After the first several months of my second season of basketball in Italy, there was nothing that I looked forward to more than going home for the mid-season Christmas break. I could not wait to see my city, my family and friends, eat American food, understand entire conversations, and so on and so forth. However, I looked forward to the 10-hour plane ride with about as much joy as I looked forward to my Dad getting home after work the day I got suspended from school in seventh grade; I knew it was going to be, well, "uncomfortable" to say the least. I landed in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina safe and sound and thankfully all went smoothly with no multiple hour delays or lost luggage. But the plane ride over was about as bad as I feared it would be. Let's take it from the top, shall we?
My journey started off with the whole song and dance of meticulously packing only the most necessary items to be sure that my bags were as light as possible, dragging that luggage from the parking lot to the ticket counter, and then weighing it only to find that it was just heavy enough to be over the limit and qualify me for a glorious $150.00-excess weight fee. Which in turn now meant that I had to go through the process of opening my suitcases to decide on what items that I could either cram into my carry-on or leave behind. I then had to re-weigh the luggage, and smile just sweetly enough for the lady behind the counter to say that she would let my few excess kilos slide and give me my boarding passes. With that obstacle cleared, I made it to my gate just as my flight was beginning to board.
I firmly believe that plane boarding is really an opportunity for grown, educated, normally well-behaved adults to revert back to the days of pre-school and lining up for recess. You remember those days; nobody is paying the teacher any attention while elbowing and shoving in order to maintain one's place in line. Even if EVERYONE is definitely going to make it to the playground, being the very, very first person to touch butt-to-swing set-seat is a matter of life and death. Toes are stepped on, personal space is violated and oh-please-believe someone's delicate feelings are going to get hurt. No one ever listens to the airline attendants who repeatedly ask people with tickets in certain zones to board in a certain order, and when told that their zone is not yet boarding, these over-eager passengers huff and puff enough to blow down the cottage of the Three Little Pigs.
As much as I didn't like the ordeal of just getting on the plane, I particularly despised walking past First Class on my way back to my Economy (a.k.a. "you had just enough money to get on this flying umbrella") seat. I think the green look of jealousy that colors the face of everyone taking the Bataan Death March to the rear bowels of the plane must be half the fun of actually being in First Class ; everyone wants what you got. You can see it on the First Classers’ smug faces as you file past. They had boarded the plane in a nice single-file line some twenty minutes before, and are now sipping some drink that won't cost them anything extra, resting their affluent elbows on armrests that they will not have to share with anyone else, and stretching their legs out to the furthest extension and wiggling their toes, just to show that they can do it and still have leg room to spare. Blast you and the horse that brung ya, First Class, because yes, I AM jealous.
The physical attribute of height is a great advantage to have should one desire to pursue a sport like basketball or maybe Olympic top-shelf reaching. It is not, however, a desired physical characteristic on an international flight in the cheap seats. Upon reaching my seat, I found that my seat assignment was a nightmare; the middle seat... in the middle row of seats...in the middle of the airplane. Shoot me now. I had maybe a centimeter of space between the front of my knees and the back of the seat in front of me and this is while all seats are in an upright position in preparation for takeoff. In front of me was a elderly man who felt it was his God-given right to recline his seat as far back as it would go, as if it wouldn't bother me a bit that his entire seat now rested in my lap. He was also stunned that I would have the sheer audacity to ask him to tilt his seat up just enough so that his headrest no longer was chafing my belly button. Young people these days, yes sir, I know, I know. Who would think that they would like to freakin' breathe too? The nerve. To my left was a rather “healthy” (see morbidly obese) man who had piled into his seat with the grace of an avalanche, beads of sweat dribbling through the front of his comb-over. I grabbed my shovel and started digging trenches for the war that I knew would soon ensue over the current no-man's-land of the armrests. To my right, an attractive middle aged German woman slid into her seat and I had about a two-second pause before the wave of perfume hit me like the sandstorm that almost runs down Brendan Fraser in the movie The Mummy. Things were off to a blazing start and we weren't even off the runway .
This seat assignment from Hell was far worse than a stocking full of coal as far as I was concerned; I suppose ‘Ol Saint Nick didn’t get my email that had started with the “Dear Santa, let me try to explain……” line. Oh well. It looked like I was going to have to bite the bullet and hope that my legs didn’t loose all motor function after being cramped in a pretzel-esque position for ten hours. About ten minutes after takeoff, and just as I was waving a fond farewell to the sense of feeling in my lower extremities, the patron saint of all six-foot-four athletes crammed into too-tight spaces on planes threw me a bone. The husband ( or boyfriend, whatever) of the afore mentioned perfumed chemical weapon sitting to my right suggested that I change places with him in the aisle seat of the opposite row, all in the name of being closer to his dearly beloved. Far be it from me to stand in the way of chivalry, and the prospect of an aisle seat that would allow me to move my legs was an added bonus. As I rose from my middle seat in the middle row of the middle of the airplane, I distinctly heard the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. intonating “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last”. I tried to keep the jubilation of my emancipation off my face as I nonchalantly accepted his seemingly generous offer and traded seats with my liberator. It took me exactly two minutes, or inhaling and exhaling several times to realize that I had been had.
If you have ever taken misstep into some dog mess, then you know there is that period of time where you keep catching a whiff of some God-awful smell that seems to stay in close proximity to you no matter where you go before you realize that smell is coming from the bottom of your shoe. The whole time, you are quite certain of your own sanitation grade; you have bathed regularly, deodorant is a go, a breath mint wedged between your teeth and cheek. And yet that smell…..Such was my situation. My eyes began to burn and well-up with tears as I tried to figure out where this terrible odor was coming from. As I struggled to maintain consciousness, arms flailing about trying to figure out how to get my oxygen mask to drop from above my head, I realized that the smell was in fact coming from the man sitting next to me. He had the window seat, and the putrid smell that was coming off of him was bouncing off the side of the plane, redoubling its potency by passing him again, and then hitting me like a Mike Tyson jab to the nostrils. “AND THERE GOES THE MOUTHPIECE!” The man smelled like a truck stop McDonald’s bathroom and the juice at the bottom of a county fairground garbage can in mid-July, or a mixture of a dirty gerbil cage and old hot dog water. It was the kind of smell that has its own set of hands and will latch on and cling to anything near it...like car upholstery, or bed sheets, or new hoodie pullovers like the one I was wearing. Right before I passed out and as the world turned to flickering shadows, I caught a glimpse of the man beside me gnawing his fingernails and watching “Harry Potter: The Blood Prince” on the personal movie screen that is located in the back of the headrest of the seat in front of us. When I came to, we were landing in Charlotte. Ok, so maybe the smell didn’t knock me out that hard, actually it was the fact that I purposefully didn’t go to sleep for the previous two days in order to black out for the plane ride. The smell just helped me get to a comatose state that much faster. I am a veteran at this now I do believe, and being utterly exhausted before getting on the plane means sleep…which means the time goes by quicker.
I survived. Which is really all that matters when it’s all said and done. My baggage all arrived safe and sound, my family was at the airport with open arms and hand-made signs proclaiming how much I was loved. We took pictures and hugged and laughed and it seemed like I had never left. It was the kind of reunion scene that takes up the first five minutes of the film "Love Actually". I collected my luggage from the baggage claim and headed out into the crisp Charlotte evening air. Ah, home sweet home. And just as we entered the parking deck, my brother Matthias turned, and with his nostrils flared, asked "Hey, does anyone else SMELL that?"...