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Monday, June 6, 2022

Tales From the Middle Seat

Most people when they fly, avoid sitting the middle seat because you are trapped between the person sitting in the window seat and the person with the aisle seat. Since I am 5’3” and my husband is 6-feet tall, if we fly and the seating is three across, I’m often the passenger in the middle seat, giving him the aisle to stretch out a bit. I still prefer not to sit in the middle seat, but over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate it.

When we went to Hawaii in 1986, we picked up passengers in San Francisco before flying across the Pacific. My window seatmate was an elderly woman, dressed very dignified with white permed hair. As we prepped for takeoff, she touched my hand and then quickly apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m recently widowed, and whenever I flew before, I always held hands with my husband during takeoff. This is my first trip without him.”

I told her no need to apologize, and I learned that her name was Mrs. Maloney, and she was traveling solo to China to visit her son who was working there. We were only married four years then, and I thought her story bittersweet. 

To this day, when we take off, I hold my husband’s hand, and think of Mrs. Maloney.

About 10 years ago, I had the last-minute chance to accompany my husband on business trip to Las Vegas, and since it was impromptu, I had no choice of seat except the last row in the middle. My husband was five rows up on the aisle. This time my window seatmate, was a young Indian man. I don’t know how we got to talking, but we gabbed the four hours back to Pittsburgh. I learned that he was an engineer traveling on business and was deeply worried. He explained that the husbands of all his wife’s friends brought jewelry back for their wives when they traveled, but he was bringing his wife an expensive ceramic cooking knife. “She loves to cook,” he explained, “and I’m a practical man.” In effect, I told him to be himself and never compare yourself to others.

Not all flights have been as rewarding. I’ve sat next to huge men, who take over the arm rest and people who barely acknowledge your existence. Coming back from Alaska last fall, my seatmate by the window was a young teenage girl, who after takeoff, pulled up her hood, pulled her knees up, and wrapped herself in a blanket, like she was a human cocoon. She never moved the whole time from Seattle to Pittsburgh. I envied her bladder capacity.

My last trip is probably my most memorable. We just came back from a short getaway to San Antonio. The plane from Dallas to Pittsburgh was nearly full, and we were three rows from the back. Of course, I was in the middle seat and my husband was on the aisle. The window seat was still open and only a handful of passengers were making their way down the aisle. We were hoping no one would take the window so we could stretch out. Then suddenly a thirty-ish Asian man stopped in the row before us and pointed to the window seat as did his companion who right behind him claimed our window seat.

After saying “thank you” numerous times after creeping past us, my seatmate, looked at me and asked, “You Pittsburgh?” I told him I was going to Pittsburgh, and I asked where he was from. Through halting English and what looked like charades, I learned that he and his friend where from Japan and were working in Mexico and that his friend “Like Pittsburgh.” Which I discovered meant that they were going to the Pirates game. The friend held his phone up to me, saying. “Google tell me to go to Primanti’s.” I said yes, Primanti’s is an iconic restaurant in Pittsburgh, and that they put French fries on everything. My seatmate said something that sounded like “magnowas.” I shook my head that I didn’t understand. After several attempts, he finally raised his palm and traced a large “M” on it. He was speaking the international language of McDonalds! “Yes, like McDonald’s” I said. He tried to imitate my pronunciation of McDonald’s, and it sounded hideous. I hope I don’t sound like that; it sounded like I was retching. We all laughed and as we landed, I could hear his friend, like a little Eliza Doolittle, practicing saying the ‘rain in Spain lies mainly on the plain, repeatedly pronouncing Pre-Man-Tees over and over.

As we made our way down the gangway, we wished them safe travels, and my seatmate asked, “You been Japan?” I said no. He said, “You come. You have fun.”

I told him yes, I would like that, but I thought only if I’m in a middle seat for the flight, and I get to meet interesting people.