She did not look at me -- she looked at no one, she apologized to the man sitting between us in the back row of our flight to San Diego. She knew she seemed rude, but she couldn't look at people when talking to them.
She was deeply troubled. There are times in a human's life when the hour-glass becomes porous, and the sand within slips through the walls, threatening to shatter the personality forevermore. Her voice was fluid and almost controlled, choked and wild, veering from sobs to near-shouts to return to an all too patient neutrality as she tried with each new sentence to grasp some of the thoughts slipping through her mind. She was reading a book by Fran Leibowitz, she told my neighbor in response to his query, but it wasn't right, because the words on the page weren't hers, should have been hers, and it was wrong, wrong.
The word hysteria, of course, was created by men to apply to women, though the flood of panic, doubt, fear, pain, wild emotion and heartsick lamentation is not a stream that overflows solely from the female psyche. Besides diminishing the force behind the tempest that creates such inundation, beyond attempting to channel the visceral flight which threatens to overwhelm the rational redoubts of society confronted with such incontinence, this word hysteria also hides the secret agony of its own process, by converting the ebb and flow into a manageable duality for the witness of the embarassing spectacle. One "becomes" hysterical, and therefore no longer worthy of further rational attention, but worthy only of a disdainful patronization. (We'll skip over the gender bias of this word for now, shall we? Where was I? Oh, yes...) But this catastrophic word hysteria conceals the slow or fast path of turbulence and restraint between one's "normal" state and the point at which the sufferer may be treated as a problematic child. A new word is needed -- I shall make up a French word, tharnement (do not forget "th" is pronounced "t") -- to describe the intermediate state. It is an appalling condition, as the actor feels the lowering clouds of ominous portent sweep over the psychic horizon, and fights with might and main to control the looming disaster, to set up mental sandbags against the inevitable flood. Nance O'Neil speaks of such a storm, saying that for some women living their lives "in the small places into which they have been driven, there is a storm that broods but never bursts." Ah, but once the tempest begins in earnest, and one toils to exhaustion to prevent the collapse of the levees and bulwarks of personality, and the strictest efforts are required just to "keep on keepin' on," as the argot would have it; after hours, days, weeks ... years? ... of struggle against the inexorable current of disaster, the tired oh-so-tired soul gingerly continues its woeful battle against the seemingly inevitable. And the wonder is not that we become overwrought and lose ourselves from time to time; the wonder is that we are not continually surrounded by panicked people always, ourselves playing that role in our turn. Thus the human spirit continues to double its losing bet against uncaring fate by refusing to give up hope, Pandora's gift, even when hope is lost. Such was the woman sitting on the aisle.
She apparently had gotten her bachelor's degree, for she wanted, hoped, oh she wished she could get into graduate school. There she would study how children and others learn. People learn differently, she explained further to my fellow traveler in the middle seat. She found that her teachers and courses presented themselves in far too linear a manner. And she couldn't learn that way, she did not learn in a linear fashion. She verged between crying and near shouts. One could easily see her jumping up and screaming "Let me off the plane! Let me off now!" if the wrong word or thought pushed her so. Perhaps that is why my fellow prisoner in the middle seat had quickly changed the subject from Fran Leibowitz's book, asking about the other volume she had with her. It proved to be a college text about learning techniques, prompting some of the above observations. Some other observations: She did not like being in boxes, being on a plane was yet another in a series of hateful boxes. She had endured every known form of intervention, therapy, reverse psychology, behavioral modification, etc. etc. over the past six weeks. She took medication, but because she lacked insurance she had had to join a drug study to receive any, and the source was foreign, and the pills contained a chemical which was known to be dangerous; this man had given her something which was poison, he'd given her poison, she had taken poison and was that right? Her voice rose to a near-shout as my companion and I agreed this was not right.
The man in the middle was a nice guy. He was returning from a vacation in Idaho with his three children, who occupied the other back-row seats across the aisle. They had driven three hours to Boise, flown from Boise to Oakland, and were now finishing the last leg before getting home. He had willingly given up his aisle seat to the young woman's aunt, who had come to the back seeking a seat "close to the bathroom" for her niece. After he had moved to the middle seat and the niece had taken the aisle with her books and bag, the aunt went forward some seven or eight rows to claim a middle seat for herself. He conversed with the young woman in good spirit, not looking at her and not expecting her to look at him. He was out of his element, as he tried changing the subject only to see each new topic dissolve and reveal its dangerous core. He was a very nice man.
What was "wrong" with this woman? you may ask. Was it drugs? A psychotic break? A broken heart? Broken spirit? Anorexia? Bulimia? Schizophrenia? Manic depression? A suicide attempt? It does not matter. Perhaps all of the above, perhaps none. Perhaps she was possessed, not by a demon, but by some powerful force she could not resist except by freezing in place to avoid slipping finally fataly into the abyss. I am sure that a name had been given to "it". The aunt was taking her back home from whatever emotional disaster had befallen, the family had been given the dire verdict, the doctors had tried to explain to this poor woman just what wrathful malady had captured her. Why not call it a demon? The aunt was content to sit a half-dozen rows ahead of the afflicted, grateful no doubt for even this ninety minutes of separation, of relief, of distance from the wearying vortex of anguish that her niece had become. After the hours -- perhaps days -- of helping her young niece disconnect from whatever life she had in the Bay Area to return to the sanctuary of her family, who can gainsay her hour-and-a-half of respite. The woman on the aisle never spoke the dread name that had been told her, and she knew no respite.
Of course she could not speak of these things. To do so, especially with chance strangers, would be equivalent to jumping into the rushing water to rescue a stuffed animal: a pointless way to be torn away by the flood. One can worry about the world ending, but the shock comes after it ends, and then the world ends again, and again, and yet again. A single glance at that point can be sufficient to topple the pillars and mountains anew, to unleash once more the devastating wrecking wave that washes away what was left after the world ended, and then triggers another wave to destroy what the last left behind. And yet some bite their lip, and pray that this is the last wave, or that it will soon be over, and resign themselves to the world ending, and yet do not give in, do not partake in the destruction themselves, but hang on, breathe, perhaps this will be the last wave, even if I go under, I will fight back to the surface, though lost and lonely and drowning and soaking wet and friendless and forgotten and so very tired.
Once upon a time, I rode on a cross-country flight -- as is my habit, I had the window seat as I did flying to San Diego. Five hours that long ago flight lasted, and I leaned against the window, sobbing quietly against the window the entire flight. The older Black man sitting next to me -- perhaps he was the same age I am now, perhaps a decade older -- he wore a hat, and ignored me the entire flight as I cried against the plastic shield between me and the night. I suspect that if he had asked me what was wrong, or had spoken to me or even looked at me, I would have broken down completely.
I had no desire to help the woman on the aisle. What help could I give? Whatever tragic calamity had befallen could not be lessened by kind words and smiles. The road ahead seemed dark because the road was dark; new terrors lay ahead, and any path out of the dense and vicious wood which encircled her would be long and torturous, with dead ends and unsuspected traps, and no certainty of escape. I finally spoke up when she returned to her theme of her perceived rudeness; she knew that she must really be annoying, was certain that she annoyed most people. "I've found," I said, "that the only people who really annoy me have been either roommates or relatives." A dangerous gambit, and not a particularly truthful one when I recall my years in retail. I don't remember exactly what was said next -- nor would I want to recount the last hour of the flight, when writing this has already occupied a much longer time. I cynically tried to give hope, humorously admitted that things got fucked up sometimes, the usual blather. I told the story of crying on the cross-country non-stop. Told the story my grandfather had told me of a man who couldn't cry (literally) who'd received a tear-duct transplant or some such, and couldn't help but cry afterwards, while laughing with joy. We talked of fears of airplanes, my brother's old nemesis. We talked of many things, enough to fill the remaining flight time and keep her voice within a standard deviation or two of "normal".
Do not get me wrong. Do not mistake me. I am, in general -- on planes, at least -- a misanthrope. I do not want to converse. I fear more than anything being trapped on a plane making small talk with someone I disdain, or who I suspect disdains me. My interest was as much to diffuse the danger of her breakdown crossing some social barrier as it was to help. I knew I could not help. There was no help. She did not annoy me; she was wrong there. The desire to help may have been there, but it was accompanied by an immediate understanding of my inadequacy for the task, and a shameful prevision of failure. No, the only questions were: What to say? How to say it? As usual, there was nothing to say; the only question left was how to say it.
So we all chatted amiably together, ignoring or teasing the disaster whose presence laid its shadow across our hearts with varying degrees of darkness. We did not fight the shadow directly, but stepped aside or playfully shone our weak lights against it or pretended it was but a cloud. And so in an inverse of the oceanic metaphor, on the surface light breezes blew across the gentle whitecaps, while underneath in the depths roiling vortices snaked through the water, wild currents hidden from the open air. To myself I thought of all the friends I have known who have passed through a tunnel of darkness like this poor girl. Many made it through, years have passed and their bleak adventure is now only a cautionary tale. But some did not. And nothing is more certain than that when it seems that all hope is lost, one can be sure that it may become more hopeless still. From such a far-flung castaway trajectory beyond the farthest orbits of the social system, the journey back to the center is perilous and uncertain. They do not all return.
When we landed at San Diego, the man in the middle asked her name. She told him in an only slightly edgy voice. He told her his, and I spoke mine to both of them. She then shook our hands, looking us in the eye as she did so. I saw her for the first time; she was beautiful. After being assured that we two would watch over her books and bag, she got up from the aisle seat to use the restroom -- her first occasion to do so. My companion in the middle seat turned to me and thanked me profusely for jumping into the conversation. He shook his head, perhaps shaking off as well the emotional residue that clung to us both. He got his kids together after I told him I'd maintain the watch on her books and bag. Whatever plague had struck this woman, its ravages were not at an end. In San Diego the aunt would pass her charge into the parents' control, and a new chapter would begin. I, on the other hand, would walk away from the plane with something like relief, and would hug my family the tighter.
I do not know what any of this means.