Sometimes You Want The Seat Next To The Screaming Baby

Photo: Tomsickova Tatyana | Shutterstock
Mother with son on a airplane

I boarded my third flight of the day, Dallas-Fort Worth to San Francisco, hoping that we would land on schedule so that I would have time to get to my twins’ high school graduation.

My day had started with a 6:00 a.m. flight out of Burlington. My friends protested that wasn’t really 3:00 a.m. by California time, but both my circadian clock in my suprachiasmatic nucleus, and my cortex, which thirty years ago wrote a dissertation on neuroscience and biological rhythms, voted to override their assessment.

Sleep deprived, flying for the first time in fifteen months, on a crowded Memorial Day weekend, with the country awakening from COVID-19, what else could go wrong? Well, I got the seat next to the screaming baby.

As with every flight I took that weekend, the airline announced that every seat would be filled. I boarded with my designated group, unpacked an apple, a foil-wrapped square of chocolate, and The New Yorker, and stowed my backpack overhead. Settling into my aisle seat my mind temporarily glimmered with the futile hope that the adjacent seats would remain empty.

The tail end of passengers straggling onto the plane extinguished that hope. A pair of young women, chatting in Spanish, stopped at my row. A long, peach-colored jacket partially obscured the gaudy red-yellow-blue-orange-green print dress of the first woman, as well as the baby strapped to her chest. Her glossy black hair was pulled back in a practical mom ponytail. A profusion of makeup partially obscured the beauty of her anchorwoman features.

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I stood to provide them access, and the mom exchanged pleasantries with me as her younger companion slid into the window seat. Auntie was dressed similarly to her sister, with the addition of being encumbered by a rack of eyelashes large enough to overwhelm even the most stalwart drag queen.

Mom took the middle seat and explained that, at five months old, Junior was taking his first flight.

He was quiet, with dark eyes, and one small shock of dark hair atop his head. His facial features appeared more ordinary than either of his gorgeous relatives.

Mom’s peach-colored jacket belt slid to the floor, coiling around my ankles like a friendly pastel snake. Usually, on airplanes, I defend “my” territory from encroachments, but this wasn’t harming me, and I could see that Mom had her hands full.

Babies can be effective at disarming strangers.

Mom attentively played with her baby, who gurgled softly. He only screamed a few minutes during take-off. Being able to see the source of the cries, and observing that mother was diligently doing all she could to keep him comfortable and quiet, made the noise understandable and tolerable.

I resumed reading my magazine, with my apple and chocolate on my lap. Mother kept baby amused. When she took occasional breaks to check something on her phone, she passed him off to Auntie. Twice Mom reached into her baby pack to bottle feed her son.

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The airline provided no snacks but did roll out the drink cart. As I reached to retrieve my chocolate, which had slid between my thighs, I saw a thin dark brown beading along the foil seam. The chocolate had melted; only the thin metal exoskeleton held the square intact. I held an ice cube from my drink against the foil packet until the chocolate solidified, then peeled the wrapper back and popped the chocolate into my mouth.

I thought I had skillfully salvaged my dessert until I smeared a previously undetected blob of chocolate onto my magazine. Using the paltry airplane drink napkin, I wiped the chocolate from the magazine, leaving an oily, translucent stain through several pages. I inspected the back of all my fingers, cleaning off other smudges of melted chocolate.

Baby kept darting glances in my direction, more entranced by my reading glasses than by the chocolate mess.

I looked at him and smiled. As Darwin described one hundred fifty years ago, true smiling engages the eyes. Baby beamed. His prosaic features morphed into a heartwarming sun of delight. Baby and I kept playing smiling games throughout the flight. Mother looked reassured. Sister looked jealous.

I settled back into reading my magazine, working the crossword, and intermittently playing smiling games with my little neighbor. He reprised his takeoff screaming for just a few minutes during landing. Again, the noise was perfectly tolerable.

I thought about how, when we only have parts of the story, we fill in the gaps and silences with our own narratives.

We become annoyed when we imagine a negligent mother allowing her child to scream and disturb others. This was clearly not the case here.

We landed on time. I had finished reading the magazine articles and completed the crossword. I had enjoyed smiling with the baby, who had only screamed briefly. I had relished my apple and chocolate. All was right with the world.

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At the gate, with several rows of passengers waiting to disembark before us, I stood, bending like a limbo dancer interpreting a question mark. I picked up the coiled peach belt snake, handing it to the mom, inadvertently trailing it across my seat.

I was immediately mortified to see that I had besmirched it with a tiny droplet of chocolate.

As I apologized profusely, she nonchalantly accepted the belt and then pointed out the chocolate on my seat cushion. Not just a dab. More than a smear. An entire chocolate puddle, narrow, but as long as my hand. Who knew that a little two-inch square packet could contain so much? In the rare event of landing in a sea of chocolate would the seat still serve as a flotation device?

I had defaced the airline’s seat. But not just their seat. My seat too. I dabbed at the chocolate stains on my left inner thigh, blotting with the folded Kleenex I retrieved from my pocket. The dark oily spots resembled my marred magazine. In my contorted position, until the mom pointed it out, I didn’t even see that my right pant leg was in worse condition: a five-inch brown streak down the back of the thigh, with gobs of chocolate still clinging to it.

That was the moment I received my frequent flyer award for traveling next to the screaming baby. Not only did Mom helpfully indicate the mess I had initially missed, but she also produced from her baby bag a pack of wet wipes. She pressed one, then another, into my hands for cleaning up.

Airlines know that their clients are often slobs, so the plasticized and treated seat fabric came completely clean with a few swipes. My pale tan pants, travelers’ attire made to be washed in hotel sinks and to dry quickly, did not shed the stain so readily.

I knew that I would decamp the plane and traverse the airport with the pale, tawny background of my pants showcasing the large brown stains seeping down the back of my thighs. I knew that people would conclude that this almost sixty-year-old man had suffered a bowel problem on the plane. Some would wonder whether I was so far gone that I wasn’t even aware of the situation. Some would be disgusted. Some would be scornful. Some would be pitying.

But rather than feeling ashamed, I could appreciate the humor of the situation.

I knew how it might look to others, but I also knew what had really transpired. I could control the narrative. I had a good story to tell.

Life was still good. I had spent smiling time with a baby. Mom had provided wet wipes to a stranger. The apple, and at least two-thirds of the chocolate, had been tasty. The flight had landed on schedule. Not only would I make it to the graduation, but I also had time to go home and change my pants first.

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John Kruse is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, marathon runner and author living in Hawaii. He writes extensively on and creates videos on his YouTube channel about adult ADHD, sleep, and other mental health and well-being topics.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.