I don’t remember the first time I ever flew. I was 7, and I was going to Miami from Cuba so I’m sure it lasted all of 40 minutes. I was probably sleeping or not really fully aware of what was going on. Which is ironic because for my mom it must have felt like an eternity, leaving a country with me that she knew she couldn’t ever return to. I guess leaping without a safety net has always been in my blood.
It wasn’t until freshman year of college that I flew again, this time alone. I was visiting a high school friend who had moved to Boston. And I was sitting in a row with the kindest old couple, who learned it was my first time flying solo. I don’t remember being that nervous, but it was probably because of them. The wife kept talking about how she hated flying, and her husband kindly dismissed her fears, explaining the safety of air travel. They’re one of the happiest couples I’ve ever encountered, and I’ll always remember them.
Since then I’ve flown more times than I can count, often alone, since I live away from my hometown. Flying alone is always an introspective experience. Mostly because you have nothing to do but sit and wait to arrive somewhere. I almost always think about death, not necessarily in fear, but in acknowledgement of the fact that your flight might end up in pieces in the Atlantic Ocean. And when I’m going on a trip, I almost always think that, if I’m destined to die in a plane crash, I hope it’s on the return flight. Or early into it so I haven’t had to suffer through a plane ride and my thoughts for 8 hours before I perish.
Flying alone is usually immensely inspirational, because your mind tends to go all over the place. I’ve written some of my favorite things sitting in a Boeing. It’s often emotional, a phenomenon that’s been studied by psychologists. The existential reaction to being suspended in midair is naturally to evaluate your existence, like your life flashing before your eyes but in slow motion. It’s therapeutic and enlightening and sometimes heartbreaking, but cathartic. And if the flight is long enough, it’s numbing, which is wonderful in its own weird way.
Getting on a plane is a uniquely tedious experience. Your body and all the possessions you’re traveling with become transparent to some stranger. Someone inspects your travel history and adds a stamp to it. They know everything about where you’ve been in the two minutes you’re standing in front of them. Sometimes they welcome you home or wish you safe travels. Most of the time they say nothing.
And then you wait at your departure gate to board. You wait only to keep waiting on the plane to get where you’re going. You know that saying “it’s not about the destination, but the journey”? That doesn’t hold true on a plane. It’s definitely about the destination. And the time you’re up in the air is just limbo. So you try to sleep and fail. You think about everything and nothing at all. You single out an instrument in a song and just listen to that sound. You scroll through movies you don’t want to watch. Then you watch one anyway. And you cry, not realizing it would be so emotional. It’s not; but you are.
And despite the fact that it’s such a drag, flying is exciting and fills you with hope and anticipation. It makes you think about what people mean to you and what you mean to people. It makes you appreciate the opportunities and luxuries you have. For me, flying alone means I’m always flying to something I love. Whether it’s back home to visit, or to a new city to meet up with someone I love, or just to have a new experience somewhere. There is always love and goodness waiting for me wherever I land. And I do always land, no matter what fatalistic thoughts occurred to me along the way. I always land. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this.
On the other hand, flying with other people is a social event. It’s an afternoon of dinner and drinks at the airport and then delirious laughter on the plane. It’s being able to lay your head on someone’s lap as if you were on your couch at home. And then being able to sleep all over each other during the flight (or at least try). It’s nice to fly with others. You get to commiserate with them about the misery of travel, instead of staring at the seat back in front of you and descending into ruminations. And the biggest perk is being able to use the bathroom at the airport without carrying all your bags.
Yes, flying is a generally uncomfortable and annoying experience. But there’s never a takeoff where I don’t have a smile on my face. Because no matter where I’m going, I’m going home.