by Holly Burns

I’ve always been fearless on flights. My earliest memory is of sitting
curled in an airplane seat thousands of feet above Paris, watching and
waiting for the ground to get closer as the plane descended. I’ve flown
through Thai thunderstorms with even the flight attendants screaming and
clutching one another through every tilt and bounce.

At age eleven, I
started making the fourteen-hour trek from London to Hong Kong alone,
buoyed by the thought of seeing my parents on the other side, gritting my
teeth bravely through the turbulence and pulling my seatbelt tighter
across my lap. I’ve always been fine on flights. As travelers, we have to
be. We want to see things, don’t we? So we cope.

But think about it too much and you’ll run into the question of
probability. How many times can I fly, I wonder in my darker moments,
before my luck runs out? When worried, I tend to think of airline travel
in terms of those customer loyalty programs you find at coffee shops and
sandwich places, where they stamp your card for the first nineteen
Mochaccinos you buy and then give you the twentieth one for free. I’ve
taken countless, countless plane journeys over the last 26 years of my
life. I’m always wondering how many times my card has been stamped.

I’d been in London for a few weeks recently, exploring the city I’d come
to call home before heading back across the Atlantic to the one I was
actually living in. I’d found parks I’d never been to, pubs I’d
never sat in, whole streets and alleys I’d neglected to wander down the
last time I was there. It was as though someone had annotated the map
while I’d been away. “Put a whole new part of town in just here,” they’d
said. “That’ll keep her busy.”

On the short connecting flight from Newark to Charleston, I had a window
seat next to a slab of a man, a great big bear in a striped linen shirt.
He didn’t have hands, he had paws. He didn’t have a neck, he had a large
piece of roast beef in its place. He had a face like a bulldog, a tan from
a bottle, and the entirely confident notion that yes, he COULD wear a
man-bracelet and loafers without socks and not be teased for it, because
if you teased him for it, so help you God, you’d find yourself in tiny
pieces at the bottom of the Hudson river quicker than you could say Uncle

As the tiny plane ascended higher and higher, and I craned my neck to get
a final look at the IKEA store that had tempted me cruelly and mercilessly through
the departure lounge windows, we suddenly dipped sharply and awkwardly to the
left. A second later, there was a disconcertingly audible BANG!, a noise
I’d never heard on a plane before in all my years of flying, a noise that
sounded inherently wrong. Instinctively—it was funny how
instinctively—the man and I both reached for each other, me with my left
hand, he with his right. I grabbed for him without thinking, the way I
would have grabbed for my boyfriend or my mother or father, responding to
a split-second of panic the first way I knew how. He did the same, perhaps
in that sliver of an instant thinking me a wife or girlfriend or daughter,
and for the briefest moment we were each other’s person.

I don’t know whether we reached out to reassure or to be reassured, to
comfort or to be comforted, to protect or to be protected, but that tiny
lurch towards each other—my heart hammering wildly in my chest, my
breathing suddenly on hold, the panicked blur of a thought: is this
it?—was so instinctive, so quick, and afterwards, when the plane leveled
out and we all smiled nervously at each other, so suddenly and vaguely
awkward, that it seemed somehow momentous, truthful, unabashedly honest.
Perhaps that’s all we ever want, those of us who claim never to be afraid:
to know that if it ends—when it ends—someone else is there, right
there, in the seat next to us, holding our hand when it happens.

* * * *

About the Author

British writer and editor Holly Burns recently packed her life into
storage and left her job, friends and apartment in Charleston, South
Carolina to travel around Southeast Asia for three months. She keeps a
blog at, where she promises never to post
about the crazy dream she had last night or what she just ate for