I am in Seat 41A on United Airlines flight 88 to Newark Liberty International Airport. I am about four hours into a 13-hour marathon from Beijing, which began in Incheon. Before that, a 42-minute express train from Seoul. Before that, a two-hour, 50-minute KTX from Busan Station. Before that, an 11-stop subway ride from Hadan. Before that, my friends’ apartment, graciously donated to me for the night.
The coffee I drink to keep me awake–as my body and mind attempt to adjust to the endless night across the East Siberian Sea–is measurably worse than the coffee I could be drinking at home, ground from beans from Costco in Centum City. It’s even far worse than the Americanos I have the luxury to complain about from time to time. But it tastes considerably better than the mysteries I chose to leave to imagination when I quit on Korea years ago.
The flight home was different on Dec. 24, 2005. Singapore Airlines instead of United (which means I was treated to complimentary socks and unlimited booze, among other amenities). Right side of the plane instead of the left. It was a sparsely-populated flight, leaving an entire row of seats to myself. I watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory instead of X-Men: Days of Future Past (which I couldn’t finish. Seriously, why didn’t they just rely on Quicksilver?! I won’t be able to let that go).
I cried as I saw New Jersey from the air, so shellshocked I had allowed myself to become. Maybe I’ll cry a little this time, too, because I’m so happy to be off a 13-hour flight.
Unlike 2005, this trip home won’t last more than four years. It won’t result in another hasty attempt to try to finish what I started, only to fall into familiar patterns of loneliness and self-pity and, ultimately, the convenient excuse of an infected gallbladder to stop me from growing.
I could never sleep on planes. I couldn’t sleep in 2005, 2010, and the many times I have flown since the first time, when I went to the Czech Republic with the speech and debate team for my community college.
The transcontinental flight. This is my seventh since my first Korean attempt, over nine years ago. I still find it exciting. It’s long but it’s going somewhere (“fast, but slow life,” as the KTX train magazines point out).
But, by hour seven, the whole thing does begin to wear on you.
You begin to ration out requests for drinks so you don’t have to get out of your seat to pee (it’s actually beneficial in that regard that United are cheapskates that make you pay for booze, even on an intercontinental flight). You count down the hours until the next meal, anything to break up the monotony.
Seat 41A becomes my home, United Airlines flight 88 my world.
We get to the snack portion of our flight. I lament how, were this an Asian airline, we probably would have been served three complete meals by now. Instead, I am handed an airline-branded bag with what I am told is a sandwich. Between the small dinner roll is some peppered meat of which I cannot quite identify. Isn’t a somewhat sad indictment of our food system that I’m not sure whether what I am eating is ham or beef? Isn’t it sadder that despite this ignorance, I’m eating it anyway? Or, am I just no longer capable of taste? Despite my confusion, the peppered edge to this mystery meat is different enough from what I can usually find in Korea that I am appreciative of its distinctly American flavor.
I fight the allure of the Duty Free sweep through the aisles. There’s nothing on offer I need or particularly want. But, I’m beginning to go insane with boredom. I’ll consider any distraction. Stay strong. You don’t need that $300 bottle of whiskey.
What exactly are the benefits of “Duty Free” really? How much of a savings am I getting by purchasing Johnny Walker 33,000 feet in the air rather than at a large discount liquor outlet on the ground? Who actually buys this stuff and what do they buy? Swaravski crystals? Model airplanes with the airline logo on them?
Should I ask for another sandwich? Had I not grown up overweight I think I would, but I don’t want to be thought of as “the gluttonous American fatty who needs another sandwich.” Of course, more than half of this flight is probably occupied by Americans, many of which might be perfectly comfortable with being thought of as gluttons (but probably not fatties), so long as they get what they want. These are the sort of things I think about as minutes drag interminably onward.
There’s still five-and-a-half hours to go. I wonder if they’ll be serving lunch.
There’s nothing out in the Northwest Territories.
Maybe there is, but not from up here that I can see. Canadian readers, help me out here? While we are still 37,000 feet in the air, everything looks uniform and white down below. The rocks look like pebbles I could kick around. The icy sheet on the Hudson Bay looks like I could step across. But, 37,000 feet is a long way up. And, on my map, the Bay looks so massive. It tricks your mind into thinking it’s all not as big as it is. It’s another world. I wonder if movies are ever filmed out here.
I am not the only one who thinks so. I can hear the beeps of cameras coming into focus. The photos being taken from other seats to the alien world outside and below. What could those who have never flown in an airplane have in their heads? How big could their world be? It’s bigger. And, I recognize the fuel consumption of these beasts. But, they also are miracles. I just wish it didn’t take so much power to obtain them.
We’re finally landing soon. My neighbor never ate her ham sandwich. That seems like a waste.