by Michael Webb
I had been sleeping, “Sleep When You Can” being item four in the business book currently in vogue, “Seven Things Your Business Can Learn From The Army”. So I slept, after a preparatory scotch served by the smiling brunette running the first class cabin, through the boarding process and the announcements and the cross checks and the rattling roar and pressure and release and powerful climbing shove of thrust and airflow and freedom: departure.
It wasn’t a deep sleep- that would wait for the endless black and smooth quiet of the dark Atlantic crossing- but more of a meditative unawareness, drifting between dreams and reality, barely registering my seatmate as she sat, a tall, leggy redhead with a pencil skirt and high heels and an expensive looking blouse. I felt the thump of her shoes hitting the floor, the rustle of her legs crossing, and glimpsed through half closed eyes her foot, bony and bare, white skin with bright red toenail polish, edging into what was technically my space. I didn’t begrudge her that freedom, though, because I had never envied the costume women have to put on to be part of the business world. It was a cute foot, a dancer’s foot, long and pointed.
She seemed to smell it before I did. We were climbing, the air rushing past as the enormous aluminum beast pushed itself at ungodly speeds through the air. There were all the usual smells- bodies packed together, food and coffee being warmed, recycled air and plastic and hints of cologne and my own shampoo, but there was also now an undercurrent, an ugly, artificial, chemical smell, an unnatural note in the air. I watched her pick her head up out of Fortune magazine, her neck long and taut as she sniffed the air.
“Do you smell that?,” she says, her voice purring like a European sports car. I tried to imagine the car those long legs had climbed out of, and I thought of a BMW, low and mean, in a forest green color, a parking attendant in blue coveralls watching her walk into the terminal.
“I do,” I said, and I was about to try and reassure her when a voice came over the intercom.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice said, his voice calm, sounding like a kindergarten teacher, “this is your captain speaking. I regret to inform you-”
I thought of the typed notice that my grandmother saved, the yellowing paper telling us that the Department of the Army “regretted to inform us” of my uncle Frank’s death overseas. I remembered reading it as a teenager, thinking “YOU regret? YOU regret?”
“-that we are experiencing a...significant...mechanical difficulty-”
I had been delayed countless times in my years of travel. Weather, and brakes, and tires, and gauges and sensors and crews delayed in St. Louis or Houston had all conspired to impede me various times. But they always referred to problems as “minor”.
“-that is going to require us to land prematurely-”
I could hear a buzzing, a repeating sound, some kind of alarm, in the background, behind his voice, which just kept purring onwards. I could feel the jet turning, the engines whining at a higher pitch as the angles changed and gravity asserted itself. Across the aisle, a man with dark ebony skin and one earring stared straight ahead, while his seatmate, a blonde in a too short dress yelped and spilled a glass of champagne onto his lap. The lights dimmed, the emergency lights clicked on. I looked out the window dumbly, assuming I would see lights, something on the East Coast, Boston or Portland or Providence or something in Canada, but all I saw was black, endless inky black. I thought about my assistant, looking at me under arched eyebrows. “Are you sure you want to fly on 9/11? On flight one eleven? I can change it.”
“-we certainly apologize to you all on behalf of-”
“Shit,” my seatmate said softly, and then, with a clatter, the famed oxygen masks fell from the ceiling, just like the safety lecture promised they would. I pulled and tugged the mask over my nose and mouth, then looked at the redhead, who was doing the same. Who was she leaving behind? She didn’t wear a wedding ring, but a lot of people didn’t. She didn’t seem like a mom, but a lot of people didn’t. I tried to picture an overpriced condo in a tony suburb, the chubby soccer moms looking at her freedom with disdain. Until a few moments ago, I was hoping she was getting off in Geneva, that perhaps a coincidence and a kind word could develop into something.
The oxygen tasted cold and metallic in my mouth, still not enough to overpower the burned plastic odor, which I could still taste when I swallowed. The redhead took my hand in hers, and I stared at her blankly. Her skin was cool and sweaty. Across the aisle, the blonde in the dress was crying, an angry cry you might expect in an emergency room or at a police station, the cry that might never end. Her dress was hiked up almost to her waist as she seemed to be trying to get out of her seat belt. I wondered where she thought she was going.
The pilot had stopped speaking. Or the intercom wasn’t working. I could feel the sickening pull as he turned the huge beast around, the unmistakable feeling of descent combined with a lack of welcoming lights out the windows. I thought about the cold of the ocean, and I thought about the redhead holding my hand tight, and I thought about whether impact or pressure changes or numbing, stinging cold would kill us, and I held her hand and heard the air rush by. I wondered who would miss me.
published 19 October 2014