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L.A. Affairs: One journey he just couldn't take

Her boyfriend hadn't flown since watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. What did his inability to get on a plane to meet her family say about their relationship?

May 19, 2012|By Maggie Flynn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
(Sarah Wilkins, For the Los…)

Ian and I watched the planes come in and shared a wedge salad at Encounter, the Space Age-themed restaurant overlooking Los Angeles International Airport. I asked how it made him feel.

"Fine," he shrugged. "It's not eating at airports that I'm afraid of."

We weren't there to catch a flight. We were completing homework from Ian's therapist, who was trying to desensitize him to the airport environment. The next month, I was returning to my home state of Michigan for a good friend's wedding. No one there had met Ian, though we'd been introduced by mutual friends two years earlier, flirting by the heat lamps during a chilly night at the Edendale Grill in Silver Lake. By now we were sharing an apartment in Atwater Village. I was eager to show my family and friends that I had found someone worthy of being my permanent plus one. There was only one problem: Ian's fear of flying.

He'd flown before. Just not since9/11. He'd lived in New York at the time, watching the Twin Towers fall while his dad and brother were en route to JFK. They were safely diverted, but the panic he'd felt that day had rendered him incapable of getting on a plane. When his work relocated him to Los Angeles in 2005, he arrived not via LAX, but a cross-country road trip.

I'd known about his fear of flying from the beginning of our relationship, but it didn't begin to bother me until a year later, when it became clear that we were committed to each other and to our lives in L.A. So how would we maintain close relationships with our families in the Midwest if he could never fly back to see them? I placed so much importance on mobility, he even agreed to see the therapist, though her journaling and airport dining exercises did little to help.

Ian took two Valium the morning of our flight, but they had no more effect than a sugar pill. In the terminal, he put on his sunglasses. A few tears escaped from underneath them. His skin was nearly translucent, and he seemed very far away though I held his hand firmly. Finally he spoke. "I'm so sorry, but I can't do it."

I told him that he could. All he had to do was let me guide him onto the plane and just sit for five hours. Despite my pleading and reasoning, I joined the boarding line alone. During takeoff, I couldn't shake the feeling that Ian had chosen his fear over me. By the time I got to Michigan, I had convinced myself that the empty seat next to me foretold our relationship's doom.

The day I returned to L.A., I shrugged off Ian's apologies and went to my regular Monday night yoga class at my teacher Mara's Silver Lake apartment. I was relieved to escape my tense home but felt too distracted to register my usual discomfort in a chair pose or joy in a well-executed warrior. Toward the end of class, Mara announced my least favorite position, headstand. I could stay up in headstand by resting my feet against the wall, but she asked us to try the pose unassisted. With my head and forearms against the mat, I bent my knees in and made it halfway up, then chickened out, letting my feet fall back to the ground.

Mara reminded me that I had both the balance and strength necessary for the pose. I tried again and even managed to briefly attain the position. But my legs started shaking and I couldn't tell if I needed to move them forward or backward to stay up. Something about inverting completely disoriented me.

As I plunged to the earth, I finally understood: Ian physically couldn't put one foot in front of the other to walk toward that plane any more than I could hold my headstand. His inability to fly had nothing to do with how much he cared about me. His fear of flying had nothing to do with me, period.

I knew then why I had been so upset. Ian was not only powerless over his fear of flying, but I was incapable of helping him conquer it. I'd assumed that his fear would wither in the face of his love for me. But that wasn't how it worked. Ian had been terrified of flying for years before we met, and I couldn't displace these feelings as easily as the old pizza boxes I discarded from our refrigerator.

The yoga practice I had cultivated during my four years in L.A. taught me to keep working toward improvement but also accept my limitations. If I wanted my relationship to work, I had to accept Ian's too. I could hope, just like he did, that he would one day conquer his fear and fly again. In the meantime, Ian's inability to accompany me to distant places was far less important than knowing he would be waiting for me when I got back.

Ian and I have now been together six years, and he still hasn't managed to get on a plane. But this summer he will finally see my hometown, when we go there to get married. A three-week road trip will take us from Los Angeles to Michigan and back. Sometimes I think about how much quicker and more convenient it would be if we could fly. But mostly I'm just grateful that we're going.

L.A. Affairs chronicles dating, romance and relationships. Past columns are archived at If you have comments to share or a story to tell, write us at

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