May 25, 2013

Dog Flight

“I asked for a 747, a plane with four engines. She lied to me, the woman on the phone. Look at this plane; it’s nothing. I don’t even know what it is.”

A flight to New York gets complicated.

I reached into the forward seat pouch and found the aircraft’s info card. “It’s a 767,” I said.

“A 767? What kind of plane is that? Just two engines. I should have flown directly to London on Virgin. They have 747s.”

Although he was flying to London, his accent sounded continental, southern, coastal maybe. Maybe a Slav, maybe a Mediterranean Arab. In his early sixties, wearing a floral scent, and carrying an old-fashioned briefcase.

I was flying back to New York from Sonoma, where I’d gone to visit a dog. Well, a girl, too, but the dog — a ridgeless Rhodesian Ridgeback — had pushed the decision. I’d find myself thinking about her — Bolo, the dog — all the time. Her face, the desperate affection, an unabashed need for a hand on her head. A dog’s love doesn’t game you.

A flight attendant appeared. “Gentleman, there’s someone who needs an outlet for a medical device.” He was with his wife, the flight attendant said. She wanted us to exchange seats with them. It would be “incredibly nice” of us.

“Wait,” I said. “There’s an outlet here?” But we agreed, and she said she’d take care of us, give us free drinks. The man looked up sharply so he could say “Just one?” Everybody laughed.

When it was time for me to leave Sonoma, we dropped off Bolo with a friend of the girl’s. The girl was heading out of town for a week. In the yard, Bolo trotted along the length of the fence as our car began to roll away. Bolo stopped, looking surprised when she realized that we weren’t coming back. Bark! Bark! You too would feel like a monster for leaving her behind.

Then it was goodbye time at the airport. “Bark,” I said to the girl.

The man ordered a scotch. The flight attendant gave me a half-bottle of red wine. We turned to our drinks, focusing on them in the way people don’t focus on any other kind of beverage. Once we gained altitude the lights dimmed. The flight was overnight. The attendant returned and asked if we needed anything else.

“Another scotch,” said the man, ungracious and brusque. I’d managed about a glass-and-a-half of my wine, before I stuffed the bottle into the seat pouch. Twenty minutes later, the man flagged down another flight attendant. “Two scotches.” That seemed pretty bold to me. She came back with the little bottles and said that because he had been so nice to switch seats, these drinks were also complimentary. I wondered if he drank so much because we weren’t flying a four-engine 747, but merely a 767 with only two.

Getting that pure dog love is a drug that goes straight to your heart. Sure, people hug each other and kiss each other, but underneath there’s always something else running: a tabulation, or just a story of what it means, or an expectation of what it will be. What runs beneath is a worry that you’re giving too much, or that they’re giving too little. Or that your breath is bad, or their breath is bad. That everything is awkward and nothing works. When you’re a child, maybe, for five minutes, you have the freedom of the dog. There was this one time, though: I remember it. Clarissa, that one, early on when we thought we were just happy dogs, and she was waiting to cross the street to meet me. When the light finally turned green she ran across, dangerously, then up the sidewalk and into my arms, and dropped her head on my shoulder. The skin on her neck — and only her neck. Not her arms, or her belly — smelled vaginal. Bolo’s neck smelled like Fritos. The girl’s hair smelled like airports. It’s these moments that balloon into milestones, that go into the content of our reminiscences, and get retold with ever greater and annoying frequency as we get older.

Sure enough, the man waved down the flight attendant. “Scotch.” She paused, and then made an obvious excuse about that she’d have to check, because they might have run out. And sure enough she came back to tell him that they had run out of the little bottles of scotch.

“What else do you have?”

“Well, sir, we gave you those drinks as complimentary –”

“I don’t mind paying for the drinks.”

“Well, sir, you’ve had four drinks already in a short time, and you see, at this high altitude alcohol has a bigger effect on people.”

“I’m 59 years old. You’re going to tell me how much I can drink?”

And they argued. And then she threatened to call the captain.

“So call the captain.”

She said if she called the captain, he’d probably divert the plane and land. The man would be arrested. This quieted him down. After she left, he stewed for a few minutes, drinking down the last few drops of whatever scotch remained in his plastic cup. Then he put on his jacket, exhibiting a kind of old world gentility, stood up, and made his way to the back, where he began to argue again with two of the flight attendants. That’s it, I thought. We’re going to land somewhere. Chicago or worse.

He came back after a few minutes wearing a defeated look. “Let me ask you a question,” he said, when he settled back. “Was I being rude?”

“Yes, you were. You were acting a bit aggressively.”

“Okay, but who are they to tell me when to stop drinking? I’m 59 years old.”

“Hey, it’s their house, their rules.”

“Okay.” he said, and shrugged skeptically. He turned to the window and stared outside, even though there was nothing to see.

After he’d fallen asleep, I took the bottle of wine I’d stowed and brought it to the back. “Look, take it,” I said to the flight attendant. “I’m afraid he’s going to drink it.”

He slept, we landed, I pulled our things out of the overhead, and handed him his briefcase. I walked into 7am New York City, looking for a cab.

Ah, to be Bolo, to be the dog.