Man’s Plane Ride

Ryan Shane Lopez

I’m on the flight home.

I’m hot. I don’t remember once being cold on an airplane. I sat down and immediately shed as many layers as I could. Now, I can’t find a place for all my crap. There’s never enough room on planes. Airplanes always look bigger in movies due to the fourth wall, which is the imaginary wall that separates the audience from the actors. We know there’s more going on behind the scenes. We’re just not aware of our awareness, unless they break the fourth wall by spinning the camera around to reveal all the crew and mics and props and extras. People look taller in movies too, which is because close-ups are usually centered on the nose or even as low as the chin. Our brains naturally assume the camera is where our eyes would be, which creates the perpetual sense of being half a head shorter than anyone on screen. Tom Cruise is only 5’ 7”.

I know what it’s like to talk into someone’s chin because I’m a short person, which means nobody loves me. Randy Newman—I keep telling you to listen. There’s something genius about that song. Anyway, the fourth wall makes the world of the movie appear larger than the real world. Until you realize you’re staring at a 6-inch screen on the back of someone’s headrest. Our eyes are cameras and the space behind them is actually far greater than the space they’re filming, but we can’t spin the camera around. Planes always show movies now, even when the flight is less than two hours. Our incessant distractions are hindering our ability to experience reality, just like our increasing capacity to absorb more information is destroying our ability to retain it. I read on the internet that some people suffer from “sleep texting”.

Last time I flew, the woman in front of me complained to the stewardess that the film her son was watching featured too many “scantily clad women”. I told her the stewardess wasn’t responsible for monitoring what her children watched, she was. She asked the stewardess if she could move seats, which was fine with me because I can’t deal with people who say “scantily clad”. Just like I can’t deal with people who tell me there’s tryptophan in turkey or remind me to lift with my legs. No shit. Outside of that one phrase, when does anyone use the word scantily or clad in normal conversation? Stewardess is considered offensive now, which is silly because even though they used to be blatantly objectified by airlines to sell more tickets, the word stewardess is simply the feminine form of steward, which means one charged with managing a person’s property, which is in no way demeaning or suggestive. People don’t appreciate words. Some German words have uber specific meanings that can’t be directly translated into English. Like doppleganger. Or fernweh, which means “distance pain”, which is a deep-rooted longing to be anywhere besides your current location. Flying always agitates my fernweh.

Airplane air isn’t hot so much as dry and stale. I’m breathing in other people right now. Their dead skin cells and the secretions from their follicles are filling the air that’s filling my lungs. A guy across the aisle hacked up a yellow blob into a kleenex and now I’m breathing that, which is disturbing. But I’m filling their lungs too, so I guess that’s fair. Disgusting, but fair. I wouldn’t mind breathing in your evaporated secretions. I don’t mind the idea of absorbing bits of someone else, if it’s someone I’m comfortable with. But these people are all strangers. An airplane ride is a confined group of strangers traveling toward a common destination, absorbing bits of each other along the way. I read on the internet that our cells are in a constant process of death and regeneration, which means we’re literally always changing, that we’re never exactly who we were or who we’ll become. A girl wrote in my high school yearbook “Don’t ever change”, which was ironic. It was also bullshit because she hardly even knew me. There’s this theory that our memories are stored somewhere in our chromosomes, which means our memories could be constantly decomposing and regenerating along with our cells, which could be why memory isn’t reliable. It’s like the guy in Memento said—it’s genius, I keep telling you—he said memory can change the color of a room. Emotions are more powerful than facts, which is why people remember what they heard, not what was said. They don’t remember the words, but how the words made them feel. Maybe for us, memory has changed more than the color of the room.

I’m hot again. I put my jacket back on because the guy next to me is overweight and he kept brushing against my bare elbow. Touching strangers is always awkward. Airlines overbook flights on purpose, which is why their employees hold reverse auctions over the intercom to see who’s willing to show up late to Thanksgiving in exchange for a voucher while travelers wait each other out to see how much they can profit off of poor corporate planning. I read on the internet that men who are morbidly obese—Who says morbidly in normal conversation?—really fat men can suffer from a condition called “buried penis”, which means their penis gets buried in their own fatty tissue surrounding the shaft, which causes urine to pool up, which leads to soft tissue infection. It can inhibit their ability to have intercourse. That’s what I’m thinking about this guy sitting next to me. Instead of asking where he’s from or what he’s doing for the holiday, I’m wondering if his obesity is literally cockblocking him. Pretty messed up, right? I also read that the Oxford English dictionary added a definition of literally that means to intentionally exaggerate the nonliteral use of a word, which is actually figuratively, which is literally the opposite of literally, which is the definition of ironic. I blame the internet. The internet is why I know 19th century doctors believed that masturbation caused of all kinds of problems including paralysis and gonorrhea and even insanity. I don’t think I’d be such an ass if the world were full of normal people.

I don’t think I was an ass in Korea. Koreans are small. In Korea, I could look people in the eye instead of staring into their neck creases and wondering if that’s where the smell is coming from. Koreans also wore surgical masks in public, which should be a mandatory practice on airplanes. During the safety demonstration, I had to resist asking if I could wear my oxygen mask the entire trip, which made me think of Fight Club, when they replace the cartoons in the safety pamphlets with ones of people screaming. In Taoism, Qi means “the circulating life force”, but it can also be translated as “air” or “breath”, which is one reason East Asians wear masks, to protect the balance of their Qi. In Hebrew, one of the words for soul is also translated “breath” because in Genesis it says God made man and breathed life into him, which means when you kiss someone you’re sharing your soul with them because you’re sharing your breath, which means you’re absorbing bits of each other, which makes me wish I hadn’t kissed certain girls.

On my way to Korea, I had a 12 hour flight from LA to Tokyo and every time I looked out the window it was sunset, like time was standing still. On the flight back, I landed seven hours before I’d taken off on the same day. Flying is the closest man has come to time travel. We should abolish daylight savings. Time is an illusion. Lunch time, doubly so. Louis C. K. says people are being ridiculous and ungrateful when they complain about flying because before planes, trains, and automobiles, it took years to cross from one side of America to the other and you’d arrive with a different group of people than you left with because some had died and others had been born. Someday, people will travel across the country in a matter of seconds, like in Star Trek when they beam from a spaceship to the surface of a planet, which would mean I could make this trip without sitting beside a stranger for hours, which would mean you and I could be having lunch sooner. But I could never travel via transporter. The thought of having my molecules deconstructed and zapped through the air to be reassembled miles away terrifies me. Some of my cells would likely be left behind. Even worse, all the dead cells and evaporated secretions floating in the air wherever I rematerialized would be absorbed into my body. I’d end each trip a slightly altered version of myself, which is simply speeding up the ongoing process of cellular change, which is time travel. I think I’m comfortable with the present rate of growth. Besides, cross-country teleportation would likely cost an arm and leg.

They’re telling us to put our electronic devices away, which means I’ve been typing most of this flight and still haven’t said anything I planned on saying. I wanted you to know a few things before we met for lunch tomorrow. But I’ve just been rambling. Maybe there’s an uber specific German word that accurately captures everything I can’t seem to say. But it wouldn’t translate. What you need to know is that this is who I am—a guy who pretends his life is a movie in which he’s the writer, narrator, and main character, in one, who’s neurotic and judgmental and full of fernweh, but instead of searching for purpose spends significant portions of the plot wondering about obese penis syndrome. I wish, for your sake, that I could speed up the process of change. I wish I could step off this plane a different person than when I boarded it, but I will try to understand if you can’t wait.


Ryan is a high school English teacher in Texas. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a certificate of creative writing from The Attic Institute in Portland, OR.

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