A metal scream in the wings. And then a lurch, like that jerk before a roller coaster stops at the top. Then, a dip he recognizes will be long.
The hysteria feels as real as a scene from Snakes on a Plane. He watches a drink cart thunder to the front. He wonders if he can write a book about this in the still-possible event that they will survive, a thought that is only possible in the early seconds of a descent.
Some sentences start to compose themselves in his head. “A sickening screech in the winds, followed by a plunge that sent the stomach sailing, floating in an empty space within the body - ” an image that now fills his head - something suspended, much like the plane that is now misbehaving, like the stomach. The nasty airline sandwich he forced down twenty minutes earlier is rebelling against gravity.
He is uncomfortable with the rebellion. He gropes the seat pocket for the sickness bag. He thinks about the sign that says no food and drinks, but really, it should read no food or drinks. Where had he seen that? Why is he bothering to throw up in a stupid bag? It is hard to hear the panic in the announcement above the screams and sirens. He vomits, and keeps his face close to the bag, taking in the smell; eyes above the bag, taking in the frenzy. Pale faces when he can see them, mouths frozen open, fake diamond stud, red nails gripping the armrest, The Scream on those pale faces, bad perm, bald heads. An overhead bin popped, and a hard case hits a man. Blood is pouring out of his head. Fuck. Someone is writing. The stomach clenches. He focuses back on the throw up and stares at its stains, straining to the corner pointing to the nose of the plane.
There is a hole in that corner, and he finds the same stains streaking his pants. It looks like he jizzed his pants. He grabs the seat pocket and drops the bag behind the safety card, and immediately resents his civility. Oh my god, the safety card. What does it say? He can only remember the oxygen masks. Why isn’t it down yet? What good is a card! He pulls at it and catches a tear, ripping the card in half. He holds his half close to his face - the card assumes illiteracy, and some illustrated figures missing their heads are getting into positions dumbly. He wants to rage against illiterates. Okay, I don’t get this miming shit. He almost decides against throwing his half of the card to the aisle - a flight attendant slides past, screaming - there is no just-in-case left. He hates that it looks like he jizzed his pants. He hates that he wants to clean it off at a moment like this. He plants his foot against the seat pocket to keep from sliding off his seat, squirting his sandwich out the sides. What did he have before this? It was lunch with his wife. What was lunch? Across the aisle, someone is writing, crying and writing. The pen leaves the paper, awkwardly, jabs, awkwardly. Oh my god, Emily. I need to talk to her. She needs to know -
The plane shudders hard.
Know what? She knew - does she? he cannot tell - why he got on this plane, this flight that left earlier than he needed to. She was making breakfast - an old t shirt from her school days, thin and oversized, the morning light illuminating the figure underneath, trim and familiar, much like the house they keep, for the eleventh year now. It invites a certain mindset that forms and stays in the head, triggered with each space. He had
remembered the wooden chair in the kitchen does not sit properly on the ground, and pulled out the one next to it instead. He noticed, again, the hairline crack next to the light switch he had not got around to patching. Not that she mind any of it - she looked back from the stove to him, and smiled, turning strips of bacon. Elvis was singing on the radio. “In the twilight glow I see her-”
The shirt ended at the hips. She had forgone her usual gym shorts, for some reason - her black thong a broad pen stroke that made her butt cheeks look like the mouth of a cartoon cat. It was the dimples that drew out and added to the effect, and they struck him - not the unattractiveness so much as the sudden evidence of age that confronted him, that made him feel his. Add the sincerity in her eyes, her desire to please, and the cat analogy grew on him; or a dog, perhaps. He was confronting something akin to a giant pet.
But he respected marriage, its citizenship and public speech, the propriety and expectations that came with it. So he said, “Honey, you’re hot.”
He nodded. “You’re hotter than the bacon.”
She laughed, and he was glad to have made her laugh. They should have left it as that. But the cellphone on the table had buzzed. Where is his cellphone now? The carry on bag underneath the seat is slipping away.
An out of area call, but he recognized the number. He flipped the phone.
“Hello this is Thomas Carr. Ok.” He watched Emily pretend not to listen. “Sounds great. So, 5.30pm at terminal 2? Great, thank you. I appreciate the transfer.” He closed the phone. “Honey?”
She turned her head, but did not turn around from the stove.
“The office got me an earlier flight, at 5.30pm, so I’ll have to leave after lunch.”
She turned the last strip of bacon. “Do you have to go?” she said, seemingly, to the bacon. “I mean, can’t you get on the flight tomorrow instead?”
He thought there was something pathetic about that, and it made him harsh. “You know I have to go, honey. It’s the financial year end for a bunch of these companies.”
She turned to look at him. Her blue t shirt read a faded Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. “I know, I know.” She kept her head down, and they watched her hand run over the cellphone. “I’m sorry.”
There was nothing for her to be sorry for, and her guilt at provoking his anger only invited more of it from him. It was a complex anger mixed with pity, one that made him feel mean and guilty for feeling that way about this lovely woman who had done no wrong, which then tended to make him involuntarily angry at her even more for arousing such self-hatred.
“You hate me,” she said.
“Oh my god,” he said. That irritated him the most - this beating herself down before he did it, this self-pity to draw his love as one would have for a helpless animal, this need for assurance that she was more than adequate...for what?
He took the cellphone and slid it into his back pocket. “I don’t hate you.” He wrapped his arms around her. “I love you! Come on. I’m sorry. I’ll be back in a couple of days. We’ll have lunch together, alright? I’ll cancel my lunch appointment.” He thought they’ll have nachos.
Fucking nachos. The plane is settling into a rhythm - it dips and curves into a horizontal path for a while, before realizing the failure of its engines again. He strains against the seat beat to feel for the phone at the back pocket. It is not there. It had been another woman on the other end. He laughed cruelly in his head at his phrasing. The other end?
As in, the crotch, versus the face?
Is this some kind of retribution then? Some ironic twist of cosmic fate that he should be in this falling aircraft for having met her on a plane, in more fortunate circumstances? The plane is on the crest of another dip. He presses his head into the seat. The air is expectant.
The air was expectant when they got to talking. She had asked him about his drink. He said it was fine. She said that wasn’t a very strong endorsement. He said it wasn’t a very strong drink. She said this will help, and slipped him a bottle of scotch and her phone number.
It wasn’t like him to call up a girl he had just met. He hadn’t had much practice in this aspect of life. He called because of that - to give himself to this random act that thrusted a stranger’s number into his hands. It was not that he never had the chance. Maybe not in high school, when everyone was curious about the opposite sex, and so was he, but he had not been brought up like that, to look at a girl that way, beyond a partner for polite conversation and civil interaction, to exchange thoughtful responses on issues of farming in America, including new legislation on horse farming, or how the market was changing, and how will he run the horse farm when it was time to pass it on in the family. Oh, I don’t know, I’ll think about it then, and it was never said with a cloud of doubt - the air was expectant, like it was with Elizabeth, whom he had come to love, along with Emily.
Maybe he should be calling her instead.
Across the aisle, a woman forces her eyes shut and speaks urgently to herself, a conversation he cannot hear.
He steps on his bag to stop it from slipping further away, and hooks his other foot into the handle to bring it to his lap.
Most affairs burn hard and fast and then leave you with the smoldering debris of reality. But he was at the beginning stage of it, and his skin was only getting to know hers. The first night was purely torrid, but this second encounter was pushing them beyond some boundary, towards...what? He did not know, and it was refreshing.
They were lying next to each other. The hotel room was dark, but the curtains were open, and with her against the moonlight he was speaking into the dark.
“So why did you become a flight attendant? You don’t even earn tips, you know,” he turned to look at Elizabeth, and she elbowed him in the chest. “Ow, hey! I’m just kidding.”
She questioned his humor with her eyes, framed in fine lines.
“Ok, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I really do want to know, though.”
The question remained in her eyes. “Do we really want to do this? Maybe it’s better not knowing so much.”
He agreed, but did not want her to think him callous. It was sex, but it was also more.
“We’re not complete strangers,” he finally said. “We’ll play that game - Questions.”
“I don’t know that game.”
“It’s -” he stopped himself. The explanation was not important. “Ok, we’ll just ask two questions about each other. Not much of a game, but I think we’ll survive knowing just a little bit more?”
She smiled, and her lines found depth. “Okay. So, why did I become an attendant?”
“Why does anyone do anything?” He thought that maybe she was only kidding about not knowing the game, but then she went on. “I was taking a gap year and I really wanted to travel, see the world, those things that kids always say. But I didn’t have any money for that. I had an aunt who worked at an airline and she got me in.” She turned away from him onto her back. “And now it’s been twelve gap years. Journeying through the skies!” She ran her arm across in an arc as she said it: sunset arms. Or a sunrise. “And I still don’t know how to swim. You know, in case of an emergency. But I lounge around in the hotel pools. Or in bed with strange men.”
Her eyes were shining in the dark.
“What’s your last name?” he blurted.
Her skin was cool, and she breathed out. “Estal.”
He gropes around in his bag, feeling for the familiar cold of the phone, finding it.
He pulls it out. The screen is blank - turned off, yes, of course. The plane is no longer slanting drastically. But it is seizing violently. He presses and holds the switch on the phone, bouncing in his seat.
The screen glows.
The Apple logo appears.
A gray bar paces the loading wheel.
There is a cruelty to the waiting, a crassness accentuated by the occasion. It reminded him of his 40th birthday, two years ago. The big four-o, and the parents wanted to make it a celebration out of it - their son, reaching another milestone in life. They would host a party over at their horse farm in Kentucky, where they have a riding school - the finest saddleback breeds amongst friends in town to attend this party.
He had resisted. “No, I don’t think we should do this.”
“Why not?” His mother trilled on the phone. She always sounded excited, breathless, even in her demands.
“It’s not a big deal. It’s not like, turning 21.”
“This is different,” she said. Thomas turned the tautological answer in his head. “Turning 40 is something. In any case, you haven’t been home to see us for a while now.” Thomas kept silent, and she pressed on. “It’ll be a good time to catch up with your old friends.”
“I know, but -”
“Enough. I’ll make the arrangements and you can just show up.”
He did. The party looked like a movie set for something set in the 1960s. White fences ringed the old manor on the green hill, sitting against a cold blue sky. Summer was ending. The air was turning cool, and the trees were turning yellow. Billowing white tents tended to pots of pastel flowers and yards of lace tablecloth. Elegant chairs were placed around, and skirts spilled off women’s laps while dogs played in them. Men gathered in small groups and spoke confidently. Children tittered politely in their little suits and dresses. Handsome stallions stood beyond the fence, occasionally lifting their heads from the grass long enough to take in the spectacle.
Thomas stood near a large table, where the servants were scooping punch into cups for collection as the guests streamed in. They never do look at the staff, so no one saw him. He downed his third pint of beer - he had been surprised to see it included in the party - and watched his friends and family whizz, bustle, and trot about. What happened to regular walking?
Emily looked happy with her friends. He recognized most of them; they have many in common, having gone to the same schools all their lives. He surveyed the rest of the crowd, knowing some, remembering a few more with difficulty, and drawing a blank with everyone else. His parents’ contacts. Associates, as his father corrected him one time, when he was just a child.
Probably only by proximity - same place at the same time, as everyone in this party must have been with him at some point in his life, so that he could probably line them up and tell his life story with them. But right now he wanted to walk away and stand with the horses - watching, as he was watching, the accumulation of his life.
It was not a bad life. He did not resent it. He was not sure at what point it stopped being enough.
“Thomas!” His mother, a little woman, bounded across the field towards him. She wrapped her arm around his. “Let’s go make your toast.” She paced purposefully towards the stage with him at her hand.
“We’d like to hand over to you - the horse farm.”
The crowd broke into a round of polite applause. His mother held out a rusted horse ring, the one that hung on the manor’s door as early as he could remember it, the red staining her white gloves.
He stared, then took the ring, almost snatched it, and knocked over the microphone stand in front of him. “Thank you.” The words caught the microphone by a whisper, sounding raspy. Thomas put down the ring hastily on the table next to him with the birthday cake, and picked up the microphone. “Eh, thank you.” He surveyed the faces. “All. For coming.”
Emily’s face appears, the four white boxes prompting the numerical password covering all but her eyes. He saw her, hands knifed into a prayer over her nose, her eyes shiny and proud. They had no children - they couldn’t, or specifically, she couldn’t - and he wanted to do everything else that would make up for it.
“I - I can’t.” Emily dropped her hands, and tilted her head, and he held her eyes and said, “I can’t do this.” He heard himself saying it, and stricken with guilt, qualified his words. “I can’t accept this farm.” She had distracted his train of thoughts.
“What do you mean?” Thomas heard his mother, and remembered what he was thinking.
“It’s... it’s just.” He collected his mother’s rusty hands together in his. “It’s just not a good time,” he said to her. He turned to the microphone and faced the crowd again. “But thank you all, for coming. Please enjoy the rest of the party.”
He taps in the month and year of the birthday of his first dog.
When Thomas walked away from the tents he was expecting to be cornered, but when no one came up to him, he set out looking. He came across his mother seated at the long dining table in the manor.
“I thought it was time.” She kept her eyes on her hands. “Your father wanted it to happen.”
“I know.” Thomas watched her hands as well. She had thin wrists, as did he. “But I don’t think I can do it.”
“Why not? As much as you flatter me I’m hardly as young as I’d like to be. I can’t keep an eye on it for too much longer.”
“Have John manage it.”
“He is managing it. But I want you to manage it with him.”
“No.” He stopped her from interrupting him. “I hardly say no to you, mother. But I’m saying no this time.”
She pinched at her nose, then at her gloved hands, and started to remove the gloves. “Alright. Whatever you want, Thomas.” She looked at him. “You know I let you do whatever you want.”
He wanted to object, but held his tongue. She was right. She never forced anything upon him; it all came so naturally. Swimming came so naturally when they put him in the pool at the age of three - they told him he went floating and kicking right away, except he wasn’t holding his breath right. He had coughed and cried the water out of his little lungs, but the thought of the water stuck with him. It didn’t get him down; it kept his
legs kicking at the things that came to him. Joining the swim team at 12, for one; joining the track team and debate team in high school and college. Editing the law review. Serving as wingman to his best friend to a girl he pointed out and thought was cute - the best friend and her got married. Another friend picked out Emily in class; Emily came up to Thomas, after the class, and then later at night at the bar. All throughout there had been some drinks, no drugs, wholesome days and thoughtful nights, times like ads you see for surfing apparel - youth, healthy and sun kissed, plunging headfirst into life.
No, neither his mother nor his father told him anything - “though we all know you’re the eloquent one. You always squirmed your way out of things,” John had jibed. They expressed their preference that he go to law school - “but it’s up to you, son,” was the final word. “What do you think of Emily?” his mother had asked one night, and he was startled on her knowledge. “She’s Mrs. Kendall’s niece, of course I know her,” the Kendalls being fellow horse farmers and neighbors, though not Emily’s family.
“Right,” he had replied, suddenly deflated. “It’s a small world.”
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