I had just time enough to make this plan when the plane stopped jerking, and I realized it was all over. Sighs and chuckles of relief all round, the flight attendants up out of their seats at last, moving along the aisle, speaking gently to passengers. I remember one of them stroking and squeezing my arm, and how everyone laughed heartily when the young man beside me shouted, "Hey, do we get our drinks now?"
"How long was that?" asked the man who'd been gripping his seat and rolling his head. "I think it must have been like 20 minutes!" I heard murmurs of agreement, but I'm sure this was wrong. Had it been that long, they would have had to carry some of us off the plane when we landed. I don't believe the entire episode could have lasted much more than five or at most ten minutes.
No satisfactory explanation was ever provided. The flight attendants told us the problem had indeed been turbulence, and when pressed about the bad smell and the knocking sound (both of which had mysteriously vanished, as if we had collectively dreamed them) they said, dismissively (but to me, at least, not entirely convincingly), that these things were also "turbulence related." And they said that they themselves had gotten the worst of it, sitting way in the back.
The rest of the flight was without incident. Our landing was smooth, the applause energetic. Leaving the plane, I thought the young man was right behind me. But when I turned to say goodbye, I saw that several people had got between us, and I would have felt foolish waiting up for him.
At the baggage carousel, I heard various passengers telling people who'd come to meet them about our scare. ("I really thought I'd never see you again, hon." "I thought for sure this was it.") Then I caught sight of the young man, scratching his scalp under his billed cap while talking to an older man, and I felt my cheeks flush. A young soldier, a pilot in a time of war, headed for who knew what inescapable dangers, the likes of which I myself would never have to face. And I was ashamed of my fear and what now seemed like an exaggerated reaction.
I had thought that, in all likelihood, from now on it would be hard for me to fly. But happily this has not turned out to be the case. For a while I continued to feel resentment toward that pilot for his inexplicable silence. But since I don't know what really happened that day, I figured I might just as well feel gratitude: What if he'd saved all our lives? And though I hope never to have to go through another such episode, I can't say that I regret it, for it showed me a resource I was not sure I had.
I am used to thinking of myself as a nervous person, easily overwhelmed, the last one to stay cool in the face of extreme danger. And quite possibly, had the plane actually started to go down, I would have lost my head completely—to hell with my earnest little plan! But on reflection, I don't think so. I like to think I'll be able to find my way to that state again, in whatever challenging situations may come, when being calm and present is the best plan to have.
Sigrid Nunez is the author of The Last of Her Kind (Picador), which is now out in paperback.