Three hours of waiting in the airport finally came to an end. Heading up the stairs onto the plane, she balked slightly at the fact she would be in the middle seat yet again. She’d always thought the aisle seat is the best one – you’re not trapped, you’re free to move. The middle seat had always felt claustrophobic, like a cage.
She was first into the aisle and waited for her two temporary travelling companions to turn up, the familiar creep of nerves washing over her. Who would she be sat next to? Who would be the ones blocking her in? The thoughts reared in her head, untameable, as fellow passengers streamed past.
She always – always – hoped that she would be sat next to other women. A shameful thought that was hard to express, she felt disgusted with herself that she could nurse this sexist idea of predatory men. But… your own personal safety is paramount. And, after her experiences, it’s no surprise.
The first neighbour turns up. Her body clenches unconsciously. He squeezes into the window seat, barely acknowledging her – not in an unfriendly way, but not in a talkative, preying way either.
Phew. Perfect. One down.
Minutes pass until the second neighbour turns up – and she sees it’s a middle-aged man. She immediately thinks of – no, enough. It’s not always like that. Don’t assume the worst. She begins to talk herself out of it. Stop being so damn judgemental, for fuck’s sake.
It’s so wearing to constantly be on guard; to always have to pick out baggy clothing in order to conceal her body; to forever be crossing her arms over her bosom to protect herself from any unwanted attention. She was so, so tired.
As the plane took off, both men inevitably spread their legs. But, aside from her inward eye roll – which ranked highly on the Richter scale – she purposefully kept herself to herself. If not having a huge amount of leg room on the flight meant she didn’t have to interact with them, so be it. She’d sacrifice. She kept her head down, avoiding all eye contact like she had grown used to and focusing on her book, but with an awareness of her surroundings. If she was walking home she’s be hooking her keys around her fingers at this point, or in a bar she’d be wrapping her jacket around her shoulders and pulling her skirt down, just in case.
Halfway through the flight, she clocked that the man on the aisle seat had ordered two mini bottles of some sort of alcohol. Whisky, possibly. But it made him lean slightly towards her, his inebriated, increasingly heavy breath on her arm.
Her hairs pricked up, a sense of panic whistling through them. Was he aware of what he was doing? Was he trying to get her attention? What thoughts could possibly be going through his head?
Again, she felt a wave of tiredness. This shouldn’t be her responsibility, her culpability. She was tired of shouldering the burden of this uneven weight. Why did it always fall onto her shoulders? Why should she always be having to protect herself from something that may never happen?
Try as she might, she couldn’t stop the memory of last year’s terrifying four-hour coach journey from slithering into her brain. Of the man getting on the coach and politely asking if he could sit in the empty seat next to her.
His fingers accidentally brushing her side.
His fingers accidentally brushing her waist.
His fingers accidentally brushing her hips.
His fingers brushing her leg.
His fingers poking her – was she imagining it? – breast, ever so slightly.
The feeling of being trapped against the window with nowhere to go.
When he began – what appeared to be – actually filming her and taking pictures of her on his phone.
The fear rendering her unable to tell him to stop.
The terror of what he might do with those pictures.
The horror of what he might go on to do on the journey, with her trapped at the back of the coach, boxed in against the window.
The feelings of loneliness, of abandonment, at having no-one to ask for help. What good could her phone do now?
The complete humiliation of being a grown woman in her mid-twenties utterly paralysed by a man who might be doing nothing wrong.
Her in-flight neighbour finished his miniature bottle of whisky and seemed to be keen to flag down another. She crossed her legs and gripped her book tightly between her fingertips, trying to place within herself a sense of safety.
The importance of breathing when thinking about a painful memory cannot be understated. It enables you to think rationally. This man probably wasn’t going to do anything like that. Obviously he was just unaware of boundaries. He probably hadn’t clocked the breath on her skin, the way his legs were just that bit too close to hers, the way his elbows on the armrest meant she had caged her body between her limbs like a form of self-defence. He probably wasn’t even aware she was there.
But she was aware.