I was on Flickr awhile back, wondering whether I ought to renew my “pro” account so that the world could have continuous access to pictures of the second time I tried and failed to grow out my hair (there you go! you’re welcome!), when I stumbled over a photo in Sarah Brown‘s photostream that reminded me of a story I’d never told you. (The link to this photo is at the very bottom of this post because it might possibly be better to see it after you read the story that explains it, should you choose to take the leap and continue reading.)
In April of aught-seven I was flying to New York to work with Alice on this book idea we had that was so good we were sure someone would buy it right away, instead of two-and-a-half years later (about which time lag, no, I am NOT COMPLAINING). My flight was on Jet Blue out of Burbank, and I had an aisle seat. In my little three-seat section, a woman had the window seat and a man was in the middle and they were chatting pretty amiably when I got there so I figured I was off the hook, seat-chat-wise, for the next whatever, five hours.
But as soon as he realized the flight wasn’t full, middle-seat guy said his farewells and bailed. Fuck, I thought. I’m not much on being anyone’s airplane buddy, even though window-seat lady seemed OK, actually, as a person — head-to-toe in black; fifty-ish; sorting out some audiobooks on her iPod; also not overtly interested in being best friends. At some point during the general shuffle of books and laptops the ice broke between us and I learned she was traveling to New York to be with her daughter and her daughter’s new baby.
She also turned out to be somewhat of a nervous flyer. While we were still on the tarmac something in the baggage hold made a clunk and she pressed the call button. “What was that noise?” she pleaded to the flight attendant. “They just shut the door to the baggage hold, there’s nothing wrong, it’s completely normal,” he said soothingly. Oh, he was good: so reassuring, so patient, a real “there are no stupid questions” kind of guy who could shake a bag of nacho cheese Doritos out of his sleeve for you and then land the plane single-handed while leading the passengers in a rousing chorus of Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.
My seat-mate nodded and buckled in, but I could tell she was growing less happy by the minute. She completely white-knuckled the take-off. The flight attendant was strapped in a jump seat somewhere up front, so I tried to tell her sincerely that everything would be fine. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying helplessly. “I just hate flying and taking off and landing are the worst part.” I knew it would be incredibly rude to find another seat at this point, but I had to admire middle-seat guy’s boundaries. And his prescience.
Once we were up in the air the flight attendant took the initiative to check on her every ten minutes or so, for which we were both terribly grateful. (“What was that sound?!” “Landing gear, darling.”) Eventually I reluctantly admitted to myself that it was my duty as a decent human being to chip open the stone facade that embraces my cold, cold heart and chat with her as a distraction from her suffering, so I put down my New Yorker and learned that she was a screenwriter, that she’d just been to a taping of This American Life, and that she had a piece of grilled salmon on a bed of baby greens that she wanted to split with me. Because she was a mom and a nice person, and I’m the type who believes she can make it from coast to coast on a Clif bar and half a Vitamin Water.
Eventually, I told her that I had a five-year-old son, and that my writing partner and I were working on a fake pregnancy book. “That would make a good screenplay,” she said, musing. It was then that I began to question the virtue of sharing a creative idea with a creative and possibly well-connected person.
Oh, God, she was musing. She was making mental notes. She was constructing a virtual map with which to plunder our uncopyrighted creative treasure.
(It wasn’t for another week that I’d learn a vital rule: Never tell anyone your book idea until you’ve sold it.)
I didn’t know whether to back-pedal and tack some wild, invented tangent onto our book proposal idea to throw her off-course, or to just steer the conversation back to babies in general and hope she forgot what I’d told her. I guess I managed to do the latter because the next thing I knew she was showing me pictures of her grandchild on her iPod.
“Aw,” I said. The baby was cute, so I didn’t have to lie or anything. “Aw!” I said again, as she flipped through three, four, five photos. “What’s her name?” “Ramona,” she said. Ramona! Old fashioned yet urban. Ramona Quimby. The Ramones. The Real Ramona. “And here she is with her parents,” she said slyly. And all of a sudden Ramona was sitting between a movie star and a guy who looked vaguely familiar.
The baby’s mom was Maggie Gyllenhaal and the dad was Peter Sarsgaard.
She looked at me to see if I recognized her daughter. I marshaled every fiber of my being to emit another appreciative “Aw!” and then go hide in my New Yorker. She knew, though. She knew that I’d recognized her daughter and was impressed — and I wanted to give her that. Because she should be proud of the reach her daughter has and the work she’s done to earn it. But my unfortunate streak of Just Because You’re Famous Doesn’t Mean The Sun Shines Out Of Your Asshole, Dickwad was running directly against my well-worn grain of congenital But It’s Fun To See Someone Famous!
So I was torn, and when I’m torn, I freeze. I play it cool. I admit to no feelings whatsoever about the subject at hand, no matter how urgent or how normal it would be to just let go and make some sort of honest, inappropriate, thoroughly reprehensible reaction. “Bleaaahhhwwhhaa?” I might have queried her. “You pushed the star of Secretary out of your vagina? And your son is fucking Reese Witherspoon? Tell me more!”
As luck would have it, of course, we ran into turbulence over the Rockies. And head winds. Rip tides, volcano plumes, a veritable smorgasbord of weather conditions. I was desperately trying to concentrate on my magazine, while MAGGIE AND JAKE GYLLENHAAL’S MOM was busy listening to her iPod and clutching her armrests. Until the captain announced that due to the extra effort the engines were making to fight the head winds, we were running low on fuel. Which meant we were being diverted to Buffalo to get more gas.
My screenwriting, famous-child-having seat-mate was stricken. There is nothing worse for a person who is terrified of take-offs and landings to suddenly have an extra one of each horrifying transition between air and earth inserted into what was supposed to be a direct flight. I felt terrible for her; she looked like she wanted to cry. The flight attendant gave her all the attention he had time to give her, but he had a plane full of angry passengers — angry New Yorkers and Angelenos — so I sucked it up and gave her what I had, which even on my best days isn’t much. I held her hand.
When we finally landed at JFK (in the fog and in the dark, which I’m sure gave her whole Airplane Experience Cake an extra layer of Horror Frosting), she was limp. But she picked herself up and dusted herself off. She called her daughter, made a mental note (that I hope she forgot) to Google the word “Fussy,” and as a parting gift she offered me a pack of cookies the flight attendant had handed her somewhere between Buffalo and New York City. “I think the baby’s too young for these,” she said. “Do you want them?”
Yes, I did.