By Jennifer Berney
On the flight home from Hawaii, our family has been split in two. My partner Kellie sits with our seven-year-old son in row 10. They have the window and the center seat, and the aisle seat remains empty. I sit with our toddler in row 11. When I saw our seating assignments on paper, I assumed I’d sit directly behind Kellie, but this isn’t so: there is an aisle between us. We aren’t far from each other, but we are far enough that once we are in the air we won’t be able to talk or trade kids, or hand each other things like snacks and headphones without disrupting our fellow passengers.
People continue to board and Kellie gets up to use the restroom. A handsome man with incredibly long legs sits down beside me. He’s prematurely gray and wearing khakis with a t-shirt. He has no wedding band. My seven-year-old gets up from his seat to ask me for the iPad. I dig through my bag and offer it to him. The handsome man looks at me with concern. “Do you want me to trade seats with your son?” he asks. “It’s okay,” I tell him. “My partner’s sitting next to him. She’ll be right back.” In my head I do some calculations. I just said partner, and then I used a female pronoun. He didn’t seem to flinch. We are flying into Portland, Oregon, land of the progressives, and so I decide that he must be okay—in fact, I’m a little bit relieved.
My partner returns to her seat. The commotion of boarding has settled, and the plane is full, except for the row of seats in front of me, which remains empty, as does the seat next to Kellie. When the flight attendant walks by, I flag her down. “I’m just wondering,” I tell, her, “if nobody claims those seats, could we take them?” I gesture to my toddler and myself, and then I gesture across the aisle to my partner. “We’re a family,” I explain.
“How many of you are there?” she asks, glancing across the rows and trying to figure out who belongs to whom.
“Just four of us,” I say.
“Somebody will probably claim them,” she tells me. “But we’ll see what we can do.”
Moments later, a man shows up, trailing two kids behind him, all of them with red hair and freckles. “Would you consider trading seats…” the flight attendant begins.
“That’s not happening,” the man cuts her off before she finishes. “I’m traveling with two kids and my wife is on her way.”
“That’s fine,” the flight attendant says. “I just had to ask.”
The redheaded man settles his children into the two seats in front of me and then takes the empty seat next to Kellie. Moments later, his wife arrives and takes the remaining empty seat next to her kids. This strategy of his—of putting a seat and an aisle between himself and his children so that his wife can do the active parenting—does not endear him to me.
My seatmate leans in and lowers his voice. “I don’t think the flight attendant did a very good job explaining that.”
“Well,” I said, “he didn’t want to separate his family.”
“Right,” he says, “but we could have just flipped the image.” To illustrate, he lifts his hand and then turns it around so that I am looking at his palm. I think about it for a moment and realize he’s right. My partner and my son could be seated directly in front of me. The redheaded man and his family would still have four contiguous seats in row 10—they would have the window on the left instead of the window of the right. It’s not complicated geometry, it’s just that it would have required some clear communication.
“Oh,” the handsome man says, lifting one finger as a nuance occurs to him. “I think that she thinks we’re a couple.” I blush. For a moment, I imagine an alternate reality where the handsome man is my husband. It seems like a world I might move through with ease, a world where people smile at my family because we don’t confuse them.
In the real world, though, we seem to confuse people everywhere we go. Just a few days earlier, as we waited in line for ice cream, Kellie whispered to me, “That couple is staring at us.” When I looked up, a man in his late forties looked away the moment he met my eyes. His wife, who was my age, was busy attending to their two daughters. We actually had a lot in common: we were both families of four getting ice cream in Hawaii. If Kellie and I had been straight we might have all nodded to each other in recognition, but because we are queer, our difference is what marks us. I can only guess what people think as they watch us from a distance. Who is that, exactly? they may wonder about Kellie. Is she a family friend? An aunt? Are they lesbians? They are, of course, only curious, which is a different thing from being hostile. But it is also a different thing from being friendly.
For the rest of the flight, I think about what I might have said to the flight attendant initially to prevent her confusion. If I had been clear from the beginning, perhaps my partner and son would be sitting in front of me right now. The answer comes almost immediately. I might have simply pointed across the aisle and said: that’s my wife and my older son. Using the word “wife” would have made our relationship unambiguous. The declaration might have startled her but I believe that she would have understood the situation. My wife: it would have been a simple thing to say. I sat there and considered why I couldn’t say it.
The obvious answer is that I simply don’t use the word wife when referring to my partner. I think of wives as women who are married to men, women who perhaps wear high heels on occasion, or aprons. This does not describe Kellie.
But there’s another reason why the word makes me uncomfortable, and this is because it feels like a political confrontation. In my day-to-day life, I don’t advertise my politics. I don’t put political bumper stickers on my car, or campaign signs on my lawn. I don’t bring up the elections with my dental hygienist, or ask my colleagues whom they’re voting for. And on a crowded airplane, it certainly wouldn’t occur to me to holler out to the flight attendant: “I’m terrified of both of the leading Republican candidates this year!” Shouting “That’s my wife over there!” feels equally personal and political even though the declaration would have served an immediate purpose.
And so our family completes the flight on opposite sides of the plane. As the flight attendants prepare the cabin for landing, my mind is still rolling, considering how often our family is separated because it is sometimes painful to be publicly gay. “Do you want me to come to that?” Kellie asks me nearly every week about a particular school event, or a doctor’s appointment. “Nah,” I say almost every time. “I’ve got it.” No need to double the labor, is what I’m saying on the surface. But deeper down, what I mean is this: I don’t want to confuse people.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, The Washington Post On Parenting, and on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.