I sat next to Betty in Business Class on my way back to New York from Los Angeles. This was a couple of months ago.
Betty takes the trip alot; the New York-Los Angeles-New York trip. She told me that she did, but she didn't have to tell me, it was easy to ascertain from her familiarity with the seat, the blankets, even the flight attendants. "She's got a teenaged kid," she told me about a pretty, blonde stewardess. "Can you believe that?"
Betty dressed impeccably. A Prada-Armani, black with diamonds kind of lady. She brought a New York Times and a sandwich. She refused all offers of food except the peach and cookie dough ice cream dessert, a woman blessed with a tiny figure, even in her late middle age. Her voice was deep and gravelly with a borough accent, cigarette-scented and tough. She was ballsy, I could tell that. Legions of men in her life have undoubtedly called her a ball-buster behind her back. Or maybe to her face, at the risk of getting punched in the nose.
Her father had died, then her mother. She lived alone in Gramercy Park, though she didn't seem the slightest bit lonely. She was a successful deal maker in the music business.
"I walk into the bathroom and there's a bag there, how much do you want to bet its from coach?" The leather company, I thought? But that's not what she meant. The pretty blonde stewardess returned with her answer. "It belonged to someone from coach," she affirmed. "I told you!" said Betty triumphantly, shaking her head at the audacity of someone from steerage using the Business Class bathroom. It sounds horrible, maybe, but on Betty it was kind of charming. I am coach, I wanted to say, and maybe I did.
I am not a great flyer. I can't seem to wrap my head around how the airlines know that a plane is working properly, so every sound, every sharp turn, is, to me, confirmation of my worst fear: that the plane is busted and we're going to free fall. My anxiety is at its highest during take-off and landing.
We'd sat on the tarmac for awhile, Betty and I, maybe an hour, getting to know one another. When we finally took off, I looked at her, thought I should let her know, in case I started singing quietly to myself, which I often do on planes to calm my nerves.
"You're not afraid of flying?" she said, seeming more than slightly disappointed in me. She shook her tiny head. "You have to be brave," she said. "You have to be brave in this life."
I think of that, almost daily. She was right, after all.