Blacking out in the aisle of a plane midflight is unnerving — not to mention socially awkward.

I had just woken up from a five-hour sleep on the overnight flight from New York to Paris. My first thought, as always, was to visit the bathroom, especially before breakfast was served and the aisle would be blocked. I pressed the button to raise the comfy seat from near-flat to upright position and unbuckled the seat belt. I stood up to find my slippers. Maybe a little too fast.

I became dizzy, breaking into sweats up and down my body. Sweating is disgusting especially on a plane surrounded by people and no chance of a shower. My vision became blurry, tunnel vision I think it’s called, and then, as if in slow motion, my legs fell out beneath me. This is quite scary if it’s never happened to you. (Although it is scary even it if has). Crumpled on the floor, in the dark, was me at 30,000 feet. And I still had to pee.

At least it was Business Class. The pundits don’t talk about this in debate over healthcare reform, but it’s true your experience is indelibly shaped by advantages in your circumstances. We know the the rich get better coverage and better doctors, but it’s also true they get better nurses. Stewardesses are like nurses — lovely, knowledgable, accommodating, comforting, manicured.

On my shoulder soon after I fell, I felt the hand of the Air France stewardess. Even in my clogged ears (had my hearing gone too?), her musical French accent cut through the din to ask if I was okay. I managed to nod yes, and mutter I would be fine. “I stood up too quickly after sleeping flat,” I explained. “This has happened before.”

This has actually happened three times before — all on red-eye flights to Europe. The first was to London for work, the second to Ireland for a friend’s wedding, and another on a flight like this one to Paris. If you’re collecting facts or a private investigator like Jason Schwartzmann’s character on HBO’s Bored to Death, here they are: The dizziness always occurs after waking and quickly standing up. It also is after 2-3 glasses of wine imbibed to help me fall sleep. I note this only to myself. It’s a vasovagal response thing, I learn from Wikipedia, and one of the triggers is high altitude. My father has had vasovagal responses in restaurants if he doesn’t eat soon enough after medication or with liquor. I called him about this to find out how he handles it and to see if his symptoms are the same. He’s learned to lay down on the floor — even in a restaurant — to get his blood pressure even again, he said. Luckily for me, none of these times occurred sitting in Economy Class. I hate Economy. I doubt the attention would have been even half the same. I might have collapsed in the dark, but not found by a stewardess until day break when the beverage cart had rolled into my prostrate body. The carpet is probably not cleaned more than once a month. Compared to the high-touch care of Business Class, Economy is the HMO of inflight.

I still needed to go to the bathroom. Able to stand up, one stewardess walked with me towards the sliding doors with the assuring words “Vacant.” I still wasn’t right yet, though, and she could tell. “You can’t go in there alone yet,” she was firm. By this point, I woud listen to anything she had said. For me, the French accent evokes a sense of history, art and confidence, and they have a good healthcare system. She sat me down in a kitchen jump seat, and brought me a wet cloth which immediately helped me cool down. I relished in the simple pleasures like a refreshing towel and the moment was my most positive since I woke up. I wasn’t going to die and there was hope I would get better.

Three stewardesses conspired in French while I sat there with my wet cloth, waiting it out. They agreed I should have oxygen and informed me so. They wheeled over a giant tank and handed me a mask to pull around my head. I had never put on one of these masks, yet had seen them so often on the safety videos. It fell off my face, which was disturbing for future worries, but we got it back on and it stayed in place. The turn of a knob and I was guided to “breathe” and did. The oxygen worked quickly, and to the stewardesses’ questions if I was feeling better, I was able to finally say yes. Yes, much better actually. Finally, I was released to go pee and everyone was able to go back to their duties. I wonder how much breakfast I held up from being served.

By the time we deplaned (love that word), I was still emotionally shaken but physically recovered. I had to fill out a form with my name, ticket number, phone number and home address. Europe loves paperwork, I know, but I think this was a normal procedural thing to cover their ass in case I dropped dead on the train from Paris to Belgium where I was headed for a speaking engagement. I smiled at the people sitting around me who looked at me with concern, probably relieved it hadn’t been them or we didn’t have to do an emergency landing and throw everyone off schedule. Maybe they were suspicious I was a drug addict or had a unique medical condition.

Next time. Recovery is always a bright, cheerful state of being and I of course made all sorts of promises to stay in that safe limelight. For example, I swore off drinking any wine whatsoever next flight, not even a glass. Since going from flat to upright too quickly may have thrown me off kilter, I also wouldn’t recline my seat all the way either to sleep. And I certainly wouldn’t stand up so quickly. Perhaps I’d count to ten as I stood up to find my shoes.

Reaching the custom booth lines, I already knew I didn’t mean a word of it. Especially the promise to forgo wine on such a long flight. I suppose I should see a doctor. I suppose I should read more than Wikipedia. But give up wine on my flight back to New York next week? Turn down the free champagne before an eight-hour luxury flight watching movies?

After all, I’ve never blacked out flying westbound.

My beautiful daughter-in-law threw her arms up and yelled:  “Thank God!  Not a moment too soon!” when I told her Rodent and I would fly back to Norfolk the next morning.   We’d delayed our flight three days due to bad weather.

A winter storm tortured DC, Boston, Baltimore, NYC and a wide swath of the Louisiana Purchase, and Delta Airlines had tempted folk to reschedule three days forward by rescinding its change-fee, so we readied to leave LA on 13 February, a holiday-packed weekend.

For only the second time in 15 years, my son volunteered to drive us to LAX.  His six-year-old twin boys shrugged goodbye and turned back to their Legos.  What did we care?  It was sunny, it was noon, it was a short flight, we were racking up our frequent flyer miles, and I had a couple bananas and a baggieful of red grapes in my carry-on.

Row 33 was the last row on the plane.  Advantages:  we were Really Close to the toilets and to the stewards’ gossip.  Disadvantages:  we were Really Close to the agonied, foot-shifting toilet queue, and we overheard the steward’s intercom messages to the Captain.

Rodent and I quickly got used to pans whacking in the galley behind our heads, but we paused dramatically at a steward’s cryptic message to the Captain:  “We need someone to talk about what’s going on here.”

I’d been happily counting my grapes, not noticing that we’d been fully-planed and sitting for 15 minutes after scheduled take-off.

The Captain came on the intercom, saying:  “There’s a leak in the Business Class toilet.”

The combined brains of Coach passengers held the same thought, or worse:  “Let ’em pee in Coach.”

The Captain continued:  “Mechanics are working hard and understand the time factor.  Though it sounds like a small problem, if the leak continues it might cause the water to go below to the Black Box and electrical systems which could—with the much colder temperatures during flight—freeze and cause problems.”

Forty minutes later we launched, and a happy tailwind had us in Cincinnati just in time to board our flight to Norfolk.

Cincinnati is not LA.  It is a hellhole of chill.  Not that it’s the only place in the USA that patiently provides four months of sub-zero temps and snow.  Oh no.  But this particular evening, near the cusp of St. Valentine’s Day, we had really ached for some sign of spring—Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction notwithstanding.  Hunkering down into our winter coats, caps and gloves, we tramped up and down a byzantine (ok, Rube Goldberg) passageway, stairway and bridge to our silver bullet, and—incredibly—comfortable seats in the fourth row.

My bum generously gripped in soft leather (was this Business Class?), I smiled at Rodent who looked a bit pale but game for the rest of the ride.  For the first time ever, I gave careful attention to the Safety directions.  At last someone had printed up a leaflet with bright, simple cartoons for each Safety step.  I am now able to explain how to grip the levers of exit doors A and C at the front of the plane, though not how to actually open the doors.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Captain announced, “I might as well explain what is going on.”

Had I been counting grapes again and not noticed that we’d been sitting 20 minutes past take-off time?

He continued:  “The external air cart that starts the engine isn’t getting air.  It’s frozen.”

My brain decided to go walkabout and sit with the man behind us who, according to his female seatmate, was her husband and an airplane pilot.

He was explaining to her:  “An external air cart blows air into the engine to get it started.  It needs heating up.  Some private planes have an auxiliary power unit that bleeds off air to start the engines, to move it to the side of the engine.  It doesn’t take much to move the air.  But the unit’s expensive.”

I thus intuited that some commercial airlines choose to have external air carts, one which was being heated so that it could blow air into our lifeless engine.

I decided to worry about whether the Norfolk police would have towed my outdated-license-plate- stickered car from the driveway, as they had told my neighbour two days before.  This was a worry I could get my head around.

The plane began moving in reverse the way my now-dead 13-year old stick-shift Datsun B210 felt and sounded when going in reverse whilst the emergency brake was on.

The Pilot Behind Us was saying:  “That’s one of the pushers.  They use pushers so they don’t have to use reverse thrust.”

Right, I thought, and wondered if I’d really rather have reverse thrust, and whether the pushers themselves needed external air carts to get us down the runway at a lively speed.

As luck would have it, we were now moving forward, and the Pilot Behind Us was telling his wife about the signficance of full flights and terrorist attacks, and the comparative power of ship engines and airplane engines.

Announcement from Captain:  “During the wait, we seem to have got a little icing on the wings, so we’ll just shoot over to the de-icing fluid.”

Pilot Behind Us:  “Smaller planes have heaters on them, but they’re expensive.”

Possibly a bit mad with his info-power, he added:  “Hope they don’t do like they did in Greensboro where they sprayed so much de-icer it cooled down the engine, so we had to wait for the engine to warm up.”

Rodent was asleep, doubtless dreaming about the pipe he hadn’t been able to smoke for the last ten hours.

And then Cosmic Birther Of All Radiance And Vibration smiled.

She had us up in the air staring down at a silent lava flow of jewels, the Cincinnati night traffic.  Then we were beyond the city and into space, contemplating a sky smatter-rich with stars.  Next we knew, the PBU was identifying a glitter of bracelets below:  “Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel……Hampton Bridge Tunnel….”

We were home to an airport of lush green potted plants all along the walkway and a sign cheerfully announcing:  “Underground Parking.  Lots.”  (I assumed that meant Norfolk Airport has lots of underground parking.)

We were about to undertake the most dangerous trip of the day:  the cab ride home.

 

We made our connecting flight to Mexico City from Guadalajara by, quite literally, one minute. This small, by-the-skins-of-our-teeth success involved our best broken Spanish, hand-holding, puppy dog eyes. Landing in Guadalajara an hour and fifteen minutes behind schedule, realizing that we late arrivals may very well have to finagle a different flight out of here in a language neither speaks fluently, I swallowed my excitement at Louisa’s studying of the landscape beyond the runway, her face filling the small window. To a girl from Johannesburg, Mexico oozes the exotic, fuels the othering nature we so shun out loud, as we wonder—how terribly wrong is it to fetishize that which we are not? We are cultural voyeurs, international peeping toms, fogging the windowglass of the world with our aroused heavy breathing.

But now, we’re nervous. Or at least I am. Louisa is the calming force in our relationship, and I do my best—sometimes purposefully, most times inadvertently, to agitate that force. This is an incredibly slow taxi to the gate and I stare down my wristwatch every ten seconds.

“We’re going to miss our fucking flight,” I grumble, amid the remainder of the infuriatingly calm passengers, “why aren’t we moving?”

“Look,” Louisa says, her finger greasing the window.

To my right, in the aisle seat, an old woman folds her fingers together in her lap. Her eyes are closed, and I bet she’s praying for something far less mundane than making a connecting flight. I’m not sure, what with all this engine noise, but I think she may be humming.

Louisa is pointing to a decrepit old AeroMexico plane, missing one wing, ditched defunct on the outskirts of this outskirt runway. The savannah desert tallgrass seems to be devouring it like some multi-legged sea creature—a giant hybrid of the millipede and the octopus—a millipus. Surely we are bearing witness to some spectral battle—nature versus machine. And the machine—this old plane that bears the brand of this younger one that transports us, ever so slowly to some still invisible harbor—is certainly losing.

Our faces come together in this tiny window as we watch the old plane. I swear I can see it rust before my eyes. I remember my countless road trips along the blue roads of the U.S., the rural towns in which I saw so many collapsed school buses, cargo vans, pick-up trucks parked on so many collapsed front lawns. This airplane seems the natural, if not operatic, extension of those lesser dead vehicles. This airplane, fighting in vain for its life against the strength of the landscape, knew once what it was like to fly.

“It’s moving even slower than we are,” I tell Louisa, and we sneak a kiss while the aisle lady’s eyes are still closed.

Soon, we’re running in the airport, the whirl of airport lights, the smell of roasting airport meats, the loudspeaker crackling its static, the music of Spanish spinning around us, running with our boarding passes in our sweating hands, our backpacks bouncing on our shoulders, to make it to the front of the customs line. Given our nearly decade-long battle for Louisa’s citizenship, anything bearing the word customs, sours in our mouths like lemon rind. And, of course, we have no idea where we’re going.

Soon, we make it to our official, an open-faced young man named Ricardo, laughing with his fellow officials about something I can’t quite understand. I make out the words pollo and estúpido. Something about a stupid chicken. I hope they’re not talking about me. Regardless, I decide to beg.

“Por favor, Señor. Uh, uh, tenemos billetes para México D.F. uh, uh, pero llegamos tarde…”

I’m trying, but he’s smiling at me like I am, indeed, that dumb-ass chicken, trying to talk his way out of the axe. I can’t quite tell whether his smile is genuine or condescending. If we were in the U.S., it would be condescending for sure. Louisa hugs my arm. Ricardo takes the boarding pass from my hand, shakes his head, clucks his tongue. This can’t be good. Surely, we’re to be decapitated and plucked, quartered and eaten—our punishment for our narrow-minded gringo othering.

“No es correcto,” he says.

“Fuck,” I whisper.

“What?” Louisa says.

“The gate’s wrong. It’s the wrong gate.”

Ricardo organizes for us an especially speedy backpack search, and tucks his electric body-wand into his hip sheath. Then, in a swell of philanthropy that’s all but gone the way of the dinosaur in the States, he leaves his post, motions for us to follow him, and walks us across the airport to the revised gate. His body-wand slaps against his hip, his small metal pieces of customs agent flair rattle like tambourines on his chest, and somehow, in our racing to keep up with him, the loudspeaker belching monotone Spanish above us, families reuniting and kissing without reservation, children scrambling with yo-yos, old men in massive straw hats groaning with their leather bags, young women in stunning woven dresses stretching themselves earthbound again, Louisa and I are struck with a sense of celebration. We’re surrounded by all kinds of music, by customs-agent smiles that actually are genuine; by a place that values humanity over procedure; where humanity is the procedure.

Ricardo delivers us to our gate and actually shakes our hands, wishes us good travels. We watch as he turns for the ten-minute walk back to his post. His gait is downright placid. Even from the back, I can tell by the way his neck tightens that he is smiling.

The woman who accepts our boarding passes is, according to her gold nametag, Luisa. That she bears my wife’s name at once quickens and calms my heart, and I mentally, and briefly, engage in some eponymous ménage à trois. Luisa explains to us in broken English, “We try to wait. You make it by one minute.”

I turn to Louisa. We are travel-drunk and delighted. We share a row with a young man with black-painted fingernails buried into his headphones. They’re so loud, I can hear the Spanish-language death metal. We’re still stationary, but the engines begin to whine. I lean in to Louisa’s window-seat and kiss her. As if to test Luisa’s proclamation, we try to hold it for sixty full seconds.

Nearly one thousand miles from home, it was just us and the two Norwegians in their blue pick-up. We took a road out of Santa Rosa that headed away from the red-banded hills near town and into the Chihuahua Desert. I felt a sense of wonder and satisfaction as the truck flew down the highway on what seemed an adventure never before undertaken—deeper into the New Mexican desert than anyone could ever venture. Not even Coronado’s tears could penetrate this place. Far away we drove to a moonscape, a desertscape, under a red glow of sun and blue wisp of desert day.

Eric had been to the airstrip before. He was hiding memories. Tragic and sad-looking, he sat behind the wheel with his sandy hair flipping happily in the wind. But then he was suddenly joyous as he yelled through the back window at us in the cab: “Jordan?!”

“What?”

“Do you love airplanes?”

“Yeah.”

“Wanna go to an airport?”

“Yeah!” Jordan looked at me, his six-year-old eyes as wide as the desert. “Dad, wanna go to an airport?”

“Sure, Jordy. Sounds fun. Let’s do it.”

Eric’s father, Olaf smiled. He stuck his arms straight out and puckered his lips. Strings of hair on his balding head flopped as Autumn, Jordan and I laughed each time he tilted side to side, leaned out the window and waved his arms. “Zoooom!” he yelled.

Autumn and I sat close to each other. We’d gone days without showering, our car dead in the desert in a town miles away. She put her dirty hand on mine and I smiled as her long brown hair flipped in the wind.

Soon we pulled onto a dirt road which took us to the tiny Santa Rosa airport. From there we could see a few buildings—converted mobile homes at best, little tin shacks. We parked and Jordan ran onto the asphalt airstrip. He didn’t seem to look for any planes. He waved his arms and stared at the ground. Then he went hopping and looked into the air like he was about to take off into the clear sky. He ran at full speed—which for him was scooting at best.

I jumped out of the truck too and ran after him, shouting, “Here I come! We’re gonna dive bomb this place!”

“Let’s take off and land, dad,” he yelled. And we did. We both went buzzing like airplanes. We ran side-by-side and waved at Autumn. She walked with Eric along the side of the sad cracked strip. They both looked magical there—her towering over him the way she did me. The sun hit their golden bodies with beautiful beams of light.

Let me begin by saying that YES, I am aware that what I’m about to say sounds crazy. And not just any kind of crazy. We’re talking Stephen King nuthouse crazy—a room with padded walls and a warden named Large Marge who goes about 6’6” and 250 and hasn’t smiled since the Reagan administration, partly because her moustache gets in the way and partly because that tick of hers prevents any form of facial expression. Nevertheless, here goes: I am being attacked by the Pillow People.

Let me explain. About two years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Kenya (motto: “Angelina Jolie slept here!”). We prepared for the trip in the standard way one prepares for a trip to a country where the insects are the size of racehorses and outnumber people 200:1.

1. Getting several dozen immunizations, all of which, despite the doctor’s promise of “this won’t hurt a bit,” hurt like hell.
2. Buying various industrial-strength bug sprays (the kinds that have skulls on the labels and names like “Zap It!” and “Kill ‘Em Suckers!”).
3. Familiarizing ourselves with African culture through intense cultural research (read: we drank Kenyan coffee and watched “Out of Africa,” which incidentally is the LONGEST movie of all time).

Also, because the flight to Kenya takes about two days—or three viewings of “Out of Africa”—the doctor thought it’d be a good idea to prescribe the sleeping pill Ambien. I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials. A peaceful, soothing piano melody plays as we see a woman enjoying the most peaceful, soothing sleep of her life. We know this to be the case because an announcer, in his most peaceful, soothing voice, tells us that Ambien will give you the best darn night’s sleep you’ve ever had—granted you don’t experience any of the common side effects such as grogginess, allergic reactions, and the sudden desire to operate heavy machinery. Oh, and let’s not forget hallucinations.

Knowing this, I had second thoughts when the doctor pulled out his prescription pad. Personally, I thought it’d be easier to sleep by packing a portable DVD player and watching “Out of Africa.” But once I weighed those side effects (nausea, abdominal cramping, dizziness caused by slow-moving plot), I knew I’d be better off with the pill. And just like that, I invited the Pillow People into my world.

INCIDENT ONE

We’re sitting on the plane, en route to Kenya. With a stomach full of undercooked turkey strips, I pop my first Ambien. I konked out thirty minutes later (I know this because that’s how long it took the flight attendant to clean up the mess in the aisle, courtesy of the infant in 12E whose parents, no doubt, will have second thoughts the next time someone suggests they bring their baby on a transcontinental flight). So I slept. And then suddenly, according to my wife, I screamed and threw my pillow on the ground. 



HER: “What’s wrong?”



Scared out of my mind, I couldn’t respond. She tried again. 



HER: “What is it?”


ME: “THE PILLOWWWWW!” 


HER: “What are you talking about?” 


ME: “IT’S TRYING TO EAT ME!”

My wife laughed, said I was having a bad dream, and told me to go back to sleep. Terrified of the man-eating pillow, I stayed awake the rest of the flight.

INCIDENT TWO: A YEAR LATER 

After working non-stop for months, I was putting the finishing touches on a screenplay. When I finally finished around one in the morning, I was too revved up to sleep. Enter Ambien. I was just about to drift off when I heard something: whispering. My eyes popped open and scanned the room. There they were, on top of the dresser: two throw pillows…TALKING TO ONE ANOTHER. I couldn’t make out the whispers but it was clear they were plotting something. I don’t know, maybe they were angry at me for ripping the tag off the mattress a few months back. Whatever the case, they were pissed. And out to get me.

INCIDENT THREE: LAST WEEK

You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson by now. But it was late, I was overtired, and with a big presentation the next day, I really needed a good night’s sleep. So I took an Ambien and experienced the most dramatic hallucination yet. First, the shoes on the floor turned into alligators. Then, the air conditioning vent morphed into a giant mouth and tried to eat me. And, of course, the pillows.

* The whispering was louder.
* The sounds more menacing.
* And the pillows were growing at an alarming rate, like Popeye’s biceps after a can of spinach or the construction of a new Starbucks franchise.

My wife stopped me just as I was jumping out of bed to grab the nearest scissors. So, long story short, I’m finished with Ambien. And the next time I’m tossing and turning and in dire need of something powerful to send me into a deep sleep, I know what I’ll do. Screw the side effects, I’m watching “Out of Africa.”