The pilot was the last to board. As usual, he was disconcertingly young. And chipper.
Okay, maybe not that young, but he was definitely a kid. And he didn’t seem remotely nervous.
This probably should have cheered me up but it had the opposite effect. My god, I thought, he’s not even taking this seriously. Maybe he has a death wish. Maybe he’s so young he has no concept of death at all.
I studied the back of Michael’s head. It was clear that he wasn’t nervous either. Where were the grown-ups on this flight?
Then I spotted a kindred spirit.
The man directly in front of me held himself very erect, darting nervous glances out the window, punctuated by sheepish grins tossed toward the man beside him. As far as I could tell, his friend ignored him completely. It was obvious that Michael and my fellow-sufferer’s companion were cut from the same heartless cloth.
I could barely stop myself from unbuckling my seatbelt and rushing up to clutch the nervous man’s undoubtedly sweaty palm.
The takeoff was sensationally bumpy. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. Michael later professed not to notice, which made me dislike him intensely for at least five minutes.
Soon we were airborne, although it felt more like air-buffeted. The word “turbulence,” bandied about so freely by pilots and flight attendants, barely did our situation justice. We not only dipped up and down dramatically, but also shuddered from side to side.
I was beside myself, both literally and figuratively.
The least stressful part of the flight for me is always over the water. Yes, I know it’s illogical, but in the back of my mind I always believe the plane can ditch into the sea without anyone suffering any injuries that cosmetic surgery can’t fix.
But once we reach land over Fajardo (the port town at the northeastern most tip of the big island) I’m on red alert.
And sure enough, about halfway between Fajardo and San Juan (a fifteen minute trip), we hit turbulence that made me nostalgic for the summer breeze I’d naively called turbulence earlier in the trip.
Suddenly a very loud alarm went off. My fellow sufferer whimpered like a puppy. Michael even deigned to lift his head from his magazine. The radio crackled with emphatic instructions. The pilot shouted a few words in response, then banked the plane very sharply to the right. The luggage in the back of the plane slid sideways with an ominous growl, then hit the side of the plane with a thud.
I practiced my breathing techniques so hard I’m sure I broke a couple of ribs.
“What’s going on?” I heard Michael ask the pilot.
“Que pasa?” he tried again.
The pilot answered in Spanish. It was obvious that Michael didn’t understand.
“He said they won’t let us land in San Juan,” the nervous man more or less screamed. “We’re going back to Fajardo.”
I loved this guy—compared to him, I deserved a Purple Heart.
Seven minutes later we were on a very shaky approach to the elongated driveway that passes for the Fajardo airstrip.
Even so, it looked like heaven to me. At least it qualified as terra firma.
The touchdown was sporadic, meaning that we bounced up and down two or three times before actually staying on the ground.
Rain pounded the roof of the plane. A drop actually landed on my forehead as we taxied to the miniscule terminal.
We stumbled off the plane and ran into the building. “Where’s the bar?” I asked.
“There isn’t one,” the nervous man said.
“Got any drugs?” I cracked.
“I did,” he said through a crumpled smile, “but I took them all.”