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Talking to the people sitting next to you on an airplane is a risky move. I actually wrote this piece on an airplane, making sure to angle the screen of my computer away from the people sitting next to me, with whom I have not communicated in any way, shape, or form since I sat down in my aisle seat, which I strategically paid an extra $6 to secure. I have a small bladder and a penchant for sucking down as many margaritas at the airport Chili’s as possible. In general, I make it a rule to avoid talking to strangers in public places, but there have been a few times when I’ve broken this pact. Rules are just suggestions anyway, right?
The recent United debacle showed us why it’s more important than ever to band together with our fellow comrades in the sky; if you’re a huge asshole to them, no one is going to be upset when you get your shit rocked before getting dragged down the aisle and off the plane like a modern version of Gaylord Focker who just shouted “BOMB” on a plane. And without those strangers sharing their shaky footage of your forcible removal from the aircraft, how would you ever turn your misfortune into martyrdom and that martyrdom into profit? Kyle Bandujo was right, that guy was a lucky bastard.
My story begins on Thanksgiving weekend of my first year out of college. One of my college roommates was getting married in Phoenix, and with the reality of post-grad life sinking in, the rest of my housemates and I all decided that this wedding would be our first big reunion since leaving our alma mater what seemed like an eternity ago. In reality, our departure had been less than six months earlier, but the separation anxiety was becoming unbearable. Plus, the thought of spending a long weekend with my best friends getting drunk and lying by the pool in the 85 degree weather sounded infinitely better than spending it in Midwestern gloom with my family, fielding questions about my lackluster love life and listening to my grandmother make racist comments about the staff in her new retirement home.
With that decision made, I found myself at the airport on Black Friday, frantically rushing to my gate, because I have poor time management skills. I was flying Southwest, and my Thanksgiving food coma had ensured that I had most definitely forgotten to check in to my flight, which earned me a spot at the ass end of the boarding line.
As I stepped onto the plane, I quickly scanned for open seats. My eyes first went to the aisle seats, then the window seats. I was met with disappointment. As I resigned myself to spending the next four hours riding bitch in a middle seat, I did what any of us would do: looked for a hot girl to sit next to and hope I had enough game to score her number. It had never worked before, but I was feeling lucky. Wouldn’t this be a great story to tell the grandkids? Apparently attractive females don’t fly solo the day after Thanksgiving, so I settled for a middle seat between two older ladies who didn’t take up much space. In my career as a medical student and now a resident, I’ve found that women over the age of 50 are my key demographic. For whatever reason they find me funny and endearing. No one has set me up with their daughter or niece yet, but a guy can hope, right? (You can also find me on Bumble.)
As I asked the lady next to the aisle if the seat beside her was open, she informed me that she was actually traveling with the lady in the window seat, and they were just trying to take up a whole row. I respected that hustle. She told me I could have the window seat if I’d like, and since anything was better than the middle seat, I went for it.
Now, I had no intention of talking to them for the rest of the flight. Once we were airborne, I took my computer out and started studying for an upcoming exam, headphones on as a clear “FUCK OFF” to all around me. However, my interest was piqued when the drink cart came around. I ordered a ginger ale, my go-to in flight beverage, but each of my new compatriots asked for two cans of orange juice apiece. Again, they were bold, and I respected it. I paused the music on my headphones without taking them off my ears in case anything interesting was brewing. The lady next to me starting rummaging in her bag; I don’t know if she was an American Mary Poppins, but she was elbow deep in that bitch before she pulled out two of those single-shot vodka bottles, passing one to her traveling companion and keeping one for herself.
I was no longer passively intrigued by this situation; I was fully invested. When the drink cart made its way back down the aisle, I flagged down the attendant, slid off my headphones, and asked for a Bud Light. They were on sale – only $6 a can for the holiday weekend, so I didn’t feel like a total sack of shit for buying one with my loan money. Thanks Obama. I popped the top on my beer and introduced myself to my new friends.
Their names were Margaret and Rita, and it turns out they were a couple that had been together for over twenty years, but Margaret had just brought Rita home to meet her very conservative family for the first time this Thanksgiving. We shot the shit for a while. They asked about medical school and what type of doctor I wanted to be – at the time I was considering oncology, and Rita said if she ever got breast cancer, she hoped that I would be the one to tell her. It was as awkward to hear then as it is to write now. We all felt weird and there was a moment of silence as I took a long gulp of my beer and they both polished off their screwdrivers.
Rita followed that up with another question. “So, do you like to have fun?”
“Sure I do.” I replied. Anything to change the topic.
“Good!” she replied. “Let’s have some fun.”
With a devilish look in her eyes, Rita stood up and grabbed her bag from the overhead bin. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure that my fresh-out-of-college definition of fun matched theirs. However, that preconceived notion was quickly blasted to shreds when I saw what Rita retrieved from her bag.
You know how you’re allowed to have a single, quart-sized plastic bag for your liquids on a plane, and as long as each individual liquid is less than 3 ounces, you can stuff that fucker as full as possible? Rita was well versed with TSA regulations and had done just that – however she had forgone toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo and had opted to pack vodka. Only vodka. As many single shots of vodka as she could fit into that quart-sized bag of pure happiness. She was my spirit animal.
“Line ‘em up” Rita instructed, passing out the shots. Margaret seemed tentative. “Don’t be a buzzkill!” Rita scolded her. “This was your idea, remember? Something about not making it through introducing me to your family without being fully loaded? It all worked out, so let’s celebrate!”
We threw back the shots like they’d been sitting on the bar at a local dive, not bouncing around on our tray tables, which were no longer in their upright and locked position. No sooner did Margaret, the slowest of our trio, finish her shot that Rita and already chucked out another round. “Now we’ve got a party!” she rasped as the second shot of warm Svedka burned its way down our throats.
We settled on screwdrivers for round three. Between the beer and two shots, I was starting to rock a pretty solid buzz. I figured this would parlay nicely into a solid nap on my second flight after my layover in Denver. Rita had other plans.
As we sipped on our screwdrivers, I tried to employ a skill I was working on developing in my newly minted postgrad life called “pacing myself.” Much like the college version of Crick Watson, Rita didn’t believe in that shit. “You know you can’t save that for later, right?” she taunted, shaking the ice cubes in her tiny plastic cup in my general direction. I threw the rest of mine back, nearly swallowing an ice cube whole in the process, and set my empty cup on Rita’s tray table. Challenge accepted.
From that point on, the conversation flowed as easily as the vodka. I found out that Rita was a fitness instructor and Margaret was a high school art teacher. They had three Pomeranians and a morbidly obese cat named Fat Cat, who I learned had recently gotten stuck in the doggie door and spend the day with his head outside and ass indoors, leaving the Poms to piss and shit everywhere in anger after they discovered their exit blocked by feline fat rolls. I realized I was getting pretty drunk when I sent a reminder text to myself saying, “don’t buy a fat cat the carpet will never be the same” even though my phone was on airplane mode.
We continued swapping stories and downing shots. Each anecdote prompted a toast from Rita, which grew louder and louder with each round. You know those people who ruin a flight for everyone else? We were those people. After we ran out of orange juice, we requested a restock from a passing flight attendant. He looked at us with passive disdain until Rita slipped him a shot of vodka wrapped in a five-dollar bill and patted him on the ass to send him on his way. Shortly thereafter, we each had fresh cups of ice and a new can of Minute Maid.
The next screwdriver was the knockout punch for Margaret. Rita had been using her experience as a personal trainer to give me advice on my (nonexistent) workout routine when loud snoring interrupted our conversation. We both looked at Margaret, sitting between us, eyes closed and mouth agape, still cradling her final screwdriver with both hands, holding it against her chest. Rita stealthily pried the plastic cup from her partner’s grasp and poured its contents into my glass with a wink. “Bottoms up, doc!”
After a moment of silence, Rita posed a question. “So becoming a doctor has got to be intimidating. What’s the scariest part?” Maybe it was the vodka talking, or maybe it was the security that comes with a conversation with a drunk stranger I would never see her again, but that simple question prompted me to spill all of my fears about becoming a physician, both those that I had never told anyone else before, and those that I hadn’t truly admitted to myself until that moment. “What if I’m not smart enough to do this? Plus I’m kind of an asshole too; there’s a decent chance my patients won’t even like me. What if I’m only doing this because it’s what everyone expects of me? By everyone, I mostly mean my parents. Am I giving up the good part of my twenties for no good reason? What if it doesn’t actually get better? Is there anything I’d be happier doing? Is happiness even real? Will I ever feel like I know what I’m doing or is the constant feeling of inadequacy going to paralyze me forever?” It was both cathartic and overwhelming. I used the silence as an opportunity to polish off the rest of what had to have been my eighth screwdriver.
Rita chuckled. “Those are the questions everybody has about everything, kiddo. If those are the questions you’re asking, your head is in the right place, and by that I mean it isn’t so far up your ass that you don’t have any doubts about what you’re doing. I think that’s healthy. Keep asking those questions, it’ll keep you honest. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders and you’re not afraid to be honest. That’s going to make you a good doctor.” She finished off her screwdriver as well. “Plus, you’re not afraid to strike up a conversation with a couple of total strangers. Keep doing that. You never know where it’ll take you.”
With that, Rita laid her head on Margaret’s shoulder to take a drunken nap. She was right – when I woke up that morning, did I expect to be hammered on a plane, spilling my guts to a middle-aged woman? I most certainly did not. Would I change a single thing about that experience? Hell no. It was a shit load of fun, and made for a great story. Plus, I learned a lot about myself during that short, booze-fueled encounter, and that kind of self-realization doesn’t happen every day. The world can be a scary, lonely place, but you just may be able to change that with a simple “Hello.” Try it out sometime..
Listen to the newest episode of Touching Base where we break down Dillon’s trip to Augusta and this guy getting dragged off a United plane.