That Time I Got the Middle Seat on a Plane

If hell exists, it’s a middle seat.

I’ve been wedged in one for an eternity on a 170-minute flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver. On my left, there’s a dozing kid – probably six or seven years old – drooling on his dad’s shoulder. Dad’s average size so I’m guessing the kid was adopted from an orphanage that specializes in drafting future NFL linebackers. And he’s already encroaching.

But it’s the guy on my right’s who’s the immediate concern. Because he’s wearing a participatory wristband from an Ironman competition.

This is going to be quite a row.

I’d landed in my present position with The Double Middler™ – an aggressive, elbows-high sitdown maneuver designed to stake claim to both armrests. Disputed territory, to be sure, and since the UN General Assembly has yet to vote on a resolution for it, we’re forced to defer to a more informal body, Aussie comic Jim Jefferies: window seat gets an armrest and a wall; aisle seat gets an armrest and a little extra leg; middle seat gets both armrests.

These are the unspoken rules of the sky.

Unfortunately, on descent, I’d miscalculated my body size (a slightly spacious 6’3”, 220 pounds) to economy seat (not so spacious) ratio and nearly broken Ironman’s arm with my shoulder, a body part that’s now clearly violating several international decency treaties and the protected airspace of the People’s Republic of Window Seat.

“Sorry,” I say, simultaneously sliding my arm right and applying a slight, steady pressure to the lateral side of his left elbow, a seamless move I’d perfected (on my girlfriend) on a flight from India to China in 2012.

His arm doesn’t move an inch.

“Where you from?” he asks, subtly shifting his butt right to better buttress his surprisingly stiff elbow defense.

“Vancouver,” I say, wise to the obvious diversion tactic. “You?”

“Texas. But I work in Vancouver a lot. I was just down competing in an Ironman. Do you know what that is?”

Do I know what that is? I was watching the Ironman from the comfort of my parents’ living room before you were wearing a wristband in the maternity wing, pal.

“Yes, I’ve heard of it.”

Suddenly Dad opens a second front with a surprise attack on my left armrest using his son’s railroad-tie-like leg as a battering ram.

Brilliant strategy, bloodless coup.

Unprepared for the assault, my left arm is pushed back until pinned at my side – its circulation completely cut off by the advance – and without supply I can only watch helplessly as he brazenly occupies my land, presumably for the rest of the flight.

“So do you ever run the seawall?” Ironman asks.

“All the time,” I say. (Almost never.)

“What about the Grouse Grind?”

“Love climbing that mountain.” (Via gondola.)

Wait – glory day! – Dad is retreating! Without warning, he’s completely withdrawn from the armrest and is making a move to the other side of the aisle, where he deposits his kid into his very own seat!

Ironman spots the opening: “Hey – would you mind if I scooted out so I could go the restroom?”

“No problem,” I say, barely able to conceal my glee.

I spend the next several minutes running my hands up and down the length of the wide-open armrests. Their parallel landscapes are foreign yet familiar; textured and cool to the touch, each one boasting its own unique topography. A scratch here. A divot there.

Is that gum? Yes.

High above the plastic plains, my shoulders, now separated from the pack, are finally free to roam where they please. They shrug with glee, then blissfully begin to roll left and right. Then my elbows involuntarily start to flap.

Look at me – I’m flying!

Alas, the victory is short-lived – Ironman and Dad quickly return to their seats. Soon after, the flight attendant swoops in: “Excuse me, gentlemen. Can you fasten your seatbelts? We’re going to be taking off in a few minutes.”

The battle has just begun.

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