One of my favourite short stories of all time is this episode in Calvino's Mr. Palomar, where Palomar is strolling along on a beach and comes upon a woman sunbathing topless. Embarassed, he looks away instantly, and keeps his eyes fixed on the sea till he's safely past her. Thinking about it though, he realises that in a sense not looking at all is as bad as staring openly. So he goes back past her, this time glancing at her in passing but paying her no special attention. Then he figures that by doing this he's dehumanised her (she's a woman after all, not some piece of driftwood) and so he goes back and this time looks at her appreciatively and then walks on...and so on. It's a brilliant story - encapsulating in a few short pages Calvino's incredible gift for variation, for intimate intelligence, for human comedy.
It's a story I'm reminded of each time I fly, because I've never quite figured out how to act with air-hostesses, especially good looking ones. First I'll be super-friendly and smile eagerly at them. Then I'll worry that she'll get the wrong impression and think I'm some sort of lech - one of those guys who will randomly come on to anything in a skirt. So the next time she comes around, I'll be all brusque. I'll sit there reading my book (thus emphasising my hyper-intellectual status) and vaguely look up the second time she says 'Sir', not looking at her at all, and taking whatever she's handing me with a gruff, distracted air. But wait, now I'm just being one of those rude people who are so caught up in their own lives they treat others like their slaves. She's not a machine, for god's sake, she's a person. What I need is a smile that manages to be friendly without being presumptuous, a goodwill smile, the kind of smile that says I respect you as a fellow-citizen in a democratic universe, but otherwise I have no interest in you. I consider addressing her as comrade. I spend the next ten minutes trying to surreptitiously practise this smile behind my raised book.
Then I think, wait - how am I going to explain to her (in this hypothetical conversation I'm now having with her in my head) that I'm not interested in her? She's going to think I'm gay; worse, she's going to think I'm married. How do I convey to her that this is not true? When she comes around with the drink service, can I say something like, "My ex-girlfriend (emphasis on GIRL-friend) would have made me have a Sprite with no ice; but I'm safely single now, so I think I'll have a diet Coke instead"? Is that allowed under FAA regulations? And no, no, that sounds even more like a chat-up line. How do I convince her that I'm not interested in her? Maybe I could add something chatty about how it didn't work out because I can't possibly date someone who hasn't read Sophocles? Do airline stewardesses read Sophocles? Maybe just that bit in Electra? Is it fair to get her hopes up and break her heart that way?
When she finally comes around with the drink service, I smile sweetly and say, "No thanks." in a kindly voice - thus conveying that I think she's really attractive, but I have given up on such material pleasures and acquired a zen-like ascetism that does not permit me to either sip orange juice or ravish her in the aft lavatory. Phew! Finally that's over. I feel like I've just ended a serious, long-term relationship (hey! it's a transatlantic flight, we've been together for all of 16 hours - by my standards, that's marriage). Somewhere out there in the darkness there's a piano playing 'As Time Goes By'. I consider scribbling "We'll always have Air France" on a napkin and slipping it into her hand as I leave.
Obviously, there's a part of me that recognises that she doesn't even know I exist, and probably wouldn't notice if I painted my nose red and made monkey faces at her each time she came over to serve me. The thing is that it's a long flight and I need to worry about something and it's either this or imagining what it would feel like if the airplane suddenly burst open and I found myself in free-fall towards the earth (in what the captain helpfully informs me is -45 C) , though still strapped into my seat (remember the whale and the petunias?). So in a way, trying to figure out how to smile at the airhostess is good for me. Still, it's one of the reasons I'm so much happier flying Indian Airlines - at least with the stout matrons they have as stewardesses there is none of this palpable sexual tension. They know they're too old for me, I know they're too old for me, we both slip easily into our aunty-beta roles, and I can just sit back and let myself be pampered.
P.S. Speaking of being pampered, I have this vivid memory of being eight years old and flying back home on a plane by myself. The airline had this special program for young children flying alone - you handed them over to the staff at the check-in counter, and a stewardess would escort them to the plane, make sure they were safely seated and properly taken care of through the flight, and then hand them over to an adult who came to collect them on the other end (my Dad had to sign a receipt that said: Received One Son). I still remember being made to walk across the tarmac to the plane because they pre-boarded me and this was before they had ramps - I felt all special because it was such an adventure and also really scared because I could see all these massive airliners driving about and I was terrified of getting run over. I got unbelievably pampered that day, though. There's something about an insanely cute 8-year old (believe it or not, I used to be an incredibly cute kid) who is all serious and grown-up and travelling by himself that acts like cat-nip on airhostesses. And every fellow-passenger over thirty.