The line to check in snaked through the terminal like a single great beast, a centipede with a million legs, a thousand heads, and at least five hundred backpacks. Children tugged on their parents’ hands and whined about boredom. Young lovers kissed frantically, ignoring the glances—whether indulgent or disapproving—of the people around them. Air travel was expensive and invasive enough that no one wanted to say anything. That couple might go a year or more without seeing each other again.
(Elsewhere in the terminal, passengers with first class tickets swiped their RFID chips, identifying themselves as special, elite, exempt. The airport they walked into was a marvel, a cathedral of chrome and ceramic-bonded steel, windows gleaming and art installations shimmering, clean and golden-bright. Even at midnight, the First Class slice of the terminal was beautiful, lit up like day; a little spot of light pollution to shame every star in the sky. The air always smelled of coffee and fresh pastry, and the ads at the stores were for chocolates and souvenirs, not diet aids and diuretics. It was a different world, one rumored more than seen. Not necessarily a better world, or even a kinder one, but one where dignity was still allowed.)
Mary fidgeted as the line moved, easing her ever forward. She was cold. The airline hadn’t warned her about that when they’d issued their recommendations about what to fly in. Yoga pants and a thin tank top might be comfortable—although honestly, she would have preferred something that didn’t feel like it was painted onto her ass—but they didn’t do much to insulate her against the air conditioning.
At least she wasn’t shivering alone. People came and went everywhere she looked, beautiful people from all walks of life getting ready to fly that beautiful sky, and almost all of them were wearing the same combination of black yoga pants and paper-thin tank top. Some of the men had opted for cargo shorts, and she winced at the presumable weight of them. Others—both male and female—wore athletic shorts and leg warmers. She could see the wisdom in that. If they hit the weight limit, they could always dispose of the wooly things, fly bare-legged and freezing, but unpenalized.
No one was wearing any jewelry larger than a wedding ring, and she saw even fewer of those than she would have expected.
A loud chiming sound snapped her out of her thoughts. She turned forward. The man in front of her was standing on the scale with his carry-on bag, his cheeks flushed red and his hands twitching in what she knew had to be an unconscious gesture. The airline clerk looked at him with an odd mixture of impatience and sympathy. She had to see this a hundred times a day, travelers sputtering and stammering with a mixture of mortification and bravado.
At least her eyes were kind, Mary thought, and felt her own cheeks start to go red. She would be the one on that scale in a moment. Kindness was not the problem.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the agent said. Her uniform was made of heavy cotton, crisp as a cracker and layered as artfully as a croissant. Her hair was styled in lush waves, heavy with pomade and wax. Mary found her eyes drinking in that hair like a starving man drinks in the sight of a laden table. This woman had mass. She was allowed to occupy space. When she flew, she probably didn’t need to step onto a scale.
“There’s a mistake,” said the man. “I paid for my ticket.”
“Yes, sir. You paid for two-fifty inclusive, and right now I’m registering two-seventy-five. If you’d like to repack your carry-on bag, we do have shipping boxes available—”
“Your damn scale is wrong,” snapped the man. “Run it again.”
Some of the sympathy left the agent’s face. “You are allowed two re-weighs before your final number is locked in, sir. If I run it again, you will not be able to calibrate your baggage properly.”
“I don’t care,” he snarled. He glanced back at the rest of them, embarrassment and fury in his eyes. How dare they witness his mortification. How dare they exist. “Run it.”
The agent, sympathy entirely gone now, nodded and punched in a code at her terminal. The red lights on the front of the scale flashed and turned green, before “272.3” appeared above them. The man’s face flushed further.
“In accordance with TSA regulations, your re-weigh has been displayed to prevent disputes, should you choose to contest our final pricing,” said the agent coolly. “Your documented weight, inclusive of your carry-on baggage, is two hundred and seventy-two point three pounds, which rounds under the current international pricing structure to two hundred seventy-five. You have paid for a two hundred and fifty pound ticket. You may choose to pay an additional two hundred and fifty dollars, or you may make an attempt to lower your cumulative weight. You have one re-weigh remaining.”
The man began to splutter. A light came on further down the counter, signaling another scale’s availability.
Stomach sinking toward her feet, Mary turned to face her fate.
• • • •
The airline wars of the early twenty-twenties had become increasingly vicious as they tried to find ways to increase their market share without driving their passengers away. They had increased baggage fees while reducing cabin allowances, chipping away bit by bit at the basic amenities that people felt they were entitled to. Want to board faster? Pay an extra twenty dollars to be seated in the “premium” section of the plane, lower than business class, of course, but better than those rubes in coach. Want more than one can of soda? That will be two dollars, credit only, no cash accepted—but look, we’ve lowered prices across the board, fifteen dollars a head, surely that’s worth a little inconvenience in the air. Who really needs a second Diet Coke, anyway?
Eventually, however, they had run up against the wall of public disapproval. People didn’t like feeling as if they were being nickel-and-dimed to death; they wanted the freedom to fly without the inconvenience. Without the feeling that the cost was unavoidable.
No one knows who first proposed the change. It is a moment lost to history, and perhaps gladly so; perhaps it was the work of some fresh-faced intern snarking too loudly where the boss could hear, and not some monster in human skin. Checked bags were weighed, at the behest of the union. International flights weighed carry-on, for the sake of conserving fuel. But no one weighed passengers. Well, why not? There was money to be made there, if they spun it right, and by that point, they had years of experience with the spin.
In the end, it had been a surprisingly easy transition, like watching the boiled frog metaphor play out in slow and terrible motion. Who hadn’t looked resentfully at their fellow travelers at some point, blaming them for their own physicality? The tall man whose knees dug into the back of the seat in front of them for the entire flight. The diminutive woman whose comfort was an affront to everyone around her, who could have used the precious inches she so carelessly squandered. The baby who held no ticket, but who used up overhead bin space that could have been used by paying passengers. Everyone represented some sort of offense, if looked at from the right perspective.
Better yet, some airlines already had policies on the books, long accepted if rarely enforced, requiring passengers who did not fit into a single seat to pay for second. Supposedly, this would spare discomfort for all involved, allowing larger passengers to fly with a semblance of dignity, as if being the only person sitting next to an empty seat on an otherwise full flight wouldn’t be a red flag of “this airline considers me too fat to fly.” As if there were dignity in having one’s body measured, weighed, and priced.
But who hadn’t been crammed into a too-small seat while secretly blaming their neighbor? It wasn’t their body that was the problem, heavens no, it wasn’t their ticket that had purchased insufficient space. The thought that perhaps the seats were too small to preserve anyone’s dignity, that perhaps airlines should be asked to stop sacrificing human decency in the name of record profits, well . . .
The market would sort itself out. The market always did. If people were unhappy with the way the airlines did business, they didn’t have to fly.
It began with a single airline. “Come fly our new deluxe Ultra Comfort fleet,” their ads cajoled. Larger seats for larger passengers; seats with extra leg room for taller passengers. All priced according to their footprint on the plane, all available to anyone who wanted to purchase them. If that same tiny woman who had seemed so content in her standard seat wanted to drop another hundred dollars to fly in a seat designed for someone three times her size, well, the market would sort itself out. The market always did.
A few conspiracy theorists said that this was a dark omen of things to come; that people would find themselves required to purchase the seats that fit them with “ultra comfort,” rather than being allowed to consign themselves to the cramped, affordable confines of coach. They were summarily shouted down, with people pointing out that first class and extra row seating had been available for years, and no one had ever been forced into either of those by greedy airlines. This was just one more way to part people from their money. There was nothing insidious or innately underhanded about the change.
The other airlines adopted the seating model one by one, refitting their fleets, and for a little while—not long, but long enough to sway all but the most dedicated naysayers—everyone flew in comfort. Enough people liked the additional seating space and leg room that there was no stigma to buying an “extra wide” or “extra tall” seat. Positive attitudes about flying went up. Customer comfort increased, and with it, customer spending in the air. Flight attendants begged their corporate masters to leave things as they were, citing a decrease in complaints and on-board altercations. For the first time in a long time, they were flying the friendly skies.
People spoke, but money spoke louder. Money always speaks louder. Again, it began with a single airline announcing that, in the interests of keeping fares low and the air travel experience equitable, they would no longer be allowing customers to select their own seats. They could indicate window, middle, or aisle; they could indicate whether they were flying with a group; they could request to be seated together. Their actual seat assignments would be handled by the airline, based on the height and weight figures they entered during the reservation process.
Yes, some groups would be unable to fly together, and yes, it would be inconvenient, but priority would be given to keeping parents and minor children seated in the same row, and imagine the increased convenience! Imagine how nice it would be to know that every seat would be going to someone who really needed it, and not to be told during the registration process that the seat that would fit your needs, accommodate your body was unavailable! People had been inconveniencing each other again, was the message. The airline was merely stepping in to make it all better. To make it all right.
And again, the naysayers cried, and again, the reality didn’t match the furor, because the flights stayed calm, and the seats stayed comfortable, and the little resentments that had been building up as people found themselves crammed into unsuitable seats simply because they hadn’t been able to book the second the flight became available . . . those all began to go away. Again, things got better, and again, the other airlines followed suit, until the idea of choosing your own seat was almost silly. As long as you got the right boarding group and the right position in the row, what did the rest matter? The seats were comfortable, weren’t they?
All the while, the airlines were collecting passenger data, determining averages and price points and what the market—the all-seeing market—would bear. They were assessing. They were planning.
This time, the change did not begin with a single airline: it came to all of them at once, crashing down on the public with the force of holy writ. They had done the math, designed the tables, put the stamps on the appropriate forms. The weight of the passengers on the plane directly impacted the cost of fuel. Charging people, not only for their checked bags, but for the combined weight of their bodies and carry-on luggage, was not only reasonable: it was fair.
They weren’t discriminating, oh no, and they were aware of the fact that weight extremes both upward and downward were frequently the result of medical conditions; anyone who cared to get a doctor’s note certifying that their weight was a direct result of their disability would have their ticket price adjusted to match the hypothetical “perfect passenger.” Otherwise, people were reminded that all aspects of their person and belongings would be weighed during check-in, and that penalties would be assessed for dishonest ticket-buying.
Height was, of course, also a factor, and the “tall seats” were priced even more prohibitively than the seats for larger passengers. But exceedingly tall people made up a smaller percentage of the population. Their complaints were easier to overlook. Air travel remained the only feasible means of seeing the world, of visiting friends and relatives and cultural experiences more than a few hours away. The new pricing structures solidified. If some people chose to retain their dignity and take the train, well . . .
The market would sort itself out. The market always did.
• • • •
The agent offered Mary a warm, professional smile as she stepped up in front of the scale. She did her best to smile back, her mind racing as she reviewed every item in her carry-on, every piece of food that had passed her lips in the last two weeks. She could have skipped the socks. That would have saved her three ounces. That would have—
Mary handed her license and credit card over without saying a word. Her stomach was filled with butterflies. If there were additional charges, she would have to pay them—her tickets were non-refundable—but she couldn’t afford them.
“Will you be checking any bags today?”
“Yes,” she said meekly. “They’re pre-paid.” She hoisted them onto the scale, breathing out a silent sigh of relief when their combined total came in under the eighty pounds she had been able to budget for her trip out. Coming back, she would only have one of them; the contents of the other would stay with her sister and her new niece. She might never be able to afford to go and see them again. This visit didn’t just need to be special: this visit needed to resolve everything they had between them, balance the debts and fill their hearts until they could tolerate the distance.
Each bag had cost her a hundred dollars, on top of the price of the ticket. In the back of her mind, she almost thought she could hear her credit cards crying.
“Excellent,” said the agent, checking her readout with a perfunctory glance. “You’ve paid for forty pounds per bag, and have managed to pack appropriately. Congratulations. Have you prepared your carry-on?” The suitcases were whisked onto the conveyor belt, making it swiftly impossible for her to transfer anything into them. Their weight was registered and locked, and would not change.
(Another “selling point” for this system, according to the spin doctors, who spun and wove like Ariadne: the chances of items being stolen from luggage had decreased immeasurably since the weighing system had gone into effect. The fact that it was a change the airlines could have made without weighing their passengers at the same time was irrelevant. Luggage theft was down, PR was good, and once again, the people with legitimate complaints were reduced to malcontents and complainers.)
“Now, if you would please step onto the scale, we can finish checking you in.” The agent’s smile was bright. Of course it was. She was warm, in her heavy, functional uniform. She was allowed to have mass, to occupy space as if it had always been meant to belong to her. To Mary’s hungry eyes, she looked like the richest person in the entire airport, wealthy beyond measure, untouchable.
Mary blew all the air out of her lungs, emptying herself out like a balloon as she stepped up onto the scale. The first weigh was private, allowing passengers to accept their fates and pay up, or not, as required. Six months of dieting had led to this moment; six months of learning to go without water between meals to keep her bladder empty, of reading e-books to keep the weight down, of doing anything to keep the weight down. Some people didn’t plan ahead, didn’t plan their diets until the last minute, and wound up at the airport dizzy from juice cleanses and holding their yoga pants on with one hand. Not her. Oh, no. She was ready.
There was a loud chiming sound. Mary flinched.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m showing you three pounds over your paid limit. Would you like to put this on the card, or redistribute your carry-on in some way?”
Mary’s cheeks burned red. Remembering the man from before—how quickly he had lost the sympathy of everyone in earshot, including the agent, who was the only person with any potential to help her—she lowered her voice and said meekly, “I need to pee. Does that count for anything?”
The agent nodded sympathetically. She had clearly heard this before. “If you’d like to visit the restroom and come through the line again, I can have your bags held until you finish checking in.”
The line was a great serpent coiling all the way around the terminal and back into the outside air. No matter how terrible flying became, its popularity just went up, up, up. Cars, trains, and buses all took too long, and time was money, so why not spend a little money to save a little time? Only it was a lot of money, Mary wanted to scream every time someone said that in her hearing, it was a lot of money. She was spending more to save the time than she was going to make by having those hours available to work, and she didn’t have a choice, not really, because no one could get that kind of time off anymore. It was fly or nothing.
If she went to the bathroom and came back to the line, she would miss her flight. Voice very small, she said, “No, I don’t think there’s time for that.”
The agent nodded sympathetically. At least she was still on Mary’s side; at least no one was staring yet. Shuffling from foot to foot and frowning, but not staring. “What would you like to do?”
“Can I . . . can I take a few things out of my carry-on?”
“You have five minutes to complete this transaction,” said the agent.
Mary nodded and shrugged out of her small backpack, beginning to dig through it as quickly as she could. The sandwich she had brought to eat on the plane could go; it wasn’t much, but it was something. The chapstick, the lip gloss, the bottle of aspirin, those were all things she could buy again when she reached her destination, and it would be cheaper to do it that way than to pay for the increase in her fare. The hairbrush. The lucky nickel. The tissues . . .
Bit by bit, she piled her meager life out on the counter for the agent to see, for the people behind her in line to judge. Finally, when there was nothing left to lose, nothing but her medication and her tablet, she swallowed and said, “I’m ready.”
“Because this is your second weigh-in, the results will be public,” said the agent, not unkindly—and not clearing the counter yet, either. Mary realized that she was being given one more chance to pay the fare as it stood, and to save the small detritus of her existence. But the cost . . .
“I understand,” said Mary faintly.
“You’ve paid for a three hundred pound ticket, inclusive, and are currently weighing in at three hundred and three pounds.” The agent pushed a button. The red numbers, the dreaded red numbers, appeared.
Mary swallowed hard and stepped onto the scale. The red zeroes began to transform into real integers, climbing until they reached their final total:
She would have needed to be willfully obtuse to miss the look of regret and yes, disappointment on the agent’s face. Looking up, the woman met Mary’s eyes without flinching away.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “Your documented weight, inclusive of your carry-on baggage, is three hundred and one point two pounds, which rounds under the current international pricing structure to three hundred and five. You have paid for a three hundred pound ticket. You may choose to pay an additional three hundred and five dollars, or you may make an attempt to lower your cumulative weight. You have one re-weigh remaining.” The words were flat, dead, devoid of either judgment or mirth.
Behind her, Mary could hear the people muttering and shifting in their places. Some of them, she knew, would be sneering at her, seeing nothing but another fatty who couldn’t keep her eating under control. They didn’t see the dieting and the shame, the diuretics, the stress. They didn’t see the studies that said this kind of rapid weight loss was hard on the heart, or the genuine concern in the faces of her friends, who had asked her over and over and over again whether this was worth it to see her sister, who had moved to the other side of the country and cut ties with the rest of the family of her own choice.
But some wounds only healed through proximity, and she wanted to meet her niece, and she had thought . . . she had thought she could do it. She had come so close. More than fifty pounds lost, and for what? A public shaming and a fine she couldn’t afford to pay?
It wasn’t just about the money. It was about living in a world that hated fatness so much that imposing a fine on it had ever seemed like a reasonable thing to do.
“Am I allowed to fly barefoot?” she asked softly.
“You can purchase flip-flops just before security,” said the agent. Then, in a tone that was, if anything, even more regretful than it had been when she announced Mary’s weight, she said, “Please remember, however, that all passengers will be weighed prior to boarding the plane, and additional fees can be imposed if you have exceeded the limits of your ticket. These fees will be higher, due to the increased resources necessary to manage the transaction past security.”
What increased resources? Mary wanted to howl. Having someone to swipe a credit card? Having someone to point at the fatty?
She did nothing of the sort. She didn’t say another word. Merely swept the contents of her carry-on back into her bag, clutching the strap like a lifeline, and offered her card to the agent, holding her breath all the way. If it was declined, this was it. She wouldn’t get the cost of her original ticket back—no refunds, no returns—and she wouldn’t see her sister again in this lifetime. It was all down to the tenuous thread of her credit, which was already stretched so thin that she feared it might snap.
With a sympathetic expression on her face, the agent ran the card. The numbers glared red. The crowd murmured.
The agent smiled.
“Transaction successful; you have been upgraded to a three hundred and five pound ticket, inclusive of carry-on and other incidentals.” Meaning don’t drink too much water, don’t buy anything from the few small, struggling restaurants still holding on past security; don’t do anything to raise your weight, or when we weigh you again—ostensibly to confirm that the plane has been properly fueled—we’ll charge you again. Don’t exist. Don’t take up space. Don’t breathe.
“Thank you for flying with us,” said the agent, and handed Mary back her card.
Mary forced a wan and trembling smile, took a step back, and started toward security, blending back into the crowd—all with their own reasons to fly, all with their own reasons to fear the unfriendly skies—and doing her best to do what the world had always demanded that she do: to fade away, to become nothing more than the interplay of air, and to let her mass, paid for and measured to the unforgiving ounce, be dispersed and hence redeemed.
How wonderful it must have been, to be allowed to take up space. To be allowed to walk in the world without fear of judgment.
How wonderful it must have been, to feel enabled to exist.
Mary walked through the ranks of travelers bent on their own destinations, and the silver gates of security opened wide and swallowed her down.
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