Last Saturday, I was on my way back to Los Angeles from St. Louis (connecting in Phoenix). Normally, I sleep during flights. And while I was sure I would drift off on this particular flight, something kept me awake. I guess it started with free whiskey.
A few minutes after I found my seat on the U.S. Airways flight to Phoenix, a family of two adults and two small children hovered nearby. Not wanting to separate them, the flight attendant asked me to switch to the row in front of me so they could sit together. “I’ll give you free drinks,” she whispered. I obliged and moved to the middle seat, one row up, next to a 30-something woman in the aisle seat. Her blond hair was haphazardly tied in a ponytail, and she was wearing a pale pink hoodie and workout pants. Before we took off, she jumped out of her seat and fastened the safety belt of a sickly-looking woman across the aisle from her.
Twenty minutes later, we were up in the air at a steady altitude. The flight attendant came around with the beverage cart and asked me what I wanted to drink. “Whiskey, with a splash of soda,” I replied. She left briefly, then returned with a glass of ice, two airplane-sized bottles of whiskey, and a Canada Dry. I poured myself a stiff cocktail and settled in to the anthology I bought at the airport bookstore.
Another whiskey later, I couldn’t help but notice that the woman in the aisle seat next to me kept checking on the frail woman in the row across from her. The frail woman looked to be in her mid-50s and just under 100 lbs. She wore a knit stocking cap over her sparse dirty blond hair, fingerless knit gloves on her bony hands and a cloth mask that covered her nose and mouth—similar to the type of mask worn for bird flu. I was curious what was wrong with her, but before I could find a way to politely ask, the woman next to me escorted her to the bathroom. Meanwhile, the flight attendant stopped by again, took out two more airplane-sized bottles of whiskey, and set them on my fold-out tray.
By my third whiskey, I was growing restless with my book. Also, booze tends to make me extra chatty—which meant airplane conversation was inevitable. The blond woman was back in her seat next to me again. In between scrawling in her book of Sudoku puzzles, she continued to check on the frail woman across from her. My curiosity got the best of me, so I thought of a way to break the ice.
“Is that your mom?” I asked.
“Oh…um, is she okay?”
“She has stage 4 lung cancer.”
I instantly felt awful for being nosy. But apparently, this woman didn’t mind because the floodgates came pouring out. She explained to me that she and her stepmom were on this flight to go to San Diego so they could drive to Mexico to try an experimental treatment that may prolong her stepmom’s life. Her stepmom had undergone various treatments for the past 2 ½ years. She’d also survived cancer two other times in her life. But when she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, her husband seemed to give up and had several affairs behind his sick wife’s back. When she finished her story, she told me her name was Carrie, and I told her mine. Carrie added that she greatly missed her husband and her baby girl, who she left behind in St. Louis. Then, she told me she was five months pregnant with another child.
“You are such a good person for doing this, Carrie.” I kept saying to her. “Especially being pregnant and away from your husband and child.”
By this time, I was on my fourth whiskey. Tears were welling up in my eyes. It was mostly because of Carrie’s gut-wrenching story; but partially due to my own worries. Perhaps, the whiskey intensified these emotions. Whatever it was, Carrie sensed that I was struggling with worries of my own. Although they weren’t nearly as serious as what she was dealing with, I figured I’d never see her again, so I shared a few details of what was weighing heavily on my mind.
When I finished opening up to her, she asked me, “Are you a religious person?”
“I believe in God, but I don’t go to church. I think I’m a good person with a good heart, though.”
She told me that it doesn’t matter how good you are to other people. What matters is your personal relationship with God. Then she asked if she could pray with me, for me. So I said yes.
She grabbed my hand, closed her eyes, bowed her head, and said a prayer something like: Dear God, please guide Michelle and give her patience to stay calm. Help her find peace with her situation and the strength to keep moving forward, no matter what the outcome.
Eventually, we landed and exited the plane. Before we parted ways, I thanked her for her prayer. I also told her I would pray for her and her stepmom. Although, I wasn’t sure my relationship with God was as good as hers.
At the Phoenix airport, I hurriedly grabbed a quesadilla and a draft beer. A half-hour later, I was on my final plane to L.A.
I made my way to the back of the plane and lifted up my heavy carry-on bag to slide into the overhead compartment. A grizzled man in the aisle seat offered to help me. “That’s okay. I’m pretty strong,” I assured him.
I found my seat by the window, and almost immediately fell asleep. An hour and a half later, I woke up to the announcement that plane was starting its final descent into LAX. The older man in the aisle seat, who seemed significantly boozed up, turned toward me and started talking. His voice was loud and gravelly with a slight Southern drawl, sort of like Billy Bob Thornton’s in “Sling Blade.”
“You know what I do for a livin’? I kill people,” he stated. “That’s right. Got PTSD. Just came back from Afghanistan. I also rob banks, and I’m in the witness protection program.”
Intrigued, I asked him about his bank robbery technique: Did he wear a mask? Was there a getaway driver? What was the most money he’s ever stolen?
“No mask. No getaway driver. Just me handin’ a note to the bank teller. I once got $2 million.”
He extended a shaky, worn-out hand. “Name’s Tom Dooley…”
“Michelle.” I shook his hand delicately. “But that’s not really your name. It’s your ‘witness protection’ name.”
“How’d you know?”
“Because I paid attention.”
He continued rambling. “You really don’t wanna know me. ‘Cause I kill people. Got PTSD. I’m not a good person…” He shook his head sadly. Then, he perked up. “Wanna hear a country song I wrote?”
“Sure.” Why not? I was entertained, at the very least. I’m sure the passengers around me weren’t quite as thrilled.
I can’t remember the words to his song, but it was actually pretty good, albeit loud enough for the last five rows of the plane to hear. When he finished, he said, “Yup. I wrote that myself. Wanna hear another song?”
Before I could answer, he started singing another song to me, then he intuitively stopped. “Nah, you look like you don’t wanna hear it.”
“I just don’t want to bother the other passengers, that’s all.”
The plane landed at LAX, and he asked me. “Would you wanna go out with me sometime?”
I was tempted to lie to him and say I had a boyfriend or a significant other. But I’m honest to a fault. So, I searched for a sweet, somewhat believable “little white lie” to turn him down. “Oh, well, thank you. I’m flattered, but my heart belongs to another.”
“Well, maybe we could just share a ride home,” he suggested.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Each row was exiting the plane, and it finally came to our row near the back. He kept letting everyone out except me. Finally, he emerged from his seat into the aisle and let me out in front of him.
“I’d offer to help you with your bag, but I remembered that you’re strong.”
I pulled my carry-on out from the overhead compartment and shuffled toward the exit. Once back inside the airport, I picked up my stride so he couldn’t follow me. When I was far enough, I turned around, and he was gone.