Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011
I was outdoors for only five minutes that morning but it was the type of bright mid-September day when the whole wet world smells like ripening blackberries, and you know, if you’ve got to get on a plane for an ten-hour journey, like I had to, that something good was going to happen. Not just the perfect airline movie—or a decent meal. More than the bulkhead or emergency exit row. No, this time, after years of waiting, the person that you’ll be stuck next to for the duration is going to be beautiful. Finally. You’re not going to mind brushing this sleeve, or bumping shoulders when the coffee comes round, not this time. The proof was there in the quality of the sunlight that autumn day.
And there she was. Sitting right next to me.
So you know, with a chance like that coming along, I’m going to talk to her. You know it. But you don’t know me. It still took me twenty-odd minutes. And then all I could say was:
“I guess we’ll make it up, once we’re in the air.”
They had just announced that we’d be an extra 20 minutes on the ground. That kind of thing is always made up in the air.
She breathed through her nose once briefly and nodded without looking up. It was dismissive, sure, but it gave me the chance to look at her again. Because that’s the real problem. Getting stuck into an airline seat, inches away from the stranger next to you, you’ll spend all the hours of the flight wondering if you got that first glimpse right. Because you can’t look again, not now. You’re facing forward, straight-jacketed into the screen in the headrest in front of you. It’s why some passengers turn to conversation. Nobody likes them. But people can’t live with not remembering what the person looks like whose sleeve is touching yours. You’ve got to look them in the eye, once or twice.
After that first cursory glance while fumbling with a slippery plastic-wrapped blanket, headphones, pillow—a first little gulped hello to acknowledge you’ll be sharing personal space for a number of consecutive hours—what do you do? If you’re shy, and I am, and you don’t actually approach anyone in a bar or the supermarket very easily, well, then you’re locked into an uncomfortable stiff silence for ten hours feeling animal magnetism, and having no idea whether you even got it right, that first look. It’s a special kind of claustrophobia nobody talks about, which has nothing to do with physical space. You cannot move your neck, your eyes could never approach her face, under the etiquette of the situation, so you spend the flight watching her hand, examining the slender fingers holding a magazine or resting on her lap, and wondering about a hand like that, on a leg like that, with jeans like that, and the shoes, just apparent beneath the visible mechanical structure of the airline seat in front of her. You begin to guess she’s twenty-eight or thirty, she’s been married, but maybe isn’t anymore, she likes chocolates.
“Delays are always made up in the air,” I added—out loud—because I hadn’t actually said it the first time, and it gave me one more stab of a glance, this time looking at the hollow of her neck below a very fine chin, the sunlight from the other side of her face wonderful on her skin. I was right, she was beautiful, and more importantly she sat right, if you know what I mean. You can tell more about whether a person is attractive from the way they sit than the way they look. For instance, one leg was stretched forward a bit more than the other, and the asymmetry tilted her hips in the chair, and twisted her torso so that one arm hung against the arm rest on the far side and the other was held protectively, defensively, against her body. It was pretty—whereas some people just sit there: two legs, two arms, head held up, and look like the passengers do on the safety card in the backs of the seats in front of us. This woman wore her jeans—made it an activity—rather than just covering up.
But I wasn’t getting anywhere. I hadn’t got anywhere since my first wife had been killed, two years and three months—my only wife I should call her, since there’s only been one—a full two years and three months of not being ready to move on, then being ready but not having the courage, then finally just lacking the opportunity, and failing to find it. I couldn’t think of anything to say which didn’t sound obvious, didn’t sound either vaguely impotent or far too contrived. My wife always said we would have had zero chance if our future had been left up to my first impression on her.
I have to play tricks on myself to even talk to girls. It’s generally pretty simple. I’ll look for something in their appearance, for instance, which isn’t perfect, and I’ll focus on that double chin or the eyes too close together until I’m convinced I have a chance. I hadn’t got much of a look at the girl I was sitting next to, but I had a vague notion that there were dark patches beneath her eyes, and without being able to turn to check it out, my mind turned this into a pretty disturbing portrait. By this time we were in the air, having both been pressed deep into the seats by the thrust of the engines. I knew I had another ten minutes before she went for the headphones. I desperately had to get her out into the open before she unwrapped that tangled cord and jacked herself into the machine.
Out of desperation, I lurched into speech. “I can never make up my mind what I’m going to drink,” I smiled at her. “When the little cart comes around.”
She nodded. At least, thank God, she nodded.
“I always want coffee but they say coffee dehydrates you,” I said. She wasn’t looking at me. She clearly didn’t have the anxiety I have about not knowing what the person next to you looks like.
“But I hate soda. It’s either all sugar, or it’s sweeteners. Chemicals. Either one will kill you.” There was no response, and I felt so sick that I could only push on, hoping to silence my deafening embarrassment with more words.
“I would drink juice, but it’s too acidic. Gives me reflux. Since I was a kid. Well, I say a kid, I guess a teenager.” I paused. When did it begin? I think I was ten; it didn’t matter. I pushed on. “Tomato juice is okay. But then they add salt, most of the time. Or it’s the Bloody Mary mix, which has Worcester sauce. Which has anchovies, and I don’t eat—”
I was miserable, dejected, tired and cold and thirsty. But then she turned to me, and said something like, “You scared of flying?”
“No,” I almost laughed, “What makes—?”
“You’re so nervous.”
I could only shrug. “Just making conversation.”
“I haven’t even said anything,” she laughed.
I had caught a glimpse of her again when she spoke, and her eyes were a bit dark around the hollows, but it wasn’t a flaw. It was haunting and fragile and delicately beautiful. It instantly made me nervous again. “Oh, okay.”
“Just sit back and relax before you make me ask for another seat,” she said without looking over. “The plane is fine, we’ll all be fine, just sit quietly and pretend you’re somewhere else.”
“Like where?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
“I’m not scared,” I added.
Then she did reach forward for the headphones. She pulled the plastic bag violently into two and the headphones spilled to the floor and I wanted to pick them up for her, but she was too quick. As she bent her back to fish for them at her feet, I caught a glimpse of her lower back exposed as her shirt was pulled up and there were tiny little blonde hairs just visible in the sun. I could see her spine for a second, and she looked so exposed that I regretted ever having been put next to her.
She put the headphones on, then, but I knew that they hadn’t yet switched on the in-flight entertainment. She had nothing to listen to. She just sat there—sitting so very naturally—with her silent headphones keeping me out and her slender fingers folded over her lap.
We spent ten minutes quiet. I tried not to watch her, even out of the corner of my eye, to give her a moment to herself. But I couldn’t take it for long. I don’t have much patience.
“I’m sorry,” I turned to her and said. “I know that was a bit much. I just—”
She wasn’t looking at me. I trailed off, doubting for a second if she could hear me. I knew she must, but it’s not easy speaking to someone with headphones, even if you know they’re not on.
“I guess ever since my wife died I haven’t really been able to—” I had said it, but regretted it, paused and faltered. “I guess I’m just too quick to think people want to hear what I—”
I couldn’t finish any of my sentences, not with her staring steadily ahead of her, listening to the air pass by the side of the big glossy metal beast we flew in. Side by side we sat, with heavens between, as insulation.
“She would be the first to say I spoke too much anyway,” I added with a kind of finality that lasted a second. “And it’s worse now. It’s been even worse since the accident.”
I looked at her hands for some kind of response, since I knew she’d never speak. I looked at her knee, at the white headphone cord trailing down past the knee where it disappeared into her bag. Which was weird. It was an iPod. The plastic airline headphones still lay tangled where she’d dropped them beside her bag. I’d been fooled – she had never been able to hear me.
I might have felt embarrassed, but it was actually relief. It was finally over. I had failed in my quest, but at least she hadn’t heard me talking about Jennifer. I don’t know why I’d brought it up anyway, and I breathed easier now. I began to think optimistically about a lacto-ovo vegetarian meal tray coming around soon.
But I had to add one thing to what I’d already said. I don’t know why it had to be out loud, maybe because it hadn’t, up till then, been said out loud at all. I was somehow freed to say it now—now that I knew she couldn’t hear. I spoke rather quietly, all the same. “You might think I’m just lonely—some sad bastard. But it’s not that,” I said. I looked at my own hands for a change. “I do have friends, you know. A whole group of friends. Good friends. So I guess I should be talking to them rather than a stranger—one who can’t hear me. But I just don’t think they’d listen, you know? Or understand.” I felt kind of stupid, but something pushed me to go on, to really say it. “They wouldn’t understand because they all knew me and my wife—together. And they don’t understand how completely and—and fundamentally I’ve been changed since then. They don’t know who I am without her. So—so—” I was running out of words again. “So I guess I keep looking for someone to tell this to. Someone who didn’t know Jennifer, and wants to know what I want—if only I can find something to want next. I’m so sick of the looks that I get from—”
I felt too stupid talking about this. I was pulling at the dead skin around my fingernails and now one was bleeding. I felt self-conscious enough to look up at her, and though her eyes were still fixed on the headrest in front of her, her headphones still stuck in her ears, I saw she was crying.
I couldn’t know what she was crying for, but I felt all the sympathy one human can feel for another suddenly well up in me. I couldn’t reach out, I couldn’t say anything, or give her a sympathetic look because she wouldn’t look back, but I willed in her direction all my best intentions, in silence, from over the airline seat armrest.
I kept watching her, tears nesting in the folds of her eyes, and then a certain self-conscious flinch made me realize that she could sense my watching her. I looked away, but too late. “You’re a bastard,” was all she said, quietly enough to still the re-circulating air.
“Why did you say all that?” she demanded in a high voice. “Why would you sit there and say all that?”
“I thought you couldn’t hear!” I protested. Some woman with bad hair sitting in the seat directly in front of me turned her sharp nose between the seats to see what was going on. I wished her dead. “Anyway,” I added, “say what, exactly?”
“No, seriously,” I nearly reached out and clutched her arm to make her listen, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t. “What was it I said that made you— ”
Her eyes swung around, at last, fixed on mine for a beautiful silent moment with an armed intensity that stopped me from speaking the words. I noticed her eyes were a kind of steel gray, a hint sad and, yes, supporting deep shadowed sockets above the cheekbone lines. Then she said, “Just leave me alone.”
Oh ho. That’s just great. You can’t weep all over your airline seat companion and then ask them to leave you alone. It’s not possible. There’s still the battle over the armrest, for instance. Or the question of whether you dare to touch their finished meal tray as it’s passed across you to the flight attendant. These things, false as they are, still reinforce a kind of connection between two people sharing such intimate space. And an intimacy is an intimacy, no matter what causes it. My wife and I had first fallen in love when we were thrown together as badminton partners, if you can believe that. I twisted my ankle and couldn’t get up, and she came, sweating and worried, hovering over me, her face close to mine. Strangely, it ended in real love. A love where you can’t bear to leave each other for work in the morning. Really, that’s what it was like, before she died, before she’d died.
In any case, I’d found there were layers to this girl next to me—this woman. I’d tapped some silent well of sensitivity—there was some miracle word I’d spoken that had hauled out unpremeditated feelings from beneath those earphones and perfect skin.
“I get it,” I said, “and I’ll leave you alone. Really. But I can’t just sit still now that you—I mean, you heard what I said, didn’t you? And it made you—well, not that it made you—” Something in the way she sat up against the light through the window kept me from mentioning the tears. “I guess I just need to know—because it seemed like you did—I need to know whether you get it. Okay? Just that—just a word—it would be enough.”
She was seething, you could tell, pulling at a paper napkin twisted into rope between her two hands, but she saw I wasn’t letting it go. So slowly she launched into an awkward and hesitant nod. “Yeah, I get it. Now go to hell.”
I couldn’t stop asking. I shouldn’t have said a word, but I did. “Get what exactly?”
She spoke in a very low tone, just above a whisper, swiveling to look at me, maybe for the first time ever: “If you don’t leave me alone, I swear to you I will scream. I’ll get the air marshal, if there is one on this god-forsaken plane.”
I knew that was a bluff, though. I gave her exactly two minutes to remember why she’d never scream on an airline, humming a little tune. Then I said,“I’m sorry,” half to her, half to the woman who was again frowning between the seats ahead. When she turned back I stuck a knee into the magazines in the back pocket of her seat, knowing she could feel it. “I’m sorry,” I echoed, quieter, “but it’s not often people take the time to listen and I—”
“I’m not listening,” she said. She realized it wasn’t enough, so she bent down to search the floor for her earbuds.
“No, really. Really, really, really, I’m not going to keep bothering you. But one more thing, and I’ll be quiet. One more thing and I’ll read my book, I swear, ‘cause it’s a really good book, really gripping, this spy novel that’s set in the—”
She nearly flipped out. I’ve never seen anyone so animated on an airplane. Her knee knocked into mine as she turned to let me have it. “What kind of sick creep are you? What gives you the—the right to fill my already god-forsaken life—I mean this flight to see my in-laws, of all people, with your incessant yapping. You’re one of those little dogs invented to torment everyone except the little old lady who carries the thing all over my apartment building. You’re Tufty. That’s what you are, and I hate you.”
I was silent, but I guess it came too late. She was breathing in little gasps, like sobs, but quieter. “Great, thank you, I never wanted to be here anyway. It’s the last flight I want to be making.” Then she was silent, as if thinking—as if she’d admitted it to herself for the first time.
“Why is that?” I prompted.
“Because.” It was final.
“You don’t like your in-laws?”
She was crying again, the pent-up tension shifting from rage to bewildered distress. “I don’t even really know them. I only met them once.”
I would have never guessed, that morning, when I had stepped into a day filled with such promise, that this was waiting for me. I had thought I might blunder into some kind of flirtation—I guess that’s the best I had hoped for. But instead of small talk I had found the end of a miles-long piece of ribbon wound around and around a piece of glass in this woman’s lungs, and I was going to pull—pull as long as I had to. It seemed the most natural thing in the world, now that I was listening, to listen to her—to listen to no one but her. I didn’t care about the drinks cart or the meals or the movies.
“You’ve only met your husband’s parents once?” I asked quietly.
“Why isn’t your husband with you?”
Her eyes closed like a grip upon this question, holding it in with fluttering, straining eyelashes. She squeezed out one tear, then another, battling the question. “He died,” she breathed. “Now please, please, leave me alone.”
My heart, as they say, went out to her, quietly tucked in the harsh fabric of her airline seat—I really felt it. Who could have predicted? It was a perfect union in aisle 23, us against the world: two wounded, tortured, misunderstood souls flying seven miles above the North Atlantic—winging our way toward somewhere we might start to pick up pieces. I don’t know why I started to picture us at the baggage reclaim in San Francisco, once we’d landed, pulling suitcases off the carousel together with guarded smiles, heading out the door to meet her in-laws and my brother’s family together: so much better protected for having found each other.
My meal came first because I’d ordered it beforehand, and I felt a bit self-conscious pulling the foil from my mushrooms on rice. So I let it sit for a moment, wishing the meals cart would come quicker so we might eat together. She was lost in the little plastic window out of which you could see nothing but a cotton wool carpeting across the ankle-high horizon.
“You know,” I had to say, “you can tell me whatever you want, if it would help.”
She didn’t turn.
“You can tell me about his family, or about him, if you want. I don’t mind listening.”
She offered nothing.
“Sometimes it helps. Just to talk about it.”
“Is there anything about me,” she turned toward me abruptly, “that gives you the impression I need your help? Is there anything here that makes you think I want to talk about it? Am I sending out all kinds of signals I’m not aware of?”
“No,” I whispered. “I just—”
“Don’t, goddamn it. Don’t, don’t.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
I had gone off my food, and the cream sauce on my mushrooms was thickening into a hard skin. I stuck a fork in, turned it, cultivated and aerated the mush. It gave off a crippled smell. There was a rectangular stick of cheese wrapped in plastic that I could just about eat, if I had the energy to open it. I stuck it in my bag for later, with the crackers and a little chocolate mint, for when I was hungry.
When the flight attendants came, the girl had the fish and it smelled worse than the rice. She didn’t seem to have lost her appetite. She chased the fish with an airline-sized vodka and orange juice, while I had water with ice in it. I could feel her breathe.
The funny thing was that, now we both knew that we each had lost someone, we were finally silent. The one thing we had in common kept us from making any connection. I had offered to hear her out, she had declined, and the thing, whatever it was, had been exhausted. So I found a movie just starting, something about baseball, and I let it run.
Amazing what a movie can do—even a bad movie. I was quite lost somewhere between the funny guy who loved baseball and his girlfriend who didn’t, not caring about them and really loving not caring. Not paying attention to anything, and that was the beautiful part: to spend a couple of hours on a plane not wondering if you were getting any closer to landing or the empty miles traveled. Not thinking about loss.
But there was some quiet moment in the film, some improbable point when no one was speaking or laughing or monkeying around, when I heard a voice to my right and turned to see that the girl, looking straight ahead of her, was speaking. I couldn’t figure out who she spoke to, really there was no one there, so I pulled off my headphones. She spoke at an even volume to the headrest in front of her, looking deep into the screen that was switched off.
She was saying, “… because the bruises just won’t wash off. Blood washes off, of course, but you still see the cuts. The glass somehow gets everywhere. I had to study him, in the morgue. There were maybe a hundred-thousand tiny cuts all over his naked blue-white body, showing up under the fluorescent lights against the pale. I specifically remember a little quarter inch cut on his left foot: his cold left foot. How did he get a cut on his foot when they told me specifically that the paramedics had to cut off his shoes? I don’t know. It’s the little things that keep you guessing. One of his cheeks was cut in four places, each little line parallel to the others as if a fork had got loose in the car during the—”
So. She had taken my offer. I wasn’t certain what I should do. How long had she been describing it, while I’d been lost in the comedy on-screen? Did she know I was listening? Or rather that I hadn’t until then been listening? Did she care?
“I think he was on his mobile phone,” she went on. “I think it’s all down to the mobile phone, although the police never came out and said it was. When it comes to placing blame for these things, they offer you little hints to grab onto, but make sure they won’t confirm anything. The airbag. Why didn’t it go off? They talk about it, they point out it must be this or that, but they won’t tell you it’s the manufacturer’s fault, or his fault, or just the chance angle of collision. Shattered glass all over the road, and who can ever get in a car again? Or talk on your mobile phone? I gave mine away. I gave it to Oxfam, still with four months on the contract. But it’s not like the shattered glass goes away. It’s not like the sight of a cut on his foot goes away.”
“How long ago?” I asked.
“A year,” she said. “A little under a year.”
So it was more recent for her. A car crash widow or widower takes a predictable path through the next hundred weeks. I knew the stages, like the Catholics know the stations of the cross.
“You still wake up at night, thinking he’s there?”
She shook her head, rejecting the insinuation that we shared something. “No. I don’t sleep. Not anymore.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I know.”
There was a dark brooding silence in her eyes, a kind of warning that I could almost make out from the corner of my own vision.
“I guess it’s probably fate that we got stuck here together,” I spoke after a while. “I guess there aren’t that many people out there who’ve had something like this happen to them.”
She scoffed. “Fate?”
“I’ve never heard of anyone who’s lost someone that still believes in fate.”
“No,” I said, “but—I mean, kind of. You kind of have to.”
She shook her head. “I have to believe it’s an accident. It just happened. You talk about ‘meant to be’ like it’s a nursery rhyme. A pocket full of posies. It’s nothing to me. But the cuts on his hands—”
I was quiet. At long last, I was quiet. I realized she wouldn’t agree with anything I said, especially the longer I agreed with everything she said. No phrase I formulated would make her look at me.
“I’ve got to see his parents in, like,” she reached for an invisible watch beneath her sweater, “seven hours. And you’re talking to me about fate.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it, but she didn’t hear.
“They’re Christians. They’ll tell me it’s part of a plan. But he was just on his phone—that’s it. Stupid man. I don’t even know who he was talking to.”
She wasn’t crying, but it was worse than crying, the kind of vacant stare and hollow tone of voice.
“God,” she said, without emphasis or anger. “I come home to an empty house and think, for a second, I can hear him calling out, ‘Echo?’ That’s what he used to say when I would come home, and I would answer, ‘echo,’ and he would say, ‘echo’, twice, three times more, distant and ridiculous. It was a little thing he would do. I guess every couple has a little thing like that.’
I could only think that my wife and I did not. When I came home she would sometimes smile, sometimes say ‘hey’, or ask about the milk. There was no thing.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
Her lips tightened to a thin line. “I’m Kay,” she said. The name didn’t fit her.
“No,” she closed her eyes tight, urgent or impatient. “No, don’t tell me. You’re Jay.”
It took me a minute. “Oh, right. Yeah. I get it, 23J and K, right?” And I tried to laugh only a little to show her I got it. But really I felt hurt.
On the little screen in front of me, the funny man who liked baseball was still making jokes, so I punched it off.
“So tell me this,” she sat up a little straighter, just beginning to tune in the fact that we two shared a rare kind of experience. “How long ago did your wife die?”
I watched the now-grey screen in the headrest. “How long ago?” I repeated. “I don’t know. A few years?”
“More or less than three years?”
“And you really want to talk about it?”
I reached for my book, for some reason. Had I said that I wanted to talk about it?
She went on. “When was the first day someone asked you questions—even really simple questions, like ‘how are you?’—and you didn’t want to slit your wrists?”
I looked at her, unafraid now. Her hands were twisting the loose seatbelt flap, but her eyes were less distant. It was getting closer to conversation, less like a rehearsal for a part in a play she didn’t like.
“I don’t know. Just now?”
She almost smiled. “That new, huh?”
The cabin’s air was getting up into my head. “I’m sorry I was pushing you earlier,” I said, maybe a little sourly. “If you don’t want to talk about it, fine. I just—”
“You just need someone to talk to,” she finished for me. “I heard that. You wanted to talk to someone who didn’t know you when you were with your wife.”
She had heard. “Yes.”
“And I’m the first?”
“The first what.”
“The first person you’ve found to talk to? Didn’t they tell you to see a counselor or something?”
“How was that?”
“I didn’t go more than once.”
“Did the counselor listen?”
“But nothing more, right? Nothing human.” I didn’t answer. “Did they ask you questions? I mean specifics.”
“No,” I sighed. “She just listened. She just kept asking me to talk.”
“Did you tell her?”
“Tell her what?”
“How ready to die you were. How close to laying down and ceasing to breathe you were.”
It had been two years since the experimenting with not breathing phase had ended. I’d forgotten how real that was, though it came back with a warmth of blood through my face.
“Was your wife driving?”
I didn’t answer, not knowing where it was coming from.
“Was she driving the car when it—”
“What does it matter?” I asked.
She lifted one hand, palm up. “I guess quite a lot. If she wasn’t driving, she’s immediately a victim. It changes everything. Maybe you were driving?”
I shook my head.
“Is there somebody to blame?”
I really wished I was the one sitting by the window. There’s a certain escape route through an airplane window, lost in the limitless blue or white.
“Oh God, I really hope you’ve found someone to blame,” she added. “I blame the phone, but—” She sniffed once. “It’s not like it caused every half-inch cut across the whole of his body. It’s not like it explains the cuts on his feet,” sniffing once more. “Did you see her? After?”
The questions churned the airline food in the depths of my stomach. Somehow, three hours into the flight, our seats had been pushed together that much closer, and it was obvious that soon we’d be wrapped in one seatbelt with one life preserver, rolled in a tangled ball of pale-skinned and dehydrated passenger, a black hole that would draw the couple in seats in front of us down into our laps, drawing everything toward the still, small hole of our loss. Did I tell you I suffered from claustrophobia? There were two hundred and forty of us fixed to a thin-skinned, wide-winged, metal sausage hurtling through the sky.
“So how long were you and your wife married?” she asked.
“Nine years,” I said.
“What? I didn’t hear.”
“Wow,” she said. “Long time.” I rubbed the skin of my cheek with two fingertips. “We were married two.”
I nodded, quiet, waiting.
“We only ever knew each other for three.”
Silence filled by the noise of the jets is never as awkward as normal silence between two people, but she just kept on.
“I find myself thinking,” she added, “maybe the accident came three years too late.” She waited as a passenger groped their way past our row before she continued. “How selfish is that? If only he’d died before I knew him. At least I would have been spared.”
This was slow-roasted death over an open flame. I wished I could squirm out of the way, turn away, turn around so she was on the other side of me, as if I could take it if only she was on the other side of me for a change. But I felt strapped in.
“Do you get past that? Do you eventually start wishing he’d never died rather than simply that I’d never been hurt? Or is that just me, and I’ll be like this till I die?”
I still couldn’t speak, but kind of wanted to cry. I could see she was so full of self-loathing, but I didn’t have enough confidence to pick her up and carry her. For my part, I only wished I hadn’t started her talking.
“You can tell me more,” she said, almost starting afresh, turning her head to me. “Tell me about her.”
I didn’t know what to say, apart from maybe being sick all over her lap. Did they provide the plastic-coated paper sacks just in case you got into this situation: a fellow-passenger probing you on details of your loss?
“What did she do?”
“She was a teacher.”
“She like it?”
“I wouldn’t,” she murmured. “I hate that age.”
I nodded. I felt better—I’d exhausted her questions. But she came back.
“Did you have kids?”
“Be grateful, right?”
“Did you want kids?”
“Well, the two of you.”
“You didn’t talk about it?” she smiled.
“Yeah. I guess we did.” It had been so long ago.
She said, “I suppose you don’t really know till you say, all right, let’s go, let’s have one. Otherwise it’s always kind of, okay, maybe, if the right time comes around.”
“But the right time doesn’t come around,” she murmured just loud enough to be heard. But she pushed on, willing the questions to keep coming. “Tell me what’s changed.”
“What’s changed in your life? You know, since.”
I looked at her, remembering for the first time in a long while that she was pretty, but not caring now. “Do you really want to hear that?” I asked, a little angry.
“Well,” she said, “you were saying how you wanted to talk to someone who didn’t know you before she died. As if they kept misunderstanding the new you. There’s a new you, right? Isn’t that inevitable? There’s a new me.”
“Yeah,” I consented. “I guess.”
“So what’s changed?”
Nothing. Nothing had changed, except I woke up now wishing things could be like they were then. I knew some people felt trapped by marriage. I only ever really felt trapped once she was gone. I was fixed to what we were, without any chance of getting up and walking forward, walking away.
“I’ve cut out the sugar in my coffee,” I said, like it was a joke.
“Uh-huh.” She was unimpressed.
“I watch more TV.”
She nodded. “You really want to talk about it, don’t you?”
I reached down and unfastened my seatbelt, but didn’t get up. It just felt better to have it unfastened.
The flight attendants came by, selling liquor and toys, and we warily watched them. Every flight, I try to think what I could buy, just to have something to do, and it was a more desperate quest this time, but there was never anything of interest. I made the mistake of eye contact with a flight attendant, and she slowed the cart. The refrain had been building down the aisle and now it was directed, with volume, at me: “Duty Free?”
I shook my head and the two attendants moved on. But then there was a scent, washing in the wake through the cabin of that cart. I swear it was really there—not just a trick of the subconscious. It was Jennifer’s perfume.
I’d thrown away the nearly-full bottle about two years earlier and it was a shock now, to pick it out of the mass of smells on that airline—to pick it out of the maybe ten different perfumes on that cart, all boxed up. But it was there, cutting through my nostrils deep into my brain, separating the black pockets of suppressed memories from the carefully colored images I’d purposefully preserved.
I saw her in her dressing gown (why would perfume lead me to see her unmade-up and with morning coffee in hand?), and she was reading a newspaper. She was telling me about population growth during the last few centuries, some article she was reading, but that global warming was going to bring seven billion people down to a billion. And she said it without a hint of emotion, as if the six billion dead meant nothing to her.
I felt a blood clot in my leg working its way to my brain. I felt white, as deadened and soft as the layer of cloud out the window. The scent had disappeared into the thin oxygen, but home movies had started in my head, little scenes of domestic non-drama that I hadn’t revisited for a year and more.
Jennifer on a train, going to Gatwick, where we were flying on to Venice. She was pulling her fingers through loose curls of hair, separating tangles, and I remembered it was those tangles—that hair—that had allowed me to approach her in the first place. I had targeted a tangle of hair as the imperfection that made her approachable, and I’d happily lived with it for nine years. And then two years and three months ago, I’d seen a tangle of hair clumped with blood on a sterilized table—starting a farewell still, evidently, working itself out.
God love us, 23J and K: two half-humans, no names, no freedom to run, or even move, or twist away from the pain. I found I was crying, and when I glanced up, she was crying, too. For five minutes, we’d left the other alone, and now we were both lost in the featureless sky, incapable of bearings, unable to cling to anything but the friction of airline seat fabric and two lost lives.
We hit turbulence once only in that ten-hour flight, and it felt like solid matter, like space detritus crashing against the metal fuselage. I somehow knew it was the ghosts of the dead who’d been known by all the passengers of the entire flight—bouncing off the plane as they sought to penetrate the skin holding us in. But not we two. We carried our dead with us, safely domesticated on our laps. The dead fly free, your one personal item.
She kept crying. It was becoming audible, from where I sat, but not loud. There was going to be some hysteria, something I couldn’t let myself witness. I couldn’t watch her unravel, as much as I’d sought it out when we first sat down.
But where could I go? The Duty Free cart was blocking the aisle behind, as some fat man bought gin, and the flight attendant had no change. The aisle in front was cut off by a curtain, shutting away the first class.
“You go about these things,” she said, incapable of controlling the pitch of her voice, “imagining no one notices you. You put your headphones on and nobody else knows the tragedy of the song you’ve got on, you know? Nobody pushes you. Nobody sees the little cut on his foot that shouldn’t be there, or the way his nose is broken—the police don’t know it’s not already bent, do they?”
The woman sitting in front of us lifted her head, but had the good sense not to turn back to see.
“Do you get out of this? Can you get out, if you thrash around long enough?” she really wanted to know. “Because it’s been months, and it’ll be years, and I’m getting pretty close to lashing out at somebody.”
Not me, not me. I knew the depths of the well I’d tapped, and I knew what monsters that could be awakened. Not me. I’m not here.
“And you come along,” she said, I couldn’t believe she was saying this, loud and confrontational. “You come along and try to get me talking? You want me to—to—”
But I didn’t, not anymore. I was quiet.
I could only watch her breath come and go, through my peripheral vision, her face unavailable to me, but her hands, her heart, served up on a plate. I had to focus on that, just to believe I was in the seat, in the plane, in the sky, next to her.
I felt the sweat rising in my armpits and an uncomfortable heat all across my body where it touched the fabric of the airline seat. I got up to go to the little toilet cubicle, but got caught in between a drinks cart from each direction, and never made it. I stood there, though, in the aisle, trying to get away from the woman whose husband had died, apparently, of a cell phone and a hundred thousand inch-long cuts.
I was stuck for the next six hours, a place that no movies, no drinks or meals or spy novels could deliver me from. Hurtling through the sky at 600mph, who could think of any worse disaster than the fuselage cracking open and the passengers tumbling to the earth in flames? This. This alone was worse. This was the worst airline disaster in history, and it was only two people, stuck elbow to elbow, waiting for the other to breathe.
I could only retire to my seat as the carts closed in, row by row pushing me back toward 23J. I didn’t look at her, but could feel her crying again, presumably beginning a cry that would last for the next six hours as a torment to me. Confined to two seats littered with the crushed glass of our respective lovers’ automobiles, it cut even when you didn’t shift this way or that, impatient against the confining space.