Beat-down at 39,000 Feet: The Chicken Flight Fight


Getting ready for another Central American adventure, remembering lessons learned~




I was familiar with The Chicken Flight. Pollo Campero is Central America’s answer to KFC, and many Guatemalans like to pick up a bucket when they’re flying out. I loved my work with IMA, the girls’ school in Guatemala City, so if breathing fried chicken fumes for five hours was the price I had to pay, so be it.


However, I detest window seats because of the penned-in, claustrophobic state. And on this flight, I was all cooped up. Officially trapped, I watched the other passengers board, many with chicken—a cluck-cluck here, a cluck-cluck there—earnestly praying my seat partner would be sans cluck.


As cluck would have it, a poultry-packing man sat down next to me. He too had gotten the memo about bringing chicken to the States, you know, in case chicken is completely sold out in America.


I could see the letters on his boarding pass. Trying to contain my excitement, I volunteered, “No, you see, you’re in row twenty-eight. This is twenty-three.” I enunciated in case he didn’t speak English. “You must go back five rows,” I offered as I pointed and sent him on his way. I do what I can.


A few minutes later, a couple found their seats next to me and began settling in. Deeply relieved that they were chicken-free, I acknowledged them with a welcoming, sleepy, grunt-smile. The older woman sat next to me in the center seat, the man on the aisle.


My brother and I used to draw a virtual line down the center of the back seat on long road trips. This would divide the territory and keep the peace. It was a clear boundary: Here you go; here I go. Simple. But even before we got out of the gate, there were bad signs on the horizon that this lady was not a heeder of that line.


She was clearly an overlapper. And to my thinking, she had no excuse. Albeit a little top-heavy, she had the small stature of a Guatemalan. I wanted to say, “Lady, have you ever heard the phrase personal space?”


What’s more, right from the time she planted herself, she began rattling off run-on sentences. I smiled. I shook my head and said, “No comprendo.” Who would keep speaking in a foreign language to someone who has just indicated they do not understand the language, and not only that, you’re sitting next to someone on the other side who does speak the language?


This woman would. Let’s call her Delfina.


The plane was not moving, not even a centimeter. And we were on a wing, so most of the view was blocked, and what was in view was pretty much nothing. Yet she leaned over me, her ample chest bumping me, fingers darting, motioning for me to look out.


I looked out. I smiled. I repeated, “No comprendo.” I rested my head in my hand, leaning against the window and away from Delfina. I closed my eyes, perfectly executing what I knew about body language to indicate: 1) I am fiercely tired, 2) I do not speak Spanish, and 3) leave me alone.


Delfina did not speak body language.


The plane began inching along on the tarmac. The pilot announced—in English and in Spanish—that we would have a bit of a wait for our turn. So we waited.


Delfina continued to point. Delfina was on me.


This is when I began with the I am going to have to hurt her thoughts. Best-case scenario, I get no chance of having that arm rest. Worst case, I kill her in the sky.


Finally in the air, I began to strategize about how I could impart to her how it really would be in her best interest to back off. I decided to play sick—speak the distinctive universal language of “I’m gonna puke. Maybe right on you, if you don’t move away.” I made gestures of the obvious nature, like holding my tummy and frantically looking through the seat pocket for a vomit bag.


When the sick act was clearly not making the impact I had hoped, I knew I’d need to take it to the next level. I considered elbowing her right back, you know, accidental-like. It could happen.


While I was busy plotting, she continued to speak at the man next to her (we will call him Edwardo) while still flailing her arms, wildly elbowing me, and pointing out the window.


With the plane now leveled out and our view still blocked by that stubborn wing, I wanted to yell, THERE’S STILL NOTHING TO LOOK AT! That’s when I got the idea to look around and see if others had pulled down their shades. If so, certainly I was entitled to a little shade. I paid for this space, right?


When Delfina was deep in monologue with Edwardo, I reached up and pulled the delicate lip of the shade. Down. I felt exquisite satisfaction. For a moment. Then Delfina turned back to me, and to the now-closed window shade. I heard a distinct “Hmmph.”


I thought, That’s what you get, Delfy. You wanna play hardball? Bring it.


Undeterred, Delfina continued business-as-usual, minus the view.


About ten minutes after I had closed the shade, she met my eyes, smiled, and motioned that she’d like it up. I smiled back, nodded, and said, “No, we’re going to keep it down.” Delfina spun her head back around to Edwardo and barked a sentence. I wondered if she was telling him what a mean, spoiled American I was.


Starting to feel the slightest rumblings of guilt, I remembered flying alone once as a teenager and being seated next to an older woman. We hadn’t spoken at all before I fell asleep. I awoke later to find my head on her shoulder, my mouth open with a smidgen of drool falling. I remember jerking my head up and quickly wiping my mouth. The lady just smiled and said sweetly, “That’s okay, honey.”


But this was not that lady. That lady was probably in heaven now. While we were here. Way lower.


I said “No, thank you” to the flight attendant who offered the fine United Airlines meal. Delfina was hungry. With her tray table down, fork in hand, and elbow out, the hounds of Hades were unleashed. I relinquished any attempt at reading my book, which I had been using alternately as border control and weapon. I found that if I wedged the hardcover book just so, in between my left thigh and the armrest, she would have a physical reminder like, Hey, I guess maybe this is a line I just should not cross. This worked slightly, but it also meant I’d have to give up on the idea of relaxing with my book and employ it full-time as a barricade. With Delfina and her devil elbows, it had come to that.


I looked at my watch. Not even two hours had passed. I couldn’t believe how absurd this had gotten. I had been using the book to press against this woman and hold her back. Now I was increasingly brazen, moving my book back and forth a la Whack a Mole, blocking her blows, not caring that I was sometimes more in her space in an attempt to make a point: See? How do you like it?”


This had gotten ugly, way out of control. I was deliberately hurting a senior citizen.


Realizing this, I shifted my thoughts to the IMA School in Guatemala City, where I had just spent the past week. Sixty or seventy years ago, Delfina probably looked a lot like the sweetest of the sweet girls. I pictured them in her face. I tried, anyway.


Just then, the flight attendants began handing out the US Customs and Declarations forms. As if someone had shouted, “Bomb!” Delfina and Edwardo shot up out of their seats in a mad panic to get to the overhead compartment. Elbows, rear-ends—everything was ratcheted up, and my few moments of reflection were out the shaded window as Delfina flung her backpack and another hard suitcase at me. Thank God for the quick reflexes I learned in grade-school dodgeball.


Surprising myself, I yelled, “Be careful!”


Delfina did not look my way. I was persona non grata. Edwardo was just as frenzied to get the passports out of whatever bag so they could complete the forms they would need in the next hour or two. I thought it could not get any worse.


I was mistaken.


When the coup de grâce came, all bets were off. Physically grabbing my seatmate by her shoulders, I pulled her toward me to meet my eyes and yelled, “You. Must. Stop. Bumping. Me!” Her jaw set, she looked away.


I was dead to her.


I felt the plane’s descent begin, along with sweet relief. We were close to Los Angeles, and I would be rid of Delfina forever. I knew she’d want to see the landing and thought, Honey, that shade ain’t goin’ nowhere! You’re not seeing LA coming, and you’re gonna be lucky if you make it to LA alive at all. Yeah, we’re landing—and the shade is staying.


Additional thoughts came rushing back: the lost man I had turned away during boarding, the hundred-dollar business-class upgrade I had turned down. I never knew I could descend so low on a plane.


I tried to quiet myself, to breathe, to pray. It occurred to me that maybe this was Delfina’s first trip to the US. Maybe her first flight ever.


I thought about Delfina’s culture, family, her personal space—and mine. Me, terrorized by a little old lady from Guatemala, who’d probably had her first airline food and thought it was excellente. She’d mopped up every drop of food on her plate.


Calmer, fed, forms filled out, Delfina rested her head back and I snuck a look at her face. I thought about the girls at the school I’d just left. I pulled the shade up, halfway.

Her eyes opened, and I heard a tiny “Gracias.”


I waited a moment and thought again. I pulled the shade up for full view, and we both looked out.


We landed at LAX. In Immigration, we had to go to separate lines—me to US Citizens, and her to Visitors.


I hoped she knew I was sorry.


I was.


–Pamela Capone, I Punched Myself in the Eye



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