I think of myself as an adventurous person, but it’s entirely possible that I’m not.
I like to go places, all over the world, and when I get there, I tend to wander, impulsively, and experience everything that takes my fancy. On one occasion, this resulted in a week-long stay in a second-rate Mexican resort frequented primarily by German pensioners, who shouted at me for talking during the mariachi performance, a very serious matter. On another occasion, traveling in New Zealand, The Foreigner and I saw a large number of people queued up in front of a stand, so we queued up, too, then sat down on the sidewalk with a brown paper bag full of hot, greasy fish and chips so incredibly delicious that I would travel halfway around the world just to eat it again.
As much as I’d enjoy the fish and chips – and the rest of New Zealand, for that matter – flying there is something I would not enjoy. Flying is something I get through, barely.
It wasn’t always that way. As a child, I flew alone each summer from New York to my grandparents in Wisconsin, happily visiting the pilots and wearing the junior pilot pins they gave me as I admired the clouds and wondered whether we’d land with one bump or two. Flying was different then, involving hot meals served with actual cutlery and china plates; it was something you dressed to do, like going to see The Nutcracker at Christmas.
I’m not sure when flying changed in general, but I know when it changed for me, specifically: On a return trip from Wisconsin at Christmas, in my late teens. For some reason, I cried when I said goodbye to my grandmother, and as the plane waited to take off, thought, I’ll never see her again.
After an uneventful commuter flight to Chicago, I changed planes to a large jet with, as it turned out, only one healthy engine. I do not know how long the plane was aloft before it circled back and landed, escorted up the runway by fire engines and ambulances; I do know that explanations of flight-safety statistics and the science and technology that makes air travel possible have no bearing on the terror I feel with each bump, noise, or change in air speed.
Being afraid of flying is not all bad. Flight attendants pay a lot of attention to you, and on one long-haul flight, gave me free glasses of champagne to help me get through it.
Eventually, it became clear that if I did not address my fears, there was a good chance I might actually never see my grandmother again. It turned out that I had a coworker with the same problem, and together we invested in an at-home course in Overcoming Your Fear of Flying. It was a book and a set of tapes made by a former pilot who narrated each stage of an imaginary flight, describing the sensations and telling you how to relax, in a distinct Boston accent. After each exercise, he’d validate the listener: That’s right, that’s right.
I concentrated on relaxing my muscles. That’s right.
I learned to focus my breathing, to breathe deep and not shallow. That’s right.
He sounded exactly like a Kennedy when he said it. That’s right.
I listened to the tape on every flight I took, until I met The Foreigner in Mexico, and got on a tiny, ancient-looking plane to tour some Mayan ruins. The flight was supposed to take 20 minutes, and took more than 40; by the time we landed, abruptly, passengers were joking that the pilot was lost, something I did not find even slightly funny. The Foreigner was not terribly helpful on that flight, but after we toured Chichen Itza, he did help persuade me that the return flight was safe, and even offered to ride the local buses with me and some peasants and chickens if I could not get on the plane.
I did get on that plane, and later, when I flew to Holland to see The Foreigner, he gave me more tips for staying calm in the air. Keep both feet on the floor, he said, it will help you feel more secure. Drinks lots of water; flying dehydrates you.
Apart from The Child and some jewelry, it was the nicest thing The Foreigner gave me. I’m not sure if the jewelry counts; since it was listed on my part of the divorce property settlement, technically, I paid for it. Still, I traveled a lot while he and I were married, and it became somewhat normal again.