Only idiots aren’t afraid of flying. Planes are inherently unnatural; your body isn’t supposed to be launched into the sky, and few people comprehend the science that keeps them from tumbling into the ocean. Do you know how many planes crash every year? Neither do I, but I know the answer is more than one, WHICH IS ENOUGH.
My boyfriend finds my fear of flying hilarious at best and deeply frustrating at worst. For my twenty-fourth birthday, he booked us a trip to Southeast Asia for two weeks, the farthest I’ve been from home in more than a decade. Plenty of people take a gap year between high school and university to travel, or spend a summer back- packing through Europe to “find” themselves. (A bullshit statement if ever there was one. Where do you think you’ll be? No one finds anything in France except bread and pretension, and frankly, both of those are in my lap right now.) I never did this. I talked about wanting to, sure, listing all the places I would go one day, hoping to have my photo taken next to a crumbling edifice in Brazil or with a charming street merchant in Laos. When I was thirteen, my mom asked me where I’d get the money to travel and I said, “From you, of course.” She laughed me straight out of her kitchen nook. Travelling tells the world that you’re educated, that you’re willing to take risks, that you have earned your condescension. But do you know what my apartment has that no other place does? All my stuff. All the things that let me dull out the reminders of my human existence, that let me forget that the world is full of dark, impenetrable crags. I have, I think, a healthy fear of dying, and marching forward into the uncharted is almost asking for it. But it was my birthday, and my beautiful idiot boyfriend was offering to take me some – place exciting. He suggested Thailand and Vietnam, because he likes the sun and I like peanut sauces. I agreed, my haunches already breaking out in a very familiar rash.
As we made our way from Toronto to Chicago, then Chicago to Tokyo, then Tokyo to Bangkok, he was a paragon of serenity. (He’s older than me by more than a decade, and acts it whenever we do something new, largely because, comparatively, almost everything is new to me and nothing is new to him.) He was a latchkey kid, permitted to wander his small town in the ’80s and ’90s in a way that feels nostalgic to him and like the beginning of a documentary about child abduction to me. He smoked and drank and cried and laughed and was freer at twelve than I have ever been. While our plane started to taxi, I squeezed his meaty forearm as if I was tenderizing a ham hock—rubbing his white skin red and twisting his blond arm hair into little knots— and he just gazed dreamily out the window. When we took off, my throat started to close and I wanted to be home, stay home, never leave home.
I wasn’t raised with a fear of flying. My parents were afraid of plenty of things that would likely never affect us—murderers lurking in our backyard, listeria in our sandwich meat, vegans—but dying on a plane was all too mundane for them. We used to take plenty of trips together and separately, and lengthy air travel played an unavoidable role in their origin story. They emigrated from India in the late 1970s and flew back for visits every few years. For vacations or my dad’s business trips, they flew to St. Thomas and Greece and Montreal and New York. Mom didn’t like bugs and Papa didn’t like small dogs, but I don’t remember either of them being particularly fearful.
I wasn’t always afraid of flying either. When I travelled with my parents as a kid, air travel was exciting. I got to buy new notebooks and travel games, and flight attend- ants packed cookies and chips and mini cans of ginger ale in airsickness bags and handed them out to the kids mid-flight. 9/11 hadn’t happened, so our family wasn’t yet deemed suspicious at Calgary’s airport. I once loudly asked my brother while standing in a security queue how, exactly, people made bombs out of batteries while waving around a pack of thirty AAs intended for a video game. My parents let me eat a whole Toblerone bar and then I threw up in a translucent gift bag while we waited in line to board. I was alive!
Flying became a necessity by the time I was seventeen, the only way to stay connected with my family rather than a conduit for mile-high vomiting. When I graduated from high school, instead of doing what so many of my classmates did—a month in Italy here, three months in Austria there—I moved across the country almost immediately to start university. If I wanted to see my parents (and I did, as my homesickness burst wide open the second my parents dropped me off at my residence), I would have to fly. Three, sometimes four times a year, I’d take a four-hour flight to see people who I knew were at least legally obligated to love me.
But by my early twenties, years into this routine, something shifted and made room for fear to set in. Turbulence wasn’t fun anymore; it didn’t feel like a ride, it felt like the beginning of my early death. I’d start crying during take-off, sure that the plane would plummet. Flight attendants assumed I was travelling for a funeral and would offer extra orange juice or cranberry cookies to keep me from opening the emergency exit. Before I take off now, I text or email or call anyone I think would be sad about my death and tell them I love them and that the code for my debit card is 3264 and please help yourself to the $6.75 that may or may not still be in there, depending on if I purchased a pre-flight chewy pizza-pretzel, the World’s Saddest Final Meal. My stomach churns and my palms sweat and I think about all the things I should have said and done before his plane nosedives and the army finds parts of my body scattered across the Prairies. My legs in Fort McMurray, my arms in Regina, my anus somewhere in Edmonton.
This is an excerpt from Scaachi Koul’s ‘One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter’