My usual commute routine gives me comfort.
New York Times dropped into the seat back pocket. Laptop bag stowed in the foot well. Send the “I love u, will text u when landed safely” message to the spouse and turn off the iPhone. Folding my small body, origami like, in a sequence of feet, legs, hips shifting, tucked blanket edges and sealing it with a seat-belt click, I settle into place.
A quick gaze around to locate the nearest emergency exits, and I cast my eyes out the window to gaze lovingly at the myriad of tail fins and their international logos promising adventures in far away lands. Kangaroo, maple leaf, fern frond unfolding, hammer and sickle, a smiling Eskimo guy, various national flags, Stars and Stripes, Arabic writing, a blue crown, and flocks of stylized birds from cranes to phoenixes. I’ve taught in many of those places.
I try not to notice all the amateur travelers struggling with excessive baggage and uncoordinated movements bumping the heads of fellow passengers as they lumber through the isles. I love to watch the veteran road warriors sleekly swim through their own pre-flight routines. Even after forty years of regular air travel–I was three years old on my first flight–I still love the view from the window seat. The vastness and the wonder of the landscape below and the beauty of the cloud formations never cease to amaze me.
When a fellow traveler settles in the seat next to me, things can get interesting. In coach class everyone tends to keep to themselves, compensating for the severe lack of actual personal space. Business class is another matter. There are two general types. The first are those who want to be left alone - They treat their flying time as a personal cocoon of isolation or as focused productivity and project time. The second are the networkers to whom every personal interaction is source of fascination, business connection or both. They are the ones that chat me up before the wheels have lifted off. Soon enough the conversation turns to “What do you do?”
“I’m a sexuality educator,” I say calmly, sit back and wait for their brain to process this novel occupational title. It usually takes a beat or two of a pause before they come up with their next question. On a rare occasion, the pause continues to an awkward silence for the rest of the journey. They’re freaked out into silence. I wish I could crawl into their heads and figure out what on earth they’re imagining, because it’s got to be wild like some Hieronymus Bosch tableaux.
Most people want to know where and what I teach. They want to know if it’s just “broken people” who come for instructions. It’s surprising how many people have no idea that fun, friendly, relaxed and fully clothed classes exist for improving the sex lives of happily functional and ordinary people. Once they realize this, the questions become more probing and entertaining.
Some will launch immediately into seeking specific advice. “How do I get my wife to…” “I have a problem with…” It’s amazing the details of their personal and sexual lives they’re willing to share with a total stranger. Perhaps it is because I am a complete stranger, and a stranger embodying sexual understanding and acceptance, that they feel free to unload on me with furtive urgency. I become their confessor, bartender and talk radio host all rolled into one at 30,000 miles above ground.
Many of the conversations are quite touching. One man, father of teenaged children, asked me how to be a supportive dad to his daughter who recently came out of the closet. Another man reminisced about buying his lady her first sex toy. Another fellow, married for 15 years, just glowed while talking of his wife’s beauty and sexiness. One flight attendant, upon discovering my work and volunteer work in HIV prevention, spoke gently of a lover long dead from the disease.
One woman pulled out a sex advice column from some tawdry fashion magazine stuffed in her gigantic purse, to see if I approved the writer’s rather conservative opinion. I didn’t agree. She turned to her stodgy-looking hubby and snapped, “See?!” Unwittingly I became Solomon to their little marital dispute. She looked smug in her victory for the rest of the flight. On one flight my neighbor saw one of my books, asked to see it, then spent the rest of the flight engrossed in it without looking up once. At the end of the flight, she returned the book to me, and all she said was “Very interesting. Thank you,” and left.
Sometimes the conversations are just plain odd. One guy, upon hearing my career choice, sat in silence staring at his knees for several minute, then turned to me and blurted out, “I have a nipple piercing.” I still have no idea what that declaration was about.
Next time I fly, I hope to have one of you, dear readers, sitting next to me!