I was a psych minor, after all; I know that the flailing, white-haired fiend otherwise known as the unconscious mind can, for example, compel people with a fear of intimacy to botch happy relationships, and cause folks with low self-esteem to avoid sending out that stack of résumés. I know that he can make otherwise regular folk scrub their hands 147 times a day. I know, I know. And still, I had never quite seen my inner Freak Daddy up close and personal. Luckily, for the most part, he'd always stayed fairly well buried.
All that changed late last month, when I boarded a plane for the first time since the Sept. 11 hijackings.
It was supposed to be a joyous occasion--the much-heralded post-nuptial period where the couple goes off for one moon, consuming all the honey they received as a wedding gift. My new husband Marty and I were on our way to Jamaica to ingest this honey.
But everything was a little . . . off. Our Caribbean lovefest, our weeklong separation from society, was supposed to have started on Sept. 16, the day after our wedding. The terrorist attacks forced us to reschedule for late October. From there our inner cores put us into denial-soaked Pollyanna mode, because what else are you going to do? Aren't we lucky? We get to drag this whole wedding thing out and have our honeymoon a month after the ceremony! Isn't that nifty?
Well, sure, I guess.
After our ill-timed wedding, I spent a month obsessing over CNN reports, wringing my hands over all things 9/11. And so, when it was finally time to fly to the tropics (by way of Miami) I was just a shade wigged. I'd be flying out of the same airport where Flight 77--the one that crashed into the Pentagon--originated. That would be eerie. And I was flying American Airlines, which lost two planes to the hijackers that fateful day. That would be eerie too. And yes, of course, a plane going from D.C. to Miami would have more than enough fuel to do some major damage to, say, the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
I've never been afraid of flying, and I didn't plan to start. OK, yeah, the day before our flight, I bit off all my fingernails--but I wasn't scared scared. My plan was to cling hard to my usual mindset: It can't happen to me. Nope, it sure can't. Once airborne, I'd just marvel at the pants pressers and dog-food dispensers in the Sky Mall magazine and everything would be all right.
All that mental planning couldn't stop me from meditating on those poor innocent folks who happened to be on flights 11, 77, 93 and 175, shuffling into those metal tubes on that crisp Tuesday morning, yawning, thinking only of their destination and their copy of People--and having no idea there were crazed zealots in their midst, zealots who would, within the hour, reduce everyone to smoldering ash. Pretty soon, I'd be shuffling onto an early-morning flight, all innocent and bleary-eyed . . . just like them.
Things began to go awry for me hours before the morning shuffling, though. It started the night before, when we ignored the fact that we had to be at the airport well before dawn and decided to go to a late-night party anyway. On the way, we stopped for beer. Marty took longer than expected in the store, I craned my neck to look for him, and rip!--I felt a hefty muscle pull in my neck.
The pain seared from my skull to my shoulder. I tried to look left--couldn't do it. Right I could do, but it wasn't fun. Down? Yes. Up? No. Depression set in. I'd suffered such a strain only one other time. I was in college, and it was just after an aerobics class when my neck went out. I remember not taking it seriously; I assumed it would vanish by nightfall. Later that day, while trying to revel at a music festival, I ended up at the first-aid tent in tears. The pain didn't subside for days, maybe a week.
Fabulous--this was the way I was going to spend my honeymoon, the most romantic week of my life? Fantasizing about a neck brace and some Percocet? Christ in a sidecar.
4:30 a.m.: We arrive at the airport after 1.5 hours of sleep. I'm somber. I feel doom. I had managed to drink myself into a comfortable state at the party, but the alcohol was gone now, pissed out of my bloodstream, and I was left with random, jolting neck spasms that left me gasping. I popped a Vicodin, left over from my dislocated-knee episode in March. Since my stomach was empty, I assumed the drug would kick in quick. It didn't. As we made our way through the hour-long line that slowly bent toward security, I was a twitching, gasping mess.
The other shuffling travelers--reverently quiet, resigned--looked as melancholy as I felt. Was this a death march? They had to be thinking that. I know I was. I peered over at a gift shop and saw a set of airplane-shaped earrings near the entrance. They gave me a shudder, and I realized for the first time that the image of an airplane soaring through the air had taken on a negative connotation, like a picture of a gun, or a knife.
Since we weren't packing box-cutters, Marty and I made it through security's irradiating rectangle. Just beyond, there were three motionless National Guardsmen, big, beefy, decked out in fatigues and armed with shiny, fake-looking machine guns. I smiled at them. They didn't smile at me. Jolt! went my neck.
We got near the gate and were meandering around looking for an ATM when a string of killer spasms descended on me like a pack of locusts, one right after the other. Jolt! Jolt! Jolt! Gasp! Gasp! Gasp! A mental membrane broke open; I turned to Marty and burst into tears. I'm no wuss-dog crybaby, but man, this shit hurt. Marty quickly ushered me over to an electrical outlet and I strapped on a heating pad we'd brought. He went for bagels; I sat there, staring straight ahead and feeling defective.
Pretty soon, as if by magic, the pain began succumbing to the painkillers . . . leaving my spastic head free to start wondering things like which gate the ill-fated Flight 77 had departed from. I pondered asking an airport employee but quickly realized that was probably a really verboten question, like asking, "May I see your mother naked?" So I kept quiet. Still, I couldn't stop thinking about it: Which were the last payphones the doomed passengers used? From which kiosk did they get their preflight coffee? If I learned the answers then went and stood in these places, would I feel any sort of . . . energy?
As the codeine really dug its heels in, my sense of foreboding faded a little. We moved to our gate and started scouring the area for terrorists. Only one guy looked scary. He was well dressed, in a pressed red button-down shirt and very black jeans. His appearance and vibe was not unlike that of Mohammed Atta and friend, as seen on camera passing through security at Logan Airport--the new face of frightening. For weeks, Marty had been talking about pummeling any al Qaeda members as soon as they made their move on our plane. He pointed out the heftier guys there at the gate, the muscular-looking ones.
"They'll help me with the takedown," Marty said. His words were both horrible and soothing.
It was time, so we got in line to board the plane, watching random people get their bags searched on a table to our left. I tried to bite my nails, but there were none left. Once inside the steel cylinder, we found our seats and strapped in. I carefully angled my head so I could avoid spasms but still peer up to see the suspended monitors, all of which were featuring dreamy outdoor scenes accompanied by New Age music. All intended to keep us calm, I guess.
Suddenly I remembered what my sister Lisa had said a few weeks prior.
"Are you taking all this personally?" she'd asked.
"Huh?" I said. "Taking what personally?"
"Well, the day you were supposed to leave for your wedding, terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Then, on your birthday, the U.S. began dropping bombs on Afghanistan. So, what's next?"
She was right.
"Well," I said, "I guess my honeymoon would be next. Something cataclysmic is sure to happen then."
"Yep, probably," she said, and then switched the topic to Thanksgiving plans. Man, my family is dark.
Thinking about that conversation opened the floodgates, and some really bad imagery sluiced into my brain. I heard the words of my other sister, uttered years ago but somehow lurching forth now from the recesses of my cerebral cortex: "What is a plane really? Just a jellybean in the sky. How can that be safe?" Then I recalled something my pal Charles had said recently about airline travel: "Planes--they just don't make sense. They're only able to fly because God hasn't looked down and noticed what we're up to down here. Soon as he does, though, they're all going to drop out of the sky. You mark my words."
I felt my pulse quicken. I looked back at the nature footage, confident it would sooth me, but it did just the opposite. The slow-motion scenes of dramatically crashing waves only made me think about a water landing gone wrong. The shots of trees swaying in the wind only brought to mind the rich soil at their bases, soil made up of decomposing bodies. Next, slow pans of ice-capped mountains. Yikes!
The monitors vanished into the ceiling and we took off. While traveling sharply upward, I stared suspiciously at most of the men onboard. If there was to be a hijacking, I figured it would take place pretty early in the flight. It seemed best to bear down for the next 45 minutes or so, and maybe grit my teeth. As I embarked on that course of action, my heart ramped up and started beating hard and fast, and nausea flooded my system. But, unable to face the fact that I was actually deeply afraid, I cast about for outward causes. Was it a bad reaction to the Vicodin? Yeah, probably, I reasoned. Empty stomach and all.
When we were about a third of the way to Miami and it seemed safe enough to stop darting my eyes around wildly, I tried to sleep. But since I awoke with a start about 67 times--each time snapping my head up and causing a new, although muted, neck spasm--this was not restorative sleep.
Following a spasm over Atlanta, I noticed that I could no longer take deep breaths. Out of nowhere, it felt like a hurdle had been erected at the bottom of my lungs, and my breaths just couldn't clear it. I sat there heaving, compelled to take deep breath after deep breath, none of which could make it over the jump. Was I going to hyperventilate, on the way to my honeymoon? Was I suffering an asthma attack, or a collapsed lung from a change in cabin pressure, or an allergic reaction to the painkillers? I got really nervous, and began putting a lot of energy into worshiping the image of an inhaler--white, tube-like, beautiful . . . and deep in my suitcase in the bowels of the plane. Crap.
Marty was right next to me, but the self-focused nature of whatever fit I was having made him seem kilometers away. "Are you OK? Are you OK?" he appeared to be saying from the other end of a long tunnel. Then he would fade. In my peripheral vision, I saw that the lady to my left was staring at me. And at that point, I knew it: I'd become a physical wreck, a spaz. Not a spaz at home, which is OK; but a spaz in public, involuntarily and not for anyone's amusement. This was for real. I was gasping, heaving, and just generally lurching around in my seat. I had morphed into the kind of roiling weirdo I usually gape at on planes.
Poor Marty. When he got up to go to the bathroom, I wondered if he was mentally filing for divorce. As we began our final descent into the Miami area, the queasiness reeled into overdrive. My conscious mind by then had accepted the likelihood that we'd live, but my unconscious clearly didn't buy it. Viscous spit appeared in my throat, a true harbinger of the upchuck. Then another prepuke indicator: the body began attempting deep breaths nasally. My stomach seemed to be undulating like a belly dancer's. I grabbed a barf bag and held onto it tight.
After what seemed like an eternity, the plane smacked down onto the runway. I counted the seconds until we could stand up and get out of there. The nausea continued unabated--I knew it was coming, I just wasn't sure when. We stood up. I swallowed, and swallowed, and swallowed again as I staggered down the plane's thin aisle, keeping my head down and the bag raised. I'd assumed I'd pitch forth and coat several chairs, if not the bye-bye-ing crew. When I managed to reach the tubular jetway unemptied, I figured that's where I'd be compelled to stop and spray. When that didn't happen, I presumed the worst would occur just as we reached the empty gate. There'd be a retching sound and I'd grab a chair for support, and then I'd ruin several feet of upholstery.
But as the walkway ended and we spilled into the gate area, I saw that it was not empty at all, but rather quite populated. My esophageal urgings turned shy, reserved, not wanting to traumatize a whole gate-full of people. And strangely, within a few seconds, the nausea was gone. The whole fit had suddenly vaporized, replaced by a strong craving for chocolate milk and pizza.
On the flight from Miami to Jamaica, conditions were very, very different. The plane was bigger, brighter, had far less fuel in its tanks. Passengers were smiling, wearing festive colors, popping up out of their seats to commune with one another. Honeymooners were making out. Flight attendants distributed jerk-chicken sandwiches and plantain chips. The same ethereal video played on the monitors, but it didn't seem like a death knell. Instead, it prepared us for the profound relaxation ahead. Within an hour, I looked out the oval window and saw tree-covered mountains descending sharply to impossibly clear water.
My inner Freak Daddy finally breathed, and stretched, and reached into his carry-on to grab a Hawaiian shirt.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
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