Air France Flight 447 disappeared from the radio waves on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris before crashing into the Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of June 1st, 2009. With no survivors and, at first, no trace of where it dove into the ocean, it was days before any potential rescue ships reached the wreckage.
The black boxes—two of them, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder—lay at the bottom of the ocean until they were found in May 2011. It took a remotely operated submarine to lift them to the surface.
In those two years experts speculated that the crash had been due to ice buildup in the pitot tubes, small pieces of metal that measure pressure and airspeed.
But it turns out that the crash had as much to do with human error as anything else. While the senior pilot was taking a nap, the two co-pilots consistently messed up. When the autopilot disengaged, they pushed the nose of the airplane higher in an attempt to climb; instead this slowed the plane. They ignored all the stall alarms resounding through the cockpit.
The issue, it turns out, is that the co-pilots were reacting to the situation in opposite ways and the plane had no way to signal this, to allow one to fly and the other to stand back.
In the final, fatal error, when the senior pilot returned to the cockpit he didn’t take over the controls, only tried to tell the others how to fix it. It was then that the airplane hit the water.
In 1971, LANSA Flight 508, en route from Lima to Iquitos, Peru, was hit by lightning. The plane had been at cruising altitude, roughly 21,000 feet—three miles above sea level—when lighting hit the fuel tank on the right wing. The plane fell to bits. Disintegrated. Exploded. Ninety-one people died.
But ninety-two people had been aboard. Still strapped to her seat, one girl, Juliane Koepcke, seventeen years old, fell down, past the clouds, past the exploded bodies surrounding her. She would have hit terminal velocity, would have been going more than 120 miles per hour, would have felt, at that point, like she was plummeting on a cushion of air. She crashed into the Amazon rainforest, through the rainforest, into the trees and survived. She survived the nine days afterward wandering through the rainforest before she found help.
She’s not the only one to have survived such a fall: in 1972, JAT stewardess Vesna Vulović survived 27 days in a coma after falling 33,000 feet inside a portion of the exploded Flight 367.
Rabies is a neurotropic virus: that is, it’s not blood-borne, but rather enters the body by way of the central nervous system, effectively circumventing the body’s usual immune response in the bloodstream. It starts at the location of the bite, of course, creeps its way along the peripheral nervous system, then upward along the spinal cord, finally depositing itself in the brain. From here it spreads to other organs, most notably the salivary glands—thus the frothing of the mouth that we’re so familiar with.
This all takes time, and as the rabies virus spreads through the nervous system it is asymptomatic, undetectable. On average, it takes a few weeks before it becomes abundantly clear that the host is infected. But—but! There is always a but!—it can, in some cases, take up to five years.
You could forget you’d ever been bitten by an animal by the time anyone realizes you have rabies.
And have I mentioned that yes, there is a vaccine, but for it to work, you need to receive it after you’ve been bitten, and, on that note, you must receive it within a few days of the bite. Just relying on pre-exposure medication won’t help. Won’t do a thing.
By the time you realize you have rabies? Well, it’s been nice knowing you.
September 1976 was a bad month: a collision between two flights in Anapa, Russia, 64 dead; and a day later, one in Zagreb, Croatia, 177 dead.
On Sunday, March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747s collided on the runway of Tenerife North Airport. 583 people were killed.
349 people were killed in 1996 when Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763 and Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907 collided at 14,500 feet.
154 passengers aboard a Boeing 737 died when it collided with an Embraer Legacy over the Amazon in 2006. On the plus side, all seven aboard the Embraer survived.
Sometimes from the window seat—always the window seat, for the illusion of control—you can see other flights pass by, their contrails like ribbons extending out behind them. Up in an airplane it’s nearly impossible to tell how close or far away something is; scale is hopelessly distorted. Someone once told me you could plummet a hundred feet at cruising altitude and never notice. I’m not sure I believe that. I think I’d feel that.
Here, Kitty Kitty
I lived and studied in Bali for four months in 2010. For the first week we all lived in a small town with a high-caste family. Their compound of houses and temples seemed to stretch forever, so far that I got lost once or twice, always blaming the jet lag.
I should point out that between 2008 and 2010 nearly 80 people died from rabies in Bali.
We ate outside and there was a cat who wandered in several times a day, yowling and yelling at us, begging to be petted. It was thin, too thin, and we couldn’t help but offer it our extra fried rice.
I was on the other side of the world with a group of people I didn’t know and was already pretty sure I didn’t like, and here was this cat begging to be loved. So of course I petted it. And if memory serves correctly, there was one point where the cat got frustrated with the fact that I was petting it, not feeding it, and it bit me lightly on the wrist.
It probably wasn’t a big deal.
I have another two years until I can be sure.
In high school, or was it middle school, one of my classmates was cornered at the bus stop and bitten by a fox. Foxes are naturally skittish, shy creatures and his parents worried it had been rabid, so this boy missed several days of school while he got a full dose of Human Rabies Immunoglobulin injected at the wound, plus more in another muscle, followed by Imovax, the rabies vaccine, injected in his deltoid at 0, 3, 7, and 14 days following the bite.
This is all information I’ve looked up recently. At the time it hardly even registered with me that it had happened—there were rumors, of course, about the thousands of shots he needed to get, the ones in his quad or his ass, about where he’d been when it happened, about how it had happened, but it was swallowed up by all the other adolescent drama of the day.
Even though there was, right in front of me, an example of rabies as entirely likely, it never even occurred to me to be afraid.
A parasite is most simply defined as an organism that derives benefit from living in or on another organism—the host—at a cost to the host. Rabies, for example. And although not precisely accurate, it is not an absurd leap to say that a pregnant woman is carrying a parasite.
When I shared this logic with my girlfriend, she told her sister, who was, at the time, pregnant.
It was several months before I saw her—the sister—but I entered the house fully expecting to have a breast pump, or worse, thrown at my head.
New York to DC on a Prop Jet
I fly from Casablanca to New York without a problem—some nerves, sure, but I have my headphones and my computer and I do alright. On long flights like these the plane evens out after takeoff and there’s not much turning, not much turbulence, and you can almost forget you’re not on the ground.
The flight from New York back to Washington, DC is another story entirely: on a cloudy night it’s impossible to know which way is up. How do I know the instruments aren’t broken, that each shudder of turbulence isn’t the plane about to flip over, to drop out of the sky all too slowly? How do I know we aren’t already crashing? For all I know we could be just meters from the ground. I hyperventilate, I push my face against the window like if I just get closer to it I’ll be able to tell where we are, like if I push hard enough I’ll be outside the plane, flying on my own, floating to the ground—with each bump I close my eyes, grip the armrests, press every inch of my back into my seat, before leaning forward again and returning to the window. Eyes open, to the window, eyes closed, sit back in the seat, again, again, again, repeat. My mother stares at me like I’m insane, this child of hers having a full-bore panic attack over a figment of her imagination.
Among my Christmas gifts from my girlfriend: a small level, so I can always know the plane’s upright.
We contemplate whether the liquid encasing the bubbles counts toward the 3-ounce limit.
I am no stranger to the upset stomach.
More often than not when I’m anxious, a faint queasy pressure builds just beneath my ribcage, threatening to end in more than just bland discomfort.
Often it occurs to me, if briefly, that it could be morning sickness, and I might be
pregnant. This is, of course, ridiculous. I stopped taking the pill years ago, true, but that was for a very good reason: I had started dating my girlfriend.
When you live on the West Coast and your family is on the East Coast, constant flying is inevitable, unless you want to (a) become a hermit or (b) spend half your life on a train, chugging all-too-slowly across the country. I have counted, and in the last two years I’ve flown no fewer than twenty-one times. I have been on planes for 3.8% of the days of the past year. Most of them have been from Seattle, my home now, to Washington, DC, where my parents live. But I have also flown to and from Miami, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Paris.
In contrast, in the past two years I have had, as far as I know, exactly zero direct encounters with rabies. Well, there was the story in the news about the guy from Maryland who got rabies from an organ transplant and died, which had me paranoid for days. I grew up in Maryland.
Yet thinking of either of these things is enough to make me nauseous, enough to make me start to shake.
Now You Can Worry, Too
One sign of impending death by rabies is a sore throat.
The Long Haul
Nine months, also known as forty weeks, also known as 280 days. Nine months where your body is not your own, where you don’t know what you’re going to get.
Will your baby be a psychopath? Who knows! Wait nine months and maybe you’ll find out.
A list, for your perusal, of those I have known who have died recently:
August 8, 2010: My grandfather, age 94. Died from—from what? Old age, dementia,
heart failure, at that age it’s hard to say.
April 4, 2011: A family friend, practically an uncle, age 72. Died within a month of his diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is, more or less, Mad Cow.
October 8, 2011: My uncle, age 61, of a massive heart attack. My father’s younger
brother. I hadn’t seen him in years. He was in a coma for a week before they finally took him off life support.
August 26, 2012: My grandmother, age 89, less than a month before her ninetieth birthday. Died in her sleep after several strokes.
I’m 24 years old—no heart trouble, frequent exercise, and, as far as I know, no genetic predispositions to holes spontaneously forming in my brain. And yet.
I think it is safe to say that I am the craziest member of my family.
Not crazy-fun. Crazy-insane.
Center of the Universe
Depending on who you ask, the odds of dying in a plane crash lie somewhere between one in eleven million and one in twenty-nine million (unless you fly on one of the thirty shittiest airlines in the world, in which case your odds jump to more than one in two million).
Yet every flight I’m on feels like it has to be that one. Is that anxiety, or just an astounding case of egotism?
Each time the anxiety has gotten too bad—when it’s started taking over my life, when I’ve started always feeling like my chest is a rubber band stretched too tight and thrumming after someone’s pulled it and released—I have, invariably, decided that it’s the place I’m living, that I need a change. That suburbia wasn’t working so I needed to go backpacking for a while. That even backpacking wasn’t working, so I needed to go to college in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere. That living in the mountains wasn’t helping, was actually making things worse, so I needed to move to the other side of the world for a while. That the other side of the world wasn’t any better, was actually pretty bad, so I needed to move back to the mountains. That finally I was ready to be free from these mountains, so I moved to the West Coast.
It was always the location that was the problem. It had to be.
But sometime around Indonesia I realized that it wasn’t possible that I simply had the worst luck in habitat choice. Sometime around Indonesia I realized it was probably me.
But now, the anxiety ramping back up as I take on more work than I can handle, as I stand on the verge of no more school—because an MFA is a terminal degree, you know, and once you’re done you’re thrown into the fabled “real world”—as I approach that all-time anxious low, or is it high, I dream of moving to California. Provincetown. Back to the mountains—undoubtedly a terrible idea, but there it is. On the good days I’m well aware I love Seattle; I tell everyone back home how perfect it is for me.
But on the bad days, when even making dinner is too stressful for me to handle—oh, dear, there’s no escaping it. Nothing closer than Europe will do. Europe will make this all better.
I’ve only ever had one real pregnancy scare. I was eighteen and my boyfriend and I had started having sex a few months earlier. He was my first; I had done a pretty good job up ’til then of listening to all the warnings I’d received in health class and sex ed about how I’d get piles and piles of STDs and babies and everyone would hate me and call me a slut. I’d gotten on the pill because my period had been coming every two weeks; the “you won’t get pregnant” thing was a nice side effect.
I was on vacation in Vermont with his family, halfway into the white row of pills, the placebo row, the one where you’re supposed to get your period, and it still hadn’t come.
I freaked out. I would have to get an abortion. How did people get abortions? Where did they go? Would I have to tell my mother? What would she say? Would she kill me? She would kill me.
At that very moment something might have been growing inside me.
At that very moment I might have been two people.
I kept it to myself until finally, out on a run with my boyfriend, I blurted it out, told him the news. He was so much calmer than me, asked Are you sure, and Shouldn’t we wait and see, and, well, he was right—only hours later I started bleeding.
A friend suggests that there may be a connection between my fear of pregnancy and my predilection for women. I push back against this, of course. I date women for the same reason I date men: because I am attracted to them. I am with my girlfriend because I love her, not because she is some magical charm against gestation.
But I have to admit that it is a nice perk.
Plenty of Time
What do people think about in the time between realizing the plane is crashing and the moment of hitting the ground?
In a car crash, at least, there’s only the split second—if that—where you see it coming. But in a plane crash—you have all the time in the world.
For a while I was writing a novel in which one of the main characters ran away from home at age 18 and later became a fortune teller as a way to pay the bills. She was irresponsible, jaded, and cruel, and had no business predicting anyone’s future.
And yet—I liked the idea that someone who should have no sense of the future, someone who effectively had no future, having left every opportunity she had behind her in a small town in Montana—I liked the idea that she could make up what was going to happen and people would listen. That they were convinced. Because there’s something soothing about a stranger telling you in a strong, reassuring voice that everything is going to be okay. Or even that everything isn’t going to be okay—because then at least you know what’s coming.
A while back, when I was in college, if memory serves, I insisted to my oldest brother that I really was quite a laid back person.
He laughed, said You are the least laid back person I have ever met.
Education Is the Answer
The theory that all it will take is flying lessons—if I know how it works it won’t be scary.
But that, too, the very thought of it, nearly sends me into panic attacks. Would physics really work if I tried to dip the nose down to get out of a stall?
The anarchist kids at the coffee collective I go to sometimes scrawl “no future” on walls, on bathroom doors. They talk about it in gleeful tones, with excitement, with—anticipation.
How is that idea not terrifying, not so implacably unknown that it feels vast, too vast, to even consider? Are they alive in this new futureless future? Does it matter to them?
Or is it like those “No Fear” t-shirts that people wore when I was a kid, the words scrawled in graffiti-font, preempting any questions—No fear of what? Of whom? Did anyone who wore those shirts even think to ask?
Did they hate themselves when they felt an inkling of fear somewhere in the back of their minds?
The cells of microorganisms outnumber human cells in your body, my body, by ten to one.
When you’re pregnant I’m sure that ratio changes, but I can’t say that I find that
Or is it as simple as the recognition that by not having children, by categorically refusing to get pregnant, I am, as I am so often reminded by people doubtful of my decision (or rather, nondecision), simply refusing to plan for the future, refusing to look beyond this moment of my life?
I tell a friend I wish I were afraid of sharks instead of flying, instead of rabies, instead of pregnancy.
But you’re never near sharks, she says.
It’s not that I want to not be anxious, to not be afraid—or rather, that’s a fight I gave up on a long time ago.
It’s just that I want to live. I want to live as someone who can fly through the night to a country plagued by rabies. It’s that I want my body to be mine.
But Let’s Be Honest
Have I ever not been anxious?
Would I even know what to do without it? Would I even know who I was?
Juliane Koepcke, who fell from a plane into the Amazon yet somehow survived, grew up, got married, got tenure, lived a normal life.
But I can’t help but imagine her flinching at every stray noise, cringing each time someone says the word flight, waking from dreams of alarming, death-defying falls.
Because once you’ve lived that, how would you let go?
Sometimes when it’s sunny I sit on my porch, letting my skin warm in a way it forgets is possible in the long rainy winter in Seattle, and watch the planes taking off. The airport is eleven miles south of my apartment as the crow—or rather, I suppose, the jet—flies, and on days when the wind is in the right direction, jets fly over my place every few minutes. If 747s were like glass-bottomed boats, passengers could press their faces to the airplane’s belly and see me looking up.
I imagine you’re thinking that each plane flying overhead would send me into a panic attack, a fit of worry, at least a little bit of nail biting. And some days yes, it’s true, I do hear the distant rumble of the approaching jet and feel my mouth get dry, my chest tight.
But lately I’ve been watching the planes floating through the brilliant, cloudless blue of the Seattle summer sky and I feel myself drawn to them, wishing I were peering down at the city and heading far away, to California, to Connecticut, to Europe, to Vietnam. Anywhere.
Does this mean that I am getting better?
Or is it just that once more, ever inevitably, I am ready to escape?