The Extra Seat on the Plane or How I Realised When to Let Go

Sometimes as it happens in life you find yourself with two empty seats between you and a stranger in the middle row of an overnight flight. Now there is an unspoken rule about these miraculous empty two seats that are found next to each other on a full flight; each person on the other end automatically takes ownership of the seat next to them.
It’s a universal law that even the Americans don’t mess with.
And so on a 12-hour overnight flight I found myself in such a position. I could see the man on the other end of our four-seater was ready for business; he had jogger pants, an eye cover around his neck and he ignored any tentatively friendly glances I sent his way.
For the purpose of this story I feel it’s also important to note that he was white.
Everything began well enough; he pulled down his eye cover, pushed up the armrest of the seat next to him (another universal law indicating he had accepted the opportunity of use of the seat next to him). I was preparing myself for deep sleep as well but decided to wait for the meal to be served before I got down to business. Then while I turned my head to look down the aisle to see how far the trolley was, the man did something that would change our relationship forever. He lay down on the seat next to him (normal) and then proceeded to lift the armrest of the seat next to mine so that he could lie across all three seats (abnormal!). Having never had anyone so blatantly break the universal law of plane space so openly, so early and so sneakily I was at a loss at what to do. I thought to call for the air marshal but it was difficult to identify the American with personal problems in civilian clothing.
At this stage I was livid, I’d have enough of men trying to take my space, let alone a white man who clearly didn’t care about the law. In an ideal world, we could have had a small laugh about our luck with the extra seats, we could have come to some agreement that I use the three seats for half the flight and he use the three seats for half the flight, but this man had made it clear that he would take as much as he could however he could and there would be no discussion about it. He lived in a man’s world and I knew then I had to fight for survival. An ancient injustice began to boil in me and I pulled up my sleeves, gritted my teeth and prepared for battle. When the meal came and he sat up to take his plate and I leaned over and firmly pushed the armrest down, thereby restoring the world order of universal plane peace and making it known I wasn’t some pansy brown pushover. I then finished my meal and lay down on myextra seat indicating that he had no right taking something that wasn’t his.
And so it began.
There we were 40 000 feet above sea level somewhere over Somalia locked in an ancient battle of wills. With the mind-set that I was protecting not only my gender but also my people, I refused to let this white man steal even an inch of space from another brown person. I was a soldier, standing (or sitting, well laying down really) for my people, making it known that enough was enough and we would never take this treatment again. I was decolonising the plane. I lay stoically across my two seats even though I was very unhappy  – there were things poking into my ribs, my calves were cramping and I had to keep readjusting so that my legs didn’t send someone in the aisle flying. He too, remained determined, squashing himself across his two seats and making sure he was using his space to maximum capacity. All throughout the flight we were waging psychological and physical warfare with one another; if he adjusted, I had to too (but not too much that it would give away the great discomfort I was in) and I never budged away from the extra seat handle lest he lift it without permission again. We both squirmed and fidgeted and contorted ourselves into shapes that would have impressed even my 12-year-old self.
It was war.
Despite my discomfort I think my sheer exhaustion kicked in and I somehow fell asleep lying in this distorted position. I woke up in confusion in the dark to find that I was being suffocated by his pillow as he had his head on my armrest and I was jammed between my pillow on my seat and his pillow above.
There were many thoughts that passed through my mind at that point in the dark. Should I stay here? Should I stand my ground? Could I die like this?
(Also, do you think he’s more comfortable than me?)
But the last thought that passed through my mind was, what the hell am I doing?
I clearly wasn’t comfortable. He probably wasn’t too. And yet we both were fighting for something we didn’t even want.
(These thoughts were not helped by the gradual lack of oxygen to my brain as I found myself sandwiched further and further in-between our pillows).
And so I did something I didn’t expect I would. I took a deep breath, uncurled myself and I sat up. I let go of what I didn’t need. I pushed my own seat back and pulled up my blanket and I decided I didn’t need that extra seat anyway. Why should I stoop to his level of pettiness? I wasn’t happy with that space anyway. Why should I try to fit in such a small space that’s equal to his? No. He could have it.
I’ve been trying to think what I got out of that experience. You have to know when to let go of the chair, because sometimes you’re holding onto something that isn’t helping anything. And I think that applies to most relationships, not only ones with strangers on the plane. And I don’t think that means you have to compromise, it just means you have to find what’s right for you and take it.
Because sometimes you’re fighting so hard for something, you don’t even know if you really want it in the first place. I didn’t want that one measly seat. What was I even going to do with that? It wasn’t good enough for me so why was I fighting for it?
The man remained a bad neighbour for most of the flight and at some point he even took my pillow but it didn’t matter anymore. I felt bad for him that he felt he had to take my seat while I was looking away or that he had to battle so much against a younger woman for one seat. Because you know why? I know in a few years time people like me will be stretching out in front of the plane and people as petty as him will still be sitting in the middle of the plane trying to steal an extra seat.
And I think I’m pretty satisfied with myself – I gave a good fight for a few hours and then I knew when to let go and I wouldn’t have my life any other way.

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