Armrest Wars

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.  

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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

15 responses to “Armrest Wars

  • Nick

    …what a troll. How long was the flight?

    I get to feeling like that when people drive three feet behind me to let me know that they want to go faster.

    • JDW Clifton

      It was a domestic flight, only a few hours.

      What I love though is how much it bothered me : ) you can get sucked into caring about this so easily, and for sure driving is a wonderful venue for that.

  • Cary

    Yes, this is the battle fought over and over in countless seats. You definitely can get eaten up over it. And it is worse when you have the 15 hour flight.
    But yes, giving it up, letting it go, that is key. I ask God to work in me, give me a better heart than the one that had been placing daggers in the guy beside me.
    And it is a lesson that I seem to have to relearn regularly!

  • Alicia

    That’s hilarious… wow.

  • Nathan C. Clifton

    i would agree there are few things as irritating as deliberate jerkiness. I like to try and imagine what leads people to acting the way they do. Maybe somebody did it to him once. Maybe he lost a friend to an armrest related accident. Maybe he knew the armrest was uncomfortable and was protecting you from it. Great writing, way to work “radius and ulna” into prose.

    • JDW Clifton

      Thanks for the comment I appreciate it.

      I think that is really helpful actually: imagining how the guy who is wronging you might have been wronged. Maybe you grew up in a poor and selfish family where everyone, including the parents, was out for themselves, and he had to fight and maneuver just to get enough food at supper time and it became reflexive.

  • Alexander Lipnicki

    Psychologists call this ‘radical acceptance’-the most effective and difficult to master coping skill.

  • Shannon

    This is very well-written. Colorful, descriptive, engaging. But I was annoyed by what I felt/feel was probably an overstatement of the situation in the following: “Slowly, I start laying my arm down on his. It gets weird real quick. There we are, two strange men staring at the seat backs in front of us, practically holding hands.” If I didn’t know you, I would accept it as truth and move on. But it was just really hard for me to actually picture you doing this. Of course, maybe you actually did. So then I went back and re-read your intro to the myths and realized that you don’t care all that much about accuracy. And I understand your point, except that I care so very much about accuracy in storytelling. (You’ve heard Nathan and I argue about this plenty.) I feel a bit like the point of a story cannot be valid if the story itself was not valid/true. But anyway… I will try to put aside my desire for accuracy and truth as I read your myths. 🙂

    And just from a storytelling standpoint… I felt the “And then something snaps inside of me.” was a bit abrupt, maybe? There was just all this anger that you were inviting me to participate in and then it was gone. But maybe that was just hard for me to identify with because I don’t generally get rid of anger quite so quickly!

  • JDW Clifton

    When I say that the point of these stories is not to be accurate, that is true. Nonetheless, it suprises to learn how accurate these stories are when I ask other people about them who had been there. When they are corroborated by other sources I say, “really? wow, that was reall true after all.” This one is hard, because it was only me. But I am fairly sure I was laying my forearm completely on his and my hand was not holding his hand, but reseting on top of it. I was super pissed, and trying to make it as uncomfortable as I could.

    I think this is a difference between you and me in how our anger expresses itself. I think mine is more volatile. Quicker to start and quicker to stop. Do you agree? I know that sometimes my anger can spill away like water. And that time it really did.

    However, from a storytelling standpoint, if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. And, as I beleive, accuracy can take a back seat to storytelling as far as I am concerned. : ) So I’ll take some time and re-read it in a couple of weeks when I have some fresh eyes and see if I feel it is abrupt. Thanks for this feedback. I want to be a good writer and I appreciate it. Feedback is, as always, a wonderful gift. Keep it coming.

  • Shannon

    Well, I didn’t say it didn’t work from a storytelling standpoint. If you say it is accurate, I’ll accept that and move on. The abruptness I felt is very likely a different in our personalities, as you said, and, if so, should simply be ignored. Unless other people feel the same. Or maybe you could just lengthen the transition sentence. Put in a metaphor or something. “And then something snapped inside me like a…” Help me visualize the snap. A slightly longer transition point would have helped me.

  • JDW Clifton

    Thanks! I’ll look at it.

    Still barfing all the time? Last I heard you were.

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