Wake up. “Ma’am, your tray table must be closed for landing.” Your hands, the well-trained hands of a frequent flyer, push the table back up on their own, and you don’t even have to interrupt your sleep. You squeeze your eyes open and try to rub the sleep away but the cabin lights are bright and your head is achy and —
Thud. The plane’s wheels hit the ground, and it roars and shudders and slows and hums and finally comes to a halt. The seatbelt sign goes dark, and seatbelts click open; it is time to leave. You drag your little black suitcase across the airplane aisle which is like every other airplane aisle, narrow enough so your suitcase keeps crashing into seats. You get off the plane and your legs automatically pick up pace even though you’re tired beyond belief because your legs know how long terminals can be, and you run through the Paris airport which is like every other airport, lined with walls of Belvedere and Miss Dior, and you stop and catch your breath at the immigration line which is like every other immigration line, reminding you that not all passports are created equal. Yours, with Republic of India lettered on its cover, always leads you to the longer wait, as one of the countless visitors to JFK or Heathrow, or one of the countless returning home to Delhi. Finally, you make it onto the plane which is like every other transatlantic plane, sterile white plastic interiors that remain uninteresting no matter how long you stare at them. You’re bored; so, utterly, thoroughly, bored. It’s your 20th birthday.
You’re flying! You try to tell yourself. You’re thousands of miles up in the air, and how is this not a cool way to spend your birthday? Not even that long ago, you would’ve believed yourself. Not even that long ago, you were 18 and you’d spent most of your years waking up to the same view outside your bedroom window, and so the bed of clouds and Technicolor sunsets you could see from planes were your favorite things. Not even that long ago, you were 12, “Unaccompanied Minor” lanyard dangling from your neck, and you wondered how, in just 8 hours, a plane could take you from warm and dusty India full of people like you to cold and clean England full of white foreigners. Not even that long ago, you were 8, and your plane took off in the rain but then you went above the clouds. It was sunny again even though it was still raining down below, and then wisps of white suddenly appeared right outside your window. Before you knew it, the wisps had turned into a wall and you were inside an actual cloud. You turned to your uncle sitting next to you and told him you were in love with flying.
What happened to that feeling? Every time you sat on a plane as a child, you used to look out at the clouds and imagine bouncing from one to the other, pillows strewn on a celestial playground, collecting soft fluff in your arms and pressing it against your face. Then, maybe it was the fifth grade, you learned clouds weren’t bouncy but were made of vapor, and you would freeze to death that high up in the atmosphere. Also, there wouldn’t be enough oxygen for you to breathe. You used to want to grow up and do grown-up things like clear immigration lines by yourself and hold your own passport.
Then you grew up and you had to clear immigration lines by yourself, standing for three hours in JFK holding your I-20, the crumpled piece of white paper that would prove to the officer that you weren’t in the States to stay, or to detonate a bomb, but just to study for a few more years at Yale. You used to collect airline booklets of the films they had in-flight, sad that the journey wasn’t long enough for you to watch more movies. Then you had to take a bunch of 13-hour flights from home to college and college to home. You realized no number of movies could help with the knowledge that you wouldn’t see your friends, or your lover, for 13 and a half weeks. Right now, on this flight, it doesn’t look like your screen works. You don’t even care. You plonk your head down on the tray table to try and sleep.
* * *
The air hostess wakes you when she brings out the beverage cart. You get excited about getting to drink wine on your birthday — you’re on Air France, after all. But the wine in the tiny screw-top bottle is shitty. You couldn’t really sleep, or get your TV to work, so you’ve been a voyeur of voyeurs, watching other people’s screens instead — the thirty-something man with a mustache in front of you is watching Brazilian models who periodically shake their butts; the forty-something woman with Chanel glasses across from you is smiling at Aaron Eckhart having sex with Cameron Diaz. You remember because you’re writing all this down on the plane, because writing about something is supposed to make you look at it with new eyes, but writing isn’t actually helping to make the flight any better. Happy Birthday.
The Italian couple beside you doesn’t speak enough English to fill out their customs form, so now you begin to fill it out instead, trying to talk to them in Spanish because it’s the only Romance language you know. You’re terrified you’re penciling in the wrong thing and they’re going to get in trouble at customs.
But they won’t. You’ve done this often enough to know that customs isn’t actually that scary, that despite the Caps Lock instructions on the form, they won’t actually make a huge fuss if you don’t PRINT your letters with a BLUE pen.
You still get seated next to people who are strangers to flying. Two months ago, you were sitting next to a girl from rural Punjab, and five minutes before take-off, she had shown you her boarding card, looking petrified, asking whether she was on the wrong flight and if someone was about to come throw her off it. It was her first flight. At least, looking out her window, she would soon discover what a sunset looks like from a plane.