Here’s what happens. You have to show up at the airport and hope for the best. Flight attendants get to decide if you’re too fat to fly.
I’m on my way to New York. Tomorrow, I get to see my first fashion preview. I’m the SoScottsdale blog’s nod to the brave new world in which 48 percent of Americans are classified as overweight.
This is how it starts. There’s a plane change at O’Hare. I get the feeling the airline employees are watching me from behind the counter. I tell myself how paranoid that sounds. But I find myself pulling my arms close to my body, trying to look as small as possible in my seat in the waiting area.
The smallest of the three of them, a petite gray-haired woman, approaches me as I sit in a long row of passengers waiting to board. She gestures for me to join her near a window that overlooks the runway. In the distance, the lights of Chicago’s massive buildings twinkle through the terminal’s windows. There are people in those buildings, coming and going, moving through their homes and offices, sending signs of life into the darkness.
“I think you’ll need a second seat, dear.” The flight attendant has a bright, cheery demeanor. Like she’s Mary Poppins when not on duty in her faded cotton-wool-blend uniform. “This is awkward, I know.”
“I’m on a layover. I haven’t gotten any bigger since I got off the other plane forty-five minutes ago,” I say.
I follow her back to the ticket counter.
These are my options:
a) Pay for a second seat. That’ll be $650. Plus tax. But oh, there’s a problem. The flight is sold out.
You’d think Ms. Spoonful of Sugar would have thought this through a bit before she dragged me up to the counter.
“I don’t have six hundred bucks,” I say.
“Maybe you could call your parents, sweetie,” she suggests.
“A young girl like you—” People always tell me I look like I’m twelve years old.
“I’m seventeen,” I say. “And if it weren’t for the plane change, I’d still be on the flight.”
“We have to make a judgment call,” she repeats.
“I just want to get to New York.”
“How am I supposed to pay for it?” I glance behind me at a bald man who shifts his weight and rolls his eyes, checking his watch every few seconds.
“You’ve got about an hour to figure that out, dear,” she says.
I consider calling the blog office and decide I’d rather walk back to Phoenix than tell my boss, Marlene, I’m too fat to fly. She’s throwing a massive bash for her grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary this weekend and her assistant, Terri, has four kids with the stomach flu. The situation is a perfect storm that won’t happen again. I won’t get another chance to cover an editorial preview as a student intern. A Gareth Miller preview. Real designers at work.
I run my fingertips over the Parsons application tucked in my bag. Fred LaChapelle will be there. He’s the dean of Admissions, and Miller is his favorite alum. I’ve been dreaming of Parsons since I was five, when my grandma handed me a biography of fashion designer Claire McCardell and I couldn’t read the book’s words but I saw the clothes and I felt them. McCardell invented American sportswear in the World War II years and was the first woman with her own label. McCardell’s women roamed sandy beaches, rode their cruiser bicycles to small-town markets and used cocktail dresses like weapons. They were free and fabulous and powerful.
I hoped, and wished and believed, that this was who I was meant to be. McCardell studied at Parsons and I know, more than I know anything else, that I need to start there too.
My portfolio will get me in. On paper, I’m the perfect applicant. The daughter of a supermodel who can stitch in a zipper in my sleep. In real life, I’m not Barbie; I spent my summer frosting doughnuts for eight bucks an hour instead of hanging out at Michael Kors, and it’s tough explaining why my mom made $1.2 million last year but the ATM makes a boing! sound when I stick in my card.
Still, I make magic when I make clothes. If I can get Miller and LaChapelle to see that, then it won’t matter that my grandma’s rainy-day fund is barely enough to cover the application fee to the school. They’ll make sure I get a scholarship and, come next year, I’ll be packing for Parsons.
You have to make this work. In my head, I repeat this mantra over and over.
But what happens if I can’t get on the plane? I can’t afford a hotel. My luggage is already checked. It’s going to JFK with or without me.
The whole thing is all my fault, I know that’s what everyone is thinking. Saying behind my back. If I would just stop stuffing my face with candy bars and fettuccine Alfredo, everything would be perfect.
I have to do it. I have to call Tommy. He’s been mowing lawns since the fifth grade and stashing the money in a savings account. He’s my best friend, and I’m pretty sure there’s something in the Friendship Rule Book that says he has to come through in times like these.
“It’s okay,” Tommy says. It’s noisy on his end too. He’s busy being nerdy at a FIRST Lego League competition.
“Cookie. It’s okay.” He doesn’t even ask why I need the ticket or seem to care when I’ll pay him back. He’s that nice.
“I’m really sorry, Tommy.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
I luck out, I guess, and there’s a cancellation. The gray-haired woman types in the number of the credit card that Tommy’s dad gave him for emergencies. She gives me another boarding pass and a large red sign that reads THIS SEAT RESERVED in bold, black letters. That’s when the fun begins.
When I say she helps me board the flight, believe me, I mean it. She opens up the door to the ramp even before preboarding begins. She takes me and another man right onto the plane. He’s probably eighty. He’s got a jumbo oxygen tank connected to his nose. It’s on wheels, and the flight attendant pulls it behind her as we walk.
She helps him into an aisle seat in the first row. “You can sit anywhere you like,” she calls out to me. Since AirWest is one of the few airlines where you can still choose your own seat, I make my way to the middle of the plane. “Just place the reserved sign on the seat next to you.” She finishes with the ancient man and brings me a seat-belt extender.
“I get that a lot,” I say. “I guess all fat people look alike.”
She puts her hands on her hips and glares at me. Like she’s just finished being extraordinarily kind and I’m a jackass for not appreciating it.
“Enjoy your flight.” This is her last burst of insincerity before she leaves.
The plane fills up. Everyone that passes stops to read the red sign. I make up a few stories in case anyone asks.
“I’m traveling with the Federal Air Marshall,” I say.
Her mouth drops open, but she keeps on walking.
I start to organize myself. Make sure my magazines are within easy reach. A couple more people filter by as I’m untangling my headphone cord.
A girl in a Marc Jacobs striped maxi dress, reeking of Kenzo Flower perfume that barely masks the cigarette stink, approaches my aisle. From her dangly earrings to her cheek bronzer, there’s something so impersonal about her look. Like someone else dressed her. Maybe she went to net-a-porter.com and clicked the “shop the issue” link. This is what happens when you have more money than style.
I put my hand on it, making sure the sign stays put. “That seat is reserved.”
“Yeah, for me, I guess,” she says. As she taps her foot impatiently, her head wobbles oddly on her neck, making it look like her chin-length bob is some kind of weird wig. “This is the only seat left on the plane.”
“It’s mine,” I growl. “They made me buy it.”
“It’s. The. Only. Seat. Left.” She jerks her head from side to side as she spits out the words. People are turning around. A flight attendant is making her way up the aisle.
“What’s the problem, girls?” the flight attendant asks.
“This is my seat,” I say. “They made me buy it.”
The flight attendant glances around. “It’s the only seat left on the plane.”
“They told me at the gate that I’m too fat to fit into one seat and they made me buy a second ticket,” I say. I can’t get hysterical.
“But you can fit into one seat,” the flight attendant says.
“That’s what I told them. But they made me buy another seat anyway.” I want to cry but I don’t; I can’t. You cry, and people know they’ve got you. I’ve had years of practicing waiting until I’m alone. In the shower or in bed late at night.
“Well, if this young lady here sits next to you, you’ll automatically qualify for a refund. I’ll make sure your credit gets issued as soon as we land at JFK.” She smiles kindly at me. “It’s win-win for everybody.”
“I don’t want a refund,” I tell the woman in a dull, low voice. Everything is quiet on the plane. No one else is talking. “I’ve been humiliated at the airport. Had to wait on standby. Had to call my best friend and beg for money. Gotten escorted onto the plane with a man so old he could be my grandma’s grandpa. I had to carry this—” I shake the red sign “—like it’s my Scarlet. Fucking. Letter.”
Pointing at the seat next to me, I keep going. “I don’t care about refunds or win-wins. Or if this plane crashes into the fucking ocean. I want this goddamn seat.”
The flight attendant drops all pretense of friendliness. “We make the call on whether or not you need two seats.”
She sighs and turns to the other passenger. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go back to the gate and work this out.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” the girl demands. “Tell Cankles to move her red sign and the plane can take off.” She again tries to slide into the seat next to me.
The flight attendant places her arm across my row to block the girl and then backs her to the door as their conversation continues. “Since she has two tickets, I have to treat this like an overbooking situation. In these cases, the passenger with the last boarding pass issued gets booked on the next flight.”
“The next flight? Tomorrow?” the girl asks. Her voice is becoming higher pitched and semi-hysterical. “But I’ll miss...”
At the front of the plane, I spot a blur of curly, beachy hair. Tommy. The feeling of relief passes as my rational mind connects the dots. Tommy’s back in Mesa, and the guy up front is stowing his girlfriend’s purse in the overhead compartment.
I close my eyes as the pilot reads a bunch of announcements and the flight attendants give instructions. A few minutes later everything is quiet and still.
The plane charges down the long runway, the cabin lights dim and I try to picture myself up there in first class, holding hands with Tommy. That reality feels reserved for the posh and perfect. It’s a members-only club I don’t know how to join.
What I do know is that, after this trip, I’m not doing this again.
I’m done being the fat girl on the plane.