Nora Boydston

Nora Boydston is the founder of Cartwheels for Justice and the author of several good sentences. She is the prose editor of LIT magazine and received her MFA in creative writing from the New School. Her book reviews appear in Publishers Weekly and The Inquisitive Eater.

Fear of Flying


Something terrible is going to happen. The plane’s not going to get up to speed and we’re going to crash down onto the tarmac. We’re going to collide with another plane mid-air. The engines will stall and we’ll just drop out of the sky. What was that noise? Something’s wrong…

Upon landing at the Detroit Metro airport, I had a realization: this was my first time flying without involuntarily praying the plane doesn’t crash during takeoff and landing. That’s not to say I didn’t graphically imagine my own grisly death in a horrific crash several times, but I didn’t respond to that anxious instinct with a desperate prayer.

I grew up with a very personal, deeply internalized religion and I believe this plays a part in my current anxieties. Not everyone raised religious develops an overactive conscience, a guilt complex and generalized anxiety disorder, but I was a very sensitive child and perhaps these things affected me more deeply than most. Even though the beliefs I have now are very different than I had growing up, sometimes I still find myself praying spontaneously when I am very anxious. These prayers are not faith-based. They’re fear-based.

Many other things cause me anxiety, most notably driving (another violent death in an accident) and awkward or unpredictable social situations (humiliation, rejection, etc.). These are two different types of anxiety. I don’t involuntarily start praying when I walk into a crowded party where I don’t know anyone. But the physical reaction is actually quite similar, which makes me think they have the same origin: feeling a lack of control.

Detroit had been strange. It was my first ever business trip and I felt uncomfortable and anxious the entire time. I’d just finished graduate school and started copyediting at a large corporation, a job for which I felt under-qualified. For some reason I’d been entrusted to facilitate a workshop comprised of senior personnel I’d never met in an unfamiliar city. Much of the time I was the only woman and the only person under forty in the room—no one knew I had no idea what I was doing.

On my return trip I arrived at the airport exhausted, ready to relax, read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and eat some gourmet trail mix I’d pocketed from the catering table at the final meeting that morning. But when I got to the gate I saw an acquaintance from Brooklyn sitting in the waiting area. I was stunned motionless. I felt hot prickles all along my jawline and my first impulse was to avoid him somehow.

I texted a friend: What do you do when you see someone you know in a totally random place but you don’t really want to talk to them? He responded: Pretend to get a call and run for the door. I laughed. I considered it. It was something I actually did from time to time. But I couldn’t take a fake call and bolt, I had to get on a plane in half an hour.

It wasn’t that I disliked the guy. Actually, Tim is very nice. But my anxiety about getting stuck in an awkward, small-talk conversation—effectively rendering void my control over how I spend my time—made me choose a faraway seat, face the opposite direction, and stick my nose in my book. I even put my glasses away so if I had to, I could use the convenient excuse of my mild myopia, Oh, I didn’t see you there! I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I knew I should have gone over and said hello, but I simply didn’t want to. Sometimes I just want to be alone, even though paradoxically I also hate the awkwardness of being conspicuously alone in public.

Over the intercom, an airline employee announced the flight was delayed and I was glad I’d decided to pretend I hadn’t seen Tim. Who knew how long we’d have to wait? I looked over my shoulder in his direction. He was reading the newspaper, oblivious.

I know anxiety is all about anticipation. I also know receiving an injection doesn’t hurt that much, but just reading a sign at the drugstore that reads: Flu shots—now with 90% smaller needles! makes my shoulders tense up and I feel a little gaggy. I don’t even want to think about the size of a needle because I immediately begin to imagine the needle going into my body, sliding through the layers of skin and piercing the vein, the medicine dispersing into my bloodstream.

Writing those words, I feel my pulse quicken, my heart beating heavily in my chest, and all I did was imagine getting a shot. There wasn’t even the prospect of it really happening.

Nearly an hour later I avoided Tim’s eye line when everyone queued up to board the plane and we were standing mere feet apart. Either he actually hadn’t seen me or he was even better at this game than I was.

It would have been perfectly reasonable if he didn’t recognize me. Since I’d last seen him nearly a year ago, I’d cut my hair very short and was wearing a suit. He’d only ever seen me in the uniform of the cheese shop where he was my manager: blue jeans and a t-shirt with a shaggy goat printed across the chest. On the other hand, he looked exactly the same, instantly identifiable by his large salt-and-pepper beard, which I used to joke could mesmerize you with its intricate, perfectly arranged swirls. I hung back at the end of the line, one of the last people to board.

As I walked down the narrow aisle of the small plane, I swiveled my bulky briefcase perpendicularly in order to avoid hitting the already seated passengers’ elbows. It was a funny concept: me carrying a briefcase. Anyone who knows me would say I’m the opposite of the briefcase-carrying type. I scanned the nearly full plane and found the only open spot within sight, a window seat near the rear of the plane. It had to be mine. Then I saw who was sitting in the adjacent aisle seat: Tim, of course. Ironic? Maybe. What I deserved? Probably.

I approached and said, “Excuse me,” as if he were still a stranger to me, waited for him to look up, and after what I hoped was a believable pause, exclaimed, “Tim? What are you doing here?” I sat down and we began to chat. He was on his way back to New York from Kentucky. His brother had died suddenly and he’d gone home for the funeral. Even though I had no way of knowing this, I felt embarrassed that I’d caused him to disclose something so painful in the first minute of conversation. This seemed to confirm my fears of an awkward social situation were totally justified.

But Tim graciously changed the subject to inquire about my new job. He asked a lot of questions and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say, since I’d quit my job at the cheese shop to finish my MFA program.

My unintended travel companion and I talked pleasantly for a while and then the conversation dwindled naturally when we began to take off. I didn’t think about the plane crashing, though. I looked out the window and watched the dim lights of the city recede below. I hadn’t seen much of it while I was there, just the three blocks between my hotel and the office building and the bend of the Detroit River I could see from the conference room window. I realized I would probably never go back there, would never have a reason to.

Once the plane reached cruising altitude, we both ducked our heads down to read our respective paperbacks. He was reading something called Hitler’s Peace. I’d never heard of it, but found the skull on the cover with its gaping black eye sockets disturbing, and I wondered why he was reading something so morbid.

My own overactive sense of morbidity rears its ugly head too often. Living in the city for years I didn’t own a car, but now, in the suburbs, I drive on the highway everyday to get to work. I often have graphic thoughts about car crashes. I imagine my death again and again. If a car cuts me off and I shout an obscenity in response, my very next thought is, now I’m going to crash into the median and my last words are going to be something as stupid and horrible as ‘learn how to drive, asshole!’

When the flight attendants came around with the beverage cart, Tim offered to buy me a drink. We were both surprised they had a decent bourbon we both liked and each ordered one—his on the rocks, mine neat. He toasted my new job and the conversation was friendly and warm.

The short flight was over almost at quickly as it began. As we descended over Newark, an incredibly painful pressure developed in my right ear and I felt sure my eardrum was about to burst. I chewed a stick of gum, forced myself to yawn, trying everything I could think of to alleviate the pressure to no avail. I opened my book, but was unable to read, and finally resorted to breathing exercises to distract myself from the pain.

Eventually the lights of civilization appeared again in the darkness outside my window and they were orange and very pale blue. I thought about home. The concept had become confused for me recently. After living on my own for years, I’d moved back into my childhood home while I figured out my next move. It was my home and I felt at home there, but wished for my own home again. I was unsettled, unhappy, unsure how to proceed. The abstract idea of the future has always made me anxious, ever since I was a child. But I’m an adult now, I keep telling myself. Why do I continue to allow myself be ruled by these childhood fears?

After a few minutes, the pressure in my ear finally dissipated. I turned to smile at Tim, but he was looking down, reading.

The final descent had what I considered to be a fair amount of turbulence, but when we touched down I realized I hadn’t prayed once during this flight either.

Tim helped me retrieve my luggage from the overhead compartment and let me exit the plane ahead of him. We exchanged a brief farewell and went our separate ways at the end of the jetway. As I dragged my suitcase behind me through the long, dimly lit terminal I thought, that wasn’t so bad. What was I so afraid of?

photo by: CLDoyle