Photo: TomConger

What do you do when the overhead compartment won’t close?

I HAD THE AISLE SEAT on a flight from Barcelona to Brussels when the gentleman in the middle tapped me on the arm and told me that he needed to grab something from the overhead compartment. I nodded, the way you do when you’re on a two-and-a-half-hour flight and you’ve read every article in the magazine except the Bill Murray interview.

It was an hour into the flight. The plane was quiet. I unlatched the metal buckle on my lap and stood in the aisle. He opened the compartment, and exhaled under the weight of his brown suitcase. He scissor-stepped past my seat and, falling into his seatback, slid down with the suitcase on his lap. It was, I thought, pretty big for a carry-on.

He was having trouble finding whatever it was he was looking for. I had that problem too when I used to take Xanax before flights. It’s supposed to mellow you out, but I could never relax. I always felt like I was losing stuff — a pen or phone or passport, whatever — which is not a good feeling to have when you’re traveling. I’d get it in my head that, yep, it’s really gone this time.

And then I’d lose it. I’d pull my bag from the overhead compartment, removing underwear and toiletries, feeling around the bottom of the bag and wiping cold sweat from my forehead with a sock. Usually, it was around this point that I forgot what I was searching for. Then I’d pine for some other item. I once spent an entire flight looking for a pack of gum. I later found it in my front pocket. But still.

I was standing in the aisle. The man was still searching through his suitcase, so I reached up to close the overhead compartment. I brought it down once, twice, three times, but it wouldn’t stay closed. I swept the opening for obstructions, and, using both hands, slammed the door down four more times.

Then I let go. The luggage inside the overhead compartment was exposed like panties beneath the hiked up skirt of the door. The overhead compartment seemed to say, “I’ve been all over the world. Here, there, you name it. People don’t care about me. They just cram their stuff in and pull it out. You don’t appreciate me. That’s why the door’s open. Now you’re going to see what it’s like.”

“Screw you,” I said to the overhead compartment. I started slamming the door. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! The passengers watched like an audience. The man in the middle seat was watching more like a director. Because he was the one who had opened it, technically he still had ownership of the overhead compartment. I was only doing him a favor by trying to close it, and, as everyone knows, a favor can be abandoned once it becomes too tedious or complicated or embarrassing to continue carrying out. That was the rule when I was five, and it’s still the rule now.

I leaned over and whispered, “I think you broke it.”

Apparently, the favor rule applies in Spain. He pawned that brown suitcase off on his wife and picked up right where I left off. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! The sound was repetitive, like dribbling a basketball made of plastic and metal. At the sake of looking foolish, or, heaven forbid, wimpy, I was glad it didn’t close on the first or second try. But this was like a bad joke.

Knock, knock. Who’s there?

The man studied the handle and slammed it down a few more times. He sat down. Then I sat down. The door stayed up.

“I’ve never seen that happen before,” I said.

“Neither have I,” he said. “I’ll call the stewardess.”

He hit the call button, which made a pleasant ding throughout the plane.

“See,” he said, “it’s better to be me than to be you right now.” He was talking about the seats, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like to be a Spaniard in July. “In case of turbulence,” he continued, “the luggage will fall onto you.”

“It could. I guess you could say I live dangerously.”

“Ha! Ha!” he said. “You’re living on the edge.”

The flight attendant who came over had her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun like the headmistress of the sky. When he told her, you could tell by her expression that she was expecting more. She said nothing, merely reached up and closed the door like it was an old silver locket given to her by her grandmother.

“Anything else?” she said, raising one sharp eyebrow.

“No,” he said.

I waited until she returned to her station. “That woman made us look foolish.”

“Yes,” he said, still looking up at the overhead compartment. “Yes, she did.”

I closed my eyes. I don’t know if the man ever found what he was searching for, but he straddled that big brown suitcase all the way to Brussels.

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