by Mike Todd

“Things just weren’t right between me and my husband, and I knew it wasn’t going to work out,” the flight attendant (formerly known as a stewardess) told me. Under different circumstances, it might have been strange for her to open up to me like that, but since we were spending the night together, having a heart-to-heart seemed like the natural thing to do. After all, they ARE the friendly skies.

“Sorry it wasn’t meant to be,” I replied.

“There’s a difference between love and lust, and I didn’t understand that then,” she said. I nodded, trying to think of any tidbits about love or lust I might be able to offer in reply to this complete stranger I had just met. It was a real stretch for me. I’m so terrible at talking to strangers that I can barely order at Starbucks, freezing and stammering when I can’t remember the word for “medium.” (It’s “mocha choca latte ya-ya.”)

“Is that one occupied?” asked the old man who’d already visited the restroom five times, interrupting before I had a chance to say something awkward. He pointed at the door and smiled, exactly as he’d done 30 minutes earlier. Standing in the back of the airplane for an entire night, you start to recognize some of your fellow passengers, especially the ones with prostate issues.

“Nope, go ahead,” I said, mashing myself against the wall in the little galley area so that we could begin our informal game of Twister as he attempted to scoot past.

The flight attendant had already headed back down the aisle, offering cups of water to the few people who were still awake. They’re lucky she was offering anything at all. Since the time when I’d occasionally fly as a kid, in-flight service has gone from: “Would you like chicken, beef tenderloin, salmon or veggie with your cocktail or wine?” to “Would you like a complimentary sandwich?” to “Would you like to buy a sandwich?” to “You gonna eat the rest of that peanut?”

The bathroom door clicked shut, making my son Zack flinch against my chest. Five hours into the flight that had begun two hours after his bedtime, Zack had slept for about 10 minutes. Trying to sit with him in our assigned seat was like trying to wrestle an angry greased piglet, with all the attendant screeching and flailing. Standing up with him was a slight improvement, but my fellow passengers were a restless bunch, with the aisle logging more foot traffic than the Appalachian Trail.

“Sorry, I have restless legs syndrome,” one lady reported as we squeezed past each other again, giving me irritated father syndrome. My wife Kara looked at me with sympathy, our other son restlessly spinning in sleepy circles on her lap.

My only refuge was the food closet in the back of the plane, beside the two bathrooms, where the flight attendant and I had all night to complain about the distance between Newark, NJ, and Anchorage, AK. Really, someone should have put those two cities closer together, but I suppose the distance is part of Anchorage’s appeal.

While visiting Kara’s sister and brother-in-law in Alaska, we’d seen mountains shooting from the sea into the clouds, glaciers dropping chunks of ice and mountain back into the sea, whales, otters, bald eagles, grizzly bears, fast food joints and highway rest stops that were really just outhouses. We’d seen a mother black bear and four cubs running across the road and a repeated look of awe in our kids’ eyes. Well, at least in our older son’s eyes. Zack is only one year old, so if he looks in awe, that’s probably just a bowel movement.

So we’d had our fun, but to get back home, the piper had to be paid, which means pacifying two miniature boys, which is about as easy as Napoleon pacifying Russia. At least the flight attendant was there to help, handing Zack plastic cups and rubber bands and paper clips to play with as I thought about all the beef and chicken and salmon and wine and cocktails I would not be having.

I don’t think anyone’s ever been so happy to get to Newark.