Anything to help the time pass! Photo by Toni Osmundson on Unsplash

We stop short just inside the terminal doors: a line of people stretches in either direction as far as we can see. Outside of U.S. Customs, I’ve rarely seen such a line at an airport. Maybe at JFK, come to think of it. But not in Raleigh, NC, for a flight to the west coast. At 6 a.m. on a Friday, it’s a surprise — and disheartening. When we check in at a kiosk, our tickets don’t bear our TSA pre-check numbers, which were, in the first place, a rigamarole my partner and I went through to ameliorate situations like this. We start to be alarmed; we might have enough time to make the flight if we have to stand in this line. Maybe. If things keep moving along and no snarls arise. The line actually wraps entirely around the perimeter of the terminal. We take our single bag to the counter to check it (carrying on our backpacks and daypacks), and the agent agrees to apply the TSA numbers for us, which lets us go directly into the security check with no waiting to speak of. Crisis averted.

We’ll be able to get some breakfast after all.

Immediately past security is a Starbucks, smack in the middle of the junction between the two wings of the terminal. A line snakes between ropes. People poke phone screens with their thumbs, many sporting a single earbud, the other dangling. Neither of us likes Starbucks coffee: it tastes horribly bitter and burned, and neither of us wants the doctored, milk-and-sugar-and-candy flavored concoctions that make the vile stuff palatable. We were hoping there’d be options.

One after another, announcements coded by cities and numbers urge passengers to find their gates, to check their too-large bags for a crowded flight. All the flights seem to be crowded; all the gate agents seem to be pleading for cumbersome luggage to whisk out of sight. At our gate, we’re greeted with what seems like real gratitude when we agree to surrender our carry-ons, with the assurance that they’ll make it to Vancouver with us. Lightened, we head back out to surveil the concourse for non-Starbucks coffee and food, unsure, as always, what might await us on the flight.

A small cafe is close to the gate.

Lacking the brand-name draw of Starbucks, it presents little wait. Two women work behind the counter, maintaining a patina of cheer just visible enough to keep them from seeming disgruntled. The patience required to remain nonplussed working a foodstore in an airport terminal must be monumental. One after another, people shuffle up, order some version of a bun with egg or cheese or other fillings — or order a bagel with something on it, maybe toasted. As jobs go, it seems like just the right proportion of monotony and variety to make mistakes, boredom, and irritation ever-present possibilities. When it’s our turn, the coffee urn is empty. The woman at the register says to wait and she’ll get the new one in a minute. She takes two more orders, then leaves the last person in line standing there while she changes out the urns. It seems odd timing. Behind us, a teenager haltingly orders: “would it … be possible … to get a bagel … with guacamole?” “Yes,” is the brusque reply, “that’s $3.24.”

The sandwiches on the menu have been whimsically named, so that customers and workers have to say things to each other like, “I’ll have two Quickies and a Gobbler,” and, “Patricia, I need a Quickie!” The humor in that — assuming it was someone’s idea of a fun way to lighten up the harrowing experience of air travel while being charged for bread and eggs as though they were caviar — has long since been lost on the women who work there, and none of the customers seem to register the names of the food one way or another.

We’re all just listening with half an ear to make sure none of the announcements pertain to us, clutching and reviewing our crinkled boarding passes to ensure that we haven’t misread them and wandered down to the wrong end of the terminal. Out in the wide corridor, there’s always someone jogging, clutching a laptop that he hasn’t managed to stuff back into his bag, looking stricken. Things beep, things chime, the PA system blares, distorting voices. We carry our too-hot English-muffin egg sandwiches and our too-cool coffee back to the gate.

The sandwiches — “Quickies” — are double-wrapped in deli-paper and unevenly hot in the way that a microwave renders certain foods simultaneously under and overdone, a matrix of cold nuggets and nuclear pockets.

We don’t want to wait and eat them on the plane, trapping the smell of breakfast in the canned air with us and everyone else, so we perch on the hard plastic seats by the gate and blow on them to cool a bite at a time as the rows are called to board. But it’s not enough: I bite into molten cheese and my tastebuds are seared and dulled, a no-man’s-land of sensation for days to come, that tender spot behind my top front teeth doomed to blister and then feel raw to the tip of my tongue.

Somehow, the combination of eggs and cheese and bread — that staple of fast food that normally tastes almost exclusively of salt — has no flavor at all. There’s a chewy, dry, floury blandness encasing a squishy, rubbery blandness. Not even a hint of salt. How can cheese not add savor? The sandwiches are almost exquisitely tasteless, and by the same token, almost unpalatable. We dump the contents of tiny paper salt packets on to make our mouths water enough to chew and swallow. The coffee’s little help, and not hot enough to mask the thoroughly mediocre staleness of who-knows-what back-of-the-warehouse bean it is. I’m no coffee snob, but there’s solidly average coffee and there’s stale, sorry coffee-beverage, and even my palette, not the sharpest at the best of times, can tell a difference.

Eating our breakfast has saved us the trouble of standing in another line — the one to board the plane.

Having already rid ourselves of carry-ons, we stroll on board, casually, near the last call, and find our seats, to our surprise, are in the exit row. The man in the aisle seat must have legs six or eight inches longer than mine, and I’m not short. These are the people who typically pay a premium for these seats with extra leg room. But as far as we know, we’ve gotten these seats by chance. It’s the most legroom, in a straight-out-in-front-of-me direction, that I’ve ever had in a plane, I think. Even sitting behind the galley hasn’t generally given me this much room. The tray-table on the seat in front of me, even extended, doesn’t reach to my knees.

There’s a catch or two, however.

Glorious as it sounds to have literally two feet of space out in front of me, the seat itself is a pill. It’s the shape of a cube, with the top and one side removed. It is in no way ergonomic or even marginally comfortable. It is exactly wide enough that the sides of my hips graze the armrests lightly; there is no lumbar contouring whatsoever. The armrests, too, are angular and unpadded. The seat-back does not recline. The whole affair is something like a medieval throne, of the sort you’d see carved into the side of a Gothic cathedral somewhere in France or Germany. I have the middle seat, the punisher, although the window, where my partner sits, isn’t much better: it is a cube like mine, except with one of its sides replaced by the curving side of the airplane. This is not ergonomically correct, either.

In the back of each seat’s headrest is a tablet-sized screen. Most passengers let their screens play — a map tracking the flight across the country with a graphic of an airplane and a flight-path superimposed on a rough satellite image of the continent, a page of flight-data, television, complete with commercials and scrolling tickers, or movies individually chosen and listened to through earbuds. The days of monitors dropping from overhead compartments, or of movie-screens barely visible at the front of a section of seats, are mostly behind us. Even in daylight, the cabin glows blue. Many people ignore the screen at eye-level in favor of a screen they’ve brought with them, laptop or tablet or phone-sized. Everywhere you look, shifting images, blue ocean and green land, life-sized electronic facsimiles of paper with lines of text.

How to endure five and a half hours of confinement to a hard plastic throne?

Read, write, watch, listen, nibble. Some can, inconceivably, sleep upright, chins fallen, necks collapsed, or they slump sidelong into tolerant neighbors, bobbling. Most, on this early-morning flight, are looking at something, doing something. I begin to think it is impossible, no matter what you might’ve vowed to yourself about eating too much bad food, not to yearn for the progress of the food and drink carts. Efficient as they are, they move slower than nightmares, always threatening to run out of whatever you’ve decided you want just before they finally reach your row, which is always one of the last to be served, no matter where it is. Yet finally, the moment comes when the flight attendant passes me with two hands a steaming cup, which I clutch with two hands and set down in the tray-table’s indentation before reaching for my snack-box.

Maybe because it’s free — or already paid for, rather — the coffee is better than the cup we paid for on the concourse, and the blocky triangles of bulk-buy cheese in the snack-packs we’re pleasantly surprised to get have more flavor than the stretchy molten cheese-like substance on our “Quickies.” I eat my raw almonds one at a time, making them last, then do the same with the grapes, which seem to have been harvested from a special airline vineyard that’s still growing a variety from half a century ago: I haven’t tasted grapes this tart in years. There’s a packet of “flatbread,” which is a bit of floury cardboard with a dusting of just enough salt to cover the odd, metallic taste of processed grain. By far the best part is the single, thin, individually-wrapped square of chocolate: dark, with toasted almond bits and salt. It’s the only thing that tastes as it should, and I savor it, too, in tiny bites with my neutral, perfectly acceptable coffee.

The ceremonies of food delivery and beverage service, of consumption, and of offeratories of bits of garbage for collection by the patient flight attendants, like the religious rituals they resemble, take up and give a structure to the shapeless stretch of time between departure and arrival.

They comfort and bore in equal measure. But they occupy us, creating anticipation, expectation and resolution, the tiniest bit of conflict necessary to shape amorphous experience into narrative, beginning, middle, end. Whether or not we know what will happen next, it is soothing to believe that something will be happening.

And, at last, it is.

The pilot’s voice, mostly unintelligible against the roaring engine noise, signals that the destination can now be thought of, that there will be something beyond this tube of recirculated air and polite, mild misery. The windows are coolly ablaze with reflected light: we’re flying over snow-capped mountains, we’re on the cloud-side, seeing the tops that we won’t see from the ground. And once there, inevitably, we’ll be hungry again, this time for something, we hope, more memorable than the taste of suspended animation.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.