Hello Holiday Revelers,
It all started while waiting in line to board a Denver-bound United Airlines jet. We were in Miami, the largest city in Florida, which is where lots of flight schools are located, and where - in the fog of my memory - I vaguely recall the 9/11 hijackers having trained to fly.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
A young Middle Eastern guy who Kevin and I presumed to be Saudi, having taught English to Saudi exhange students in the past and therefore considering ourselves Young-Saudi-Male-Identification-Experts, elbowed his way past everyone en route to the front of the line. He was college-student-ish in jeans and a striped polo shirt half-tucked-in, tousled hair flopping a wee bit over the boyish face.
"Excuse me," he repeated as he passed, looking flustered. "My friend is up there and we're checking in together." Kind of silly, this need to check in "with your friend," but whatever. 'Tis the holiday season, a time of giving and cross-cultural understanding, a time of forgiving others for bumbling ahead to the front of the line.
Still, the fleeting thought crossed my mind: why does he need to sit with his friend? And why so desperately that he's willing to cut in front of everyone else?
But the question swirled away within a few seconds as a cinnamony-sweet waft of Cuban buffet scent hit my nostrils. I knew this would be the last time I'd smell that heartwarming aroma for a while, since not many airports do shredded pork wrapped in plaintain leaves like Miami International.
We arrived at row 21 near the back of the plane, and Kevin began dutifully stuffing our carry-ons into the overhead compartments. As requested, we were each given an aisle seat directly across the lane from one another. Before sitting down, I scanned the faces of our seat-neighbors, bracing myself for what one always must on a nearly four-hour flight: someone overly chatty, sweaty, large, or otherwise invasive of personal/physical space. Generally I'm not an airplane socializer. Nope, I prefer to keep to myself, burying my nose in Sky Mall Magazine and taking a nap, reaching across the aisle to affectionately cajole Kevin every so often.
Lo and behold, seated in the middle of my row - right next to me - was no one other than THAT GUY - the young Middle Eastern dude who had brushed his way up to the front of the line "to be with his friend." And across the aisle, next to Kevin's seat, was a sullen-faced young man dressed in a white, cottony-silky religious-looking outfit with a religious-looking cap on his head. Presumably, "the friend." And obviously Middle Eastern too. And next to him, by the window, was another dark-featured guy - quite possibly, if not plausibly, if not certainly, of Middle Eastern descent too.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Still, my as I lowered my fat, cumbersome self into my seat, I couldn't help but notice my own heart rate picking up a wee bit, my mouth feeling ever so slightly drier than a few seconds earlier. Because all of a sudden, rather than seeing harmless young boy-faces of some studenty-looking guys, here's what I was seeing in row 21:
Three of 'em, with me and Kevin sandwiched in the middle. Hoping to distract myself from what I knew was my own ridiculousness, I nervously examined the barf-bag to assess its true barf-holding capabilities, studying the label. But the vision wouldn't go away, and before I knew it, this vision had morphed into:
All three guys in our row were typing madly into their I-Phones as we sat on the tarmac, awaiting take-off. Texting each other, I thought miserably, plotting their attack, coordinating when and how they would slit my and Kevin's throats before pouncing into the aisle. I wanted to warn Kevin that the dudes next to him might have knives and box-cutters hidden in their jackets, but didn't want to give away my own embarassing paranoia. So I sent him a mental message instead to watch his back, as my hand rose up to my own neck, feeling the skin there. It really wouldn't be hard to cut through that skin.
* * *
In a mad attempt to save myself, I instinctively turned to face the polo-shirted one beside me, hoping to engage him in conversation. My voice sounded tauter, higher, louder than usual to my own ears, my sentences punctuated by occasional nervous giggles.
"Hi! I'm Monica! Where are you from?"
He glanced at me sideways. "Saudi Arabia. But I'm studying here in the U.S."
Uh-huh. I gripped the armrest and swallowed hard. "So, are you, um, traveling by yourself?"
"No, I'm with my friend over there. We're going to Portland." He gestured to the religiously-white-clad kiddo next to Kevin.
"Oh, so not the guy by the window?"
"No. It's just the two of us." Better two of them than three, I thought. From a defense-perspective, anyway.
"That's your husband, right?" he said. "I can switch places with him so you two can be together, if you want." (So I can be closer to my friend, so we can form a more unified attack)
"OH NO," I said a bit too quickly. "This is fine. We prefer aisle seats. So, um, what were you doing in Miami?"
"We were there for a few weeks on vacation." (Intensive flight training?)
"Interesting. So, what's in Portland?"
"Oh, we're students at Portland State University. I'm in the electrical engineering program." (Good for bomb-making?)
"Wowsers! That's fascinating!" By this point, my voice was really loud and brittle in its faux holiday cheer, almost desperate-sounding, and Kevin was giving me odd looks from the top of his magazine. I knew he was wondering what strange social bug had bitten me between now and five minutes ago. Of course, how could he know that I was only using my keen social skills as a weapon, protecting the safety of us, of the baby, of this whole flight, of our country, of our whole damn planet???
"So, um, that Portland weather must be a bit of a shock to your system," I continued. "How're you handling the cold rain?"
"It's not good," he said. "I prefer annoying heat to annoying cold. There are some disadvantages to living in hot climates, though. The heat affects people's moods, and makes everybody angry and irritated all the time. Like, in Saudi Arabia, everybody's angry all the time."
That did it. By this point, nothing he could have said would have sounded un-terrorist-like to me, nothing he could have done would have alleviated the rapidly growing blob of panic in my head. I was certain, almost certain anyway, that we were all about to die. Just then, the fetus began to flail madly inside my belly, as he always does before and during take-off and landing. The baby: my last hope in this game of terrorism-survival.
Acting on some crazed emotional impulse, I suddenly grabbed the Saudi guy's hand and yanked it toward me desite his obvious surprise and resistance, and pressed it firmly against my belly, right below my bra-less boob. "THE HEAT GETS EVERYONE ANGRY?" I said. "WOW! BUT FEEL THIS, RIGHT HERE! THE BABY'S KICKING!"
As if a kicking fetus had anything to do with short tempers in the scorched desert.
The baby went WHOPP right against the Saudi dude's hand and I watched him closely, waiting for him to morph into a human being instead of a turban-wearing, knife-wielding murderer. If a baby's kick couldn't soften up a terrorist, then I was going to officially give up and start praying to the powers that be. The guy's eyes grew wide as a grin spread across his young face.
"Wow!" he said. "I've never felt that before! That's so cool! Is he...do you think he's rotating? In our cuture we say that rotating babies make good leaders."
And WHOPP - another kick right against his palm, and his smile got even bigger. I held his warm hand there with relentless force, pressing mine on top of his. Kevin was staring at me now across the aisle, clearly wondering what on earth had gotten into me.
"Yeah, he's probably rotating," I said. "Maybe he'll turn into a leader, like you say."
And finally, after several strange minutes in this position with the fetus wriggling around spastically inside me, BOOM - the young Saudi man turned into an ordinary harmless college student. Just like that. As my shoulders relaxed, spit filtrating into my mouth again, I released the still-surprised guy's hand, feeling more than a tad bit silly. Feeling like a bit of a shit-head, actually.
I glanced down at the I-Phone still in his hand. There wasn't a half-written text message with the words "knife" and "slit...throat" in there, but a frozen game of solitare. "Actually, yeah," I said. "Let's switch so you can be by your friend."
He smiled and shook my hand. "It was nice talking to you! Thanks for letting me feel the baby - that was awesome!"
I tugged on Kevin's shirt sleeve and we all got up to change seats, Kevin not saying but undoubtedly thinking: what the fuck was THAT all about? I figured we could discuss the whole episode later, in private.
* * *
Fear and prejudice: now I can totally see where it comes from. How it starts, escalates inside our minds to irrational proportions, leads to holocausts and civil wars and bombing abortion clinics, makes whites and blacks gravitate in separate directions. It's like, you get this one impression of a group of people from a single unsavory incident and some media coverage, and suddenly they all become like that. And once you get it in your head that they're all like that, then it's not hard to take every single one of their words and actions and drop it into this preexisting slot inside your mind where stereotypes get confirmed. SEE? I KNEW HE WAS A TERRORIST!
Twenty minutes into the flight, the two Saudi boys, now sitting beside each other, had their headphones on and were watching the movie Elf on the small screen overhead, laughing uproariously like normal college kiddos. This cemented my final, joyful conclusion: we were not about to die .
And: I'm the freakin' weirdo, not them.