Distanced - EJ Bowman
The disorientation of planes—asymmetrical whirring, vertigo, the closeness of strangers—is overshadowed by a certain hush. We passengers don masks (for the most part: two rows down and across the aisle sit a man and his wife? girlfriend? sister? in unobstructed and intimate conversation. Together those on either side sneak meaningful and impotent glares). There is something deeply endearing and disconcerting in our trust of one another. At the outset of the lockdown, I’d issued the usual platitudes to my students: be kind, look out for one another—all of which evanescent naiveté has foamed away to an encrusted, cynical core after ten months of the failed experiment.
The wearing of masks is the pandemic variation on the Shopping Cart Theory: a courtesy and consideration which costs nothing. If ages hence we find that fashioning strips of fabric to separate the inner world from the public one was no more than a zero-sum strategy, the worst that can be said is that we tried in small ways to protect each other.
So here I am, buckled into economy, surrounded by potentially life-threatening vectors who regard me with the same impassive suspicion. My mask (pink, floral) implies congeniality. The couple to my left, cozily snuggled against the angled window, happily share the audio projected by a tablet which plays The Grand Tour; the man in a constant staccato shuddering as he giggles and guffaws. Without even the exchange of niceties, I know I have found Good People. When he removes his earbuds, I tell my neighbor that Jeremy is my favorite, and he is pleased that I follow his show (I don’t, not really, but have watched several episodes over my husband’s shoulder, and the association is now permanent). By the light of a small and focused overhead beam, I am reading Consider the Lobster, which gives the impression that I have arrived unfashionably late at the most amiable literary party of the ’90s. It inspires me to make prolific use of footnotes, and also reminds me that I lack the mental agility to put them to sufficient use. It strikes me not a second later that Wallace’s habit of dropping into obscure Latin idiom is countered by his affable and self-deprecating tone; what in his voice is intended as self-consciously eccentric would in mine sound chronically obnoxious.
The man two rows behind in the aisle opposite (whom I have by now dubbed “Dick”) raises his voice to his female companion (“Dickette”) and the pilot issues his fourth enjoinder to wear masks properly. They cackle like evil Disney witches and say something about liberal hysteria. What I want to say to—to shout at—them is that I am here on this plane having just said goodbye to the woman who raised me, whose brain was attacked by the same virus they have the compunction to flout in public. That when I saw her, she could barely recognize me; that she has retreated from five languages to the one of her infancy. That my Christmas spent in Spokane was filled with funeral arrangements and the rifling-through of childhood mementos, of her crepe-papered hands resting not of their own accord on a handmade lap quilt.
Ten days from now, fourteen passengers will be banned to permanent effect by Alaska Airlines for the same behavior. Forbes publishes a list of the “Worst Airline Passengers” of the year (featured: drunk nudist en route to Houston); an IG account called “PassengerShaming” reaches 1.3m followers after being lauded by Rolling Stone and Ellen Degeneres. It’s well established that we love to hate difficult passengers as long as they perform their misery elsewhere, but the violation of this most basic community standard during this year in particular feels violating and narcissistic and personal.
When we touch down, D and D make a great fuss about the straps behind their ears, noses still poking out above the cotton. I hope they meet some irritating but ultimately inconsequential setback on the way to their connection, like maybe a lost bag or an improperly-made Starbucks beverage, but not so disruptive as a stolen wallet. These ten months have made me too exhausted to wish real harm. I am, however, glad to see that they head in the direction of the opposite terminal.
I sit with the lobster (now a loquacious comparison on the delightful world of elitist dictionaries) awaiting my summons at Gate B-21. Las Vegas McCarran strikes me as tired, quiet. Slot machines, promising Multiple Jackpots! and Buffalo Gold! sit empty, ignored by newly-misophobic travelers. Still, signs of normalcy (at least, anemic optimism): a janitor with a Santa hat changes out the rubbish, a co-pilot greets the boarding gate with a playful Grinch tie. Most travelers sport whimsical masks—the sigil of a sports team, cat whiskers.
The gentleman at the mouth of the gangway greets us with genuine cheer, his necklace made of Christmas bulbs which light clockwise in their turn. Yellow stickers on the carpet and down the tunnel remind us to keep our distance. New Year’s Eve, and the columns are still decked with residual tinsel and cheerful intentions.
I am grateful for my mask and momentarily convinced that I will never go without again. I have a sensible collection of florals, polka dots, stripes, which project a generally friendly affect but do not invite further discourse. For someone who prefers reading to small talk, the safety mandates of this year have expanded the spaces in which I feel comfortable. No one asks me which book I’m holding or where I got my shoes or whether I am in fact waiting in a particular line. This is not to say that I am unfriendly, but merely that trivial interactions have been replaced with meaningful ones. I am still loathe to cross great silences to speak up; again, too tired and, more to the point, I prefer the distance.
I drink my third coffee—now tepid—through a straw which I have threaded under the southern seam of my mask. The result is comical. The lot of us waiting for our connection sit in a benign silence with six or seven chairs between us. A woman finds her new powder room at the end of my row, where she speaks on her phone at an embarrassing volume through a net made entirely of fishnet and rhinestones. I pick up the lobster and move one chair to my right.
The 737 is sparsely populated, and we are encouraged to spread apart from each other. I choose a window seat and slide my camera bag under the space in front of me. I find the postcard that is holding my place in the book (a collage of tourist attractions in Solvang, since you asked) and locate my pen. In front of me, a little boy—maybe two?—shuffles between his hoodied, blue-haired mother and another female guardian. His backpack is green, the face of a monster with one eye that isn’t exactly Pixar but certainly evokes its design. Once buckled, he plays with the volume on his tablet to the increasing frustration of his mother. Do not be that kid on the airplane, she warns. At his protest, she pries the device away from him: commence wracking tears. But I’m not a parent, which makes me slightly more deferent towards those who are.
Through the gap between the seats I can see her grab his chin: Little Shit. If you don’t shut up, I’m going to choke you to death and throw you off the plane.
I close my volume and think no, that’s not possible, that’s not what she just said out loud—no, at top volume—in a plane full of masked strangers. I glance across the aisle to a matronly passenger across from me and her face confirms what I have heard. The boy whimpers, then quiets, then looks shyly back at me between the seats.
The pilot or copilot or whoever up there has access to the PA makes their traditionally-scripted announcement, with the addendum that if we are witness to safety measures being ignored by fellow passengers, we are invited to let someone know. I dislike this admonition immensely, not because I disagree with the sentiment, but because in my gut or what some might call a soul I deeply know it to be correct—and like any teacher, I know that what is right and what is convenient so rarely overlap.
When I arrived to wish her a final goodbye, my grandmother knew my eyes but not my name. I held her hand and we cried together, and a saintly orderly carried her to a twin-sized bed beneath a window framed by eager Spokane snow. In her bathroom hung a laminated sheet of essential phrases in Russian, English, and Italian, so that all the caretakers could speak to her. Ai fame? Sei freddo? All in the informal, shaving down the space between them with a small token of compassionate conjugation.
Students who have come out to me. A girl whose brother tried to drown her. So, so many eating disorders. A parent recently returned from prison. A junior whose religious parents discontinued her medication for schizophrenia. A graduate who wanted to discuss birth control options. Let’s be clear: I am chief among cowards. I descend upon my keyboard with all the fury of an indignant English teacher, and I am a notorious user of red pens; for all that, it may shock you to learn that I am no cliff-jumper. I keep my hands and arms inside the vehicle. But a decade of high schoolers passing through my door has taught me something about availability, a willingness to bear witness, and sometimes that requires a bit of a reach. Compassion costs so little, so very little.
Wallace and his many crustaceans can wait. I pull out the postcard of windmills and Danish pastries and begin to scribble. By the time we pull away from the gate, the flight attendant has pocketed the card and placed a call to CPS. As we disembark, my cross-aisle confidante leans towards me and says, whatever you want to do, I’ve got your back. I do not mind that she has crossed the sacred space of social distance. I nod and, pulling my camera bag behind me, make the climb to meet the sheriff waiting for me at John Wayne.
EJ Bowman is a English teacher and writer from CA. She has recently been named a finalist for both the DeBiase Poetry Prize and the Florida Review 2021 Editor’s Choice Award; She was also long listed for the Exeter Short Story Award. This summer, she finished a writers residency at the Rockvale Writers Colony in TN. EJ is currently a student at the Writers Studio (University of Chicago) and a member of the Community Literature Initiative at the University of Southern California. This piece is Creative Non Fiction, and was inspired by a recent trip to visit her dying grandmother.