Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Nine month before my third liver-first kidney transplant, I visited my eldest son on the University of Virginia campus at Charlottesville. I was overjoyed to spend time with him, even though this trip had more to do with a costly shopping spree at Ikea than him missing me.

I booked a last minute flight on Jet Blue, the Kmart of the air: a bus that flies, offering cable TV so you don’t focus on how uncomfortable you are. I always choose an isle seat when I fly, because anything other feels slightly claustrophobic, especially on Jet Blue. Luckily, I got my seat. The plane was packed; everything was taken, except for the window and middle seat next to me. I looked up the isle just as the flight attendant announced that the door would close shortly. I couldn’t believe my luck! Only two empty seats on the entire plane, and they were mine!

And then it happened. Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum (the two fat characters in Alice In Wonderland) came waddling down the isle barely clearing the sitting passengers. They were heading straight for my empty seats. Oh shit! I thought. First the son squeezed in close to the window, shifting his body as best he could. As he sat, his fat spread onto his mother’s seat. I watched in horror, fully aware of what this meant for me. Then the mother shifted and squeezed her way into the middle seat…and mine.

The son couldn’t put down his armrest because he was too fat. The mother couldn’t put down the armrest between us, because well…you get the picture. The woman glared at me as I took what was left of my seat. I managed to accommodate a little over half of my buttocks. The rest of me hung over the isle. The Gargantuan couple beside me dwarfed my one-hundred-and-five-pound build. I felt like Alice In Wonderland, the shrunken one, shadowed by six hundred pounds of Dee and Dum. I strapped myself in, while the flight attendant handed them extenders. I’d never heard of such things until then. It’s for people who can’t fit in a regular seat belt and need an extension.

The flight took off. The woman was unpleasant. She couldn’t put her arm down and held it in a sort of self-embrace position. If she had lowered it, I would’ve fallen into the isle. To put it simply, the sacred distance strangers enjoy, the space we take for granted even on a Jet Blue flight, was gone. She and I rubbed against each other like lovers. Thank goodness for Jeans and long sleeves. I turned towards the isle to create some semblance of private space, only to encounter the gaze of the passengers around me. They all sported the same “Oh, do we feel sorry for you,” look. And I replied with a beaten puppy face. I didn’t know it yet at the time, but I was already quite weak and sick, and had no energy to deal with this situation.

As unfamiliar as I am with the plight of fat people, I’m sure they’re not all as unpleasant as this woman and her son were. She glared at me every time she maneuvered her arm, as if all of this were my fault. Then, the snack cart came by. Suddenly her arm darted straight out with a wobble as she said, “Four barbecue chips and four Doritos.” Her son asked for the same. Once the attendant silently handed them half the snacks on the cart, Fat lady mouthed something under her breath. She couldn’t get drinks because the tray wouldn’t go down and her hands were already full. But her son insisted on a coke. The mother continued to mumble as she struggled to bring the Doritos to her mouth without knocking me over. Leary of this whole state of affairs, I left them both to their junk food feast to go to the bathroom, and to complain. After all, I had paid for a whole seat, and I wanted it.

The flight attendant agreed with me. A few minutes after I had returned to my seat, she came over and told my sticky neighbor, “Ma’m the armrest has to be down. Please lower the armrest. The lady looked at her and replied, “I never heard of such a thing. No one has ever asked me that,” meaning this wasn’t her first flight, nor was it the first time she inconvenienced a passenger. The stewardess grabbed the armrest, and began pulling it down with all her might, claiming with each jolt, “this…has…to…be…down.”

Not exactly what I had wished for. Fat bulged from my neighbor’s torso and rump to compensate for the space taken over by the armrest; and my sitting surface shrank even more; one buttocks cheek, and more personal contact. As soon as the well-meaning flight attendant left, I raised the armrest again, quickly scooting into the space it had just freed. I sat sideways facing the isle, and stared out the opposite window, hoping for…land, please? In the meantime mother and son munched on their fourth bag of barbecue chips. I sipped my water, exhausted, and drained, but did what I do best. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s making an intolerable situation better. I’d done it pretty much my entire life with illness; I certainly could do it with some obnoxious woman invading my physical and air space…in a plane. Mind over matter. I zoned out the fat squad and meditated on seeing my son, meeting his friends, and wondering what we would do besides spend money at Ikea.

We arrived at Dulles. Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum stayed seated while the rest of the passengers deplaned.
A couple of months later, back at UVa I met a Jet Blue executive whose daughter also went to school there. I told him the story. He suggested I write the airline a letter. So I did. The reply shocked me: ‘we’re very sorry for your inconvenience, but we can’t discriminate against obese people. We hope you’ll understand our position and continue to take advantage of our many destinations all over the country.’ Seriously? And what about the rights of regular folks? I thought. I tore up the letter and never flew Jet Blue again.

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