There's a cameraderie among airplane passengers that is unique, born of shared desire (we all just want to get wherever it is we're going) and intermingled fear (in one piece, thank you very much). Adults look fondly on children (unless they are under three), and because there is time to think more deeply than the frantic pace of daily living allows, they are wistful (the court reporter, who obviously wants children but feels herself to be impossibly far from a time when she might gaze with wonder and surprise at her own newborn), or knowing (the elderly woman in the row behind the boys; her looks says clearly to me, enjoy them, because before you know it, it will be too late, and you will be devastated by that discovery), or regretful (the college-aged boy with the set jaw and wary eyes, who, I think, would like nothing more than to be ten again, because somehow he overslept and missed the class on navigating the emotional complexities concomitant with young adulthood). Or they are simply amiable. The man in front of the boys banters with my five-year-old, who is all Spiderman, from his shoes to his shirt to his activity book. He keeps calling my son "Spidey," causing him to blush furiously and giggle. The forty-something man, he must have kids of his own, because his manner with Spidey is so easy and playful, and because he's enjoying flirting with a five-year-old so much. I think he must have daughters at home, only daughters.
As the plane lands, the openness and collegiality, moments ago as wide as the fabled Montana sky, of this cast of characters snaps shut like so many briefcases, purses, and cell phones. Faces are abruptly closed for business, and everyone's hurrying, if not with their feet (because the plane doors have not yet been opened), then with their eyes and their gestures. Now my boys are irritants, because their gangly and loose limbs, their naturally relaxed stances, are an affront to the forward progress of the same people who for a time saw themselves, or their children, in my children. It strikes me that pressed tight and close in an unforgiving and vaguely threatening metal tube, people might say and do anything. It's protected space, and it's sacrosanct. Affairs might be revealed to strangers who somehow don't feel strange at 37,000 feet, regrets articulated, secrets confessed, longings expressed, quirks admitted. Yet the instant the wheels of the plane awkwardly renew their contact with the ground, we all wordlessly agree that whatever might have gone on above those cottony clouds was a dream, merely that, like the plane's wings, which once earthbound make no sense at all. Out of flight they manage only to get in the way.
written in 2007