Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Small Confidence in Flight

I had been up half the night and planned to sleep on the plane, but I sat next to a chatty and too-chipper salesman who made me thankful they didn’t have a nonstop from Raleigh to the West Coast. When we got to Dallas, I looked over the crowd waiting in the lounge and prayed for better luck on the second leg.

Then I had this funny thought: What if I had the power to reassign seats like the gate agent? Which of these people would I stick together for a cosmic joke? And who would I choose for a seat-mate myself, if I could pick anybody in this room?

I’d take a pass on the corpulent citizen with the shaved head and the “Club
Gitmo” T-shirt stretched over his belly. He would sit by the frazzled mom with the sunken red eyes and the squirrelly two-year-old twins. I’d settle on the slender Korean man in the brown suit -- the one sleeping bolt-upright in the chair with Lou Dobbs babbling on the TV right over his head. “Sir!" I'd say. "Over there under the TV screen? Sorry to wake you, but your flight to San Francisco will depart in a few minutes and I'm assigning you to Seat 24B -- next to me."

I played this small fantasy game for awhile and then noticed a thin woman with dark wavy hair, mid-forties, sitting on the outskirts of the lounge and listening to somebody on a cell phone. She
wasn’t talking back. After a minute she hung up and tossed the phone into her purse. She extracted a tissue, dabbed at her eyes, then turned away and stared out the window at the tarmac.

I walked off down the concourse to buy a newspaper and when I got back, the flight was boarding. I got on and found my way to Seat 24A. She sat in 24B.

She settled in and closed her eyes. “Good,” I thought. Then we took off and time passed and the flight attendant came by with a drink cart. The eyes opened and she asked for black coffee. I got tomato juice on ice and she looked at me said, “I used to do that.”

I
didn’t understand. “You used to drink tomato juice?”

“No,” she said, “I did
that. I was a flight attendant. For ten years.”

“Oh,” I said. “Did you like it?”

“Yeah, it was all right. Actually it was great -- at first. I worked transatlantic. I went to Paris and London all the time. And I fell madly in love with a captain.”

“A pilot?”

“Right, the guy who sits up in the front and flies the plane.”

“And how did that work for you?” The smart-
alecky question just popped out. I wasn’t really looking for an answer. I got one.

“It
didn’t work out,” she said. “At first he was charming and affectionate and he gave me beautiful gifts -- jewelry, clothes, everything. We took vacations all over the world and he treated me like a queen. Then we got married and had a child and all that stopped. He changed."

“Everybody changes,” I said. “Marriage does that to people.”

“No, I mean
really changed. You don't know. This was like --" She shook her head.

“Like what?”

“He was a different person. You really want to hear this?”

“Sure,” I said, telling a white lie and trying to look weary. It didn't matter. She kept talking and suddenly I was caught up in a stranger’s
unspooling tale of woe. It lasted all the way to San Francisco.

Some quack psychiatrist had diagnosed the captain as bipolar. But in her view, he was just a grandiose liar, a pathologically-jealous control freak, a narcissist, a philanderer, and a drunk. Psychiatrists didn't have a clue how to deal with people like that, she said.

“He
didn’t want me to work,” she explained. “I had to quit the airline. Then I didn't have my own money and he controlled my life. I couldn’t have friends. I couldn’t go anywhere. He accused me of having an affair, which wasn't true. And it turned out he was the one having affairs. He had girlfriends in three European capitals at once. When he was home, he was drinking. He'd stay up all night with a bottle of Scotch and make drunk phone calls to people on the other side of the world.”

I had a queasy moment. “And this guy was flying airplanes?” I asked. (If it
had to be a story about an airline pilot running amok, I would rather have been hearing it someplace besides 30,000 feet over Idaho.)

“Of course,” she replied matter-of-
factly. “Seven-forty-sevens. He had an amazing capacity to drink and still function. He would take it to the edge and appear totally in control. He could do that. He was very good at hiding his problem and his craziness. And you know what? If you met him right now? You’d probably like him. He would say something flattering to you, and he'd look you right in the eye and smile and crack some sort of witty joke. And you’d be thinking, wow, this guy is cool.”

“Right,” I said, “I’
ve known a few people like that. You like them at first, but it doesn’t take too long to see past the surface.”

"Yeah? Well, I married the SOB.”

There was no end to this yarn in sight.

After their son was born, things got much worse, she said. One night she came home from the grocery store with the baby and the pilot flew into a rage over some imagined slight, or something she had forgotten to buy. He grabbed her by the hair. He shoved her against a wall. Then he hit her in the face. She screamed and said she was calling the police. He walked over to a file cabinet, reached into a drawer and pulled out a loaded
Glock 9mm. He threatened to kill her if she called anyone at all.

The image of a pickled airline captain with a loaded handgun brought me up short. I glanced out the window into the white nothingness and suddenly missed my family and wondered if I had enough life insurance. She paused briefly to sip her coffee, then launched back into the saga.

“. . . so I said to myself, Girl, we're out of here. I never signed up to live with a psycho. As soon as he left for work, I packed up and moved out. I did call the cops, too, and they brought me to the hospital and took pictures of my bruise. They arrested him and he got probation for assaulting me. I got a restraining order and a divorce and sole custody of our son -- but that took awhile."

What followed next was a play-by-play description of a byzantine adventure in the American legal system.

“Wow, what a story,” I said. “I’m really sorry. . . ”

“But that’s just the beginning,” she went on. “He stalked me after the divorce. It was creepy. I moved to another apartment and
didn’t list my phone. He found me. The cops did nothing. I was so scared of him, I moved to another state. And you know what? The man found me there, too. Finally -- and you won't believe this but I swear it's true -- he hired a hitman to kill me. I’m not kidding. He almost pulled it off, but they caught him. He was convicted and sentenced to ten years in federal prison. It was a federal crime because it was across state lines.”

“Did you testify against him?” Suddenly I
wasn’t tired anymore.

“Of course, I had to go down there,” she said. “They needed my testimony to convict him."

I glanced at the diamond and the gold wedding band on her ring finger. “You’re remarried now," I observed.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I met a wonderful man -- a little older. He’s my soul mate.”

“Tell me about him,” I said.

“Well, he’s handsome and tall and athletic. He works at a college, in the development office. He's a fundraiser. He’s very devoted to me, and also the greatest dad ever. We have a son of our own now, so there's two boys." She took a deep breath.

At last! I thought, here is the happy ending. Redemption. Justice. Second chances . . .

But it was not to be. It was, rather, as if the Old Testament God came back to write an epilogue to the Book of Job, in which Job, having passed God's test to show Satan the meaning of true character, and having been restored to health and prosperity, then loses everything again in the final chapter.

This story was not over.

“We’
ve had a lot of problems with the boys,” she said.

“Oh? What sort of problems?”

“The younger one is autistic. He doesn't speak. But he would never hurt anyone. He's a gentle little boy. He's my sweetheart." She let that sink in for about five seconds. "And the older one, the boy from my first marriage? He has bipolar disorder, according to the shrink. He turned violent just like his father. He's fifteen now, and one night around Christmas he grabbed a butcher knife in the kitchen and tried to kill me.”

"That's just awful!" I stammered. But I couldn't stand it, so I added, “At least you have your soul mate now -- you're in this together.” And as soon as that banal platitude was out of my mouth, I knew how lame it sounded.

She responded in kind, with more than a hint of irony in her voice. “'How true this is. 'Till death do us part. And it says somewhere that God won’t give us more heartache than we can bear. Still, sometimes I wonder how much . . ."

“Of course you wonder,” I agreed. And then, suddenly desperate to change the subject (Could this get any worse?), I asked, “Why are you traveling to San Francisco?”

“I’m meeting my husband there,” she said. “He's coming in on another flight and we’re going on a cruise to Alaska."

"How wonderful," I said. "I've always wanted to do that."

"They say everybody should go to Alaska before they die," she mused, in a softer and suddenly faraway voice. "He was diagnosed with lung cancer. Fifty-three years old. He never smoked. And he's the most wonderful man. They gave him six months -- it's already stage four."

I mumbled that I was sorry, but by then I was way beyond numb.

"That was two months ago," she continued. "And then about the same time, I found out my first husband is getting out on parole. Can you believe it?" (I could not.) "
That one, he's in perfect health, of course. Except for being a psychopath."

Thoughts of the Old Testament again. I recalled that famous verse where the prophet Jeremiah has an issue with a just God: "Righteous are you, O LORD, when I plead with you: yet let me talk with you of your judgments: Why does the way of the wicked prosper?"

We were landing. She thanked me for listening to her. "I hope I didn't talk your ear off," she said.

After a moment of reflection to get my bearings, I thanked her for telling me the story. I said that it made me very sad; that I admired her resilience; and that I was surprised she would open up the book of her life to a total stranger like me. “You don’t even know my name,” I said.

“Well, you don't seem like a stranger now," she answered, smiling. "And actually I do know your name. You’re Doctor Swanson from the Psychiatry Department at Duke, right? I was standing behind you in the aisle and I read the business card on your luggage tag -- it's on your briefcase. I hope I didn't take advantage . . ."

I was startled. “I’m not a psychiatrist,” I quickly confessed. “I’m a researcher and a professor. I have a PhD in sociology."

“Oh,” said my fellow traveler. “Anyway, you really helped me a lot. You were so kind to listen to me. And I hope you have a wonderful weekend. Goodbye, now."

With that, she disappeared among the passengers pouring out of the plane, into the human river of the airport and a myriad of worlds beyond.

I wondered if the story was all true. The statistician in me quickly estimated that the odds were vanishingly small -- less than one in a million -- that a single individual selected at random would have all four family members stricken with rare diseases: severe autism, lung cancer, bipolar disorder, and, in the case of the captain, what sounded like a volatile mix of acute psychopathology, personality disorder, and alcohol addiction. (I didn't bother to factor in the odds of marrying an airline pilot who hires an assassin to kill you.)

Maybe it happened as she said. Maybe not. What I know is, I heard it all one afternoon on a flight from Dallas to San Francisco, when I was mistaken for a clueless off-duty psychiatrist willing to listen to an anonymous stranger tell the saddest story you ever heard.

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