Johanna Stein

Johanna Stein

I am at the airport with my daughter and the guy she calls “Dada.” We are about to board a Florida-bound plane to visit my mother-in-law.

But the toddler is losing her shit.

After two years of being the perfect travel companion, she has suddenly developed a fear of flying. I wonder if maybe she’s worked out the physics of what we are about to do. Perhaps she has come to realize, as I have, that manned flight is a practical impossibility and is certain to end in our fiery deaths. Or maybe she’s just toying with me. Whatever is going on in that reptilian brain of hers, she is yelling at the top of her lungs, “NO AY-PWAY! NO AY-PWAYYYYY!” as we board the aircraft and take refuge in our seats.

Luckily, we’ve scored the bulkhead. Actually, luck had nothing to do with it. I had flirted mercilessly with the ticketing agent, a very fit man with impeccable hair, who my husband later informed me was clearly gay. But whether I’d seduced him, or whether he’d simply taken pity on a woman with zero gaydar, the result was the same: I’d scored. But in this moment I take no comfort in our rock-star seating, because there is a demon in my lap who is trying to separate my scalp from my head.

People file past us, with varying looks of pity and horror but mostly relief that they’re not sitting next to the kid who’s screaming like a mongoose that’s been stabbed with a rusty steak knife. And even though the titanium-haired stewardess has announced that the flight is full, the seat next to me remains suspiciously empty. Perhaps my neighbor-to-be saw the Tasmanian Devil in my arms, then chose to deplane and take the ninety-six-hour Greyhound bus ride home instead.

At this point the husband and I do the only thing we can do: we turn on each other. He glares at me and I glare back, an exchange that every parent recognizes as the “I WILL DIVORCE YOU IN THE NEXT FOUR SECONDS UNLESS YOU FIX THIS” glare.

His response is to rub her back and say “it’s gonna be okay it’s gonna be okay it’s gonna be okay” over and over and over, and since that is just slightly less annoying than the screaming, I take control of the situation by ransacking the diaper bag, in hopes of finding something to stop the infernal sound that is coming out of her face-hole: Binky? Lambie? Superplus tampon hanging out of a torn wrapper? Nothing works. She just gets redder and louder.

I reach into the wall pocket and pull out a SkyMall magazine. Nothing thrills me more than the SkyMall. Where else can you buy a one-person submarine for only nine thousand dollars? But the child does not share my love for the Mall of the Sky; she just rips the magazine out of my hand and flings it—and the tampon—onto the lap of a businessman sitting two rows back.

The captain’s voice comes over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot take off until everyone,” he is clearly referring to me, “takes their seats.”

As a last-ditch effort, I grab an air-sickness bag, draw a face on it, reach inside, and say the funniest thing I can think of: “Ooga booga.”

The kid stops crying, then smiles, then giggles. “More puppet?” I ask. “ MO PUPPA!” she says. The orange-level threat has been averted. Frau Stewardess smiles, blessing me with a nod. I couldn’t be prouder if I’d just disarmed a hijacker with a Uniball pen and a lavender-scented sleep mask.

I think perhaps I should write a column in Family Circle Magazine, one in which I offer helpful parenting advice under headings like “Changing the World, One Diaper at a Time.”

The child—now human again—interrupts my fantasy publishing life. “Mo Puppa, Momma!” I kiss her head, thank the gods above for blessing me with such natural parenting ability, then think to myself, “Sure, one puppet is fine, but two puppets—now that’s a show!” I reach into the wall pocket in front of my husband’s seat and take out his air-sickness bag. I draw a face, give it curly hair and glasses so that it looks like me—nice touch—and stick my hand inside.

And then my world contracts.

Seems this air-sickness bag has been used before—but not for a puppet show. No, it’s been used for the purpose that God intended. My husband looks at me, understanding immediately what has happened. He is horrified, though I think I see the tiniest hint of a smile creep across his face. After deciding to divorce him the minute we touch down, I turn to the matter at hand—on hand. IT’S ON MY HAND!!

You’d think that having a child has prepared you for the bodily functions of humanity, until you find yourself wearing a glove made of the puke of a stranger.

I spring out of my seat, afflicted digits still in bag.

Of course, there is no lavatory in the front of the plane, where we are, in the bulkhead seats. I curse my flirtation skills and then make my way to the bathroom in the back of the plane.

But the aisle is filled with humans lumbering to their seats. I want to crawl between their legs, leapfrog over them, fatally stab the stewardess if I have to, whatever it takes to get to that bathroom.

Finally, I claw open the lavatory door and lock myself in. I take a deep breath, then pull out the hand.

It is covered in a substance that is thick, wet, viscous, and sprinkled with flecks of something—honey-roasted peanuts, perhaps?

As I scrub my hand in water hot enough to cause a third-degree burn, I think maybe I should save the bag for its DNA, just in case I acquire some rare, undefined flesh-eating disease and need to identify the mystery cookie tosser. But no, I’d rather go to my death than have to look into the face of the person whose guts I have touched.

Now clean, I take a moment to marvel at what has occurred: Roughly two million people fly the friendly American skies every day. How many of those travelers reach for, and then actually use, an air-sickness bag? And of those phantom pukers, how many would choose to put the vomit-filled vessel back into the seat pocket? And then, what’s the probability that a cleaning crew would overlook this sack of sick? Finally, what are the odds that all of this would become the perfect setup for one arrogant idiot who attempts to make a hand puppet out of a barf bag?!

Fuck Me.

As I leave the bathroom and make my way back to the (argh!) bulkhead seat, I stare into the faces of the last hurried stragglers boarding the plane. They look agitated, each one facing the prospect of a middle seat. “You think that’s bad?” I want to say. “If that’s the worst thing that happens to you today, then you, my friend, have hit the jackpot, because you’re looking at a woman who has seen into the abyss.” But I don’t say that. Instead, I hurry back to my seat where the child is now sleeping, clutching the puke-free puke bag to her chest like a teddy bear. Normally, an event like this would send me into a rage, long enough to write at least half of an angry letter of complaint, but as I watch her sleep, my anger deflates. I will not condemn this Barfing Bandit, whose moment of lapsed judgment has made my arm’s-length list of life’s most disgusting experiences. Who am I to judge? If somebody filmed all of my questionable life moments and then edited them together, the resulting movie would be about three hours shorter than my actual life span. All I can do is chalk this one up to experience. Parenthood is a minefield of unpredictability: sometimes the mines are made of tears; sometimes they’re made of undigested food. Anyway, it’s possible that the occurrence of this mathematical improbability has created a statistical vortex, one in which we are virtually guaranteed that this plane will land safely. So thank you, former passenger of seat 1B, wherever you are, for saving our lives with a single, well-placed heave.