Put your mask on before helping others. Those words crack over the intercom anytime I strap myself into an airplane seat. The moral is obvious: you cannot save a life if you do not have one. Most flights I travel alone, so this lesson generally feels futile in the moments where my knees dig into the cheap plastic in front of me, surrounded by mouth breathers and gum snappers. That intrepid compulsion of self-sacrifice I once possessed dissolved after an ex-Navy man looked away from me and into a place I hope to never know. He told me of the day he jumped overboard to rescue a drowning crew member at sea. He hit the water fast and hard and outstretched his arms toward his flailing friend, but as soon as he swam within striking distance the drowning man thrust his weight onto him, pinning him down beneath the water’s surface to hold himself above the waves. Light headed, sore-limbed, lungs swimming with salt—the would-be savior punched his buddy between the eyes, then watched the body sink down deep to the ocean floor. His tale made my mouth go dry. I had twice before saved the drowning.
Kayla Heisler is a poet and essayist based in Queens. She is a recent graduate of Eugene Lang College currently exploring arts writing.