Assigned seat 6E on an A320 plane, I know it’s not likely I’ll have a seat empty beside me. I’m hopeful to be seated next to good people.
I’m first to arrive in my row, tentatively sitting in the middle seat and not fastening my seatbelt because at best, no one will be seated by the window, and I can move there. Or, I’ll have to move to let my neighbour in to their seat.
Smaller than I once was, there is as much room as possible around me. My short legs mean there is room to walk by in front of me to get to the window seat. I can now easily buckle the belt, where 16 months ago it would have cut into my flesh. My thighs are no longer so big, they raise the arm rests. I fit perfectly well.
Dump. A large bag lands in the seat to my left, by the aisle. A tall-ish, balding and grey-clad older man is stuffing another bag into the overhead locker. He then reclaims his bag from my left and moving toward me, motions that he is to sit in the window seat to my right. There isn’t really anywhere for me to go, so I awkwardly squirm backward in my seat in a show of making space for him to pass.
His bag installed beneath the seat ahead of him, the grey man extracts an iPad and circles the entire arm rest between us with his left arm. He isn’t a big man, but he presses against the right side of my body, unwelcome. The warmth of him uninvited, reaching through my cardigan to spread along my skin. I feel anxious and uncomfortable, “please don’t touch me” repeating in my head. I try and recede to the left.
With more respect, a greeting, a man wearing blue arrives. He is shorter than the first and completely bald. He sits and I adjust myself to the extreme centre, elbows tucked tightly against my sides and held painfully in place by the arm rests. The blue man sits comfortably, and though resting his arm along the inside of our shared arm rest, he doesn’t touch me. I can no longer lean left to escape the grey man, the heat of him encroaches.
The grey man’s arm is rubbing in an unpleasant pulse against me as he scrolls text on his iPad. It turns my insides, my panic rising as the plane is filled with more, more people.
I feel a tapping on the backs of my feet, left bare by my sandals. The man behind me has somehow stretched his feet so far forward that he is using the foot rest below my seat. Annoyed, I move my feet back against his to clarify that the space is occupied. The tapping continues. The rubbing against my arm from the grey man continues.
I realise I am surrounded by men in every direction. I can’t see any women. I send a distressed tweet, and women in my network respond with compassion and understanding. They all understand. They have been here.
Elbow him back, put earphones in, a hacking cough? Coping strategies emerge. Press the call button and be moved by the flight attendants. Breathe.
I am too afraid to shove back for space, confrontation in the subtlest form is terrifying, I am threatened already. I will not ask for more space. It doesn’t occur to the grey man that he is touching me.
My face feels tight and I realise my muscles are tense. I close my eyes and try to mindfully focus on my breathing. The darkness heightens my sense of awareness, and the hideous warmth of the grey man becomes my focus, punctuated by the tapping against my feet by the man behind me.
I open my eyes and realise there are two hours to go before the flight arrives in Auckland. The back of my seat tightens against my arse as the man behind me presses into it. We are still on the tarmac. The plane hasn’t yet moved.
The grey man twists, retrieves a business document relating to a former client of mine. He’s making notes, the twist has lodged his elbow against my rib and each new line is a fresh dig. I have nowhere to go, the only movement is the increase of my irritation, discomfort and despair.
My Twitter support network, if only they were with me to shout a resounding “fuck off!”. It’s suggested I spill a drink, but I feel all I could do is spill tears. The plane moves, and too soon it’s time to shut off my understanding friends with airplane mode.
The plane is in the air, and while there is the odd reprieve from the grey man’s excavation of my ribs, the gentleman in front of me has reclined his seat. I have an unwanted, intimate view of his scalp. I’ve had to move my feet forward, as the man behind me has extended his own to reach my ankles. I remember, wryly, I was the most flexible girl in class.
This is awful, and no one around me has a clue. They won’t have a clue. This experience will join the others in my past which condense to anxiety, fear, distrust. To avoidance of situations in close quarters with others.
This is one small part of what it means to me to be a woman.