by Eleanore Lee
“Cabin crew, prepare for takeoff.”
At last. Patience. It’s worth it.
She can start to empty her racing mind. Not so easy. After all the rush of scheduling and arranging in the week before. Logistics. Find an SAT prep class for the youngest. Change her mammogram appointment.
And now, even after making it to the airport.… Over the years this trip has become so uncomfortable. Like all air travel. The annoying rules about fluids. Cramped leg space, ever narrower seats, the next-seat neighbor so often overflowing. Really! Does your fat flesh really have to flop all over the place? No boundaries? No acknowledged separate territory? Who says you get to permanently colonize the seat arm?
Forget it. It will all pass. I’m on my way. The flight back east across this vast, cold land.
The cabin lights are abruptly dimmed. The giant machine jerks into motion. It begins to roll slowly forward. Inching, inching.
Soon. She’ll see him so soon. The car waiting at Arrivals pickup. That first touch. His hand on her arm pulling her up into the passenger seat. Then maybe…the first taste of his lips.
Now it’s moving faster.
Much faster. Bumping along the uneven asphalt.
The hum of talking falls still. Bending to look out the window over the lumpy form of her now dozing neighbor, she can make out only a gray blur. A streaky gray blur. A streaky gray blur that’s moving. She closes her eyes and leans back. Don’t think. It doesn’t help at all.
Faster, faster, toward lift-off. Does dying feel like this?
Now a different sound… A beginning soft roar, growing louder. Yellow and blue flames licking out of the silver engines below the wings. She can feel the power streaming through her own smallish human body. She grips the bottom of her seat and closes her eyes for a moment.
Then… Up, up, up.
A surprisingly gentle lift. The plane’s front tipping up steeply.
Loud clunk as the wheels pull up.
More up, up, up. Into the air. Almost as if an invisible giant hand is reaching down and lifting.
It’s strangely meditative.
Suddenly something switches off. Now no roar, no more bumps. Smooth whoosh. Just quietly continuing the upward climb.
She can feel the pressure in her ears. A child somewhere in the back of the cabin starts to wail. I know. It hurts. And they don’t understand.
She remembers those years of a very different kind of plane travel with her toddlers—mostly visits to grandparents… Bags of coloring books, Silly Putty, singing to them, engaged and paying attention every minute of the trip, it seemed. No. Please don’t kick the seat in front of you! (Sorry, sir, he’ll stop now.) We’ll call Daddy after we get there, I told you. What? These are just different-shaped carrot sticks. You always used to like them. No, I told you we can’t call from here. We’re flying. We can’t call. See the clouds down below? All gray and pink and puffy. Here, let me find your markers.
But now, here, alone here in her now, they’re still flying below the clouds. She stares out the window at the brilliant sweep of the city’s lights all the way to the horizon. The plane banks and all she can see is the great silvery wing.
Later, flying flat again, there’s the stretch of dark bay waters with only an occasional dim boat light. She closes her eyes and breathes slowly.
This is as close as you can get to being outside of time.
A change: the engine sound drops to a low purr. People begin to stir. A rising, soft hum of voices. She reaches down and pulls the book out of her carry-on. Reaches up and presses the light button above her head.
The speaker crackles on. She hears fragments. “This is your pilot… …cabin crew… …safe to move about, but remember… Estimated flight time will be…”
“Safe,” he says. Is that so? No. Not safe. No. A big risk. It still is. I’ve always known this.
I deserve it, though. I’ve been so good, worked so hard. Been so dutiful. Wife, mother, responsible staff member. Who can this harm? Don’t I deserve a few moments of sheer beauty? Of piercing physical joy?
“Outside of time” is good, is true. It’s worked for her all these years. If it’s outside of time, it doesn’t count. No one in her everyday life has an inkling. She’s never even told her best friend. Her one trip back east. Vaguely work-related but really to see him. (If “see” is the correct term.) Her excuse—not that you should need one when you’re outside of time—it’s enabled her to keep on going with her real life, the one that’s within time. The imperfect marriage, the kids, the pressure job. After, she can go back home and do it—face it—all. Scrupulous and conscientious. Back in time. Gas in the engine. Hope in the heart.
A smooth landing and at last the plane is pulling up at the gate. Only twenty-five minutes late in spite of the much-delayed departure.
The cabin lights tick on. The cabin is now unfamiliarly bright. People start to rise creakily, awkwardly, getting ready to crowd into the aisle, to pull down their carry-ons and coats.
It’s night and there’s weather outside. Light, puffy snowflakes are slowly floating down, occasionally reflecting the glint of the outside lights.
Call me to confirm you’re here, he’d said. I guess I’m here. She’s supposed to call that new number. She pulls out her phone and places her quick call.
Remember to delete from “Recents.”
This doesn’t count. That’s what she tells herself. It doesn’t count. It has nothing to do with normal time and place. Nothing to do with the daily buzzing of the morning alarm or with the too-familiar groggy body in the bed next to her. The subway. Or the every-Wednesday Skype calls to the Rotterdam office. Or should the daughter sign up for AP Biology. No.
A rising murmur of voices in the cabin. Many phones appear. From the seat behind her: “Jim! Jim? I’m here. Yes… Yes. Maybe later. At the meeting.” (Pause) “What! No, I’ll have to get back to you on that. But tell Josh I got in.”
Now they’re all standing on the rim of the big circle, “Luggage Carousel.” (Does that mean this is supposed to be fun?) The lit sign above simply says “9.” A big bright 9. Underneath are the numbers of three expected or arrived flights, including hers, 734. She recognizes many of her cabin mates. Waiting. Staring at the wide, unmoving, circular rubber belt. Some still peering into their cell phones but many crowding the belt, bending over it and gazing deeply at it like worshippers.
Ever so slowly the belt starts to move. People look up from their phones—some push closer or edge to join the crowd. She likes to stand halfway around so as not to have to try to snatch the bag the very minute it topples out of the hole. That’s for those tall, strong young men who like to stand poised to see, then grab and swing. Now sometimes a guy offers to help her with hers. Sign of her age. She prefers to do it alone—even if the bag has to creak around the circle an extra time.
Look! Here they come! Heaving up the loading belt, reaching the opening, hovering at the top a split second, then plopping down from the hole. Plop! Look: Giant black canvas bag. Now a chic metal designer valise. A pink little girl’s backpack festooned with Hello Kitty images. Huge musical instrument case… A cello perhaps? A short, bearded guy grabs it and drags it onto his luggage cart. Where’s my bag? Can it be lost? But there was no plane change. How could it be lost? She remembers all those nightmare lost bag experiences. Filling out forms, trips to the airport. All that.
A train of worries start to chug through her mind like the bags on the belt. Could it be that this is it? That she shouldn’t have come? He said there was something he wanted to tell her. Like what? Could this be the last time? Have I become a duty for him? No longer a joy?
Then… It’s here! Her bag: lumpy and beige with her special green ribbon on the handle so that neither she nor anyone else will mix it up with other lumpy beige bags.
She’s standing right in front of the huge “Arrivals” sign. It’s true. I’ve arrived, she thinks.
Poised there at the curbside in her high heels, winter coat. Chin held high. Hanging on to the extended handle of her wheeled case. How will the first sight of her look to him as he pulls up? Still sort of young? Young enough?
Unfamiliar cold. Unfamiliar snowflakes. She peers up the roadway as cars pull up and slow down. Or don’t. Some stay in the inner lane and simply speed on by.
Did his voice sound different? Just a bit? Was something going on for him? No. Probably no big deal. We’ve never had to confide or explain. That’s been part of the understanding.
He said twenty minutes. Has it been twenty? Silver Camry. Is that what he had when she came last year? It must look like half the cars that are pulling up or whizzing by. What if he simply doesn’t show? That can happen. Sometimes that’s the easiest way to make an announcement. Things like that do happen. Life changes. What was once attractive can turn repulsive to you. I do know how that is. Now I could even be at the other end of it. If I have to, I can handle it. I have credit cards. There’s the Airport Hotel. I can face it. I can.
Across the two lanes, at the island, cabs are pulling up, loading, and pulling off. And look, there seems to be a pickup spot for Uber and Lyft cars. That’s new since she started these trips. Options.
Still no car, no call, no text. Gone? Or has this happened before and I’m forgetting?
A black Subaru Forester pulls to the curb right in front of her.
It’s the woman with the little girl. She noticed them before. They drag suitcases and coats past her and pull open the van doors. That was fast. That was efficient. There’s someone there who wants them.
How much longer should I wait? Should I call again?