As the plane hits a patch of turbulence and the pilot turns on the fasten seatbelt sign, I feel a bit of hope for the first time in days. It’s not that I want the plane to crash, just that if I were going to die in a plane crash, now would be a good time. If we took a dramatic nosedive, I likely wouldn’t be the only person on board crying, which I have been doing now for 24 hours: first lying in Amaya’s bed after she told me not to move to Seattle to be with her, then walking around her neighborhood because it was easier to walk and cry then to be in the same sad space as her, and again all last night while she snored beside me and her dog tried to edge me out of bed. The tears stopped briefly on the way to the airport because my ride packed a one-hitter and I can be sad or stoned but not sad and stoned, but the high wore off while I waiting for my flight and the tears started again over greasy Sbarro pizza in the food court. At that moment, it felt like the only thing worse than Sbarro pizza was crying over Sbarro pizza, and never making it to my final destination, back to the house I had planned on packing up and moving to west, sounded just fine.
No one around me seems disturbed by the turbulence. They continue dozing or flipping through the in-flight magazine and the only one who even comments is the six-year-old sitting next to me, Andrew, who I decided to hate when he climbed over me on the way to the bathroom. My dislike of Andrew was cemented after he opened a red bag of Doritos, which reminds me of Amaya. I’ve never seen Amaya eat Doritos but she has a deep love of Taco Bell, something I would find distasteful in anyone but her, and Doritos and Taco Bell are basically the same thing. I hear Andrew say, “Mommy, why is that man crying?” and I know he’s talking about me. Andrew is not the first person to mistake me for a man, and I doubt he’ll be the last. When I was Andrew’s age, I looked not unlike him, with a bowl cut and socks pulled up to my knees. I was such a tomboy that it was easier to nod and smile when strangers called me young man than correct them. The only time it happens these days is at airports, but I get “he’d” almost every time I fly.
The first time I made this trip to see Amaya, an old man bumped into me in the security line, turned around, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am,” before doing a double-take and apologizing: “Whoops! I mean, sir.” It usually amuses me, but right now, as Andrew’s mom looks over at me and shushes her son (Andrew! Don’t talk about people in front of them!), his mistake just brings more attention to my swollen eyes and I hope he’s the first to go when the plane crashes. Second to go will be the man reading GQ across the aisle. I’m sure he’s perfectly nice and honestly I like the tartan scarf he’s wearing, but Bruce Willis is on the cover of his magazine and Amaya loves Die Hard so much that she had the first lines of the movie tattooed on her shoulder. I guess you don’t like flying, huh?, the tattoo reads. No, no I don’t.
The first time I saw someone in the throes of heartbreak was a college friend, Marie, whose boyfriend had finally broken up with her after months of unhappiness and a lot of talking about it. I went over to Marie’s house that first night. She was drinking red wine from a plastic tumbler and vacuuming her living room over and over, her hair in curlers, wearing a housecoat the previous tenant had left behind. Marie was acting crazy, crying one moment, laughing the next, and I didn’t understand why she was so upset. Her boyfriend worked too much, didn’t have enough time for her, and was so judgmental about her recreational pill-popping. Not only that, Marie flirted with anyone who entered her airspace, including a professor to whom she had slipped her phone number as she turned in a final exam. Now she was free to take as many Percocet and tempt as many professors as she wanted. Why can’t she see this was a good thing?, I wondered. Why can’t she just get over it? A year later, I was the one swinging from laughter to tears, devastated at the loss of my first girlfriend.
Instead of popping pills and wearing a housecoat, I spent three months reading self-help books and day-drinking on my stoop. I lost so much weight that I had to wean myself back onto food with clear soups and plain rice. Like Marie, I was completely obsessed with my ex; I thought about her constantly. What was she doing? Who was she doing it with? But this was 10 years ago. We didn’t even have cell phones back then. If I wanted to call her 17 times in a row (and I did), I had to consider that one of her roommates might answer the phone and, while my ex already knew that I was crazy, I didn’t want anyone else to. To stalk her I’d have to actually leave my house. Amaya is 3000 miles away and I can track her movements from my couch. She’s not on G-chat? Well, what’s her Facebook status? Hasn’t updated it in a while? Maybe she posted a photo to Instagram. I don’t like this about 2013 and I really don’t like this about myself. I could just not do it, of course, not take breaks at work to look at her 800 Facebook photos, none that capture the way she looks when she’s asleep on her couch like snoring, pants-less, and with a 20-year-old t-shirt barely covering her ass like she’s Donald Duck. I could block her on Facebook and email and delete her phone number and all of her texts, but I know that I won’t. Instead, I’ll stare at the few pictures I have of us together and hold tight to my phone, willing it to ring, willing her to call or text or give some indication that she’s thinking about me.
I’m no stranger to crying on planes. Maybe it’s the air pressure or the stress of travel or the realization that I am 38,000 feet in the air, captive in a fallible machine built by fallible hands, but I often find myself wearing sunglasses on planes, tears dripping silently down my face as I stare at whatever terrible movie plays on the tiny screen above my head. I first noticed this on a flight from Denver to Raleigh years ago, when I started welling during The Longest Yard, a feel-good comedy about a group of ragtag but good-at-heart criminals who beat the cruel prison wardens in the annual penitentiary football game. I am maybe the only person in America who cried during The Longest Yard, which starred Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and that dramatic genius with gold teeth and a piece of tape under his eye, Nelly, but I am not the only person to experience inappropriate plane crying.
There was a segment on This American Life several years ago about this, in which the reporter, hypothesizing about why people cry on planes, said, “Nothing in my little hard-wired brain is capable of understanding—I mean really understanding—stepping onto a metal tube, hanging in space for a while, and then stepping off 6000 miles away in a place with different weather, different stars, different time.” That’s how I feel right now: Nothing in my little hard-wired brain is capable of understanding that when this plane lands, I will not go home to quit my job and pack my bags and start my life with Amaya. It is that denial, that hope, that will make the next few weeks hard. If I believed in God and fate and destiny, I would tell myself that this just wasn’t meant to be, but I don’t believe in meant-to-be or not-meant-to-be. I believe in facts, and so I turn to science for solace, paying $5 for an hour of in-flight Wi-Fi so I can Google “the science of heartbreak.” I take comfort in the number of hits for that term (1.7 million) and for the word “heartbreak” itself (31.5 million). The whole world is sad. I quit Googling and look at her Facebook for the remainder of the hour.
Because this is not my first time, I know what comes next. Amaya loathes being needed and so I will try to ignore her, but every time my phone rings, I will run to it. I will chain smoke, quit eating, and listen to the same songs over and over, songs that remind me how common this is. I will hold onto the hope that she will change her mind, knowing that if she called me right now and said she was ready, I would buy the next redeye out. And then, after too many days of not hearing from her, it will be clear this is a game and that I have lost. At that point, I will take my ball and go home; I will end the push-and-pull of breaking up and take from her the only thing I can: myself. I will delete and de-friend and tell her not to call.
This will hurt me more than it will hurt her, but I’ll do it anyway. This is the way it always ends. As the plane gets ready to taxi and Andrew snores beside me, I squeeze my eyes shut and wish for a minor accident, just enough concussion to block the memory of the girl I cannot have, but I know that soon the tears will stop. Not before this plane lands and not tomorrow or the day after that, but they will stop. In no time at all, really, whole hours will pass without thinking about her and someday whole days will go by. Eventually, Amaya will fade into the past like the woman who first broke my heart 10 years ago and the man who first broke Marie’s.
Unlike the first time, I know I will survive; not because I am strong, but because I am human. I look over at Andrew dozing against his mother’s shoulder, and more than hate him, I pity him. All of our hearts will be broken and this six-year-old boy has no idea. It’s all out there in front of him, the terrible and the sublime. I’d rather be who I am, the man crying in the aisle seat, devastated but aware that it’s not forever, that someday chips will be just chips and Bruce Willis just an actor and both of us, all of us, will move on. Someday, it will be nothing to cry over.
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