I am writing this on an airplane, in messy ink, in the back of a book written by the friend of a friend. While packing for this trip, I debated whether to bring my colorful skull notebook, the one I bought in Mexico City. At the last second, I took it out of my suitcase. I thought I wouldn’t have time to write in a journal on this trip. I thought it would be an extra weight. But two minutes after settling into my seat on the plane, I’m desperate for paper. So I pull out this book and turn to the blank pages at the end so I can write.
We start to taxi, and the motion makes my pen shake. I put the book down. When the plane takes off I wait for it: for the engines to stop working, a bird strike, a mysterious mechanical failure. Or maybe we’ll simply glide down to the ground, soundless and full of grace.
Years ago, a friend told me she loved the moment of takeoff, the thrust of the engines, how the entire plane surges down the runway. “It’s powerful,” she said, and in return, I told her that I consider this moment the point of no return.
I’m not afraid of flying. Not really. I’ve flown a good deal in my life, and I know flying is the safest way to travel. I understand I am far more likely to be injured on the drive to the airport than on a flight. And yet at that moment of takeoff, the moment my friend craves, I can only imagine disaster.
In 2009, I was out of town on a business trip when the news hit about Air France Flight 447, the Paris-bound flight that departed from Rio de Janeiro and crashed into the ocean. I watched the coverage in my hotel room. Days later, when I boarded my flight home, I settled in next to a man who’d accidentally sat one row behind his assigned seat. 34C instead of 33C, for example. When the real ticketholder came along and they discovered the error, the ticketholder brushed it off.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. “Stay there, and I’ll take your seat. We’re just off by one row, that’s all.”
But the man who’d made the mistake refused this offer. He unbuckled his seatbelt and stood up. “If we crash,” he said, “they might identify our bodies based on our seat assignments. I want to be in the right place.”
How this stunned me—his blatant admission of crash fantasies, of imagining the worst. Perhaps all of us have had similar thoughts on a plane, but if you look around during takeoff, most people appear calm. They are reading or chatting or simply resting with their eyes closed.
I have taken the zen approach while flying. On a recent flight, I told myself I was not going to so much as think about something as unlikely as a plane crash. I would not even distract myself with a book. Instead, when the plane took off, I closed my eyes and felt the plane rise. I let it carry me. I told myself I had no fear.
And somehow, just like my method for refusing to engage in literary jealousy, this worked.
A good friend is working on a book that surrounds a plane crash. I can’t think of a subject more compelling than this spectacular disaster that we all secretly fear even as we know it’s not logical to fear it.
I daydream, sometimes, about the day her book is published and I’ll get to hold it in my hands. I hope to carry it on a plane, to open it at the moment of takeoff. Instead of writing, I will read. Instead of my words, I’ll have hers.
This book contains all that we fear, I’ll think as I turn the page. How astounding that it fits right in my hands.