There’s Something Happening Here

Flying seems to precipitate a confluence of critical events, perhaps it is the precariousness that triggers it. This is how I delayed a plane on the runway at Denver International, or not exactly me, but someone next to me.

We were on our way to Delhi and this was the first leg, Denver to Newark. The plane was full and the seat next to me was fuller or at least it seemed so. Why do things agree to blur around an event?

I can’t remember how he arrived this man. He came in after us. I don’t remember how he got to the window seat. It had been so lovely and vacant and I’d placed my black trench coat there, hoping it would somehow remain open between me and the sky.

He must have walked past us. I don’t remember getting up and stepping out into the aisle. Strange how I can’t summon it. He wasn’t there and then he was. At first it just felt smaller, the plane. I had my shoulders hunched.

It took awhile to realize how firmly this man took over our communal space. What was I doing when I noticed? Did I have my book out, my iPad, my phone? His energy was suddenly palpable, invasive. His arm guarded the arm rest.

I tried edging my arm onto the rest, just a little, but I could feel his arm stiffen, he refused to budge. He felt like a wall of resistance. I tried again, several times, at first polite but later insistent. His arm remained there impervious.

Eventually I tried asking him, excuse me, could you move up a little, give me some space. No reaction. I repeated the question, he waved me a away without looking, like I was an insect.

I didn’t give up and perhaps I should have. Excuse me. He grunted and glared at me, shaking his head adjusting his body so that he was even more there in my space. He felt dangerous. He looked dangerous. He had wiry steel grey hair and a short thickset body. He worked away at his phone with thick fingers. He was a bully, the kind Trump’s rhetoric has given license. M was on the phone but watching this. He indicated to me, hold on, I’ll deal with this.

When the call was finished M leaned across me and spoke. Hey, excuse me, don’t be a bully. The man inflated, bristled, leaned forward menacingly. Don’t touch me.

Be careful, I have a gun.

I could feel a cold spot where his spit landed on my cheek. Out of nowhere the attendant appeared. Can I help here?

This man just told me to be careful. I have a gun.

He could be bluffing, threatening. Did he have a gun? Was he insane? Violent? I was shaking. Everything about this man was menacing. I was sitting too close to someone so aggressive he felt dangerous.

Excuse me sir, because you have used that word…

What word?

That word sir. They said you threatened them with…that word.

I did not. They are liars. I will sue them. I will sue them.

Please sir, I know sir, please calm down. Because this accusation has been made sir we must go through the process. We must call ground security.

I will sue you.

Sir please.

I will not move my seat. Make them move.

We sit there like cats on a hot tin roof. We are silent but the air prickles.

Sir we have a seat up front would you mind moving?

No. I refuse to move. I will sue these people.

I get up to go to the loo because I can’t breathe. Other people are milling about. The plane engines go off. At the front of the plane I tell them, this has never happened to me before, in case they think I caused the trouble, in case I thought I caused it. I wish I could say never mind, start the plane up, it will be okay but there is something about those words. Be careful, I have a gun. That just cannot be wished away.

That’s okay. We are glad you told us. It is better that we know. I walk back down. They’ve moved us one row down to diffuse the situation but all I feel is sorry for the people now sitting next to him. But he is quiet now. Cowed. Also building his case for innocent man falsely accused.

Our departure for Newark will be delayed the captain says. We have a security situation on board. We are waiting for ground security. Apologies for the delay. United will offer all entertainment free on this flight as some form of compensation.

The air is tense around us. People are talking but somehow looking past us. It is as though the incident has somehow implicated us. Two burly security police finally arrive. Now I am just thankful I am behind him and not next to him. Please sir we need you to come with us. And we need your bag. Yes sir, all of your bags. Yes, get up please sir. You must get up. We must search the area. He is escorted off the plane.

So what just happened the young guy next to me asks. We explain. Unbelievable, he explodes. They will never let him back on. He can walk to Newark. We are living in a climate ripe for bullying. The man across the aisle leans over waving two yellow drink tickets. Here please take these.

Here comes the attendant again. We have searched him and all his things and there is no gun, if the captain is okay with it would you be alright if he comes back on board?

Yes of course, we say, badly wanting to seem nice, feeling so somehow responsible for causing someone to threaten us with a gun, feeling embarrassed that we couldn’t somehow brazen it out, feeling privately that he shouldn’t be allowed back on.

He comes back down the aisle. Just you wait. He leans over us pointing. I am going to sue you, both of you, he growls. Eventually we take off. Miraculously the pilot shaves off most of the hour delay. I pick up a book to read like it’s a cover I can crawl under.

Before we land the man opposite has offered to place himself between us and the bully. We gratefully accept. He has a plan. But people with tighter connections are tumbling down the aisle and the plan goes awry. M gets up and steps back to let me go. The man stands at the same time. He is facing me, blocking the aisle. I try to get by. No, he says.

Our knight in shining armor somehow almost climbs across several rows of seats. Get out of the way. Stop. Out of the way. Others join in, Sir, please step out of the way. Now. Don’t be like that. Let her pass. He is forced to step aside. I get by. Shaking again. Out the plane, both of us. I want to run and hide but just walk fast and get around a pillar where I think he can’t see me.

Later awaiting our next flight I sit watching my own body vibrate despite all my rational efforts to convince it not to. I think about PTSD. This was just a threat, probably an empty one, but it was bullying close up. What about all those victims of bullying where threat turns to action? My heart goes out to them.

I am grateful for all the systems in place to stop bullying in public places, grateful for the people that trusted and believed us. I am grateful for civilization and painfully aware that it is not everywhere and where it is, it’s under threat. This vibration I feel is experienced by many as obliterating, people without protection. I would hate to have been alone when I met this man.

Gail Walter is www.hereforwonder.com

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