I shut my eyes and hug my waist as we take off. The plane whooshes upwards, pressing me into my seat. The lady next to me has big flabby arms wedged against mine. When we boarded, she nestled in and spoke with a southern drawl, "Why, y’all are an itty-bitty little wisp of a thing. You wouldn't mind if I flip up this armrest so I can spread out here some?”
"I'm sorry, but I’d rather you didn't."
Her ample hips barely squeeze between the two armrests. She wriggles around, shifting left and right, her bag swinging in my face. Finally, her body is crammed in. She opens a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The odor of cheap fry-o-lator grease wafts up towards me. Her hand plunges inside and she picks out a chicken wing. As she gnaws away, I turn towards the window and focus into the distance.
We swerve over the harbor and slope eastward allowing a full view of the city. The late sun carves the skyscrapers into 3-D angles against a clear sky. I follow the meandering trail of the Charles River, delineating Boston from Cambridge. This geography is so familiar that I can easily pick out all the neighborhoods I have lived in over the past twenty years: Commonwealth Ave., the North End, Brookline, and Warren St. The timeline overlay threading these places together will now need to extend much further. The plane climbs higher and sets its course as we fly parallel to the coast.
"Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to American Airlines Flight 109 to London. We have reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. Our flight path will take us up along Newfoundland and over Greenland. The tail winds are in our favor, so we can expect an early arrival. Please sit back and enjoy the flight."
How odd to have such intimate proximity with a random stranger for the duration of the journey: eating together, sleeping together, breathing the same air, touching. We sit four inches apart, confined by an invisible straitjacket, yet we share nothing. I swallow two drug store capsules and hope to numb my mind.
Mealtime comes around. I open the cellophane and take a few nibbles. Inside the little tub, a lump of meat hides beneath dense cheese sauce. A sprig of flaccid broccoli and doughy white bread sit alongside an oily cube of frosted cake. I have chocolate inside my bag and eat that instead.
My neighbor looks over and eyes my abandoned meal. "Y’all aren't going to let that perfectly good food go to waste now are you?”
"Please, do help yourself.”
"Why, thank you. You are ever so kind!"
She hums lightly as she heaps the remains from my tray to hers.
Before long we are zooming away from land, flying over the vast, dark ocean. It’s quite terrifying, if you allow yourself to think about it. We are no longer there, on the earth. It's incomprehensible that this bulky vessel can lift itself skyward and soar from one continent to another.
Equally unimaginable are the many changes that are coming my way. I have no choice but to give it all the faith I can muster. Pouring the remains of the cheap wine into a plastic cup, I notice gratefully that my brain is softening and my senses dulled. It’s going to be absolutely fine, I tell myself. If the engine cuts out and we plunge into the frozen North Atlantic night, shattering into a thousand flaming pieces, I will deal. I've been lucky thus far. I probably won't feel a thing.
I climb inside the comfort of a restless half-sleep, sloshing through half-dreams, still alert to the sounds that surround me; roaring turbines, hatches snapping open and closed, a trolley waddling down the aisle. I drop into a stupor, knowing that the end really isn't going to happen like that. I think about joining John in London as we finally align our lives and set off together. The mealtime bustle of the cabin gradually calms as the plane overtakes time zones and rushes towards dawn.
Later, I open my eyes and try to focus. My head throbs and its weight bears down on my stiff neck. The chicken wing lady emits foul breath in soft slubbering snores. Sliding the oval panel upwards, I see the sunlight streaming through the clouds in a majestic hologram.
Up here the air is ozone-thinned, crystalline and bright. A few stars linger at the edge of the luminous blue. We crest through space, suspended between night and day, hovering over the clouds and beneath the heavens. The body next to mine stirs involuntarily and turns my way, as if we've been bedmates for years.
"Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is your Captain speaking. We are flying over Shannon, Ireland at an altitude of 27,000 feet. It's 6:15 a.m. local time. We will soon begin our descent into Heathrow and it looks like the weather up ahead is rainy and cold. Estimated arrival time is 7:00, twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Thank you for flying American Airlines."
There is increased activity in the cabin as the other passengers awaken, gathering belongings and lining up for the loo. The lady next to me rouses to apply lipstick and brush her hair. I stretch my atrophied limbs and wait. We circle broadly as the plane curves downward and tucks beneath the clouds. Then the sky fogs into a gray mass and a curtain of rain slaps hard against the window.
"Flight attendants prepare for landing."
We bounce onto the ground and the big bird shrieks against the pull of the brakes as it scrapes the earth. As we taxi along the runway, I look out onto the November morning, soft edges in wet monochrome gray. Ah, so this is England. I suppose I live here now.
published 3 September 2011
published 3 September 2011