Traveling is always an adventure. Sometimes that adventure begins before you even reach your destination. I enjoy the surprise of the seatmate lottery during the few times a year I fly for vacations. Since I’m traveling with Oregano, I’m guaranteed to have at least one person next to me with whom I have something in common. Over the years, on my non-Oregano side, I’ve had a wide array of seatmates: quiet ones, chatty ones, way too chatty ones and smelly ones. There was even a woman who quietly wept for an entire cross-country flight, but all of these seatmates pale in comparison to a man named Filbert.
Oregano and I were flying home from Florida and arrived at the airport earlier than we anticipated. For a nominal fee, we were given the option to take an earlier flight. The only catch was that the seats were not next to each other; they were the middle seats on each side of the same row. No problem. Once we boarded the plane, we could ask someone if they would mind swapping seats so that we could sit together. If not, oh well, we’d just spent 8 days alone together; three hours separated by two people and an aisle might be a refreshing change.
When we arrived at our designated row, I asked the large, older gentleman who had the aisle seat next to me to move so that I could get into my seat. The loud groan he made upon standing coupled with incessant muttering about how uncomfortable he was made me realize that he would not be a good candidate for the switch. I climbed into my middle seat between him and a young woman. As I reached to buckle my seatbelt, I realized that my big and tall seatmate was taking up more than his fair share of our already cramped personal space. His long legs were spread widely apart instead of directly in front of him. I looked to see what was under the seat in front of him that was preventing his feet from being where they should be. Two black eyes and a mop of white fur stared back at me through the mesh panel of a duffle bag style dog carrier.
Filbert saw me glancing down at his dog and, without solicitation, loudly said, “The bastard flight attendant made me zip the bag all the way up for take-off.” My crotchety seatmate continued, “The dog flies with me all the time. Once, I flew all the way to California with her on my lap. I know for a fact that there is absolutely no need for my dog to be zipped into the bag. Bastards!”
Just as he was finishing the tale of his dog’s airline experience, a different “bastard flight attendant” walked to our row and asked, “Who has the service dog?”
I looked down our row to see if there were any other dogs sitting among us. I expected to see a German shepherd, Labrador retriever or some other dog of that size, but when I didn’t, my eyes darted to the dog that was so small it fit into a bag that fit neatly under an airline seat. Service dog? This thing was a shih tzu. What kind of service does a tiny shih tzu provide for this not so tiny man who clearly has the use of all of his senses? The “bastard flight attendant’s” inquiry prompted the man to groan dramatically, stand up slowly and announce that he had recently been released from the hospital. As he shuffled through the papers in his vintage, hard-sided suitcase he complained, “It’s ridiculous that I need to show you these papers!”
Now, one would think that a man with a dog with such vast flight experience would know to keep the necessary papers in the seat back pocket in front of him, but I digress from the real issue which is…. what kind of service does a shih tzu provide? Apparently this same question was on the minds of those of us privileged to be seated in Row 6 with Filbert. We all looked quizzically at each other. Our outgoing friend must have sensed our curiosity because he broadcasted, “My psychiatrist writes me a note stating that I have anxiety issues when flying. The dog provides emotional support and calms me down during flights.” He went on to further clarify his point, “Don’t worry. I don’t really have anxiety and I am not a nut case or anything. The doctor just writes the note so that I don’t have to pay this damn airline the $75 fee for carrying a pet on board.”
A medically certified nervous flyer and a dog, I had hit the airline seatmate jackpot! There was no way I would be switching seats now and I’m betting there was no way anyone within earshot would be willing to switch with me at this point anyway.
When Filbert finally settled himself into his seat, I quickly pulled out my book hoping to project the image that I wasn’t interested in chatting with him for the duration of the flight. Sometimes this simple action is enough of a non-verbal clue to deter someone from conversing with me. It must have worked because Filbert promptly turned to the middle-aged man seated across the aisle and engaged him in conversation.
It was impossible to focus on my book because Filbert’s booming voice was echoing in my ears, but I wasn’t about to close my book lest he turn his attention to me. If avoiding conversation with him meant I had to stare blankly at that book and turn a page every few minutes for the entire flight, I was going to do it. Alas, he wore out the conversation with the man across the aisle and despite my best efforts to avoid eye contact, Filbert began talking to me.
“Why aren’t you sitting with your husband? Don’t you two like each other?” was his conversation starter.
The woman in the seat on the other side of me began to convulse with laughter and buried her face in her hands.
Without looking up, I disinterestedly replied, “We weren’t able to get seats together.”
“Why don’t you ask someone to switch with you so you can sit together?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter. We can sit apart for a few hours. Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” I said, all while not lifting my eyes from my book.
In an effort to spare me from more conversation with Filbert, the woman to my right began asking me about the book I was reading. She winked at me, lifted her arm rest and scooched over in her seat to give me a bit more wiggle room away from Filbert. We sat, sharing some quality ass space, and chatted about books.
Filbert got a bit jealous and leaned across the aisle to get Oregano’s attention. “Hey, your wife’s making a new best friend over here. You better watch out.” Oregano just nodded his head and smiled that kind of smile reserved for small children and crazy people.
Filbert was quiet for a bit, much to everyone’s surprise and auditory pleasure. Then the “bastard flight attendants” began the beverage and snack service. Filbert requested a drink for himself and water with ice for his “service dog.” When the drinks arrived, he unzipped the bag and the dog’s head and upper body popped out. Filbert introduced her to us and began giving the dog ice cubes while babbling on about how much she enjoys them. It wasn’t long before Filbert’s beverage worked its way through his urinary tract and he needed to use the lavatory. Guess who he asked to watch the dog while he was away from his seat? It’s not like I could refuse. I couldn’t exactly say I was busy or that I had somewhere else to go. As he lumbered down the aisle, I wondered how long a man with his health problems could be in the bathroom.
The minute the dog realized her owner was gone, she began wriggling to get out of the bag. I tried to zip her back in as best I could, but there was already quite a bit of dog sticking out of the bag and I didn’t want to shove her back in. So, my only choice was to lean down between the seats, pet her and speak reassuringly about her owner’s return. When that didn’t stop her squirming, I scooped ice cubes out of my drink and held them in my hand as she licked at them. I used my dry, dog saliva-free hand to hold her in place lest she break free of her duffle bag and begin running around the cabin. The sight of me bent over and squashed between the seats holding Filbert’s dog while simultaneously attempting to feed her ice cubes made everyone in Row 6 snicker uncontrollably. Oregano looked at me and said, “Only you could get yourself into a predicament like this.”
Thankfully, Filbert returned after 10 minutes then proclaimed to the whole plane, or maybe it just felt that way with his booming voice, that the dog loved me and had made a new friend. I was just making friends all over the place on this flight. Lively and perked up from his caffeinated beverage and jaunt to the potty, Filbert renewed his vigor for conversation much to the chagrin of everyone trapped within listening range. No one in Row 6 was immune to Filbert’s invasive and somewhat inappropriate questions. The only thing that stopped him was that eventually he needed to tinkle again. I was back on dog sitting duty since I had done such a stellar job earlier. The shih tzu was no less anxious this time around. Despite Filbert’s assurances that the dog and I had become fast friends, she was eagerly trying to break out of the bag. I spent another tense few minutes holding down the dog with one hand while the ice cubes I offered her melted in my other hand as she lapped up the water running through my fingers. Luckily, I managed to keep my charge in her carrier and was spared any additional dog sitting duties for the remainder of the flight. Later, as I reflected on the dog’s behavior, perhaps she was thinking that this was her only chance to escape from Filbert.
Who would have willingly chosen to sit next to Filbert after reading a profile describing him as a large, loud, older gentleman with a fear of flying, service dog and a tiny bladder? I’m certain I would not have, but look at the opportunity I would have missed out on. Sometimes it is more interesting to see what the universe has in store for you. It gives you a chance to exercise the ability to make the best of a situation and find the humor in it. After all, Filbert was the best in-flight entertainment I have ever experienced.