Riding Off Into the Sunrise

Flying, for me, is just a couple of electrodes and a wet sponge away from capital punishment. At 315 pounds, I’m not a good passenger. You wouldn’t be either, if you had to wedge your fat ass into a seat made for one of those heroin-chic Calvin Klein models from the ’90s. And can someone please tell me what the hell is the problem with giving a guy a break and adding a few extra inches of seat belt? I can’t imagine the world’s economy would collapse over four inches of woven polyamide in dystopian gray.

My biggest issue at 37,000 feet, though, is sleeping. Right after dinner service, The One burrows under a blanket, closes his eyes, and goes slack in his seat, his tongue every so often smacking the roof of his mouth as if he were trying to ferret out the notes of a fine Rioja. I, on the other hand, sit ramrod straight, willing myself to stay awake, because whenever I drift off during flight I stop breathing for so long that I awake bug-eyed and panicked, finally letting loose a sleep apnea-induced snorgg (combination snore and gag) so loud and tortured, it has, on occasion, been known to propel flight attendants out of their cubbyholes.

But the one—literal—bright spot on the flight is when I get to gaze at the sunrise. Suspended seven miles above the earth, I lose my bearings. Without reference points to gauge speed and distance, I imagine myself floating, bobbing over a sleeping world, like in those flying dreams I had as a child. I’m unmoored from myself. The stress of juggling too much at work, trying to be a good husband, worrying about my health drains. I can almost hear the ticker-y static of my daily life fade as I watch the sky lighten. At the same time, the approaching anxieties of being in a foreign country—where I’m guaranteed to miss all the subtle social cues that make one a good and polite traveler—are still asleep, and I know from experience that I have several hours before they begin tag-team wrestling in my gut.

Caught between above and below, past and future, my internal compass shrugs and lets go. I lean my forehead against the smudged plastic window and watch as the sky first begins to brighten, then turns an almost imperceptibly pale blue, a blue so faint that the only way to register the color is to close my eyes for several seconds and then pop them open. I make a mental note to tell The One that this is the color the master bathroom should be.

As gentle blue surrenders to more aggressive oranges and reds, shivery waves of wonder wash through me. I watch the sun insist its way over the horizon, and I ponder creation, evolution, the Big Bang. I question, sometimes out loud, who or what made this. My faith, which these days staggers like a man too much in love with his Scotch, steadies itself. I feel hope—something I used to feel in abundance in my 20s but that, over the years, has been edged out by the sprawl of cynicism. Hovering over the Atlantic, I murmur what some people would call a prayer, but is really a ragbag of fragmented Catholic verses burned into the folds of my brain, New Age platitudes leftover from my Shirley MacLaine days, and strange-sounding, hum-like words I once heard at a Buddhist gathering:

I hope The One and I will stay together. With our old issues of control and distance—which we thought after 20 years were finally over—circling back for yet another round, we find ourselves again filled with doubt and fighting with our gloves off.

I hope Mama and Papa Leite will live forever. No amount of therapy will ever get me through their passings intact.

I hope the freaking returning flight has bigger seats or else I’m complaining to United.

I hope we have a good vacation in Scotland.

I hope.

The word "David" written in script.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. David–your last five paragraphs made me bubble up in tears (quietly; Himself is just across from me lying on the couch playing Solitaire–I’d have a hard time explaining in between sobs that Leite’s Culinaria made me cry), and, yes, I hate flying too except for when I can see the sunrise or sunset at 35,000 feet.. Living in Europe now is great, but I’m far away and a yucky 12-hour flight from Mum and Dad in Singapore.

    I’m glad you both had a lovely time in Scotland; it’s a place of healing for me especially when I’m surrounded by mountains and lochs, and that grand awesome silence.

    1. Ling, you always make me feel so grateful to be a writer and to know my work can affect people. Thank you. And, please, tell Himself that I made you cry. The conversation might interesting!

  2. First a bit of logistics, I guess you’d call it. You can ask the flight attendants for a seat belt extender. Embarrassing, but you will breathe a sigh of relief at the extra room. And if you’re wise, you will tuck that baby into your carry on where it will live forever. 😉

    I’m only (!) 5’9″, but my knees are pressed up against the seat in front of me when the seat is upright. Lord help me if the person reclines! I am also pretty claustrophobic, so flying, when I had to do it for work, was always miserable. I’m with The One — if I sleep through the flight, I can manage it without too much angst. So, I’m out usually before we get our turn at the runway.

    My worst experience was once when through a true concatenation of circumstances, I ended up on the wrong flight, landing in the wrong city to make my connection and by the time I could get on another flight taking me where I needed to go, I was stressed to the limit. I got on the plane, last person to board, and it was one of those with the huge section of seats in the middle — what, 8? 10? Way too many. And the stewardess pointed out the one and only empty seat in the whole plane, right in the middle of the very middle row. I started quietly crying, saying, “I can’t sit there. I’m claustrophobic.” And just to prove it, started hyperventilating. The people on either side of the empty seat were saying, “Please, please find her another seat,” because really who wants someone in those tight quarters having a meltdown next to you??? Some very nice man sitting on the aisle way up at the front, got up and volunteered to take that place. I almost kissed him.

    So, moral of the story, if the seat is too horribly uncomfortable, cry. But quietly. 😉

    Thanks, David. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who hates to fly.

    1. ruthie, yeah, I know I could ask, but I felt so embarrassed. I thought of buying one, but I said, “To hell with that!” The good thing is I’ve lost enough eight now that I can fit into the fricking seats! As The One says, “The best part of traveling is getting there.”

    2. what??? I had no idea there was such a thing as an extender! Thanks for that tip! I fit in the belt but it is tight.

  3. My Dear Mr. Leite,

    I too will spent an entire flight peering out the window. On the most recent flight back from visiting my boyfriend who lives near Palm Springs, I watched the California desert transform from a grey flat waste to a rolling mountainous range that eventually turned green and eventually gave way to the farms of the Central Valley before opening up to my beloved Bay. Even on overnight flights I will sit there with my face plastered against the tempered glass and watch the lights of towns pass below making me wonder who lives there and are they looking up and see my plane passing overhead. Over night flights during the summer are often the best because sometimes you will see in the distance a storm dancing on the horizon as it shoots lighting through the network of clouds and onto the ground below. Once a woman asked me if this was my first time flying and I said “Oh no. My dad was a pilot and I’ve traveled a lot. I just love looking out the window this way.” she gave me a confused look and went back to her book and I went back to the more interesting part of the flight, gazing out the window.


    1. My Dear Mr. KitchenBeard,

      I remember when I first started flying (when I was a freshman in college), and how I loved to watch faint veins of lights thread their way from rural areas to the great arteries of the cities. I, too, would wonder, “Who lives down there? And what are they thinking? And is someone looking up at a flashing light while I’m looking down at them?” I was terribly, terribly philosophical back then.

      1. There’s something meditative about watching the world pass below you that way and I think it’s healthy to ask oneself questions like that.