I hate flying.
It’s not the airports, the traffic, the bag-checking, or even the shoe removal and full-body X-ray. That stuff is no fun, but I can tolerate it. I hate actually being in the air. Even though I’ve heard the statistic (“It’s safer than driving a car!”) a million times, what I call my “primitive monkey brain” kicks in as soon as I look at the plane. A tiny, primeval voice in my head says, “That is a building with wings, and buildings can’t fly.”
No matter how many times people try to explain it to me, using words like “propulsion” and “thrust” and “imbecile,” I still can’t wrap my brain around it. I feel certain that the plane I am about to board will be one of the rare ones that drops out of the sky like a stone.
I was sitting at DFW airport, after the car I was riding in had a flat and I had to be handed off to another family member in the pouring rain by the side of the freeway like a parcel of contraband. I bolted from the car at the terminal ten minutes before my flight was to depart, sprinted through security like a maniac, and screeched to a halt at the gate to find that my flight had been delayed an hour… then another hour… and then another.
About twenty minutes before I actually boarded the plane, a young woman sitting nearby, pretty and in her mid-20s, hung up her cell phone. I knew she had been talking to a boyfriend or husband because I heard her say, exasperated, “I can tell you’re playing video games.” Now, tired and impatient like the rest of us, she looked at me and said, “What’s your story?”
I was taken aback, not because of her unorthodox greeting, but because this was my favorite way of starting conversations with strangers. I was used to being on the giving and not the receiving end of this bold opener. I told her I was on my way to see my boyfriend, she said she was on her way to see a friend, and we exchanged travel horror stories for a few minutes before we started telling each other more about ourselves.
I’ll call her Janet. She was from Chicago, 26 years old, a psychologist, married for three years to a newly graduated attorney, living in New York for five years. She was curious and direct. She asked me about my politics, and seemed a little surprised when I told her I owned a gun, and my boyfriend owned several. She said she wasn’t used to being around that. After hearing about my politics and expressing a little of hers, I became aware of what I had already guessed: we were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. She then asked if she could take a picture with me in which the large black Texas tattoo on my forearm was showing. “My husband will love this,” she said. I said sure, we snapped the photo, and then it was time to board the plane.
As we queued with other disgruntled passengers to board — by this time it was nearly midnight and our flight had been scheduled to leave at 8:15 — Janet, having ascertained that I was interested in politics and wrote about the subject often, asked me what my “pet” subject was, the one to which I gave most of my attention. I took a deep breath and said, “Definitely pro-life.”
“Really?” said Janet. “That’s funny because mine is pro-choice.”
“Really?” I said. I continued talking politely, answering her questions. She was candid and inquisitive about my positions, and I found her charming and genuine. But inside I was in a state of turmoil.
Three days earlier I had attended a meeting hosted by Planned Parenthood of North Texas in which the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based pro-abortion group, discussed their lawsuit against the state of Texas and the partial injunction they had won against the so-called Sonogram Law. I had been asked to go by the president of a pro-life organization who was interested in CRR’s legal strategy, and I had attended incognito, not divulging myself as a pro-lifer, seemingly just another “abortion rights” advocate interested in the lawsuit. I wrote about the meeting for Live Action, and explained a little of how traumatized I was by the event. It had filled me with fear and loathing, an awful sense of dread.
I felt a huge gulf between the way I saw the world, and the way the “concerned” women sitting around me in the “church” saw it. It startled and confused me, how self-righteous these people were about the perceived suffering of women, while making no mention whatsoever – none! – of the fate of their slaughtered children. I felt like I was in the presence of evil, a type that was particularly dangerous not only because it thought itself good, but because it seemed so banal. These women wore sensible sandals, not horns and hooves. They genuinely thought they were helping, and it scared the living hell out of me.
So as Janet and I boarded the plane I felt a little twinge of that feeling I had had only three nights before. It still hadn’t left me completely, as a matter of fact. And now here I was, face to face with a person who seemed perfectly nice, but advocated for the right of a woman to have an abortion.
I was seated a few seats back from Janet, and she asked if I wanted to move up and sit across from her. I told her I would if no one sat there, and as we waited for takeoff we used our iPhones to friend each other on Facebook. I also prayed. I prayed that someone would sit in that seat so I would not have to talk to her, and I prayed that if I did have to talk to her, I would be suddenly blessed with the gift of eloquence. I have never liked arguing, although I usually do okay with it. I prefer to write out my arguments, and have time to consider them thoughtfully. Added to my anxiety about spending the next hour and a half debating abortion with a stranger was my fear of flying, which began to really kick in as we waited for takeoff.
My fate was sealed soon after: the flight attendant came by and said, “You can move up and sit by your friend if you’d like. ” Sigh. Thanks, lady. I moved up, feeling bad for feeling bad. After all, Janet seemed like a kind, funny, intelligent, authentic person. I had immediately liked her.
Needless to say, Janet launched into politics, religion, and abortion right away, and the next hour and a half are a blur to me. We covered everything from Darwin to Sarah Palin to marriage to Judaism, and we disagreed on almost every single subject. We connected on one topic though: both of us were strongly pro-Israel. Janet was Jewish, and had visited there, and encouraged me to do so.
“We finally found something we agreed on!” I said.
“I bet we agree on more than you think,” said Janet, which shut me up for a moment.
Although my answers seemed to shock her occasionally, Janet never acted as if I were insane, stupid, or evil, and I hope I never acted that way towards her. In fact, her beliefs, though diverging from mine, and in my opinion often ill-considered, did not make her seem less human to me. She impressed me as an honest, bright, and compassionate young woman, though one I felt was very much, unfortunately, a child of her age.
As we landed, I felt a great deal of relief. Janet was a seasoned and relaxed flyer, and I asked her if she had used her skills as a psychologist to distract me from my fear of flying. She said she had, and I smiled. I wondered then — and still wonder — if she was not so much interested in talking to me, but just doing a good deed by occupying the mind of a nervous flyer.
We disembarked. Janet was tired and in a hurry to get to her friend. We said our goodbyes, and I smiled as I spotted my boyfriend in the terminal. “Is that him?” she asked, because we had made time in between discussions of the Gaza strip and partial-birth abortion to talk about our significant others. “That’s him,” I said. As she walked ahead of me and past him, I heard Janet say to him, “She’s a great girl.”
Aside from a brief Facebook comment, I haven’t spoken to Janet since the flight. “Single serving friends,” as Tyler Durden said in Fight Club. To me, though, she was much more. I think of her often. I feel like we met for a reason. I don’t know what, if anything, I meant to Janet, but to me she was a very necessary reminder, after the contempt and dread I felt during the Planned Parenthood meeting, not to demonize the other side. It is neither honest nor constructive to pretend that her opinion on abortion is acceptable to me, but neither is it honest or constructive to pretend that she is the devil. She is not. She is a kind, intelligent young woman, and there are many like her. And that gives me hope. We can be of no use to humanity, born or unborn, if we can’t see the humanity in each other.
On the flight back from Mississippi, I sat in almost the exact same seat I had sat in during my earlier trip, and sitting where Janet had been was a woman about six months pregnant. I didn’t have Janet to comfort me with distracting debate, but occasionally in my anxiety I would turn and see the woman sitting there dozing, and think of the sleeping child in her womb, and feel at peace.