Where do we belong in a world where we seek to differentiate ourselves by trying to be like everyone else?
Julia Roberts is crying. The actress appears convincing as she eats, prays and loves. I chose to not spend the two dollars on the head-sets even though they would be mine to keep, and use, on any other American Airlines flight.
Today is Tuesday, my self-assigned “lucky day,” and as the woman to my left, reads important news in People, the flight attendant slyly slips me three diminutive Dewar’s White Label plastic bottles. I impishly wonder what is it about my allure that causes some strangers to open up and others to withdraw.
I swallow my first slow sip of the precious, woodsy elixir — when, out of the corner of my eye, I notice the sole, older, more mature flight attendant, suddenly standing there, next to me, staring into my seat-belts-are-tightly-fastened lap.
Her laminated photo is of a face reminiscent of happier, younger, far-less-grays days and as it dangles in front of mine, in perhaps another silly FAA attempt at surreptitious traveller torture, she instantly, in one fell-swoop, deactivates my flight attendant call button and returns to her seat next to the toilet, at the back of the plane.
Like a bee, Scotch girl has returned. Her blue, uniform jacket is buttoned in a failed attempt to hide her pleasures of entitlement. Her hair is long. Long and shiny. She is kneeling next to me, close. She tells me she is from Brazil. I quickly read her name; Elle M.
“Are you Portuguese? You look Brazilian. What’s your name?” Rapid-fire questions, that pour out of her mouth. Her red lipstick matches the color of the first “A” of the “AA” logo on the white, cocktail napkin now on duty, rubbing against the plastic cup that contains my stolen liquor.
“Pinto. My name is Stefan Pinto.”
I learn that Elle M has been a flight attendant for 20 years and does not fly international. I wonder why, but don’t bother to ask. Instead, my curiosity wants to know if she is doing what she wants to do (with her life)… suddenly, as if out of nowhere, an overweight passenger, dressed for (or from) bed, her hairstyle unimportant to her — and as a result to anyone else – insists on getting by.
Elle is polite, moreso out of duty, now. As she instinctively places her naturally tanned, left hand on my arm rest — it covers “38B” entirely — I notice her manicured nails aren’t hidden by anything false. The instinctive action causes her jacket sleeve to move up her arm, revealing a three-hours-behind, gold Tissot watch and a string-beaded bracelet. The bracelet is simple. I also notice that Elle isn’t wearing a ring.
Her blue, Gabardined left breast smothers my right Banana Republic shoulder. I feel the soft fabric, smell cheap; artificial floral lavatory soap and her body lotion mixed in with slight cabin pressure. “I don’t mean to press my breast on you,” she lies to me, smiling. “Oh, it’s alright” I say, trying not to spill my tonic all over the tray table.
“Trash. Trash. Your trash,” came the mandatory blond flight attendant’s obligatory plea. Although she comes from First Class, she is really from Dallas Fort Worth. DFW tauntingly makes her way down the far right aisle in a rehearsed manner, one she’s performed a thousand times. Her pace is puzzling, almost as though she is rehearsing her catwalk on the only runway she will ever walk. Obedient but oblivious passengers toss empty, white Styrofoam cups and noisy cellophane wrappers into DFW’s clingy, old, distressed and clearly re-used opening. As Elle looks at me, I find out that she lives in Los Angeles. A place she says is nice but is definitely no place like her Brazilian hometown, Ipanema.
As endless laptops wage a silent war on the incandescent cabin lights, I contemplate, in my own private darkness, on purpose and one’s ideal place. Where do we belong in a world where we seek to differentiate ourselves by trying to be like everyone else? Like unpredictable bubbles, we rise to the surface of our inner expectations in a circular sea of captivity, surrounded by the very thing we are rising from. A depth, so deep, we strive — sometimes struggle — to see the surface, silently swayed, seemingly affected by the very elements that surround and sustain us.
And as Elle is forced to go to work, People, now bored with all of that Los Angeles news, casually asks me if I’m a writer. I learn her name is Elizabeth, whom I incorrectly and unfairly assumed was uninteresting and wanted to be left alone. We exchange stories on life and where we would live if we could live anywhere in the whole world. She’s amusing and makes me think. We laugh and I find out she is divorced (again) and has a 15 year-old son. She lives in Orlando. I offer her a piece of my chocolate. Elizabeth denies but instead, reaches into her bag, no longer so carefully placed under the seat in front of her. She stealthily switches her two hour old gum, for a new piece. It is green and smells like Pepsodent. I am whisked into the past. Briefly and shamefully, I wonder about my own breath as Elizabeth explains why driving across country is much more fun than sitting on an airplane packed with strangers. She doesn’t notice that I am distracted by my own hygiene.
We laugh, giggle and point as the plane makes it’s way high across the country. Occasional places become visible and is left behind in some distant anywheres far below. Lives and lights fade beneath the night time clouds and time seems to go slowly. As hunger sets in, again, Elizabeth notices and recommends I seek solace in my “connection.” On the outside, I laugh, but inside I’m amazed by her cunning. As Elle makes her way down the aisle, I stop her. “Elle, I’m hungry.” “We have crackers. Nuts. Chips,” she retorts. They say, it is impossible to repair a broken glass vase to it its initial perfection and as I opt for nuts instead of chips, I feel responsible for Elle’s disappointment.
Elizabeth is laughing, in a “told you so” way only women know how to do. Elle M returns with the bag of mixed nuts. “That’ll be $3.50,” she says, looking off, down the dimly lit aisle, perhaps into First Class.