It’s a good thing I booked an aisle seat, because I’m the last one on the plane. I knew I’d be late for my flight. I’m late for almost everything. That’s why I booked an aisle seat in the first place. I hate making people get up so that I can squeeze by. This is also why I never go to the bathroom during movies, even though I always have to go to the bathroom during movies.
I walk down the tight aisle, holding my carry-on close to my body, trying not to bump anyone. I hit a man’s elbow and apologize even though he doesn’t seem to notice. When I barely graze a woman’s arm, she shoots daggers at me as if I stabbed her. I open my mouth to say I’m sorry and then think better of it.
I spot my seat easily; it is the only open one.
The air is stale. The music is Muzak. The conversations around me are punctuated by the clicks of the overhead compartments being slammed shut.
I get to my seat and sit down, smiling at the woman next to me. She’s older and round, with short salt-and-pepper hair. I shove my bag in front of me and buckle my seat belt. My tray table’s up. My electronics are off. My seat is in the upright position. When you’re late a lot, you learn how to make up for lost time.
I look out the window. The baggage handlers are bundled up in extra layers and neon jackets. I’m happy to be headed to a warmer climate. I pick up the in-flight magazine.
Soon I hear the roar of the engine and feel the wheels beneath us start to roll. The woman next to me grips the armrests as we ascend. She looks petrified.
I’m not scared of flying. I’m scared of sharks, hurricanes, and false imprisonment. I’m scared that I will never do anything of value with my life. But I’m not scared of flying.
Her knuckles are white with tension.
I tuck the magazine back into the pouch. “Not much of a flier?” I ask her. When I’m anxious, talking helps. If talking helps her, it’s the least I can do.
The woman turns and looks at me as we glide into the air. “ ’Fraid not,” she says, smiling ruefully. “I don’t leave New York very often. This is my first time flying to Los Angeles.”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I fly a fair amount, and I can tell you, with any flight, it’s really only takeoff and landing that are hard. We’ve got about three more minutes of this part and then about five minutes at the end that can be tough. The rest of it . . . you might as well be on a bus. So just eight bad minutes total, and then you’re in California.”
We’re at an incline. It’s steep enough that an errant bottle of water rolls down the aisle.
“Eight minutes is all?” she asks.
I nod. “That’s it,” I tell her. “You’re from New York?”
She nods. “How about you?”
I shrug. “I was living in New York. Now I’m moving back to L.A.”
The plane drops abruptly and then rights itself as we make our way past the clouds. She breathes in deeply. I have to admit, even I feel a little queasy.
“But I was only in New York for about nine months,” I say. The longer I talk, the less attention she has to focus on the turbulence. “I’ve been moving around a bit lately. I went to school in Boston. Then I moved to D.C., then Portland, Oregon. Then Seattle. Then Austin, Texas. Then New York. The city where dreams come true. Although, you know, not for me. But I did grow up in Los Angeles. So you could say I’m going back to where I came from, but I don’t know that I’d call it home.”
“Where’s your family?” she asks. Her voice is tight. She’s looking forward.
“My family moved to London when I was sixteen. My younger sister, Sarah, got accepted to the Royal Ballet School, and they couldn’t pass that up. I stayed and finished school in L.A.”
“You lived on your own?” It’s working. The distraction.
“I lived with my best friend’s family until I finished high school. And then I left for college.”
The plane levels out. The captain tells us our altitude. She takes her hands off the armrest and breathes.
“See?” I say to her. “Just like a bus.”
“Thank you,” she says.
She looks out the window. I pick up the magazine again. She turns back to me. “Why do you move around so much?” she says. “Isn’t that difficult?” She immediately corrects herself. “Listen to me, the minute I stop hyperventilating, I’m acting like your mother.”
I laugh with her. “No, no, it’s fine,” I say. I don’t move from place to place on purpose. It’s not a conscious choice to be a nomad. Although I can see that each move is my own decision, predicated on nothing but my ever-growing sense that I don’t belong where I am, fueled by the hope that maybe there is, in fact, a place I do belong, a place just off in the future. “I guess . . . I don’t know,” I say. It’s hard to put into words, especially to someone I barely know. But then I open my mouth, and out it comes. “No place has felt like home.”
She looks at me and smiles. “I’m sorry,” she says. “That has to be hard.”
I shrug, because it’s an impulse. It’s always my impulse to ignore the bad, to run toward the good.
But I’m also not feeling great about my own impulses at the moment. I’m not sure they are getting me where I want to go.
I stop shrugging.
And then, because I won’t see her again after this flight, I take it one step further. I tell her something I’ve only recently told myself. “Sometimes I worry I’ll never find a place to call home.”
She puts her hand on mine, ever so briefly. “You will,” she says. “You’re young still. You have plenty of time.”
I wonder if she can tell that I’m twenty-nine and considers that young, or if she thinks I’m younger than I am.
“Thanks,” I say. I take my headphones out of my bag and put them on.
“At the end of the flight, during the five tricky minutes when we land, maybe we can talk about my lack of career choices,” I say, laughing. “That will definitely distract you.”
She smiles broadly and lets out a laugh. “I’d consider it a personal favor.”