I extend my duffel bag awkwardly in front of me, shuffle my feet, and focus on making myself as narrow as possible. Still, I bump at least two shoulders as I walk down the aisle. I see my seat, stuff my bag in the overhead bin, and plop down next to an expressionless, somewhat girthy, but still middling middle-aged man whose chest hair protrudes out the stretched neck of a faded blue polo. He does not move.
Normally I love flying seated next to transfixed automatons. I am even cool with a little drooling. No big deal. But this man is not situated as a man should be when accommodating another paying passenger. He stares straight ahead, his body centered in the seat, his legs splay wide, his weight forward, his elbows out, his radius and ulna hugging the top of the armrest, and his hand curling over and gripping its end. He had claimed the land and was not budging. I lean towards my other armrest. This was going to be a long flight.
We trundle down the runway, and I get a little angrier. We take off, and I get even angrier. He reaches with his far hand to get a bag of Cheetos from his suitcase, opens the bag with one hand, eats it with one hand, wipes his fat face with one hand, stuffs the empty bag into the seat pocket in front of him with one hand, and I feel my blood pressure threatening to blow a hole in my brain. And what kind of person keeps bags of Cheetos in their briefcase anyway?
I get out a book and try to distract myself, but I immediately notice my elbow grazing his hairy forearm. I relax my shoulder and our skin touches. Interesting. I push down gently. Nothing happens. A little more. Nothing happens. Over the next 10 minutes I pretend to read while digging increasingly deeper at 30-second intervals. But the bastard does not move. Harder, deeper, and into the flesh of his forearm. I am starting to hurt myself now. How can he stand this?
I give up, on that tactic at least, and put my book away without finishing a paragraph. “Bring it on,” I think to myself, “let’s make this real uncomfortable.” Slowly, I start laying my arm down on his. It gets weird really quick. There we are, two strange men staring at the seat backs in front of us, practically holding hands. I hold out as long as I can before I give up and make for the lavatory. As I wash my hands vigorously I look in the mirror. What is up with this guy?
I poke my head out of the bathroom and immediately spy him looking out the window with both arms folded across his chest! I race towards the seat, but I am too late. He turns, sees me coming, and re-stakes his claim on the armrest.
I almost lose it. I almost scream. I almost grab his neck and break it like a pencil.
Instead I sit, awed at my anger. Have I ever been this angry? But why is he doing it? What a jerk! I am entitled to the armrest just as much as he is! Why can’t he just fold his arms like he obviously wants to? He must enjoy depriving me. But why do I care? Why does this man exert so much power over my emotions? Is my anger simply due to my discomfort? Probably not. I had been a missionary kid. Uncomfortable travelling was my life. Air conditioning vents had dripped on me for whole flights and then doused me with a cold and muddy liter upon landing. I had been packed into truck beds under windowless tin covers with dozens of Filipinos in the middle of July. I had lived in airports for over a day in the eternal limbo of rescheduling. And I had never been this angry. Afterall, I could sit in a much narrower seat with no armrest, smashed up against the wall of the plane on one side and a horde of people on the other, with smelly air conditioner water dripping on my head every two seconds, and I know it would not bother me nearly as much as this does. The problem, I realize, is that somebody else is involved in a specific way; he is selfishly, knowingly, needlessly, and continually, treating me unfairly.
And then something snaps inside of me. I give up on justice. What’s the use of it? It is just stressing me out. For the rest of the flight the man still does not move, and I maintain a wooden lean and shift of my body weight to accommodate him, but I am happy. From time to time, I look at him, and barely hold in my laughter as he continues his death grip. My back starts hurting, but it is no big deal. It is temporary, and I am happily finishing my book.
Thanks middling man. You were a marvelous teacher.
This is the rough draft of a new myth I wrote yesterday. You can see an explanation of the project and a few more myths on the “My Myths” page above.