My Gift of the Magi

by Carolita Johnson

I’m sitting in an airplane to New York for a holiday visit to my family. Economy class. Next to me, my neighbor is dozing off, intermittently leaning ever so slightly over in her sleep toward me, then jerking herself upright and away, again and again. It’s a valiant effort. But it’s no use: she’s much too sleepy and is at the complete mercy of her drowsiness. She continues to dip sideways toward me in her sleep, her upper body sliding gently to the right in little jerky shifts, down, down … farther and farther down … down … down … almost as if pulled to my lap by invisible, warm, gentle arms. Each time she whips herself up again in a convulsive 90-degree swoop, it’s only a matter of seconds before she begins dipping again, even more perilously.

I watch her, amused, but conscious of her imminent crossing of The Line, wondering what I should do.

I pick my book up from off my lap and try holding it close in front of my eyes, since every 30 seconds or so her bobbing head blocks my view of the page I’m on. But this only solves one problem. I mean, I don’t really MIND … after all, she’s clean enough — I can see, every time her parted hair is directly under my gaze, that she hasn’t got dandruff or lice or anything. The fresh scent of her shampoo wafts reassuringly up under my nose. And in a way it’s my own fault for pulling the armrest up when I thought I had the two seats for myself. If it were down, it would block her, but there was no way to get to it now.

I find myself considering a sweet impulse that would only work in an ideal world: forget all these worries and let her cuddle up in my lap. But in the real world, she might wake up with her head in my lap and feel humiliated — she might even think I’m a pervert or something, just for not objecting! Should I wake her up? Nudge her back into the world of social propriety “by accident”? I can’t help thinking that even if I do, it probably won’t be the end of the story.

What to do? What to do?

I keep reading. Everybody else is asleep. The plane is dark, except for the little flowing beams of the reading-lamps which point down on a few seats here and there like tiny UFO traction beams. No one perceives my predicament. So why worry about it? I know that this woman now sleeping with her head in my lap will wake up soon enough, perhaps when something in her sleepy meta-dream thoughts tells her that she is much too comfortable for an economy class passenger. She will realize that she is asleep with her head in a stranger’s lap. She will wake up, opening her eyes cautiously; or perhaps suddenly instead, maybe with a violent gasp of panic as she sits up and looks at me with apprehension. And I will, I’ve decided, simply pretend I am sound asleep too, and never noticed a thing. As far as I’ll be concerned, it never happened. I turn out the light.

It’ll be up to her to agree. Rather generous, and even modern of me, I think. Because I’m thinking that it seems as though some of my more disappointing experiences with men have finally taught me this trick. But I have appropriated this little deflection/avoidance weapon from these funny old cowardly lovers and used it “for good instead of evil” as Maxwell Smart, or Batman and Robin, or Superman might say. They’ve all said something like that at one point, and I’ve always wanted to be able to say it myself.

I’m rather pleased with myself. In my happiness at my newfound skill, I even wonder if I’ve misunderstood those men of my past, and if maybe they had felt as paradoxically timid and graceful and generous as I feel now. Who knows? I am the newly initiated superhero or heroine I’ve always wanted to be, at least just for now, as I fly through the skies with an exhausted woman snoring with her head in my lap, a clear drop of sleepy, tepid saliva rolling out of the corner of her mouth and down her chin.

And after all, my skirt is hand-washable.

Previously: The Magic Trick.

Carolita Johnson’s cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.