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New York Diarist: The Aviator

Like many people, I'm ambivalent about flying. Since September 11, that ambivalence is as much about the way I act when I fly as it is about flying itself.

I SPENT MANY  years not thinking about flying one way or the other. I'd get on a plane, open my book, and often be glad for the enforced solitude. Whether in school; during years of early travel in Europe and Asia; or on my first jobs in magazine publishing, when eventplanning took me around the United States, flying was a welcome break from the routine. People on the flight, studied furtively, were interesting or horrifying or attractive; time took on its own dimension, meted out by the arrival of the drinks cart, meal, movie, or occasional conversation with a seatmate; and retrieving bags (I always checked), watching the grinding carousel with my fellow passengers, was like waiting in a fluorescent-lit purgatory to reenter the world.

FLYING HAD SOME adventure, too, though it only seemed to arrive on the rare occasions I was in first class. I met the man I almost married there, thanks to a mechanical problem in Denver that kept us at the gate for an hour, cocktails gratis. By the time the plane made its descent into New York, there was a full moon over the city, the entire front cabin seemed to be smiling on our future, and it felt as if we landed on a cloud. That, and the guy resembled my father in most respects. (I ended up marrying the woman I should have been watching for on all those long flights.)

I DEVELOPED A fear of flying one day in my late twenties on a hopper flight from Aspen. Looking up from my book and down on all the gorgeous, snow-covered, craggy mountains, I suddenly thought, "Holy shit! If this plane's engines were to shut off, we'd crash right into those mountains!" Burned beyond recognition, less pain on impact than during the fright of descent. I imagined it countless times over the next few years as I continued to fly. I discovered a variation of this morbid fantasy in the late '80s on an overnight flight from Karachi to Amsterdam. I was in the little room up those curly stairs on a 747. My seatmate, a military-helicopter salesman from Bath, England, pointed out the oil derricks in the distant Gulf. "And what are those flashes of light over there?" I asked, pointing to sharp, silent light bursts to the right of the derricks on the horizon. "Ah!" he said. "They're shelling. Nothing to worry about." He went back to his meal. Later, as the clouds around us lighted up with refracted missile glare, I woke him up to get the same answer. "We're over the Iran-Iraq border," he said. "They do this every night. They really don't care about us." I imagined a heat-seeking missile going up the plane's tail, drank gin and tonics, and tried to control my sense of fatalism until dawn broke, far away in KLM land.

THE PREOCCUPYING FEAR faded, but the dread in the back of my mind never did. After September 11, there was a new question: "Does anyone look dangerous on this flight?" I'd ask myself while mediating between my heart and head. "Do they have the full-beard, serious, ethnic look?" I would try to see if they seemed happy, scolding myself as I did. Recently, I took a flight to Florida for a magazine conference. My seat was up by the cockpit--Delta Song has no class system (and no food or pillows, though you can buy the former)--and opposite me sat a neatly dressed, middle-aged man seemingly of Arab descent. He had a full beard that was, it seemed to me, trimmed in a way that you'd trim if you didn't want to seem too radical. He scowled into his book--English, I saw. That was something. His cell phone rang, and he answered it with a terse, accented "Yes." Not a question, more like a command--or like a commander might answer his phone. He grunted a couple of times. Then he said, "Good luck," but not with any feeling. My heart lurched. The internal dialogue started up: He can't storm the cockpit, his bomb wouldn't make it into the plane--wait, we don't screen luggage: it could! Right?--but it's highly unlikely. I watched him carefully. Did he want to die? He seemed too mature, but people with their causes--you just never know. I felt ashamed of myself. And scared.

I WENT TO the flight attendant. "I'm being an idiot," I said, "but I just have to say out loud that this guy opposite me makes me nervous. He keeps speaking into his cell phone in a sort of suspicious way, I don't know--he just said, 'Good luck.'" "OK," the attendant said, "we'll keep an eye on him." I went back to my seat. If he has a bomb in the hold, what good will it do to keep an eye on him? And then I thought: Calm down, you really are being an idiot. I tried to relax. But then the plane backed out of the gate, the man put down his English language book and pulled a Koran from his suit pocket. He leaned forward and read closely, his lips moving and body swaying. I caught the flight attendant's eye and tilted my head meaningfully toward the man. He's reading the Koran! She walked by and kept walking. Clearly, they weren't going to stop the plane.

I DIDN'T KNOW any other way to control my anxiety, so I leaned across the aisle and touched the gentleman on the arm. He started and stared at me. "Excuse me," I said, "is that the Koran you're reading?" He smiled. "Yes." "The writing is very beautiful," I said--I've always thought so--"I don't see it very often." "It is Ramadan," he said. He had a radiant smile, not of one seeking converts, but just a guy with great teeth, happy to talk about his religion. "We must pray every day." I could feel my breathing slow. "It's an important time for us to understand each other's religions," I said. He said, "Yes," and, if he knew it was my ploy to calm down, he didn't let on. The man's community was building a new mosque in Fort Lauderdale, where he teaches. "Religion?" I asked, and again he smiled, kindly, not as I would have, the way an idiot should be smiled at, with just the right amount of condescension to put her down where she belongs. "No, oceanography." His wife wears the veil. He has four daughters. I thanked him for obliging me, and he went back to praying. We wished each other well after landing and went back to our lives on the ground. It could be just my imagination, but maybe I'm starting to get over myself.