The girl to the right of my aisle seat did this, 20 minutes ago: She pulled out a book, sat back, flipped to the last page, and started reading. This struck me as odd, not only because I can’t imagine anyone stopping a mere page before the end of a hefty hardbacked book, but also because her head moved to the left, when she finished the last page on the right (not that I was watching intently or anything; I can be discreet when it’s needed). A minute later, she turned the page, forging ahead — or rather backwards — into the book.
That was around when I started to stare, I think. I watched as her head moved from the bottom of the page to the top, the right page to the left. She was reading the book backwards.
Twenty minutes later, I tap her on the shoulder. She looks over, eyes blue and amused. I’m reading backwards, she says.
Yes, I say.
That’s pretty weird, huh, she says.
Yes, I say.
You might even consider the possibility that I’m drunk, high, crazy, tired, or all four.
That’s a lot of possibilities, I say.
Yes, she says.
The woman two seats to my left has just been handed her third drink. These drinks consist of some sort of clear liquor in party-favor sized containers for bubble solution, and a full can of Canada Dry. At least the soda’s caffeine free, I think, trying to come up with something positive to tell the boy one seat to my left, if his mother happens to start acting her alcohol intake.
She’s drinking a lot, the girl on my right says.
Yes, I say.
Everyone’s wearing headphones; we could talk at length about the benefits of turning Congress into the British House of Commons, or the elaborate plan we have to join the Mile High Club, and no one would notice.
I feel sorry for her kid, I say.
He seems fine, she says. And that’s maybe the cutest hat I’ve ever seen.
I’ve seen cuter, I say.
Oh really, she says. Where? Your closet?
Yes, I say.
The guy diagonally in front of me is crouched down tightly over his folded-out plastic tray, headphones covering his ears, hands covering his headphones. He could be practicing the duck and cover drill from high school — the one that taught you to curl up in a ball under your desk, in the unlikely event of a tornado — but he looks too old for that. Twenty-six at the least. The only thing that’s keeping me from worrying about his sanity is that he’s not rocking back and forth, while mumbling “Leave me alone” or “They’ll never find me here.”
He could be thinking about anything: Jennifer Connelly, maybe, in any way he may see fit. He could be thinking about his pet squirrel Ziggy, his girlfriend, his mother. He might be glancing back at the woman half-done with her third drink and devising a way to join the Mile High Club.
I’m listening to Jack Johnson, and I hadn’t realized that the girl to my right is stunning. She’s got short, dark blonde hair tied in a ponytail, a face that’s confident in its every angle. She’s lying on her tray, facing me and not-quite-sleeping, a lazily beautiful smile on her lips.
I think about all the friends I know that have exchanged phone numbers and kisses with strangers on airplanes. I think about how the fold-out TV screens always explain where the emergency exits are, the dislodgeable parts of the plane in case of mild catastrophe; of how the flight attendants always offer the chance to give up your place, if you’re next to the illuminated exit sign, and are uncomfortable with the duties your seat requires.
I think about how I want to look out the window, but only for an opportunity to glance at the space where her black shirt separates from her cargo shorts. There’s a tattoo there, at the base of her spine, and it looks black and like an eagle, but I can’t tell exactly, not wanting to stare.
The girl diagonally behind me must be incredibly short — she is slumped almost entirely into the curve of her seat, wrapped in a blanket and breathing evenly (I only know that because I decided no human being could possibly be sleeping in such a position, and became curious). Her legs are sprawled out underneath the boy’s chair like carry-ons. She is peaceful despite wailing babies and circus-like contortion.
The girl on my right taps me on the shoulder. I look over, eyes brown and amused.
I’m listening to music, I say.
Yes, she says.
That’s pretty weird, huh, I say.
She smiles, rubs the back of her neck. Look at that guy, she nods in the direction of the one with hands upon headphones upon ears. What do you suppose he’s thinking?
He’s wondering who he needs to blame for “Bringing Down the House” being the in-flight movie, I say.
I love Steve Martin, she says. How can you not?
Pretty easily, I say, though she gives me a stern look. Will my distaste for Steve Martin hurt our relationship? I ask.
Yes, she says.
Against the opposite window — next to the woman who has finished her third drink and is finally visiting the bathroom — is a girl about my age, and who my mother and any amount of mothers would describe as “mousey.” She has been sitting in much the same position for the entire flight: Back straight, eyes unblinking, Harry Potter 5 held aloft just with her hands, no assistance from the tray required. I am impressed by her concentration.
Suddenly, she snaps into motion, and as I watch (discreetly, of course), she flips down her tray table, grabs several packets of pictures, and begins to flip through them. She doesn’t pause for any significant length of time, and she doesn’t seem to be organizing them in any way; when she gets to the last picture, she moves the pile aside and opens the second packet.
I see one picture that looks like a man in a black suit — could’ve been a wedding, I think, having just been to a wedding. I see another picture that looks like a guy in a T-shirt, with someone leaning over his shoulder — could’ve been visiting her family, I think, having just visited my family. She goes so fast that I have no time to steal her memories, or become a vicarious part of them, and I suppose that’s the point: This girl wants to do something personal in a claustrophobic space, so she goes at a pace too quick to be absorbed by strangers, but still slow enough for her to recognize the places and the figures captured by her little box of light.
It’s tough to do something personal when your arm is two inches away from the person next to you.
I’m listening to Evanescence, and I realize I don’t know the name of the girl on my right. But “Frasier” is on suddenly, she dons her headphones, and I crack the spine of my Aimee Bender book, waiting for the proper moment to do something personal in a claustrophobic space.
Her name is Hannah. Her name is a palindrome.
She is from Houston, Texas, on summer break before her senior year of college. She is headed to Las Vegas for the Fourth of July, and is meeting a group of her friends there later tonight. She is staying at the Venetian.
The canals are full of pool water, I say, Light blue and chlorinated like an expensive YMCA.
It’s probably an improvement over the real Venice, she says, laughing. She finds the word chlorinated funny.
Hannah says she’s never been to Vegas before; the woman two seats to my left asks for her fourth drink, but the flight attendant tells her we’re about to land, and she’s okay with that.
I tell Hannah that I’m not staying in Vegas. I’m continuing through the night to Spokane. The guy diagonally in front of me sits up, without stretching, and adjusts his headphones as his ears begin to pop.
Hannah is impressed by my knowledge of Vegas, though she admits I don’t look like the type of person that would frequent such a city of sin. The boy one seat to my left looks over, maybe listening to our conversation, maybe trying to look out our window, imagining Vegas as a gigantic Lite-Brite pattern drawn in chalk and darkness onto the dry earth.
I tell Hannah I’m glad I sat next to her on the flight. It’s been the quickest five hour plane ride I’ve ever experienced. The girl diagonally behind me sheds her blanket, untangling her legs from beneath the boy’s seat and yawning as the plane thuds gently onto the runway.
Hannah smiles. You never asked me why I was reading backwards, she says.
Hannah, I ask, why were you reading backwards?
I was wondering if you’d notice, she says. I was trying to get your attention.
Well, I say, that has to be just about the most creative way to start a conversation I’ve ever seen.
Thanks, she says.
You’re welcome, I say.
The plane comes to a slow halt, the flight attendants stand and slip quickly through the cabin, and seat belts unbuckle in a sudden metal cacophony.
I’m glad I sat next to you on the flight too, she says, before either of us move, remaining still amidst a buzz of motion.
Really, I say.
Yes, she says.