Tuesday, December 6, 2011


My Gift of the Magi

I’m sitting in an airplane to New York for a holiday visit to my family. Economy class. Next to me, my neighbor is dozing off, intermittently leaning ever so slightly over in her sleep toward me, then jerking herself upright and away, again and again. It’s a valiant effort. But it’s no use: she’s much too sleepy and is at the complete mercy of her drowsiness. She continues to dip sideways toward me in her sleep, her upper body sliding gently to the right in little jerky shifts, down, down ... farther and farther down ... down … down … almost as if pulled to my lap by invisible, warm, gentle arms. Each time she whips herself up again in a convulsive 90-degree swoop, it’s only a matter of seconds before she begins dipping again, even more perilously.

I watch her, amused, but conscious of her imminent crossing of The Line, wondering what I should do.

I pick my book up from off my lap and try holding it close in front of my eyes, since every 30 seconds or so her bobbing head blocks my view of the page I’m on. But this only solves one problem. I mean, I don’t really MIND ... after all, she’s clean enough — I can see, every time her parted hair is directly under my gaze, that she hasn’t got dandruff or lice or anything. The fresh scent of her shampoo wafts reassuringly up under my nose. And in a way it’s my own fault for pulling the armrest up when I thought I had the two seats for myself. If it were down, it would block her, but there was no way to get to it now.

I find myself considering a sweet impulse that would only work in an ideal world: forget all these worries and let her cuddle up in my lap. But in the real world, she might wake up with her head in my lap and feel humiliated — she might even think I’m a pervert or something, just for not objecting! Should I wake her up? Nudge her back into the world of social propriety “by accident”? I can't help thinking that even if I do, it probably won’t be the end of the story.

What to do? What to do?

I keep reading. Everybody else is asleep. The plane is dark, except for the little flowing beams of the reading-lamps which point down on a few seats here and there like tiny UFO traction beams. No one perceives my predicament. So why worry about it? I know that this woman now sleeping with her head in my lap will wake up soon enough, perhaps when something in her sleepy meta-dream thoughts tells her that she is much too comfortable for an economy class passenger. She will realize that she is asleep with her head in a stranger’s lap. She will wake up, opening her eyes cautiously; or perhaps suddenly instead, maybe with a violent gasp of panic as she sits up and looks at me with apprehension. And I will, I’ve decided, simply pretend I am sound asleep too, and never noticed a thing. As far as I’ll be concerned, it never happened. I turn out the light.

It’ll be up to her to agree. Rather generous, and even modern of me, I think. Because I’m thinking that it seems as though some of my more disappointing experiences with men have finally taught me this trick. But I have appropriated this little deflection/avoidance weapon from these funny old cowardly lovers and used it "for good instead of evil” as Maxwell Smart, or Batman and Robin, or Superman might say. They’ve all said something like that at one point, and I’ve always wanted to be able to say it myself.

I’m rather pleased with myself. In my happiness at my newfound skill, I even wonder if I’ve misunderstood those men of my past, and if maybe they had felt as paradoxically timid and graceful and generous as I feel now. Who knows? I am the newly initiated superhero or heroine I’ve always wanted to be, at least just for now, as I fly through the skies with an exhausted woman snoring with her head in my lap, a clear drop of sleepy, tepid saliva rolling out of the corner of her mouth and down her chin.

And after all, my skirt is hand-washable.

Previously: The Magic Trick.

Carolita Johnson's cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.

59 Comments / Post A Comment


this is lovely. & I'm constantly (usually inaccurately) describing things as "just like The Gift of the Magi," so that makes me love it all the more.


A Carolita post! Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeh!

K I'm gonna actually read it now.


@insouciantlover Oh, and it was lovely. Carolita, you're the kind of friend I would go to a farmer's market with and hold hands while we walk with our coffee, sampling the slices of citrus.


@insouciantlover I KNOW RIGHT :D


I totally wish I could sit next to you on a plane. I promise I am clean, and I don't snore.


@Ophelia I do snore, but three separate people, only one of whom I was sexing with, have told me that my snores are 'cute' and 'ladylike'. I am... sort of weirdly offended by that?


@Craftastrophies Don't be offended. I always get nothing but "manly" for my snores. I know I really like/am comfortable with a person I'm sleeping with when I feel completely unashamed to hear myself doing it, and go so far as to personally it should be nothing but endearing to the party who has to hear it.


I'm a personal space freak, so if some stranger were falling asleep on me...I would not be as nice and wonderful as Carolita.


@beanie So am I, -- I get in arguments with people on the subway over personal space -- but this was somehow different.


I love that the first person in your list of superheroes is Maxwell Smart.


@Dancersize Big fan, always was!


This is an incredibly sweet story. I wish I fell asleep next to you on a plane! I'm clean! And also, I want to be friends with you as per @insouciantlover above. Can the three of us hold hands, or would that be too unwieldy?


@automaticdoor We could red rover people! They would deserve it.


This story makes me so.very.uncomfortable. Between my midwestern reservedness and my NYC dislike of strangers this situation would be prime for a good old panic attack. Some guy who tried to snooze/lean/nod on my this morning got a sharp elbow and a staredown. No touching!

Porn Peddler

@parallel-lines This was pretty much my reaction. I would probably start crying/punching in this situation.

Legs Battaglia

I really like this story! But, I don't get what makes it "Gift of the Magi"-like. I thought there was going to be a twist!


@Legs Battaglia I know! I want to parse this, because I'm sure it makes sense somehow and now this feels like English class and I haven't been in an English class in so long [too long].

So...if in the OG Gift of the Magi she cuts her hair and he sells his watch and neither can use the gift the other so lovingly bought, then...what is the parallel here? Hmmmm.

What is dearest to Carolita?
What is dearest to the Sleeping Stranger?

I propose that in this situation, that which is dearest to the Sleeping Stranger is...sleep? But she would be alarmed if she found sleep in the lap of a stranger. That which is dearest to Carolita...her space? Or, conversely, the ability to cede her space for another who needs it? Ack! I dunno guys...halp!


@wee_ramekin I was thinking about the story as a gift to the readers, & the fact that it ends before the lady wakes up is the Magi-esque part, on our end. so maybe Carolita's "gift" was the experience of having this story to tell, at the expense of her personal space? #EnglishMajorMarriedToAPhD

Legs Battaglia

@wee_ramekin I guess the drooled-on skirt may be one of the moving parts? Except that it's hand-washable, so not as much of a loss as no-longer-owning-that-watch. The analogy feels so close - but I can't quite grasp it!


@nonvolleyball Ooooooooooo. That's good.

You and your PhD should invite me over for dinner sometime so we can all get drunk on red wine and parse the shiz out of everything! (I hope it's not creepy that I just invited myself over for dinner... I will bring the wine!)


@wee_ramekin heh, that's pretty much what happens in our household on any given night, minus the Hairpin commentariat, so you're certainly invited.


@Legs Battaglia It wasn't so much a reference to the Maupassant story as to the actual Magi, but the inappropriateness and the displacement of the intended recipient of the actual gift (the men who were afraid to give it to me before give it the twist).


@wee_ramekin Great comment! A lot of truth in it! I didn't go into it deeply enough in my reply. But often I write something only suspecting my intention. It's fun to be explained so well! It's making me want to read it again! :)


@Legs Battaglia Don't you love that feeling, though? It makes me happy to hear you say that. All the stories I really like do that to me. I'm very flattered! Gives me hope!

Legs Battaglia

@carolita Ah! Excellent! I'm going to read the story again right now...


The first time I ever let anyone fall asleep on my shoulder, it was a class field trip on a bus and when that person woke up, they gave me their airplane sticker (because we had visited a military airspace) in thanks.

In other words, as long as I get a sticker from you, stranger, you may sleep on my shoulder.

(P.S. Lovely writing as always, Carolita.)

Katie Scarlett

So so sweet and I LOVED that Maxwell Smart was name checked. Would you believe that my preschool friend and I both pretended to be Agent 99 when we played together???

oh, disaster

"And after all, my skirt is hand-washable." Such an optimist! I enjoyed this.


I get disproportionately stressed during situations like these. If I were you, I would have spent the whole plane ride in a panic, palms sweating, thinking "BUT WHAT DO I DO?!" I almost had a panic attack last week when I had to tell my landlord I'm moving out. Any semblance of social awkwardness sends me into a tailspin: if only I could write about it as beautifully as Carolita!


@bonnbee Social awkwardness makes for a good story! I think that's why I let it happen so often. What the heck, right? I can take it.


I'm in the category of finding an excuse to "accidentally" nudge the person every time they start drifting toward me. I'm so amazed by people who can fall asleep on planes or in any public spaces. Never going to happen for me. Perhaps that contributes toward my impatience with people who get all space invadery on me when they conk out in impossibly cramped enclosed public spaces.


But what happened when she woke up!

I'm assuming all went according to plan, but in movieland you two obviously would be in some sort of romantic comedy where you keep running into each other and one of you is about to get married, but leave the fiance for the crazy madcap lady who falls asleep on airplanes.


@Jason F@twitter Haha! That's the gift of editing! I ended the story at the best part. Actually not much happened. She switched positions in her sleep, exposing the armrest, which I pulled down, and took that as a gift for myself! :)


I have been this person, and also sat next to this person. Mostly on public transit.

I often wake up realizing that I've been drooling on myself in front of the rest of the bus.

aaaand that's why I'm single.


I've definitely been the sleeper in this story before. Rather than let me fall asleep in his lap, though (which I assure you, no matter how asleep he pretended to be, would have creeped me out) the guy next to me tapped me on the shoulder during one of my jolt-ups to smartly recommend that I just recline the seat. I never used to recline my seat, not wanting to squish the person behind me, but I figured if I had my neighbor's blessing, it would be ok. I still feel guilty when I do recline, though, since I pretty much agree with Gene Weingarten on this matter.


Okay, lovely commenters, I'm bringing the BF to the dentist so I'll be AWOL a while! Thanks for all the kind words. Xoc

Barry Grant

I thought from the illustration and the opening paragraph that the solution was the ol' sleepover trick of dipping the sleeper's hand in warm water so they wet themself. I'm sorry Carolita!


@Barry Grant bless you and your avatar that makes me guffaw every. single. time.


@Barry Grant Haha, I like it, tho!

Barry Grant

@Barry Grant bless you and your avatar that makes me guffaw every. single. time.

Oh boy! That made my day.


One of my friends accidentally fell asleep on a lady's shoulder on a plane. It was impossible to wake or move him (he plays a lot of rugby and is basically made of rocks). It was quite a long flight. If this was a rom-com, the lady would have been totally charmed and they would have lived happily ever after. Instead it went more like (on landing): "Oh God… have I been asleep on you this whole time?" "Yes. You have." "I am so sorry". "Thank you. Thank you for saying sorry."


I too, have done this Gift of the Magi. Except it was on a Senior Class trip back from Hawaii, sitting next to a Boy I Had A Crush On (!) with his head on my shoulder, and as I noticed the ever growing damp spot on my shirt from under his gaping lips, I thought, "It'll wash."


@ellening Ah, poignant! Did you wash the shirt or treasure it forever?


@carolita Eh, I treasured it until laundry day. I was always a little too practical for my own good!


<3 u, Carolitaeeee


On an eight-hour overnight flight I had a man fall asleep on my shoulder two times; it did not occur to me to wake him like a normal person would, so I blew air on his head until he woke up. I just had to blow really hard, because one time he sort of woke up and then settled back in on my shoulder and fell more deeply asleep.


@Nutmeg Hahaha!


this is a lovely palette-cleanser to read after re-visiting that baby post! I think I say this every time, but I so enjoy your work, Carolita.


@heyits You won't be reading about babies from me! Ever! Egads! :) thanks.


@carolita oh dear, I just meant that I felt a little bummed out after reading some of the comments on that post. Babies and baby-related posts are a-ok with me! But I don't care if you don't ever write about them! Because everything you've written so far has been wonderful! OK, I'm going to shut up now.


@heyits I'm just not very baby-oriented, but I didn't mean to sound awful!


@carolita I thought I was the one who was sounding awful and was therefore apologizing. Let's hug it out! It would appear we were both trying to be polite. To recap: I really enjoy your writing and pictures. Thank you for sharing it with the Hairpin. :)


@heyits Ah, I finally found that baby article, and I understand what you were getting at now. Ha. Well, yeah, I don't like babies, but I thought the article was funny. And even the "nasty" comments weren't really that bad, though I couldn't read them all (so many!). The meanest one actually seemed to be the one accusing everyone else of being mean! (That wasn't you, was it? I forget! It wasn't so bad, either, really. Not by regular internet commenter standards by a long shot!) Anyway, a sleeping baby is always alright with me. And so is the odd baby post. :)


One late-night ride on Metro North, I was sitting next to this awful I-banker type guy who splayed his knees and yelled obnoxious things into his phone. I eventually fell asleep, and he fell asleep, and I woke up and we had both leaned over onto each other and were basically like kittens in a box. For a minute I thought it was lovely, this warm innocent snuggle between two strangers on a train, and then I remembered how he was crowing about "fat chicks" and I was like, ew, and sat up to look out of the window instead.


@MollyculeTheory And then he went home and wrote about The Best First Time I Was Touched By A Woman.


Stories like this make me feel all "WE ARE GOING TO MAKE IT AS A SOCIETY!"

fondue with cheddar

@Ames That needs to be a tag.

fondue with cheddar

Yay! I would have done the same thing in that situation (pretend to be asleep and not notice), but only if the person were clean and not creepy.

In fact, have I done this? I think maybe I have.


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