June 22, 2018
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Fearful flier finds help from surprise seatmate

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

Continued from last week

I hadn’t flown commercially in 17 years until I flew to Washington, D.C., with Dustin last month. Being in an airplane wasn’t as bad as I thought. Aside from digging my nails into Dustin’s forearm and panicking over every creak or thump, I kind of enjoyed myself. (I can’t say the same for Dustin.) Also, watching the nation’s capitol come into view through the airplane window was spectacular.

But I wasn’t disappointed when we touched down at Reagan International Airport. I was in no hurry to fly again. Except, eventually, I had to fly back to Maine — alone.

A week later, Dustin walked me to the airport’s security checkpoint and went over my instructions: “Put your shoes in the plastic bins. Your computer, too. Show your ticket to the attendant, and get on the bus when they tell you to.”

I felt like a child with her name and bus number safety-pinned to her shirt. I was crying and scared. Everyone in the airport knew it. A kind man befriended me on the bus that took us to the CRJ-200 waiting on the tarmac. My hands were shaking as I talked to him. I felt like my heart was beating in my throat.

In Maine, when I got on the airplane with Dustin, I walked through a hallway first, allowing me the comfortable illusion that I was still in a building, not a metal tube. Now I had to board from the tarmac, where I could see my worst fear up close and personal.

My bus friend — we’ll call him “John” — walked beside me off the bus. Just before we got to the stairs of the airplane, I panicked. I turned to John, my hand at my throat, and said, “I can’t do this; I’m going back.”

John got behind me and said, “Up you go, onto the stairs.” He was blocking me from turning around, and for the next 30 minutes, I despised him for that.

John asked the flight attendant if I could sit beside him. Again, I felt like a child. All of this probably seems silly to someone who isn’t afraid to fly. But if you think about facing your greatest fear — standing on the ledge of a tall building, being in the middle of the ocean, riding a roller coaster, speaking in front of an audience — maybe you can understand the complete terror I felt as I pulled my seat belt tighter and silently cursed at John for making me board.

I cried (yes, more crying) for the first 30 minutes of the 90-minute flight. John spoke evenly and calmly. He asked about my family, but I didn’t want to think about them yet. I was focused on surviving, like I had any control. John asked me about my work, and I answered in quick, nervous one-word replies. I was stiff with fear. But John kept talking.

The flight attendant asked if I wanted a drink, but she wasn’t talking about water.

“Yes, please,” I said eagerly, hoping for something — anything — to make me relax.

John interrupted. “Alcohol might make you more emotional,” he said. Now he looked scared, too. He was already dealing with a white-knuckle flier; he didn’t need me telling him all my troubles in that “I-love-you-man” sort of way, too.

I opted for water.

An hour later, I started to relax when I heard the landing gear come down. By then, I knew I was going to be okay. I finally sat back in the seat and felt like myself. I fluffed up my hair and wiped at the mascara sliding down my cheeks. I was aware of my surroundings again.

“So, I wrote a book,” I told John, as if the past hour hadn’t happened, and I started to tell him about it.

“Wait a minute,” he said, “I read about you! You’re the dinner girl.”

Then, for the first time, I felt embarrassed. Before, I was a nameless, ridiculous person crying on an airplane. Now I was the “dinner girl.”

After we landed, John helped me find my baggage and made sure I got to the taxi stand. When he said goodbye, he told me his last name for the first time. It rang a bell, so I decided to look him up on Google.

Turns out, John is a pretty important person in our nation’s government. I’m glad I didn’t know this before. For 90 minutes, we were just two people on a plane — one scared and one not.

I looked up from my phone just as John’s taxi was pulling away, and the next thoughts I had came quickly in this order:

Thank goodness for people like John.

I’m so embarrassed.

I wish we could have had him to Dinner with the Smileys.

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