by Chris Belden
Chapter One: Turbulence
You head down the long walkway, a slight tunneled descent, footsteps silent on thin carpeting, the air thick and warm, your fellow passengers clustered at the aircraft door like doomed cows boarding a truck—you need to breathe here, while you can, before you’re sealed inside—breathe—your shoulder grown weary now from the weight of the carry-on bag, its contents growing heavier with each cowardly step you take—C’mon, c’mon, you think as ahead of you an old fart, decrepit, a thousand years old, with stiff bony hands, tries desperately to collapse the ingeniously designed handle on his little suitcase-on-wheels—Can I help? you ask, and he smiles yellow teeth, allows you to lift the bag over the gap, a transporting moment, stepping from land to something else entirely, something other—Thank you, young man—and here is the stewardess to greet you, Good morning, she says—ILSE, her name tag shouts in capital letters—and is that a twinkle in her eye? is it for you? can she possibly know it’s your birthday? as you quickly thrust your left hand into your pocket, hiding your wedding band—Hi, you say, and she nods pleasantly—then a mumbled Oh crap as you enter the aisle which is now backed up with passengers attempting to stuff their baggage and hats and folded jackets and what-all into the overhead compartments—heave, push, groan, finagle—C’mon, c’mon, my shoulder is killing me, and oh how your arms itch, your forearms, the red lines up and down, don’t scratch them, let them scab, don’t even think about it—breathe—glance at your ticket, 34-F, window seat, you like the window seat, always have, ever since you were a child, but you’ll never arrive there at this rate because some fool with a floppy designer bag can’t manage to shut the overhead bin, the bag is just too damn big, its handles keep spilling out, it’s like wrassling an octopus, the guy sweating now, red-faced, the wife in her seat looking up at him, humiliated—Typical, why on earth did I have to marry this schmuck who can’t even store a bag properly?—his face redder and redder, one beat away from myocardial infarction—but look, who’s this? ILSE, come to the rescue, squeezing past you with a polite Excuse me (squeeze me?), her alabaster elbow electrically brushing your arm—tingle tingle—oh the talent it requires to look good in that awful polyester uniform—she reaches up and like a magician makes the big floppy bag handles disappear, poof, slam, all there is to it, and now you are able to move on, to row 34, but first another smile from ILSE as she steps aside to let you pass—hand in pocket!—if only you had something to say to her, something appropriately witty, but you do not, you are shy, even afraid, so you find your row, flip open the overhead, oh-so-carefully hoist the carry-on up and in, touching it lightly, illogically, as if to make sure it will not get up and walk away, then, ignoring the small voice that keeps asking Why? you slam the bin shut, crabwalk past the empty aisle (34-D) and middle (34-E) seats to your own, 34-F, the window seat, and sit down, sigh.
Close your eyes.
As if from far away you can hear the thumpthumpthump of your heart mingled with the familiar sounds of air travel: the hiss of air conditioner nodules, the muted crash of baggage being stored below, the anxious murmur of passengers as they find their seats, stow their bags, buckle their seat belts. And the smells: air freshener, musty fabric, microwaved airline food, and the cold, freon-tinged aroma of packaged air that tickles the edges of your nostrils.
Please God, you say to yourself, let these two seats next to me remain vacant. A six hour flight, I need room to stretch out. Please...
Hullo, young man.
An elderly couple, retirees from the looks of them, he in a shiny silver and red warm-up suit, she in a pant suit of stretchy blue material found nowhere in nature. From the safety of the aisle this extravagantly wrinkled, shrink-wrapped woman examines you closely for any sign of terrorist affiliation. A friend of a friend of her cousin Eunice was on board that plane that blew up over Scotland. Or was it Pittsburgh? You look a little scruffy, perhaps, but no hint of middle eastern blood. Hell, you don’t even like the food, it gives you the runs. Apparently you’ve passed the test because she is unloading several glossy magazines onto her seat. People. Good Housekeeping. Us. Don’t say a word, just smile and turn away, or else you’ll be looking at snapshots of the grandkids all the way to Portland.
Her husband, at least seventy, is attempting to manhandle their faux designer bag into the overhead. The thing seems to weigh a ton. Does he see your bag there? Is he going to crush it? You leap to your feet, Here, lemme help you with that, sir, practically knocking the old geezer out of the way, you take hold of the bag—Christ, what’s in here, a cinderblock?—and maneuver it into the bin so that yours is safe and sound. You touch it to make sure. From inside you might have heard a sigh but you slam the door before anyone else catches on. There we are, no problem.
Thanks a bunch, the old fella says as you slide yourself back to the window seat, followed closely by the missus, who, being a martyr of the old school, has noisily volunteered for the middle seat. Are you sure? asks the hubby, who is approximately half her size. She does not answer, but plops herself into the seat and proceeds to shift and re-shift her ample posterior, left cheek up, right cheek up, left, right, left right left right until, realizing it is of no use, there is no comfort to be found here, and with a sigh perfected over decades of practice to achieve maximum dramatic effect, she finally settles herself, only to turn to her husband and stage whisper, WE SHOULDA GONE FIRST CLASS. These words, uttered in an outer borough quack, hang in the air like a fart, wrinkling her husband’s veiny nose. The poor old bastard needs a cocktail.
You turn your attention to the workers out on the tarmac. What must it be like to toil amongst these huge machines all day and night, like herding great iron dinosaurs, exposed to the elements, wearing sturdy cotton coveralls and those industrial strength earmuff noise reducers? Not so bad, maybe, on a lovely July morning like this, but what about February? The cold, the rain, the wind.
Uh oh. You have the distinct feeling that your neighbor is eyeballing you. You can actually sense her psychic tendrils slithering over the armrest, which she has boldly and decisively commandeered, directly into your space. Sure enough, the old woman is taking another careful inventory. Hmm, she thinks. Thirties, WASPy, jeans, unkempt hair, unshaven, wedding band (white gold)...scratch marks on forearms. What could that be about? A drug addict?! You have an urge, sudden and powerful, to turn to her and confess everything, but you turn instead toward the window, watch the workers feed luggage onto the conveyor belt. Please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me...
You shut your eyes again. So tired, but you cannot turn off your mind. It’s like a radio receiver, picking up snippets of conversation from throughout the cabin:
...all I’m saying is you might’ve thought about me before you decided that...a one bedroom in the Village oh brother that’ll run you about...he killed her of course he did it’s open and shut as far as I’m concerned...why does it bother me so much that Jack didn’t invite me to his pool party?...I want to live by myself...
Finally, the attendants pull shut the heavy door and the airplane is towed away from the gate. Everything has gone off without a hitch. You feel like a fugitive escaped through a dragnet.
The flight is jam-packed, a veritable sea of heads. You feel a twinge of anxiety. All these lungs, so little air. Breathe. As the plane rolls toward the runway, the wing, the starboard wing jutting out from directly below your window, it wobbles, the wing wobbles enough to make you wonder: just how are those humongous slabs of metal attached to the body of the aircraft? Are there enough nuts and bolts in the world to keep such a thing connected? Should it be wobbling like that? Should it?
As the plane rolls along the tarmac—so dainty, with those tiny little wheels, like a sumo wrestler en pointe—the flight attendants explain the complex ins and outs of seatbelt mechanics, the proper application of oxygen masks, the exact location of flotation cushions, blah blah blah. ILSE is way up front, a mile away she seems, her arms pale and thin and downy as she calmly mimes the movements expected of you should the aircraft suddenly plummet out of the sky toward the cold hard earth. She is, for now anyway, the most beautiful woman you have ever seen, with that wheatfield blonde hair and the way she smiled at you as you boarded—those narrow, knowing lips and straight white teeth.
After a brief wait on line the pilot soberly announces that we’ve been cleared for take-off, and with tremendous deliberation the silvery nose of the aircraft swivels and aims itself down the long runway, the engines whine to life, the world begins to shiver and shake as the plane lurches forward, gaining speed at a ridiculous rate, the plastic seats and bins and even the ceiling all vibrating now as if in an earthquake, the strips of green grass whizzing past your window, WELCOME TO NEW YORK spelled out in huge white letters, you can feel the jet’s wheels bumping roughly over cracks in the runway—and then, the transcendent moment when, ignoring all laws of logic, the megaton 757 lifts its nose off the ground and heaves itself into the air, leaving the earth behind, the world dropping away like the floor of the Hell Hole at Coney Island, and the G force pushes your ass into your seat as this mammoth tin can full of human beings, hundreds of them, slices through the air toward the sun.
Then the plane suddenly dips to starboard, forcing you to take in and hold your breath, the wing pointing down at the gray water off Long Island Sound as it banks hard toward the south, then west, so that all of a sudden you feel as vulnerable as a frog on a duck’s back, with only the distressingly thin wall of the cabin stopping you from rolling down the long cold wing, over its glinting edge and into the drink.
This sort of situation brings out the amateur philosopher in you. Man should not fly. It is unnatural and arrogant. Every crash, every blood-drenched collision, every horrifying plunge out of the sky into a mountainside or ocean or corn field is inevitable and appropriate...
Then, just as suddenly, the wing rises, the airplane levels off, the seat belt lights go off with a cheery DING, and ILSE slinks past en route to the kitchenette—all is right with the world. You can breathe.