I usually sit on the aisle, but this flight from Cabo San Lucas to L.A. was sold out, so there I was trapped in a window seat and feeling claustrophobic. I couldn’t help checking out the couple seated to my left. He was a stocky version of John Leguizamo minus the humor, nothing but arrogance and false bravado—the ego of a much larger man packed into a small body. Before we even took off, he was on the attack: his hands flailing, fingers pointing accusingly at the round-faced woman in the seat between us who was taking in his assault like a sponge. No contradiction, no argument.

I judged her to be a woman who had quietly accepted her lot in life and was determined to make the best of it. Only this woman possessed a stoicism that was positively unnerving. He was berating her in Spanish, in a voice so hushed it was difficult to make out his complaint. Every fiber in my body wanted to shut him up, to stop those daggerlike hands from violating her space. At one point he laughingly reached across her body and grabbed her right breast. She barely flinched and without uttering a word, unclasped her flowered vinyl handbag, took out a tissue and began to dab at her eyes. I knew then the volcano of emotions she was sitting on. Still, she made no comment, made no effort to halt his invasion of hands and words.

Her passive manner indicated years of practice. She let him talk on and on and never looked at him, never made the move that I would have made to shove him back into his own space. Momentarily he would stop and put an arm around her or kiss her cheek in a gesture meant to reassure her it was all being done in the name of love. He was so deft in his art of control that neither the flight attendants nor the other passengers were truly aware of what was going on.

I checked the amount of time left on our short hop to Los Angeles and wondered if I would be able to handle the remaining hour of this tyranny without becoming involved. I calculated my options. Say something to the man to stop him? No, that would involve me in their personal dynamic. Offer the woman some aid? No, she was too practiced in the art of denial. Call for the flight attendant, and say what? “These people are causing me great distress?” ”How?” she would ask. I would then have to say something like, “This man’s bullying is affecting my mental and physical well-being.” No, that wasn’t going to work.

Instead, I retreated into the headphones I had brought to indulge in my favorite pastime…listening to books on tape. I was into Shoe Dog, one of those “hot” book-club selections about the trials and tribulations of a wealthy business mogul and his macho adventures of going from millionaire to billionaire. I was only mildly interested in the book and once I got the headset on and adjusted to the highest volume, I still could not tune out the hectoring coming from my left. Occasionally, I would shoot a glance across the woman to see if the man was still on the attack. He was.

A beverage cart appeared in the aisle along with two cheerful flight attendants. The man ordered a beer and two cups and paid with a credit card he fished from the woman’s purse. He indicated the second cup was for her and she gave her first visible response, a firm shake of her head. She wanted none of what he had to offer. He sneered at her ingratitude and filled his cup to the brim, gulped it down and finished off the rest of the can. I was afraid the beer would sharpen his attack, but instead it had a calming effect and for a few blessed moments he was silent.

At last I could close my eyes and drone along on the literary work I was forcing myself to follow. I began to wonder why I was reading it. Our book club was made up entirely of women…why then were we reading so many books about men? About their accomplishments, their desires, their lives? Was it them sticking their fingers in our eyes reminding us that they were the important ones and we were just background figures in the grand scheme of things?  

I had to stop myself. I was not in a mood to read anything. I pulled out my headphones and instantly became aware of an unusual sound. At first I thought it was one of those throbbing engine noises that momentarily make your heart quicken. But that was not the case. This sound was coming from the woman next to me. Her volcano had erupted—in body wracking sobs and rivers of tears. Her two fists were jammed into her eye sockets in a vain attempt to stem the tide. The man was whispering in her ear “¡Cállate, Cállate!” “Be quiet!”

Again, I wanted to reach out, to do something! Get someone’s attention! I felt panicky, helpless. The only thing I could think of was to cause a distraction. I made the classic move of the window seat passenger; unbuckled my seat belt and stood up to use the restroom. The man took the cue. He got up and barked “Muévelo” to the crying woman. She sat as far back into her seat as possible, barely making room for my exit.

To my surprise, my feeble ploy seemed to have worked. When I returned to my seat both passengers were awaiting my return, not talking, not touching, not crying. My sense of relief was short-lived. Once I was buckled back in the woman heaved a sigh so body-shaking that without considering the consequences I touched her arm and asked “Are you okay?” She couldn’t look at me, only nodded “Si.”

We both knew it wasn’t true, but in that moment something else happened. I caught the man’s eye. Like a cockroach trapped in a light, he blinked and looked away. In a desperate measure to regain control he took both the woman’s hands in his and raised them to his lips. This time she pulled away and when he violently bent her wrists to restrain her, she yanked her arms free with an unexpected ferocity. The man’s eyes pinpointed with rage, his hands balled into fists. I stifled my urge to cheer her on.

Moments later the plane landed with a jolt. He grabbed their one suitcase from the overhead and forced a path to the door. I was right behind them every step of the way. When we reached the escalator to Customs, he chose to take the staircase, bouncing his roller bag down the stairs behind him from side to side, the way a child would. From the slow-moving escalator I could see he was now far ahead. The woman followed his lead and took the stairs but she allowed a great distance to grow between them. It was a hopeful sign. Maybe she’s not ready to make the final break, but maybe she’s beginning to carve out her space.

I finally lost them in the crowd and despite the lingering effects of our time together, I accepted the fact they were gone from my life. I would never see them again, never know the outcome of their story or if my minor intrusion had played a part.

Outside the terminal I climbed into my waiting limo. The driver asked the standard question, “Did you have a good flight?” I gave the standard answer ”Yes, just fine.” On the slow ride home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman and what more I might have done to help her. I had no answers. Life is like that. Sometimes asking “Are you okay?” is the only thing you can do.


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