossed his legs away from me, leaning into the aisle, chin in his hand, glowering. He checked over his shoulder repeatedly, constantly scanning the cabin.
I didn’t yet know how to read those signs. The stove wasn’t lit, but it let out the low hiss of leaking gas, and I caught the first whiff of its acrid stench. I moved gingerly, not knowing what it meant. I didn’t yet know the certainty of its ignition, or the blast that was coming for me. I didn’t yet know how to protect myself, or respond. This was the day I learned.
At long last, a flight attendant approached him and crouched in the aisle, whispering something in his ear. My seat mate got up silently, gathered his things, and moved up one row. Before he sat down, he looked at me for the first time.
“This is so you’ll have more room,” he said. His voice was cold.
The flight attendant looked at him, puzzled. “This won’t be a vacant seat,” she corrected. “Someone will still be sitting here.” My former seat mate looked away, then took his seat, just opposite you.
That was when I realized what had happened: he had asked to be reseated. The nearness of my body was too much for him to bear. All that agitation, all that desperate lobbying — all to avoid two hours next to me. I’d never feared it before. I didn’t think I needed to.
The next thought came quickly, urgently: don’t cry. You can’t cry.
But it was too late. Hot tears stung my eyes, then spilled onto my cheeks. I stared at my lap, eyes fixed on the width of my thighs. I glanced up and saw your warm face drained of its color, blank as a canvass, eyes wide and empty. Your neck was craned so you could see me. You were watching me like television.