“Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.”
Reciting the script in my head as it spins—the air is thin—I do as it says.
You do not move. You weep and say nothing, but your face asks, how could I choose to not first assist you? When that is what you would do?
When my mask is on, I ask you, what’s wrong? Why isn’t your mask on? I reach for it. You wave me away.
You say, “It’s fine. I’m just having a hard time.”
I ask you, what do you need?
“Nothing, nothing,” you say, passive-aggressively.
I say, please tell me if you do need anything.
(This is the wrong thing to say, apparently.)
You rip your mask down from the ceiling. You throw it on the ground. You stamp it with your feet. You grind it into the pattern of a low-pile carpet.
When I do not stop you, you unfasten your seatbelt. You lurch past me, the oxygen waning, and throw yourself into another row of passengers. You use your remaining air to sob, pointing back at our seats, “Did you see what she just did to me?”
They see me with the remains of your crumpled oxygen mask. That is all they need.
I stare, bewildered and breaking, suffering the glares of the other passengers and the flight crew as they struggle, too, to get a mask on you, and you, breathlessly, relay to them, too, your story of my betrayal.
When the plane lands, they bear you off on a stretcher and I commit the crime of walking off without you, on my own feet, a sin against codependency.
I hear you tell your story to the EMTs. I see that even you start to believe it’s true. You believe I was not there for you because I was not there in the way you wanted me to. Maybe I start to believe it, too. Would it not be better if we both deboarded on stretchers together?
Maybe I believe that, too, until one of the flight crew catches me to say, “I saw it all. I know you’re not to blame.” A wave of gratitude, a return to reality, but what is one person’s word against a Story?
I get my bags. I hail a ride. I leave the airport behind, but your story follows me.
Versions of the story find me in invitations unresponded, in texts left on read, in long pauses, in awkward glances, in silence from friends. I can only guess at what you’ve said to them. Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe the story started long ago and maybe I missed it. Maybe I am just telling stories, too. Maybe apologizing would make things go back to the way they were before. Maybe I am better off alone. Maybe there is nothing I can do about it now. Maybe I start to believe there was never anything I could do.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I asked you, what do you need? Maybe I start to believe you got what you needed exactly—a villain for your story.
Our stories are far less compelling when we admit we are our own antagonists, yes?
Maybe I start to believe, instead of sorry, you wish to hear congratulations. After all, you get to play the victim. Who’s to know what’s real, so tell your story with impunity. Tell it so many times even you believe it.
Tell them I clipped the mask strings.
Tell them I stabbed holes in the oxygen bag.
Tell them I cut off your hands.
Tell them I choked the air from your lungs.
If that is what you need, tell them.
I can be your villain.
That is the last thing I can do for you.
Credit where credit is due. This is based on a conversation I had with a good friend about feeling guilty over being there for yourself before you can be there for others, as demonstrated by the oxygen mask instructions, and applied to some other things I’m trying to suss out.
Photo: David Monniaux, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons