I like this, but I don’t feel like submitting it anywhere, so I’ll share it with you instead.
He loves the recycled air taste of the plane. It reminds him of plastic cups against his teeth, breathing in antibacterial cleaning products, licking polyester. It’s distinct. He files in behind a woman who can’t compose her carry-on – it stops and starts independent of its owner and trips her, bangs her ankles. Her elbow hits the plushy part of the green fabric chairs and she murmurs “sorry,” even though those seats are empty. The woman and the carry-on turn into a middle row though its number had not yet been called for boarding.
Five rows further back, he settles in his the window seat. Though the aisle is infinitely more convenient, he always choose the window. The view is worth the awkwardness of climbing over his row-mates. But the perspective of a Jack’s giant glancing down at the teeny human world is not the view that he craves. No, he just wants to watch the wings shake, the machinery flipping and lowering and raising depending on its distance from the ground.
It’s time for the safety demonstration, and the flight attendants throw in a joke or two to spice up the speech. He mimes all of their actions as they speak which impresses the woman two seats away, in the practical seat. The plane is backing up now, so it seems they’ve been lucky; it’s just the two of them in row fifteen. She asks if he is a flight attendant on the sly. He likes that “on the sly,” but says no, just a frequent flyer, just attentive, just good at choreography. She laughs. She is not pretty, but he finds himself smiling at her anyway. Her face is interesting. There are thousands of expressions trapped in there, he can see them wrestling, and he can’t determine which one she’ll experience next.
She gives him her name and they shake hands, but then she turns all of her expressions away and he’s too distracted by the impending take off to remember what she said. Mya maybe, or Nancy. Something like that.
They are taxiing now, and as he watches the wing shake as the plane ups its pace, he wonders why they call it taxiing. Why not cabbing or something made up and technical? He also wonders how he would spell taxiing – if there’s a hyphen or if there’s a “y.” He thinks about ringing the flight attendant bell, but they wouldn’t come now anyways.
The blood-suck roar of the plane is in his ears and the wheels are off the ground. This is the best moment, when he sees if the combined genius of humans who dreamed of flight can successfully hoist him and all these heavy, gravity-bound strangers into the air. The wings are trembling like fever-struck children at first, but they still after only a few thousand feet. The seatbelt light goes off confirming, yes, he’s flying now, the geniuses have done it again.
The seatbelt light is off but not the “no smoking” light. It’s always on. It’s been on since the ‘90s, saying no. He’s not a smoker but he feels for all the little cigarette figures captured and sliced and lit for display like so many carcinogenic antlers above their heads. He hates that violently rude symbol that surrounds an object and then slashes its middle. Some airlines just put a polite little red “x” over the cigarette. Much kinder.
The view is clouds and boredom, and he gently reclines the seat back. It feels rude, but if it was frowned upon he’s sure they would make the seats unreclinable. He hopes that the person behind him has short legs.
The woman beside him has pulled out a book. Something clunky with one of those spiky-edged circle stickers on the front. An award-winning book. He tries to remember if there’s a name for that spiky edge. Is it beveled? He tilts his head, slides his neck forward without removing his shoulder blades from the seat to try to read the title. East of Eden it says. John Steinbeck. He remembers reading Of Mice and Men in high school and crying.
The woman speaks to him, but he’s thinking about the rabbits and how distant they are from him. They are Earth things and he’s a sky thing right now, higher even than the rabbits’ feathered predators. The woman says have you read it, and he shakes his head no. Just Of Mice and Men. He asks if it’s good and she shrugs. Better if I knew the bible, she says. Her expression undulates again and it’s self-mocking. She says, but maybe then I’d like it less. He nods. Religion only makes the bad things better. The raise of her eyebrows pulls the edges of her mouth up. A cynic, she says. Then smirks. Thank God.
The book shields her face and he turns to stare at the comically large plane over the little screen map sneaking east across the country. They are an hour away from a destination, but not his. He will switch planes at the next airport to a small, low-flying, trembling thing. He’ll skim the bottom of the clouds in the body of that rickety creature, and no matter how long that flight will take, he’ll wish it was longer.
The best flights are when he goes north to the wind-chilled villages dotting the top of the prairies. Those planes fly low and slow and the walls feel thinner. The passengers can hear the wind, feel even its gentlest buffets, and can’t fool their minds into believing they are safe. He thinks that’s why they fly closer to the ground. Not because the plane needs to, but because the passengers want to convince themselves that they would survive the crash they feel is imminent. Survival. It seems possible though he knows it isn’t.
The flight attendant comes with her cart. He knows this one. Sheri. Or Cheryl maybe. She recognizes him and he’s impressed and uncomfortable. She asks, economy today? But means it rhetorically. He nods and answers water and cookies. No ice. The reading woman puts Steinbeck down, orders a vodka and orange juice. Breakfast drink. Cookies too.
Sheri takes a step back and he remembers and calls wait! She smiles her pleasant and patient customer smile and calls him Sir. He asks why it’s called taxiing and if she knows how to spell it. The woman snorts into her orange juice, and Sheri says she’ll try to find out.
The woman pulls out a pill from her bag, pops it into her mouth, and washes it away with her concoction of yellowy citrus and mashed up grains. Sleeping pill, she tells him, even though only his eyes had asked. He says she shouldn’t force herself to sleep. First of all, it’s mid-morning. And second, what if something urgent happens; what if she needs her life vest and oxygen mask? She laughs and says she expects someone will help her. He shakes his head. People panic and they don’t think about each other, trapped in a metal tube falling from the sky. Her face shifts from kind. Her lips say angry and her pupils say scared. Well it’s too late now, she says and shuts her eyes like slamming a door.
When they drop below the clouds he doesn’t wake her. He’s watching the wings. The pressure builds and threatens to explode his ears, but he holds off on swallowing to see how much he can stand. Cars wink the sunlight at him and glass buildings glare it. The man in front of him pulls back from the crack between chair and window, but he leans into the brightness.
He needs to see the landing gear drop.