It is Hard To Be Different

Tim Conley

Look, here’s the thing about being _______. You’re on a plane, okay, one of those big ones with lots of people all squeezed together, you’ve never thought your legs were too long until now. It feels like it’s going to be hours before you even leave the ground, though you may entertain doubts about how or even whether that’s physically possible. It’s a really big plane and a lot of the people aboard look on the heavy side, their luggage is probably crammed with things they don’t need, silverware and novelty hats and back-up generators. All too easily you can imagine taxiing in wide ellipses for hours, waiting for some people being gently hustled up and down the aisles to coax off just a few more calories so the miracle of flight can occur. Anyway, two of these people are your neighbours, one seated on either side, and it’s soon made clear that the armrests aren’t for you on this voyage. Not that they’re necessarily unfriendly or emanating some terrible smell or anything: just taking up a fair bit of room, room that could be yours. It is not inconceivable that, were they to fall asleep during the long flight, in the throes of dreaming they might accidentally smother you between them. When the stewardess asks you if everything is all right, you politely ask if you could have a short word with the pilot. Politely and quietly. You don’t want to make a scene. The stewardess offers to help if she can. She’s not surprised by the request, probably gets a lot of requests to talk with the pilot, has been carefully trained how to deal with these requests.

I respect professionalism. Always have.

So you tell her, still quietly and politely but now with a firmness that might suggest a sort of urgency, that there’s something the pilot needs to know before take-off. She’s obviously judging the situation and gives a look to another stewardess, who comes over and the two of them confer. All of the other passengers are seated by now, but you’re standing up, you’re trying to get past the person next to you so you can be in the aisle with the stewardesses, but the operation isn’t going so well, you’re barely moving. You look down at the person who’s not in any way assisting your exit and you see that that seat is no longer occupied by a large person but by, say, a massive crocodile, and now you’re struggling for your life because it’s abundantly clear that the crocodile got to be that massive on a diet of airline passengers. It’s snapping its long jaws all too near your face and you’re trying to keep one foot firmly on its tail to keep it from thrashing about but you don’t want to interrupt the stewardesses’ conversation. You can’t hear every word but it does sound like they might let you come with them to the cockpit to meet with the pilot. Your other neighbour has noticed your dilemma and gives a brief apologetic smile, as though he means to comfort you in at least a broad conceptual way but, just in case you mistake his sympathy as more than that, he discreetly moves his feet slightly further out of the way of the crocodile’s tail and visibly gives his complete attention to a magazine in his lap. The crocodile’s breath in your face is nearly enough to make you sick or pass out.

Okay, fair enough, it doesn’t have to be a crocodile, what we’re after here is some sort of really fierce lizard, nothing mammalian. I’ve heard that the maw of the Komodo dragon is rife with harmful bacteria, that when a Komodo dragon takes its first bite out of a victim, that bite pretty much seals the deal. Even if it’s fortunate enough to get away from the initial attack, the bitten animal is going to be stalked by the Komodo dragon, never able to rest for even a moment, so the inevitable infection is going to spread and, sooner or later, the victim is going to collapse. Sure, the business of a crocodile grabbing you and rolling you in the water is unpleasant to contemplate, too. Hard to say which is nastier, isn’t it? But on the plane, if you like, let us say that you are wrestling with a Komodo dragon, and you can smell its terrible breath and you know what awful poisons its mouth contains.

As I’ve said, you don’t want to interrupt the stewardesses, who are trying to decide whether to allow you to see the pilot, or whether the pilot ought at least to be notified of your request. You especially don’t want to interrupt because that might draw undue attention to your current situation and the stewardesses might not appreciate the way you are struggling with the Komodo dragon. There will be no opportunity to explain that the Komodo dragon is no associate of yours, you don’t know where it came from, and you have no real argument with it and this lack of argument or non-argument has absolutely nothing to do with the word you’d like to have with the pilot before take-off. Meanwhile this is a live, full-sized, and eminently dangerous Komodo dragon with which you are entangled, so even though you are willing to be patient and polite and don’t want to give the stewardesses any incorrect impression of your being impatient or unreasonable, it is getting harder and harder, with each moment and with each snap of the Komodo dragon’s nasty teeth, to remain composed.

Just at the moment when you don’t think you can hold that composure any longer, when you’re either going to scream or be fatally chomped on by the Komodo dragon, the stewardesses simultaneously smile at you and gesture you towards the cockpit. There must be something about you that gives credence to your stated need to speak with the pilot. Maybe it’s the forbearance you have shown, though you can’t really say for sure and a certain mystification settles as you proceed towards the cockpit. Even the Komodo dragon has vaguely lessened the force of its assault, though it would surely yet tear off half of your face were you to let your guard down. To the stewardesses striding confidently behind you, you mention, as casually as you can, that you fully appreciate how diligent the entire flight crew must be, especially with a full complement of passengers, notably heavy-set passengers at that, and you manage to add a little something about how little of the pilot’s time you expect to take.

The door to the cockpit has a heavy wooden bolt across it, which you feel pretty embarrassed about leaving the two stewardesses to lift, preoccupied as you are with the life-and-death struggle with the Komodo dragon. This takes a little longer than expected and the stewardesses grunt and perspire freely as they raise the bolt and set it down beside the door, which they then strain to pull open. This is one of those medieval dungeon doors. Obviously nothing like this door would be found on a plane today. If you prefer, you can think of it as one of those highly pressurized submarine doors, with the big wheel you have to crank around, and this wheel would have to be a real doozy to turn. The stewardesses, true professionals that they are, roll up their sleeves and gradually crank that wheel degree by degree.

When the door at last yields, a woman emerges who reminds you of your mother. That is, she looks very like your mother, almost identical in fact, but you know that it isn’t her. This woman addresses you as though she is on the verge of forgiving you for some terrible wrong you have done, and you ask her what she has against you and instead of answering you she starts weeping, and you ask again, with greater feeling, what’s wrong, what’s wrong, and she weeps louder and louder and everyone on the plane is now talking about what an ungrateful child you must be. Without a word, the two stewardesses seize her by the elbows and firmly lead her to the tail of the plane, and she shrieks your name as she goes, resisting not at all, this woman who is not your mother. All of the other passengers are giving you very hard looks and you want to explain, you want to tell them that the sobbing woman is not your mother at all, though she looks very like her, it’s uncanny, and the only way you can think of to convey even the slightest part of this complicated information to the maximum number of people aboard the plane is to shrug, to visibly shrug your shoulders as though to indicate that you yourself have no idea what’s going on, this has nothing to do with me, but the trouble lies in the fact that to shrug your shoulders now, just at this moment and in just the necessary way, would mean giving a definite opening to the Komodo dragon. If you shrug, the Komodo dragon gets a shot at your exposed throat, sure as the sky is blue, and if you don’t shrug, you’re just left there.

Think of what that’s like. Think of that.

Well, that’s what it feels like to be _______. Well, more or less. No, it might be clearer if there were no other passengers on the plane, if it were just you. Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like.


About the Author

Tim Conley’s last book was Whatever Happens (Insomniac Press, 2006), which was shortlisted for the Re Lit Award. This story is part of the next collection he’s putting together. For better or worse, he lives in St. Catharines, Ontario (Canada).