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Aboard Flight 175

March 1, 2008

Aboard Flight 175, a man lurches to his feet and begins pacing before the “occupied” toilet, mingling with the flight attendants like a bulky nuisance. His complexion is florid and sweat seeps from every pore. Lily feels for him. Rather than leave the first-class cabin to try his luck in economy, he walks to and fro, broad shoulders and barrel chest filling the tiny vestibule. The confined space amplifies his unease. His expression suggests that his bowels or belly, whichever is ailing, won’t hold tight for the ramble to the rear of the plane, and so he paces.

The man freezes mid-stride when turbulence strikes and the captain orders all passengers to their seats. With sad, nervous eyes, the man complies, fastens his seatbelt and dips his head into his lap.

Rough air doesn’t halt the serving of refreshments. The team of smiling attendants perseveres with lips stretched confidently under upturned noses. They do not need to use the toilet. They are not ill in the air. The squad tows a fleet of tinkling metal trolleys dispensing fruit juice and tea. There are few takers for the limp ham and bland cheese fitted between slices of bread; however, hands fly like auction paddles bidding for miniature bottles of awful wine and bargain brand gin.

One viciously pony-tailed attendant demands each passenger’s attention, refusing to move along without a reply. She leans and weaves like a cobra, angles her head and pitches her voice to reach window seats.

“Would you care for a beverage, sir? Sir! Would you care for a beverage?”

When answers are simply not available, she deposits the full-service items (headphones, towelettes, comment cards) on the chests of reclining sleepers, just to be sure. In Row 25, Lily politely declines each offering then watches the woman plop a little stack of sealed packets onto her seatmate’s slowly heaving bosom.

Lily rifles the seat pouch, conducting an inventory of safety tip card, motion sickness bag and sky-mall shopping brochure. All gone. She sneaks the safety sheet from between the knees of the snoring woman in Seat E and studies ocean flotation techniques and the correct posture when boarding the yellow evacuation slide. Lily listens to her seatmate breathe from her belly. Air gargles in Seat E’s throat and the woman slumps deeper. She smells of cinnamon gum devoured during take-off, and which now lolls from her mouth like a sleeping ant-eater’s tongue. Lily is certain the woman has removed her shoes.

She scans the craft for additional panic-quelling diversions, but sees only seatbacks and crowns of heads. A few rows away, three boys are playing a game that involves pressing the overhead reading lights and air jets on and off. Evidently there are rules, which the boy in the middle keeps breaking, drawing flurries of shoulder punches. Lily’s attention settles on the first-class cabin and she tries but fails to pick out the queasy man. Perhaps his head is still resting in his lap, draining the nausea from his guts.

Wearing what she believes is a cool, collected expression, Lily hums softly and checks her watch, trying to gauge the passage of one minute, five minutes, then ten. Her heart palpitates with a little less violence.

The captain interrupts Lily’s counting to announce their pending descent, and the plane banks. Nerves and pre-flight cocktails swell, and Lily, too, grows flushed and sweaty, plants her head between her knees, and wishes for solid ground.

Landing occurs in a series of sudden plummets. Her stomach uproots, and Lily thinks of a roller coaster ride the previous summer. The little cars plunged along the rails, rattling passengers with teeth-cracking vigour. Lily shrieked and clutched the greasy safety bar while her companion flung up his arms and attempted to photograph his own delight.

The plane cruises lower, tipping left to right. Green and grey striations become suburban streets, yards planted with flowers and kidney-shaped pools. Houses give way to industrial park where billboard-laden roofs offer toll-free hotlines, chemicals, and reliable long-distance shipping. A speedboat is stashed in the alley alongside one long warehouse; smashed sinks and toilets are heaped behind another.

A quick taxi along the landing strip, then the craft docks at Gate E. The seatbelt sign flicks off and passengers rise, crooking their necks beneath the overhead luggage bins. Toward the rear of the plane, a bilious Lily remains seated while others gather cases, flat computers, and wrinkly jackets.

She spots the queasy man as he reaches to retrieve a bag then charges for the exit looking freshly distressed. Lily waits with her own troubled belly while the twenty-four preceding rows shuffle from the plane, then snatching the paper motion-sickness bag as a precautionary measure, dashes along the aisle, along the exit ramp, along the terminal corridor, and along the curving entrance to the ladies room.

Lily makes it just in time.

All through, Lily dabs at her lips with a puff of toilet paper. Rising, she brushes her knees, which are bare above grey socks, straightens her skirt, pats her pockets, and gathers her things from the floor. In her hurry to bend and barf, she kicked her small carry-on case out of the stall, and her keys lie in a pool of condensation by the toilet. At the sink, she splashes water over her hands, dangles her key ring beneath the faucet, and then brushes her teeth.

The facilities are wheelchair and wheeled-suitcase accessible and in place of a door, a tiled wall is angled to conceal the interior. The architecture provides only conceptual privacy; Lily recalls how clearly the clattering towel dispenser projected through the departure lounge as she bolted for the toilet. Certainly, someone emptying her stomach would carry just as sharply. Emerging into the terminal, Lily uses body language to express that some other passenger was vomiting horribly. Not Lily.

Concentrating upon looking well, she collides with the queasy man as he exits the men’s room. Saying nothing, they touch each other at the points of impact (she, his elbow; he, her rib), travel to the baggage claim area in tandem, then to the taxi stand, where each hails a car and slips away.

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