A week before my first time celebrating my girlfriend's birthday, Elle and I were sprawled out on my mattress having pillow talk about our fears. "Dying and failing … oh, and heights." Heights? But she flies all the time, I thought. I started to panic — my epic birthday present for her was now a potential nightmare.
Let me explain. A month prior, I found myself deciding between buying tickets for a Fran Lebowitz talk at BAM and vouchers for a spa day. Fran sat at the top of my list until I logged onto Living Social. There, wedged between laser hair removal and Tuscan getaways, sat a deal for flight lessons. Bingo! The gift of flight would be way more meaningful than an algorithmically chosen pair of pants. Plus, the flight lesson surprisingly wouldn't break the bank. Vying for "Girlfriend of the Year," I then commissioned a friend who is a cartoonist to draw her in an airplane as my way of revealing the impending birthday in the sky. Which maybe I would end up burning.
"What exactly do you mean when you say heights? Like, you can't get on a ladder or you wouldn't go bungee jumping?" She shot me a side-eye and slowly lowered the chocolate-chip cookie from her lips. Elle knew I was digging for info. She had been trying to figure out her birthday gift since before I even had a clue. Quite frankly, it was the longest I'd been able to keep a surprise. By surprise, I mean I had told everyone except her, including her friends and my mom. They all had one of two reactions: "Yas bitch! You did that!" That was the one I was going for. The other reaction was, "That doesn't sound very safe at all." Moms can be annoying.
What I hadn't anticipated was my girlfriend's undisclosed and apparently deep-seated fear of flying. The fear was so real, she even established a special ritual that involved wearing a specific T-shirt and a call to her grandma before every flight. We'd never been on a plane together before. This would be a hell of a first flight.
This would be a hell of a first flight.
In an attempt to quell the anxiety beginning to boil between the two of us, I blurted out, "I booked us a lesson to learn how to fly an airplane!" Her eyes widened. "Oh my God, I'm gonna die," she lamented as she threw herself into a pile of pillows on the bed.
After five minutes of my convincing her that this was not a joke, and telling her no, I cannot get a refund, she asked if she could have a couple of days to think it over. Truthfully, I could get a refund. Additionally, I myself have a crazy-sensitive stomach and a laundry list of reasons why I shouldn't go in the air. Hopping on a Boeing 747 is one thing, but cramming into a plane with a cockpit smaller than a college dorm room was another. However, I'm not one to back down from a challenge even if it is self-induced. And I also figured if we could conquer some fears together, we had a pretty good shot at making the relationship work.
A few days later, my girlfriend told me, "I'm not a punk, so we're gonna do this." Hesitant, she seemed as if she were trying to convince me and herself. By the end of the week, we were packing snacks for our day trip to the Global Aviation Corp. in Long Island. I strategically planned my look to give "pilot realness," a matte red lip and a black turtleneck. I even curated a flying-themed playlist for our save-worthy Snapchat story. Elle followed suit in her flight bomber and Air Yeezys. During the train ride, we both avoided talking about what was really happening, opting to fill our time with rap freestyles, bites of ciabatta sandwiches, and silent conversations with God.
I strategically planned my look to give "pilot realness," a matte red lip and a black turtleneck.
When we got to the aviation center, we made our way to the main office and were greeted by a middle-aged white man with a charmingly snarky disposition. I announced that it was Elle's birthday and proceeded to do a birthday twerk followed, apparently, by lots of nervous chatter. Elle, nerves reaching a near-climax, was still quiet. She pulled me aside to let me know I was talking "too damn much," right before we were introduced to our pilot instructor.
His name was Tevin, after 90s R&B sensation Tevin Campbell. He was 20-something, black, and from Brooklyn by way of St. Thomas. It felt like someone brought my cousin along for the ride. Instantly, I knew our prayers had been answered. I paid the fueling fees and cost to capture our entire experience via a GoPro cam. We requested Drake & Future's "Jumpman" as our theme music to the video, of which Pilot Tevin obviously approved. We headed out to where all the planes were parked, but not before I made a pit stop to the bathroom, where I helped myself to their complimentary panty liners, because nothing would be worse than pissy pants in flight.
The Living Social deal promised 45 minutes of ground training before we took flight. The training was really just checking to make sure all the parts of the plane were in order. Wheels, engine, left wing, right wing, propeller, fuel tank were all, according to Tevin, in flight perfection. He assured us that flying in a plane like the one we were boarding (a Piper PA) is safer than flying commercial or driving. With one foot on the wing of the "Warrior II," I hoisted myself into the cockpit. It fit only three people. Last time I was in a plane even close to this small, I cried and told my mother I refused to board. This was last year.
I prayed again. Elle was now in the pilot seat with Tevin to her right, all of us wearing microphoned headsets. She turned around, worried, and looked at me for some semblance of reassurance. I smiled, and the next thing I knew we were zooming down a tiny runway. The buzzing inside the plane was deafening. Tevin assured us that the higher altitude we reached, the easier it would be to glide to safety in case of a malfunction instead of taking a nosedive.
I smiled, and the next thing I knew we were zooming down a tiny runway.
My stomach in knots, I watched as the shops of the plaza center, trees, playgrounds, and houses became miniature versions of themselves. We climbed to 3,000 feet. It finally dawned on me that it was Elle, not Tevin, who had flown us to cruising altitude. "You're doing an amazing job, babe!" I yelled into the mic rubbing against my rouged bottom lip. This time, she looked back at me with a proud smile. I mouthed, "We're fucking flying!" Our shared moment of absolute bliss was cut short once I realized we had to fly over water to get to our destination. I quietly doubled over in the backseat as we hit a few bumps of turbulence before our landing into Stratford, Connecticut.
We hopped out, high-fived, and kissed as I scooted into pilot position. "My pits are sweating," was the first thing I announced once I got my headset back on. Smiling, Tevin turned the key in the ignition; I pushed forward on the throttle and pulled back on the control column. I aligned the nose of the plane with the horizon, and we were in the air within seconds. My knuckles lost color. Once we reached our cruising altitude, I actually started breathing again. It was so incredibly serene — godly even — to be that untouchable in the sky. Flying a plane felt easier than driving a car: no honking, no angry pedestrians, no one else in sight for miles. Elle cued up Missy Elliott's "Friendly Skies," and Pilot Tevin, my girlfriend, and I collectively zoned out.
As we eased into a nearly turbulence-free landing, we both thanked the Lord, and Tevin, for not killing us or letting us kill ourselves. The mere presence of three young black people blasting Missy Elliot while in the sky, a space that is still categorically white, male, and mostly privileged, was thrilling. Our flight was also an act of rebellion, and what bell hooks would call cultural hybridity; crossing borders beyond the physical. We commemorated the moment with our best Amelia Earhart poses against the plane. A certificate signed by Tevin serves as a tangible reminder of the experience.
We rode the LIRR back into the city beaming — reliving every detail and laughing at our now seemingly naïve fear. Our final stop was a restaurant in midtown where, over a couple of beers, we said our last prayer of the day, in honor of Tevin. Sending him good vibes on becoming a postal pilot, we tapped our beer mugs and took a nosedive into a plate of Korean fried chicken.
Elise Peterson is a writer that is passionate about storytelling and reframing sexuality and identity as it relates to the marginalized.