Strange Bird, self-portrait, May 2009, pen and ink on graph
paper, doodle © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
Sitting on a United Airlines flight, San Francisco to Hong Kong, I am relieved to find the middle seat empty as the last passengers take their seats. The plane starts its slow taxi to the runway. I buckle my seatbelt.
This is Economy Plus, a section touted for its extra five inches of leg room, which on a 14-hour flight impress me about as much as the dinner selection of chipped beef or poached fish.
Before the plane lifts from the tarmac, Frank in the window seat asks about my nose. We have already introduced ourselves, and I have already answered his queries about my ethnicity and where I’m from.
“Where’d the nose come from?!”
The question jars. Does he always ask about physical traits of people he’s just met? Are those breasts real? So, how’dya lose your leg?
“It’s Apache,” I say. A lie, although I’ve always thought that my great-grandfather, José Inocencio, looked like Apache chief Geronimo. The bump on my nose, which forms a contiguous line with my cheekbones, definitely comes from José, as does the hook.
I stick my beak back into my journal. I’ve been working on a doodle I started almost two years ago but never finished. One of the side benefits of being held hostage on a plane for 14 hours is that I get to finish what I started and start a bunch of new stuff that I won’t finish.
“Whatcha workin’ on?” Frank asks. For all his annoying questions, he seems genuinely interested.
I open the book so he can see the picture of a fish walking down a city street. Frank is a lawyer, which is about all I know of him. He notices that a sign on one of the buildings in my drawing says the word LAW. I flip the pages to show him other doodles, and when I land on a picture of a bird next to the word Anxiety, I tell him that I did that one for a piece I wrote about Anxiety.
“Do you have anxiety,” he asks.
And with that question, I divulged to a man I’d known only as long as it took to reach cruising altitude that I sometimes suffered from anxiety, that my mother was also anxious, and that I tried anti-anxiety pills but weaned myself off of them.
Then I opened a fresh page in my journal and sketched the outline of what would become my next doodle: a half-woman-half-bird sitting in a cage, naked except for a cape of feathered wings.
This tendency toward self-disclosure—I’d like to think it’s a positive trait that comes from my mom. Mom was, still is, the kind of person who’s easy to be around. Troubled friends of mine or my brother’s when we were teenagers often sought refuge at our house. Mom fed them tortillas off the griddle or hot rolls with butter. She asked a few questions of the kids; mostly she let them be.
Uncle Henry, who is married to Mom’s sister Erma, used to visit Mom on late afternoons. He taught Drivers Ed after coaching track at an Albuquerque high school. Many times I walked home from the bus stop to find some pimply kid slouched behind the steering wheel of a car in our driveway. Who knows how long Uncle Henry had been inside, drinking coffee or tea, eating a snack, and talking to Mom?
Mom also has a way of telling it like it is. She’s unlike most women I know of from her generation. Rarely private, never proper. She’s our own Dr. Ruth; she’s told some of us, her daughters and granddaughters, that married couples ought to have sex “about three times a week.” I won’t go into why she once received a ceramic jar labeled Mom’s Farts.
Mom can be riotously self-deprecating. For Father’s Day a year or two ago, we all watched Dad open the usual array of gift cards: Lowes, Borders, Barnes & Noble.
“You shouldn’t get him gift cards,” Mom chided. “Why didn’t you give him something useful, like a hoe?”
“I already have a hoe,” Dad objected.
“Who, me?” Mom asked, at which point they looked at each other and burst out laughing.
We’re on the look-out now for HO-themed presents: Christmas gifts wrapped in HO-HO-HO paper, and a HO-HO-HO t-shirt found at a store in Denver, which we got for Mom this past Mother’s Day.
My mother (and my dad, for that matter) has always been transparent. As a former boyfriend used to tell me, “Your parents are WYSIWYG.” What you see is what you get.
There is such a thing as over-exposure. I don’t always know where to draw the line, although I’ve gotten more discerning each year that passes. I won’t hesitate to pop in the earbuds and keep to myself if I feel the need to stop emitting honesty.
For example, I could have told Frank that besides inheriting her anxiety, I’m also prone to Mom’s tendency to bloat after sitting in one spot for too many hours.
Speaking of which, on the return flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco, there was no Frank, but there was an Indian man hopping from foot to foot and doing knee bends in the waiting area near the bathroom.
It was the middle of the flight, shades drawn and the plane completely dark to simulate nighttime. I made my way past sleeping passengers, their legs, pillows, and headphones spilling into the aisle. The toilet was occupied. I looked to the Indian man and asked, “You in line?” He nodded and kept running in place.
We waited for what seemed like a long time, being as how the man wouldn’t stand still. When the door popped open, he hesitated, then looked at me.
“You go next,” he said. He’d finally stopped moving.
“Are you sure??” I asked. Maybe he was about to pee in his pants.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure! I’m going to be a loooong time, and after I’m done you won’t want to go in there.”
“Ah,” I said and made for the door.
I didn’t know whether to thank him at the time, although looking back, I’m really glad he shared.
Disclaimer To Frank, In Case He Ever Sees This
You truly were a nice seat mate, nose question notwithstanding. I should have mentioned that I’m known to write about people on planes. At least I didn’t draw you.