Flying Solo: A Snapshot of Travel Anxiety

by | Dec 22, 2015 | Creative Nonfiction, Editorials / Op-eds

Behind me the green light was on; bathroom unoccupied. For all I knew it was my last chance and I wondered if I had time to relieve myself, while away my worries, settle my nerves a bit, shake loose the frenetics.

Before I stood, I noticed the pilot withdraw from the flightdeck and entered the first class bathroom, the light above the door changing from vacant green to occupied red like the color of my face now somewhere over the goddamned Rocky fuckin’ Mountains. Jesus Christ. Who the hell’s flying the plane? I started twitching in seat 23E where I was squeezed between two men spilling over themselves. They had lifted my (his right, his left) armrests to fit their bellies. My hands sat in my lap and twiddled their thumbs, playing war while I dangled from my seat like a mirthless child strapped to an amusement park ride.

The red light above the first class cabin latrine turned green and the pilot made his way toward the flightdeck. This did nothing to reassure me and I began tensing up, sweating real bad, heart throbbing, my body awash with travel terror through the turbulence. I couldn’t stand thinking the cockpit door would be locked and he, the pilot, would frantically plea for the co-pilot to open it. But it’d be too late and soon the plane would make a discordant descent, straight for the goddamned Rocky fuckin’ Mountains. The entire cabin filled with people who strolled down the aisle, no doubt to stretch their legs, but my mind nosedived. Why won’t you all just sit down? Why isn’t there order? Where’s the pilot going? Who’s at the control? Where the hell’s the Air Marshall?! I sighed and breathed deep against the vertiginous outburst that continued like waves battering a shoreline about to break.

I felt relieved. The pilot turned the knob into the flightdeck and entered.
Was there a struggle going on? Maybe there was a knife fight between co-pilot and pilot. A little burden lifted, I waited a minute longer and wondered, comforted by my madness.

I looked around, shifty-eyed, untrusting of everyone. What is that man doing with his phone on? Why is the stewardess limping like that? Are those wires supposed to be there? Is that a bomb? Jesus Christ. Did I just say that? Or think it? Was I just talking?

Did they hear me?

* * *

There was a time when I wasn’t afraid to fly. Even after the towers fell I had a deep love for traveling high above the earth with its vistas whipping across the Corn Belt like someone just changed thousand-count linens with two quick-flicked wrists. Or across the Bible Belt where everything looks cross-hatched and prairie-like and filled with promise. Or those big cautious Jell-O Belt canyons and peaks poking fun at the sky.

I imagine if I didn’t work for a newspaper I might have easily boarded the flight and ignored the headlines: how Malaysian Commercial Flight Disappears or the one about the Plane Shot From Sky or even more damn recently someone about my age, a manic depressive German, a co-pilot at a respectable-enough airline, flying an airbus straight into a mountainside. And there I was, shell-shocked for four hours at thirty-five thousand feet above one of America’s greatest mountain ranges when the pilot left the controls for a bathroom break and all I had was a flimsy puke bag, safety instructions that never helped no one, not ever, and not a soul waiting for me when and if I land. I tried looking out the window but the nearest one to me was shuttered and against which my rowmate rested with his, mouth agape, drool puckering into his chin folds.

I’ve only a handful of stories, times when something disrupted these perfect tranquil scenes, and remembering them while flying brought me no real such fear. In fact, they always brought a sense of indifferent pride like of course I’ve had an engine fail in-flight. They’re built to withstand that.

We were flying from Key West heading to Miami. Small plane. Two prop. We’d hardly reached any sort of cursing altitude, the white lines of Highway One stretching north distinguishable like littered crumbs for PacMan, when the plane shuddered and there it went. Right out our window. The blade just stopped turning. My dad looked out the window as the prop ground to a halt, then back to his NEW YORK magazine where he finished last of his crossword—Hint: Undergo damage or destruction on impact. C-R-A-S-H.

The family friends we traveled with that day had their own reading material, HORSE RIDER and the palsy which is DETAILS. Except instead of reading their magazines they had them rolled up and their fists balled around them, twisting and tightening the pages until the pre-stamped subscription inserts oozed off their perforated edges and slipped away. Like, don’t you know planes can fly with one engine? That’s not what worried them, they said. It was what’d come of the other engine were we to lose that, too.

But now I was alone on an aimless flight, a twenty-four year old boy, running away from my life, from my constant depression and anxiety, and from Dora, who I blamed for everything.

Sometime after Dora left me I worried often. I worried I would forever be alone. Maybe I always had an intense case of worries, with or without Dora. I figured some sort of radical trip, a vision quest perhaps, could free me. As I boarded the plane and took my seat in 23E, to calm my nerves of flying I turned to writing. We stopped talking because I took things too far, got too sauced and went knocking on her door one night, pounding and screaming and yelling for her to open the god damned door and let me watch, my madness echoing into god-knows-where Bushwick where I’d taken a delirious cab ride, me thinking the aspersion of seeing her with another guy, her on him and him on her, would help alleviate me of her forever.

I don’t know what I expected. No one answered and I was stumped. If only she’d hurt me now, I thought, at the beginning, could I then go on avoiding commitment, all the anxiety that comes with being unsure, perhaps what it meant to be in love.

My family sends honeyed emails to one another when the cabin doors close on every flight. New York to Paris, France to Madrid, St. Petersburg to Dublin. You name it, we’ve flown there. Since we began traveling more and more without each other in recent years, our family drifting apart with age and time the way a river unmoors large rocks, we send these messages to one another before cellular service is swallowed by the stratosphere.

Rifling off a few messages before we taxied out of J.F.K., I wrote things saying, “I love you and will message you when I arrive safe. Until then, I’ll be unable to communicate.” This was my hope, to arrive safe. But then why the farewells? Wasn’t I guaranteed safe passage? Was flying even dangerous? They say there’s nothing to fear. Safer than driving. But I still added extra <3s, just in case they were my last.

As we taxied, I was conscious of my decision not to send one to Dora. She wouldn’t be receiving one of my emails. Not this time, not ever again. Something about the engines thrilling to full-bore matched the exhilaration of that victory. I told her, Take that and good riddance!

But then the plane reached altitude and there came a vertiginous feeling, a worrisome pang that overcame me like being blinded by a while light, but I couldn’t close my eyes. Pinging in my ears. Racing thoughts. I knew I couldn’t cancel the flight and save the ticket, but that wasn’t what troubled me. The thoughts inside me, those ones that historically lead me astray, the anxious madness that plopped me outside Dora’s apartment, began to stir. I should have left the airport without boarding my flight. I should have canceled the entire trip and gone back to my bed from where I could have spent the weekend bemoaning my failed relationship with Dora, surrounded by votive candles in the dark.

Freeing myself from the seat and into the bathroom, I struggled with my jeans and the zipper for a moment before I propped myself against the sink, planted my foot against the toilet and looked down into the vast metal bowl which made me think, just below me are thousands of feet of free-falling death and shit and piss and death. I returned to panicking, once more on high alert. Oh great. Heaving, I stumble when the plane rocks and forget why I’ve come to the bathroom, why I thought it best to be in solitary confinement in the even the plane is headed for a collision course with Mount Massive. Goddamned Rocky fuckin’ Mountains.

Of course I thought maybe I’d be the one survivor in the event of a cataclysmic tragedy. I’d tell the tale of VX399 to L.A.X. and all those aboard. I’d praise the pilot and co-pilot, their valor under constraint, their fortitude in their final moments, never once mentioning whatever overactive bladder I witnessed. I’d tell of the stewardess, her sweet face a beacon to the end of calm. My seatmates, I’d say, what good souls. Oh yes, great guys, one even offered me his puke bag in the moments before, well, you know … and here I’d choke on a tear that just won’t come.

But I caught my face in the mirror and realized I’ve never been this needlessly scared. This wasn’t who I’ve always been, the meekly timorous and anxious guy ticketed to 27E. I didn’t want or care to recognize him, that guy, that boy, that childish thing flying solo.

I gathered myself and the plane shuttered once more. I stood still and rocked easily with the plane, unmoved, the vertiginous feeling gone. Squeezing back into my seat, I caught a glimpse of the calming blue outside.

We made our final descent and I showed my teeth to the men on either side of me, trying to smile. I felt reborn as we landed in Los Angeles, as though all the fear evaporated in the West Coast heat, a weight that lifted with the notion that there was nothing so imperiling about loving and leaving, flying or dying, that should make someone suffer at the cost of living.


Photo by Rin Johnson

About The Author

Kenneth R. Rosen

Kenneth R. Rosen works and writes for The New York Times. He is the Special Editions Editor at the Atticus Review.