Even as a kid, the idea of entrapment was an unpleasant one, to the extent that I refused to sit on the inside of restaurant booths, smashed in between a wall and somebody else. If I was the first party to arrive at such a potentially harrowing seating arrangement, I would stand there expectantly, waiting for someone else to go in first. “I don’t like the inside,” I’d offer by way of explanation, well aware I sounded like an eight-year-old kook. This was partially attributed to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but mostly on the horror of not being able to get out. Knowing that another person separated me from freedom and mobility provided me with acute, suffocating anxiety.
My neurosis has since transcended the booth, finding adult-life applications wherever it can. I don’t like trips on boats (too far from land and other activity alternatives). I don’t like lying on the beach all day (too many hours of too much sun exposure and little else). I don’t like hosting friends for more than three nights (too many days spent having to be agreeable). Yes, it is a physical and emotional claustrophobia from which I suffer.
And so one of my very worst nightmares is sitting next to a chatterbox on an airplane, where there is no absolutely, positively no escape — no hatch to crawl through, no legitimate distraction to busy myself with, no passing friend to interrupt a never-ending conversation. This, paired with my ineffable need to be both friendly and polite (read: people please-y) makes for a miserable six-hour experience, where I smile forcibly for hours on end and strain my neck towards the person who refuses to leave me alone.
Don’t most people feel this way?
When it comes to in-flight behavior, my tactic is to disengage with my seatmate from the outset, minimizing eye contact and limiting all communication to the constructive and precise “Excuse me, I need to use the bathroom” and “Will you pass this to the hostess?” And while it makes me feel uncharacteristically terse and unpleasant, I’m doing everyone a favor in the long run. As the saying goes, if you give a mouse a cookie… it’ll want to talk to you about it the whole way to LAX. Or something like that.