Home > My Favorites > Day Seventy-five: Coach Class

Day Seventy-five: Coach Class

I jerked awake when the plane hit turbulence. It was right in the middle of a weird dream, one that I couldn’t remember very clearly, and there was that moment of disorientation where I didn’t know where I was or why I was there. For all I knew, it was still the dream, and I had dreamed that I woke up.

The droning sound of the engines filled the darkened cabin and I tried to stretch my legs – not easy for a six-foot guy in economy class. The only bright side was that the guy in front of me hadn’t put his seat back, so I had some room, but not a lot. I unbuckled my seatbelt, stood up, and stretched the kinks out of tight muscles. The cabin was quiet, except for the engines, and it looked like the movie was over and everyone was getting some sleep. I wanted to check my watch, but then remembered that I’d put it in my bag. It seemed like a bright idea at the time, but now I wasn’t so sure.

At least with everyone sleeping, I was free to walk around. I strolled up the aisle, stopping at every exit row to stretch a bit and try to look out the window. Nothing but my dim reflection out there, and even if that wasn’t there, the window was still way too small to see anything. The toilet was unoccupied, which felt like a minor victory, and I took my time in there. When I got out, I walked right up to the business class curtain and imagined, for a brief moment, what it would be like to travel that way. I’d gotten lucky once, and was bumped up. I remember it as a paradise in the sky, an Eden of air transportation, and that knowledge makes every coach class adventure seem that much worse.

My legs felt a little bit better, and my head didn’t feel so stuffy. I bent down to touch my toes a couple of times and peered into the cabin attendants’ kitchenette. They had left some drinks and cups out for self-service. Smart move, I thought, as I helped myself to some orange juice. On a little screen in there, I saw that we still had at least six hours to go and I sighed. These international flights were long and tedious and horrible, but they were worth it. When I saw my little girl – though she was growing bigger all the time – it made all that time wash away like it had never been.

I stretched one more time and made it back to my seat. I buckled up, wrapped the blanket around me, and used the soft hum of the engines to lull me back to sleep.

This time I remembered the dream a little better. It was a violent one, the kind you’d rather not have on an airplane. There was lightning all around me and people pressing in from all sides. Then a guy who looked kind of like my old boss and a little like my grandfather walked up to me with a gun in his hand. He pointed it at my heart, said, “Are we clear?” and then pulled the trigger.

I woke up again, and the dream slipped out of my mind.

I got up and stretched my legs. In that dark, humming cabin, I had no idea how long I had been asleep. Maybe an hour? Thirty minutes? Time runs differently on airplanes, especially when you’re flying to the other side of the world. It backs up on you and then pounces forward. It walks away a bit and waits for you, and then walks away again. It’s not the same orderly procession of seconds, minutes and hours that we’re used to at ground level.

I got to the kitchenette and poured myself an orange juice. While I gulped it down, I looked at the display. Six hours left. I sighed and dropped the cup in the garbage. It looked like I had barely slept at all.

Once back in my seat, with the seatbelt buckled and my mask on, I told myself that I would get some real sleep this time. I yawned, a real jaw-cracker, put my head back, and was out in a few minutes.

This time the dream wasn’t violent, jut weird. I was in high school again, standing in the gym. A kid, one of the freshmen maybe, kept hitting me with a basketball. Not angrily, not like he was trying to hurt me, just a steady rhythm: he’d bounce the ball against my chest, it would hit the floor, and then he’d catch it and do it again. After a few times, he looked at me and said, “You queer?” Then it all started again.

After maybe three iterations of this, I woke up.

I walked down the aisle again, shaking out my legs. I made another trip to the bathroom and washed my face. No one looks good in an airplane bathroom, no matter how good-looking they might be otherwise. There were circles under my eyes, which were getting kind of bloodshot. I splashed some water on my face and peered into the mirror. No, I would never be mistaken for a good-looking man, but even so, that mirror made me look positively grim.

This routine of sleeping, dreaming and waking was starting to take its toll. I wanted to sleep, but if this was how it was going to go, then I figured I could just stay awake until we landed. It would be hard, especially with everyone else just snoozing away like –

I stopped a few rows up from my seat, and looked around at the other passengers.

Nobody was sleeping.

Every person, in every row, was awake and staring straight ahead. There was no movie, nothing for them to watch, but they were all facing forward, heads up and eyes open. Nobody was reading or listening to music or trying to fall asleep. No one was dozing off or playing a game. Everyone was just staring.

I backed up and got a good look at the rest of coach class, and it was the same in every row and in every seat. All the passengers were up, but no one was doing anything. I looked around for a flight attendant, and couldn’t find anyone. My chest clenched in panic. I saw the curtain separating us from business class. It was normally an unstormable barrier, but I figured these were special circumstances. All the other passengers on my flight looked like they were moments away from starting a full-blown zombie movie, and I really didn’t want to be caught up in the middle of that.

I grabbed the curtain and yanked it aside. Standing there was one of the missing flight attendants – tall, dark, dressed immaculately. She looked me up and down and said, “You do not belong here.”

“I know,” I said. “But there’s something weird going on back there. Everyone’s awake and -”

She put a hand on my shoulder and bent down a little to look me in the eye. “No,” she said. “You do not belong. Here.” She put her other hand on my chest and pushed, and that push was like a kick from a mule.

When I hit the floor, all the breath got knocked out of me. She walked over to stand over me, and she looked a thousand feet tall. A few other flight attendants gathered as well, each one of them fierce and beautiful. “You do not belong here,” the first one said again. “Go back.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said, holding my chest. I tried to get up, but she pushed me down again, and again it felt like something slammed into me.

“Go back,” she said.

“I can’t go back!” I tried to scream. “Not if you keep hitting me!” I tried to stand up again, and one more time, her hand moved out – gently, slowly, and yet unstoppably, and pushed me in the chest. And this time, I nearly blacked out when I hit the floor. My vision swam and my ears rang and it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t tell where up and down were, and I felt like throwing up.

“Is he back?” The voice was indistinct and different – not the Valkyrie flight attendant who had hit me. Another one?

No. Not them. This time there was laughter and cheers as I took a breath. I blinked my eyes open and there was a crowd around me still, but different. Their faces were expressive, human, and – if I had to guess – very relieved. I tried to sit up, and one man, an older-looking gentlemen, touched my shoulder gently. “You lay back, son,” he said. He was hard to understand over the humming of the engines, and a little hard to see in the cabin darkness, but he held a flashlight and I could see well enough by that. “You gave us quite the scare.”

He turned and said something to a flight attendant, who dashed off. I looked around at the people staring at me, leaning out of their seats and looking my way. There were two patches with wires stuck to my chest, leading to a plastic case that lay in one of the seats. “What happened?” I asked, though it mostly came out as “Wuhhuppn?”

The older man smiled. “You went and had yourself a heart attack,” he said. “Pretty bad one, too. Thought we lost you for a moment there.” He looked up at a young man, a teenager really, who was kneeling behind me and grinning stupidly. “You’re lucky this young man knew CPR,” he said. “Also lucky that the plane had one of those AED things on board.” He gestured at the plastic case.

My brain put the pieces together slowly, but when they came together they started to fade. People were going back to their books and magazines and the movie, and pretty soon the flight attendant, the teenager and the old man helped me into an empty seat in business class. My chest hurt, and it tightened as we went past that curtain, but there was nothing to worry about. They got me settled in a seat, gave me some orange juice and told me there would be a doctor to meet me when we landed.

A heart attack. I shook my head in wonder and tried to remember what had happened. Little flashes came to me – people sitting, a bathroom mirror – and then faded away like mist in the morning.

I put the cup down on the seat tray and lay back. Each breath hurt, but each breath after that hurt less. I felt tears well up as I thought of what had almost happened, and I didn’t wipe them away.

After a while, I slept. And I had no dreams.

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