Jim Clifford endured an unwanted international Q&A.
Art by Zita Walker.
Flights are always risky. There’s so much you can’t control. Some people worry about crashing from twelve kilometres up. Some worry about terrorists or government germs in the touch down quarantine spray. I personally believe the biggest threat is the horrifying lucky-dip of who you sit next to.
Enter Philippines Airlines, Sydney to Manila, July 2015. No screens on the back of headrests. No TV hanging from the ceiling. But my boyfriend and I are hopeful; pre-departure is almost over, and no one has interrupted the miraculous gift of a three-seater shared between two.
But of course, someone arrives. A small, middle-aged woman. Headphones in. No hellos, no nonsense. This is good news. We can just eat our food in silence, face forward, and get on with the business of passing time.
But no. Part way through take off, the woman turns to us and asks, “So… what is the relationship here? Are you siblings? Friends?”
By this point, the seat divide between me and my boyfriend is already up. I am holding his hand (he is pretending to be afraid), and his head is resting on my shoulder. We would make excellent, intimate friends. Maybe too intimate for siblings.
I tell her, no, we are partners. She nods, tightens her brow in concentration and faces forward.
The plane is flying steady. The seatbelt sign is off. I take this opportunity to squeeze passed her and go to the bathroom.
When I arrive back, she is leaning across the middle seat, talking to my boyfriend.
“So, were your parents angry when they found out?”
“Oh, no, they were pretty okay about, um, it,” he says to both of us, smiling just a little.
I push through again, and she goes quiet. I wonder: did she wait until I was gone to ask him? He does look a lot younger than me, but he’s actually three years older. Does she think I abducted him? Or corrupted him? Are his parents angry?
We don’t talk much through the rest of the seven-hour flight. She’s passing the time by flicking through endless photos of herself on her iPad. Some selfies, most taken by others. Many in front of public monuments; the Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace. Some just of her face. There is never anyone else in the shot. I wonder who took them for her. A sibling? A friend?
Just before we land, she turns to us for a final time.
“I have a gay friend in London,” she says, looking with significance at each of us. “His parents don’t know. He’s too afraid to tell them. He thinks they’ll get angry. And he’s almost forty. Don’t you think that’s sad?”
I weigh up whether it’d be rude to ask her why she is telling us this. But then I realise. Maybe she’s been amassing courage this whole time, watching us from under her hair, flicking through photos of herself for affirmation and resolve. Maybe she isn’t a straight woman with opinions to express. Maybe she’s an adult baby queer, searching for counsel and community.
I turn to her, smiling: “tell him he can do whatever he wants—there’s no one way to be queer. And it’s not a race.”
She looks blank, confused.
“Well, I think it’s sad,” she says, and returns to scrolling through her photos.
We land. No goodbyes are shared.
Whenever you are, brief companion, I hope you are happy.