The 13 Hour Worst Best Friend

When flying, tradition and social norms dictate that certain rules must be followed by you and your neighbor:

  1. Greet each other when first meeting, but names are not necessarily to be exchanged.
  2. Apologize if you have to climb over one another to get to your seat.
  3. Politely make small talk about how crowded the flight is, whether you are coming or going, and give a brief discussion about anything significant that happened on your trip or you expect to happen.
  4. Slowly let the conversation die off while the plane taxis and takes off.
  5. Occasionally make small talk or exchange appropriately knowing glances throughout the flight.
  6. Say goodbye and wish each other well as you disembark the plane.

The person sitting next to you is, for all intents and purposes, your best friend for the next few hours, but these rules have become established over time, and are typically followed to ensure everyone onboard a relaxing and peaceful flight.

Recently, though, on a thirteen-hour flight to Tokyo, I sat next to a woman who was oblivious to these long held rules.

We boarded the flight in Los Angeles, and she was the very last person to get on the plane.  She was a thickly built middle aged woman, dressed for comfort in a button up shirt, and pants with an elastic waistband.  She carried two large bags, and proceeded to put one in the overhead compartment, or rather attempted to put it in the overhead compartment.  The first time she lifted the luggage up, she dropped it on my head.  Once I recovered, I put her suitcase in the compartment for her, and we took our seats; she sat in the aisle seat.  She crammed the second bag under the seat in front of her, saying, “Important stuff in this one.”  I smiled and nodded, pretending that I too had “important stuff” in the backpack stuffed under the seat in front of me, knowing that a change of underwear and toiletries were truly what would be important should my luggage disappear upon arrival.

While waiting for the plane to move away from the gate, I attempted to make small talk, following the rules.  I began by asking her where she was traveling to, and she said, “Malaysia.”

“Oh, “ I responded, “It’s supposed to be beautiful there.  Are you going to Kuala Lumpur?”

“No, I’m going to MA-LAY-SIA,” she said loudly, slowing the word down as she said it, over pronouncing each syllable.  “My son lives there.”

The polite Southerner in me decided to take another approach.  “Where in the country does he live?”

With a furrowed brow, she looked me dead in the eye and slowly, firmly, and even more loudly said, “MA-LAY-SIA.”

Realizing this would be a very long flight, I pretended to be engrossed in the terrible yard decorations and pet supplies in the Sky Mall Catalogue, and soon thereafter we were in the air.

The flight attendants came around handing out warm wash clothes to each passenger. When my neighbor was handed her towel, she began to toss it back and forth between her hands saying, “Eww! Smokin’ hot towel!  It’s so hot! What am supposed to do with this?”

I told her that it was wiping off your hands, and tried to model the behavior by showing her with my own actions, rubbing the towel over my palms and fingers.  I guess the smokin’ hotness of the towel must have cooled because she too began to clean her hands.  Then she was rubbing the rag on her forearms, then her neck and face, and then much to my horror, she unbuttoned the top two buttons of her shirt and began to wipe down her shoulders and armpits with the rag.  In order to let it dry, she then proceeded to lower her seatback tray, and hung the rag up to air dry, as though she were in an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” in the sky.

For the next hour or so, things died down, and she became engrossed in the seatback television set in front of her.  Yes, she did occasionally elbow me telling me to turn my TV to a certain channel to “check out” something she found amusing, but at least she was no longer bathing in public.

A nice dinner was served (it was not an American based carrier), and any annoyances I had were fading away.  That is, until she started digging in the bag stuffed under the seat in front of her.  From it she pulled a large aluminum foil wrapped object slightly bigger than a softball.  Slowly, she began to pull back the layers of foil and then cling wrap exposing a sizable chunk of yellow cake with coconut icing.  With her hands she began to tear the cake apart, devouring the entire thing.  When she was finished, she crumpled up the foil and wrap, stuffed them into the pocket of the chair in front of her, and wiped off the tray directly into my lap.  The coconut and cake crumbs rained down all over my lap.  “I’m sorry, baby,” she said as she then began to wipe me off, flicking the crumbs onto the floor.

Her appetite had not been fulfilled yet, though.  From her magical “important things” bag, she then pulled out a bag of fried pork skins.  This wasn’t a small, single serving bag, either.  How she ever managed to get both a homemade ball of coconut cake and a bag of pork skins through security, I will never know.  She munched away loudly, for the next forty five minutes, only stopping when she laughed out loud at something she was watching on TV or to cough, when she would choke on a pork skin, simply saying afterwards, “Went down the wrong pipe, gotta’ slow down when I eat these.”  She offered me a helping from the bag, but I politely declined.

At this point the lights went down inside the cabin, which is the international flight attendants’ way of telling you to “go to sleep and leave us a lone.”  I pulled my blanket up, put my pillow on my shoulder and waited to drift off.  This, of course was when my neighbor decided to get up and do laps around the plane.  She wasn’t wearing shoes and after ten minutes or so, I noticed that she ducked into a bathroom.  When she came back out, her shirt was gone, and so were her pants for that matter.  Now, she had on a pair of shorts – really short shorts; shorts no middle age woman of her build should ever attempt to wear in public, and a tank top.  As she made her way back to me I suddenly realized, and with great horror, that in addition to her now missing shoes, pants, and shirt, she had at some point also lost her bra, and that it was very cold onboard the plane.  She sat down, and simply said, “Now I can sleep.”

Within minutes, she was asleep.  She was sleeping so soundly, that she began to snore.  It was a soft whistling noise at first.  It was almost cute.  Almost.  Steadily it grew.  It became louder, and deeper, and seemed to be emanating from somewhere in the dark recesses of the back of her head.  Her entire throat and nasal cavity vibrated and rattled, creating such a noise I have not heard other than a construction site in an busy urban area.  I turned the volume of my headphones up louder, knowing I would not be sleeping tonight, but I could at least relax now, knowing she would.  That is, as long as I pretended not to notice the stares of the unfortunate souls sitting around us.  I simply returned their evil, sleep deprived glances, with an innocent Disney-esque, wide eyed shoulder shrug, as if to suggest, I don’t know her, but what can you do?

Then nature called.  After several hours in my seat, I knew that I must make my way to the bathroom.  This left me with me with a choice to make.  I could wake her up, ask to get to the aisle, and then risk her not being able to go back to sleep.  I didn’t know what else she had in the “important stuff” bag, and I didn’t want to find out.  So I went with my second option.  Quietly, I unbuckled my seatbelt, and slipped my blanket off of my lap.  I stood up, turning toward my seat and looking down at her.  Then in a feat that should have no doubt earned me a place on the men’s Olympic gymnastics team, I placed one foot in my chair, the other on her armrest, and holding on to the overhead compartment, passed directly in front of her internally vibrating face, and lowered myself into the aisle.  She kept right on snoring.

I repeated this climb, in reverse, to crawl back into my seat, and then began to drift off to sleep, as the lights came back on in the cabin.  Breakfast was soon to be served.  However, she was still asleep.  It was the flight attendant that finally woke her up with a firm shake, but she refused breakfast.  Instead, she used the opportunity to go the bathroom, and put herself back together.  The long pants came back, as did the shirt.  I can’t tell you about the bra.

We didn’t say much to each other for the rest of the flight, and when we finally landed in Tokyo, we wished each other well, and I told my thirteen-hour best friend that I hoped she enjoyed her visit with her son in MA-LAY-SIA.

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