So there I was, awkwardly reaching for the USA Today left outside my hotel room, determined to ignore the fact that my black, opaque, control-top pantyhose were seriously impairing my ability to breathe, when I heard the muffled sound of the phone ringing from the other side of the door.
Now, on any other day, I would have just grabbed the newspaper and made a mad dash for the elevator, since a ringing phone at 3:55 a.m. can only mean one thing: that some overbearing, micromanaging, type-A Flight Attendant in Charge is trying to track me even though I still have thirty-two perfectly good seconds before I actually have to be in the hotel lobby.
But today was different. Not only was I a full five minutes ahead of schedule, not only was it my twenty-eighth birthday, but I also knew that by the end of the day I would be engaged to Michael, my boyfriend-slash-roommate of the last four years.
It had all started the day before I left on this trip. I was cleaning the bedroom and singing along to the latest U2 CD, and just as Bono and I shouted "Uno, dos, tres . . . Catorce!" my right hip slammed into Michael's flight bag, sending it soaring off the dresser and crashing to the ground.
Now I admit, up until that very moment his bag had never held much interest. I'd always thought of it as a briefcase, or a man pursesomething completely benign but totally off limits. But as I stared at the wreckage spilled all around me, I instinctively dropped to my knees and examined each artifact as though it were the gateway to a secret world I never knew existed.
Oh sure, there were all the predictable items, like well-used navigational maps, half-eaten protein bars, his company photo ID, and a big yellow flashlight to be used in case of emergency. But there were also a few surprises, like the brand-new tube of Rogaine that landed next to the half-empty bottle of Levitra that was covering the red plastic card from a video store that obviously didn't cater to families.
And just as I lifted his bulky, FAA-mandated flight manual I discovered a small, robin's-egg blue box with a crisp white ribbon tied snugly around it.
My breath grew shallow, my heart beat faster, and my hands were actually trembling as I lifted that tiny box to my ear, shaking it ever so slightly as I imagined Michael kneeling before me, eyes misty with emotion, asking me to be his wife. . . .
And I was almost positive I would say yes.
So, anticipating an early-morning birthday greeting from my almost fiancé, I frantically slid the key card back into the lock, hurdled over the mound of soggy white towels I'd left piled on the bathroom floor, and grabbed the receiver conveniently located next to the toilet. Before I could even get to hello, a disembodied, Southern-accented male voice said, "Hailey Lane? This is Bob in scheduling." And the fourteen words that followed were the ones that flight attendants around the globe live to hear: "The rest of your trip has been canceled. You are scheduled to deadhead home."
But even though I was expecting something great doesn't mean I wasn't skeptical. "Come on, Clay, quit fucking around. I'm on my way down," I said, peering in the mirror and smoothing my out-of-control auburn curls while checking my teeth for lipstick tracks.
"Ms. Lane, let me remind you that all scheduling calls are recorded," said the unamused voice on the other end.
"This isn't Clay?" I whispered, my breath caught in my throat.
"You are scheduled to deadhead on flight 001, nonstop from San Diego to Newark," he continued, in a crisp, no-nonsense tone. "You will arrive at fifteen hundred."
"Are you serious? You mean I don't have to fly to Salt Lake, Atlanta, and Cincinnati before I get there?" I asked, still not totally convinced I wasn't dreaming.
"I still need to contact the rest of your crew," he said, beginning to sound annoyed.
"Okay, okay. Just one more question: Can I deviate?" I asked, fingers frantically reaching for my flight schedule book, trying to spin this into an even better deal for me. "Let's see, there's a nonstop landing in La Guardia an hour earlier. Can you put me on that instead?"
He sighed. "Your employment date?"
"Three, twenty-five, ninety-nine," I told him, listening to the distant sound of his fingers tapping on the keyboard.
"Really? Oh my God, thanks Bob! I mean really, thanks. You have no idea how much this means to me! It's my birthday, you know, and, hello?" I said, staring at the receiver, listening to the steady hum of the dial tone.
Tucking the newspaper under my arm, I dragged my roll-aboard all the way down the hall to Clay's room, where I knocked twice, paused, and then knocked twice more, which had been our secret code for the last six years, even though it was kind of lame and all too easy to crack.
Clay and I had met the very first day of flight attendant training, and I give him full credit for getting me through it, because without him, I would have bolted two minutes into the creepy, overly peppy orientation. But every time I mentioned escape, he'd remind me of all the guaranteed fun and adventure that awaited us once we earned our wings: The long layovers in chic foreign cities; unlimited duty-free shopping; and the hordes of handsome, successful, single men all jockeying for a shot at the free first-class standby travel enjoyed by airline employees and their significant others.
All we had to do in return was get through six weeks of unmitigated, soul-destroying, personality-quashing hell that only someone who's survived a brutal military boot camp can relate to.
The flight attendant training regime is something rarely discussed outside the industry. Too many soft-core stewardess movies have dwelled in the public's consciousness for too long, making it impossible for us to get the respect we deserve. But truth be told, there is nothing sexy about a system of such carefully calculated, institutionalized paranoia, where forgetting to smile can result in an immediate charge of insubordination and a one-way ticket home.
Over a span of six long weeks, two trainers eerily resembling Stepford Wives taught us the art of surviving days adrift at sea with nothing more than a couple of flares, a bailing bucket, and a lone box of ancient, fruit-flavored candy bearing a label never seen in stores. We learned how to deal with an in-flight death (never use the word "death"); how to handle an alleged in-flight sex act (offer a blanket, look the other way); how to secure an unruly, irate passenger to his seat using company logo plastic tie-wraps; how to deal with head injuries, burns, profuse bleeding, childbirth, vomiting, urination, defecation; and how to clean it all up afterward by donning a "one size fits most" plastic biohazard suit and using club soda for stains and coffee bags for foul odors.
We fought fires; crawled through dark, smoke-filled cabins; and even evacuated a mock airplane by sliding down an authentic, double-lane inflatable slide, resulting in three pairs of torn pants, numerous rub burns, and one broken arm whose owner was "dismissed" for having weak bones.
They restyled our hair, reapplied our makeup, vetoed our jewelry, fed us propaganda, and actively discouraged questions, jokes, comments, and any other signs of freethinking individuality.
And once our spirits were deemed suitably broken and our formerly vibrant selves sufficiently rehabbed into paranoid automatons, they pushed us out into the world, onto an airplane, and reminded us to smile.
"Happy Birthday, doll," which came out "duaawl" in Clay's lazy, Southern-accented impersonation of an old lady from Staten Island, which isn't very good but always makes me laugh. "You look great," he added, opening the door and slipping into his navy blue blazer.
"Four a.m. and no undereye puffiness," I said, pointing proudly at my face. "See, being a slam-clicker and not going out with you guys last night paid off."
"Yeah, but you missed out." He shook his perfectly tousled, blond-highlighted head and closed the door behind him. "We met downstairs in the bar, and when the check arrived the first officer divided the number of chicken wings each of us ate and split the bill accordingly."
"You're making that up." I walked alongside him and laughed.
"True story. He wears this calculator watch that does fractions. My share, including the glass of wine, was eight dollars and eighteen cents."
"Did that include tip?"
"You think he tips?" Clay looked at me, one eyebrow raised. "I waited until he left; then I paid the tip. So, are we deviating?" he asked, following me into the elevator.
"I am," I said, pushing the L button and watching the doors close.
"Good, because I told scheduling I was just gonna do whatever you do."
"That sounds pretty codependent." I raised an eyebrow at him.
"It's way too early to make an important decision when I know you can do it for both of us. And this way we can share a cab to the city." He smiled.
"Fine, but no detours this time." I gave him a stern look. Clay was well known for running all of his errands on the way from La Guardia Airport to whichever apartment he was staying in that week. "No ATMs, no Starbucks, no wine stores, no video rental drop-offs, and no gay bars," I said, dropping my key card at the front desk. "I have a big night ahead, and now that I'm gonna get home even earlier I want to take a bubble bath, and maybe even get a pedicure."
"So is tonight the night?" he asked, handing our bags to the van driver.
"Definitely," I said, smiling brightly in spite of the nervous ping I felt in my stomach.
"Are you gonna say yes?" he asked, eyeing me carefully.
"Probably." I nodded, avoiding his eyes and biting down on my lower lip.
"Probably?" He raised his recently waxed brows at me.
"Well, yeah, I mean. It makes sense, right?" I said, suddenly wondering which one of us I was trying to convince. "I mean, we live together, he's good to me, he's normal. . . ." I shrugged, unable to come up with more good reasons, though I was sure they existeddidn't they?
"Perfect. So, what's the problem?" he asked, peering at me closely.
"I guess . . . I don't know. I guess I just thought it would be more exciting." I shrugged.
"Hailey, he's a pilot. How much excitement do you think you're gonna get?"
"But he's not like the others!" I insisted. "He lives in Manhattan, not some tax-free zone in Florida! He doesn't starch his jeans, doesn't wear white tennis shoes with dress pants. And he's taking me to Babbo tonight for my birthday, where I know he'll leave a very generous tip, thank you very much." I climbed into the van.
"Okay, so he's a metrosexual pilot." Clay shrugged. "But let me just say, you'd be a lot more sure of your answer if you'd just looked inside that Tiffany's box."
Copyright © 2006 by Alyson Noël. All rights reserved.