Of course I had the middle seat. I was traveling before dawn on a bereavement ticket with overweight luggage that cost me an extra hundred dollars. By the time my section boarded, the overhead bins were completely full. My carry-on bag was taken from me at the gate. I boarded with only a book and my iPod in hand.
Almost immediately, the flight attendant inched along the aisle, slamming closed the overhead bins. The door just above my head refused to lock. She looked at us and asked: "Whose bag is this?"
The man in the window seat leaned forward. "Mine."
"It's too large for the compartment," she said. "The door won't close."
He waved a hand. "Just jam it in there," he said. "It won't break. I always stow it up there." She wrestled with the bag until the door finally snapped down.
I couldn't resist. "What is it?" I asked.
"My kayak," he said, then he added: "It's inflatable." Under the seat in front of him, another large canvas bag bulged.
"I suppose that's a rickshaw?"
"Nah, that's just my garment bag." He tilted his head with a nod of complicity. "Good thing you didn't have a carry-on bag," he said, looking at my feet. "I put my smaller case under there." My toes abutted the accordion edge of his third carry-on item.
Under my breath, I vowed to badger that case for the entire five hours of our cross-country flight. If nothing else, my boot would record disdain for this blantant infringement.
"I wonder why we're taking off so late," Mr. Window Seat said. "I've been here almost an hour."
I attempted a glare, but succeeded only in squinting at him. "It's all the carry-on bags," I said. "Someone's overstuffed bag split open and dumped everything in the aisle. It took forever to retrieve everything." As the plane rumbled along the runway, I stared past him to the flat orange sunrise.
"Good thing that wasn't me," he said. "I have a vibrator in here." He kicked his garment bag. "A Christmas present for the wife. I had to sneak it through. Vibrators are prohibited on board, Lord knows why. Vibrators and snow globes."
The plane rose into the morning.
I stuffed my ear-buds in, turned up volume on my iPod and leaned away from him.
The aisle seat barely held a large woman in a caftan who sat with her eyes closed, rosary beads twisted in her fingers. Her lips moved but no sound came out. The perfect seat mate. I closed my own eyes and slept quickly.
When I woke, the cabin lights were dim and the last scenes of the inflight movie were flashing from mini-screens. Mr. Window Seat was asleep, thank goodness.
The woman in the caftan stood to let me out and I noticed a large embroidered bag under the seat in front of her. The outside pocket was open. I thought I saw something move in there.
When I returned, she waited with a patient smile as I squeezed past her and assembled myself. I stomped a few extra times on the soft-sided case parked in my carry-on space, hoping he'd left a tube of toothpaste in there.
Before sitting beside me, my seat mate withdrew her carry-on bag and lifted it with great care. She set it on her lap and pressed it gently with her palms. The outside pocket seemed to undulate beneath her hand. This is what happens when I get up too early, I thought.
The man woke, pulled a Wet-Nap from the garment bag and proceeded to expectorate with gusto. I grabbed the book I'd brought along to read, opened to the middle stared at the page, pretending. The letters ran together like wet watercolors. His arm claimed the armrest just as I realized I'd left my reading glasses in my carry-on bag.
He shifted in his seat and I issued a silent hex: I hope you're sitting on a red-hot hemorrhoid.
But fury makes a plane ride longer, especially when you're in the middle seat. I refocused my attention on the lovely lady on the aisle. Her head bent, her hands rummaged in her bag. She's probably searching for her lipstick, I guessed, or a comb to smooth her perfectly bunned hair. She straightened. In her hands, she held a full head of iceberg lettuce. I blinked a few times, certain that I'd hallucinated.
"It's lunch time," she whispered. A triangle of fur poked out of the bag on her lap. "For my rabbit."
I turned up the music on my iPod and prayed for a tailwind.