Please Turn Off All Cell Phones

I shove and shuffle inside the hulk of metal. I’m a cross-country college student, so these moments are familiar to me and I’m aware of their peaks: The moment when I open the overhead compartment: trepidation. The moment when I fall into my seat: familiarity, quiet anticipation. The moment when a similarly flushed, travel-ready person’s eyes dart over my head, scanning my seat number, and their mouth tentatively opens, preparing to introduce him/herself: dread.

Once, I had to lug my book-bloated carry-on back to the front. Once, a beautiful stranger with a honeycomb-colored face and wild hair helped me lift my baggage high over my head. Once, the person who folded herself into the chair beside mine was so tinily framed, so hugely bespectacled, and so clearly similar to me in her discomfort that instant relief coursed through my restless blood, and I had to stop myself from staring.

At some point during each liftoff, one specific, overwrought consideration flashes to the forefront of my mind: If the plane crashed, if we were hijacked—if in some way I am to be rendered into eternal oblivion during some point in the next three hours and sixteen minutes, and I am given the opportunity to break the age-old aircraft cellphone rule: who would I call?

Which person would be blessed and cursed with my last words, whispered in their ear when there was nothing to be done? Who gets to see that “1 MISSED CALL” message bearing eternal guilt cross their screen? Who gets to check their voicemail with trembling fingers?

In today’s society, the beasts we’ve built ourselves are packaged with implicit rules. Some seem obvious upon germination; some unfold over time. There are (ideally) no text message breakups. Thou shalt not inform anyone of their close friend’s death via Facebook. Twitter, while an appropriate communication tool for a planned riot, is not the medium of choice regarding the relaying of news about ones’ parents’ impending divorce.

So what about goodbyes? When the only mode of revelation is a form of technology, is a mass text message, for example, accepted protocol?

The idea is awkward. What would my friends and family do with the message? Lock it forever, so that those last few words blink onto their screens at appalling and unplanned-for times, like an accidental click from their current flirtation’s message thread over to mine?

And how does one deal with the ten-person message limit? Ten can be an awfully difficult number to reckon with—so my boyfriend, my three closest friends and my immediate family get notification, but what about my best friend from high school and/or my roommate? When vying for the tenth place, well, my old friend I rarely talk anymore, but we used to pass each other messily scrawled, heavily decorated, intricately folded notes between every class. On the other hand, my roommate and I currently converse about once per day, but the conversation’s generally limited to who’s buying milk and why I forgot to lock the front door again. I don’t think we’re ready to breach life-or-death topics yet.

Regardless, one still has to wrestle with the fact that a mass text can only carry one message—so how does a girl on a downward-careening life path make the message seem caring and intimate when the funeral will reveal that it was sent to nine other people? “I love you” is the obvious choice, but something about that overused phrase simply seems too blasé, or too stereotypical. It feels unfair. Unlike myself, my family and friends will have to deal with my death for longer than the next fifteen minutes. What allows me to skate by with three easy, overused words and then pass on to the debated afterlife with a scot-free conscience? Can I trade life for guilt?

Usually, once I reach this point in my wonderings, I’m already anxiously trying to focus on a book—or breathing careful six-second-long inhalations and exhalations in order to stave off a lurking panic attack. This means that a few of my thought-trains are given blunt stops of self-benefacted mercy. The text-message themed internal ramble usually halts at the semantics of “I love you,” and my frantic mind moves on to another solution: the phone call.

But who to call? My parents are divorced. Even if I have time to contact both families (which I assume is unlikely, after the long internal text message debate) who should I call first? Who do I give the assured place of stability, and who gets to hear the last words? With whom do I cut off the call in order to speak with someone else? Such behavior simply seems rude, considering the circumstances.

Given a limit of one phone call, I choose my little brother. He is my favorite person. He’s the one I trust and the one I protect. But would an assurance of love before death, I wonder, really be protection, or love? I’ve never carried any person’s last words with me. I don’t yet know how heavy they might be.

With this realization, I can finally see the end of this anxious internal struggle. I wouldn’t call anybody. I wouldn’t text anybody. Maybe I’d talk to the person sitting next to me—even if I had resented her for her tendency to smack her lips while she read (at least once per page. Why?) Maybe I would simply watch the sky. I might be angry—I don’t think it would be characteristic of me, but I suppose one never knows such things until they happen. I might marvel at the wild, vast earth, and the boundless universe through which my metal cage, my fellow travelers and I fall.

Once this conclusion is drawn, I allow myself to calmly settle into my seat and wait for the plane to lift, angrily whirring and feather-light, off the ground.



Kerry Cullen has been a frequent flyer, traveling between New Jersey and New Orleans. She has recently substituted her boarding passes for MetroCards as she studies fiction in Columbia University's MFA Program. Kerry writes and posts creative exercises on her blog daily:

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