I have a hunch that the stamps in my passport have contributed most of my insights, and prompted most of my questions.
When I boarded Southwest Airlines flight 1254 from Oakland to Chicago, I thought it was going to be a pretty routine flight; after all, I’ve made it quite a few times. 1254 and I are old pals, and I had a low boarding number, so I knew I would have a change to get a fairly decent seat.
As indeed I did, at least, at first I did, but when people with the higher numbers started filing on, my worst nightmare unfolded in the seat directly behind me: perfume.
So here’s the thing. I get that people like to wear perfumes, essential oils, and what have you. Some people even use them to help them manage stress and other issues. But if I can smell them from several feet away, you have a serious problem.
Not just that you stink, but that you’re about to trigger a migraine.
Your perfume makes me sick.
Which is actually exactly why a lot of areas have scent-free policies, because this is actually a pretty common issue. Personnel often ask that these policies be respected, and it is common fucking sense to not load up on perfume before you get onto an aircraft of all places. We’re whizzing through the air for several hours in a very confined space with recirculated air, which means that, you know, your perfume is basically going to be concentrated.
I set up my little airflow thingie so I would start getting something vaguely approaching fresh air once we took off, but I was already starting to feel the onset of a serious headache on the ground. I slammed back some Imitrex tablets and hoped for the best.
I wanted to read, or really do anything to distract myself, but the pounding headache was growing, and growing, and growing, and the thought of looking at a screen (I travel with an ereader to save space) made me feel a little nauseous. So, as it turned out, did moving my head, adjusting any part of my body, seeing the flight attendant walk by, hearing the engines of the plane, or, really, existing.
Normally, when I feel a headache that might collapse into full-on migraine coming on, I can retreat to the safety of my bedroom. I drop the blinds and flop on the bed and wait for it to pass. Sure, I feel like crap, but I’m not in transit somewhere, I’m not surrounded by people, and I can mostly control my environment. The thought of moving might make me want to vomit, but for the most part, I don’t need to move, so that’s okay.
Not so on an airplane, where just having to politely decline a beverage provoked a wave of nausea so intense that I immediately bolted for the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror, gripping the tiny counter. My face was pale and sweaty, and I grabbed a barf bag from the stash and held it for a minute.
“You can do this,” I pep talked myself. “You have yet to vomit on an airplane. Don’t break your streak now over some lady and her ridiculous perfume.”
I ran the water for a minute and sat, wishing I could turn off the bathroom light and sit in darkness. The purser tapped on the door and asked if I was okay, and I used that as my cue to come out and totter down the aisle back to my seat, which was fortunately at the forward bulkhead: as close as you can get to being in the bathroom without actually being, you know, in it.
Sitting back down, I was immediately engulfed in a wave of perfume. I spent most of the duration of the flight being gripped in vicious waves of nausea, clasping my barf bag firmly, making the passengers around me increasingly nervous, but I held on. The plane quieted as evening wore on, and most people turned off their reading lights, and the beverage service ended, so things became mostly still and quiet.
I started to relax. Oh, sure, my head still felt like shit, and I knew I was going to have to tell my hosts to take me straight home when they picked me up at the airport, but I was pretty sure I was going to escape with my dignity intact. My dignity is important to me, people.
Shortly before the fasten seatbelt light went back on so we could begin our descent to Chicago, Perfume Lady got up to use the restroom.
The rest, as they say, was history. The combination of the rolling cloud of perfume and the glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye sent me lunging for the barf bag, there to do what sometimes needs to be done, provoking glances of sympathy from the flight crew and nervous expressions on the faces of the people sitting closest to me.
I thought woefully of the delicious pizza I’d eaten with a friend in Oakland before catching my flight.
Perfume Lady passed by again, and I got up to use the bathroom and dispose of my evidence. “Freshening up” was kind of a losing battle at that point, but I wanted to at least pretend I had this under control, waving off assistance from the flight crew. I am an old pro at puking. I need no support. If there was a Puking Olympics, I would absolutely medal.
When I hauled myself back to my seat, I found myself musing on my hatred of perfume-wearers with even more vigor than usual. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been driven out of public places, meetings, parties, and other events by perfume; for me, going outside involves constant careful assessment of spaces to determine if they’re going to make me violently ill.
Perfume-wearers don’t seem to understand the basics of wearing perfume, that it shouldn’t really be detectable unless you are very, very close. Perfume is for you and someone you’re intimate with, not for the entire passenger manifest of a Boeing 737. Or the occupants of the library. Or any other space you’re in.
Let me be blunt: Most people don’t want to smell your stank-ass perfume, okay?
As we began slowly gliding to Earth, I felt a tell-tale lurch that prompted me to dodge for the bag again, and I calmly did my business.
That’s when I made my mistake. Instead of sensibly hanging on to the bag filled with my puke in case I needed it again, I handed it to the flight attendant1 who kindly reached out for it with an expression of professional detachment mingled with pity. I thought that, you know, holding a bag filled with puke might make me puke again, or could trigger a chain reaction among the other passengers, which would be a really terrible idea.
The problem is that I didn’t consider that there might, in fact, be another round of vomiting in my future.
Which there was.
Gentle readers, have you ever vomited all over the aisle of a plane with all the passengers watching you in a mixture of curiosity and horror?
If you haven’t, let me tell you that it’s among the most humiliating experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot. Crouching over the aisle that night, I waited in mute shame for the flight attendants to hand me something, anything -- they went with trash bags and fistfuls of paper towels and a cup of water -- that would make this situation better. I would have preferred an eject button, or possibly a trapdoor that would allow me to magically vanish below the stage.
While they sprinkled cat litter on the evidence of my crimes, I silently cried to myself and inwardly cursed Perfume Lady.
My perfect record, in years of flying, through turbulence, hijacking, emergency landings, wings on fire, and accidents, had been broken. I’d finally puked on an airplane, and it was all her fault. And now everyone was going to have to walk past my puke on the way out of the plane, and I was going to have to walk through Midway streaked with my own vomit despite my best efforts in the bathroom, and the connecting flight to Philadelphia would be delayed while a cleaning crew dealt with my mess.
All because someone decided to wear perfume on an airplane.
So let this be a message to you, perfume-wearers of the world: moderation is a good thing. Because if you don’t dial it back, one of these days, an angry migraineur might just hurl on you.
Allow me to remind you that I am a puking pro: I can aim when I need to. And I'm not the only one.
1. Seriously though, Paula, you’re a rockstar. Return