Fleeing to Bliss
I’m leaving for the Anchorage International Airport in twenty minutes, and I can’t find Ray and Sarah’s wedding card. I’ve been hysterical for the past ten minutes, banging into furniture and swearing at the walls. I remember taking it out of the small paper bag and placing it on my lap earlier this afternoon. I remember jotting down broken sentences with my green felt-tip pen and scribbling obligatory, heartfelt congratulations. Then I sealed the blue envelope and placed it next to my keys on the nightstand. But now it’s run off and disappeared like the entire wedding party after a fifth round of tequila shots.
I’m directing all my anger at some flimsy, two-dollar wedding card, but it’s really the anticipation of soaring thirty-thousand feet above ground that keeps pushing me into this frenetic freefall. I’m trying to remain calm, but already my palms are sweaty and I have a headache. I’m nauseous, and my throat is dry. Now, in the midst of this panic attack, I’m searching under my bed, tearing apart my closet, and digging through the folds of the couch. I’m even rearranging the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. So far I’ve found sixty cents in spare change, allergy pills that expired three years ago, and a dust bunny in the shape of Idaho.
It’s only during the past ten years that I’ve developed an intense fear of flying. People call it a phobia, although the word “phobia” sounds gentle and non-threatening, like a sprained ankle or the common cold. I know I have the same chance of dying in a plane crash as I do of being struck by a meteor, but I still grip the armrests and shut my eyes. I still pull the seatbelt taut until that frayed strap digs into my waist. While other passengers read their magazines and newspapers, or watch movies on their laptops, I hunker down in a cramped, smelly seat and clutch my bag of stale peanuts, choking on panic and anxiety like a dog on small bones.
I’m terrified of heights, but it’s that added incentive of potentially burning, drowning, or asphyxiating that typically concerns me when I book my flight. The older I become, the more I fear death. Honestly, I can’t even look at a scythe without having an anxiety attack. Call me selfish, but I’m not ready for someone in a black hood to harvest my soul. I have too many student loans to repay.
I do realize that my chances of dying in a plane crash are about one in eleven million, and that I’m more likely to be killed by a donkey than in a plane crash. I even read somewhere that I’m more likely to be killed driving to the airport than while flying the friendly skies. But those useless statistics do nothing to halt the incredible rush of fear that shocks my system whenever I enter an airport. Meandering through the crowds, I tend to become a paranoid aerophobic who fantasizes about über creative death scenarios while fidgeting in the security line. I trip over my own luggage. I become nauseated while printing out my E-ticket.
I consider all these statistics while I’m searching for the wedding card. But now I’m worried that I’ve misplaced my toothbrush or shaving kit, so I do a quick sweep through the bathroom to check that my toiletries have been cleared off the counter. I’m scared my tickets fell out of their envelope and fluttered under the washing machine, so I run into the entryway. My suitcase is propped against the wall, the tickets still resting on top. My sigh of relief lasts but a second: Do I have my license? Did I scribble down all important phone numbers and tuck them into my wallet? I frisk myself to make sure: a bottle of aspirin in my right front pocket; my wallet in my right back pocket; and my house keys in my left front pocket. I grab the phone and call Delta, for the fifth time, to confirm that my flight will arrive in Washington D.C. at its scheduled hour. The report: nothing but clear skies ahead. I take a deep breath and collapse on the couch, trying to relax for a few minutes before Chad arrives to pick me up. Then I remember the goddamn wedding card, and I’m off again.
My roommate, Jeremy, watches me race around the apartment. I’m throwing seat cushions into the air and cursing under my breath. As I come around the corner for a sixth lap through the kitchen, he hands me a Miller-Lite. I lean against the doorframe and twist off the cap, flicking it into the garbage can along with the other bottle I’ve already drained.
He says, “Just buy another card when you get there.”
“It’s not the card,” I say. “I had everything perfect and now my whole aura is thrown off.”
“Relax,” he says, “the chances of anything happening are so slim it’s not even worth thinking about. About the only thing you can expect is a terrible meal. Just ask for one of those crappy pillows and take a nap.”
“But what if I dream that I’m trapped in one of those Airport movies from the seventies?”
“Next time, fly first class,” he says. “Free alcohol during the entire flight. The plane could do a few loop-d-loops and you probably wouldn’t even notice.”
“First class is a tease,” I tell him. “It’s like bedding the high school beauty queen for one glorious night when you know all along that you’ll have to head home the next morning to fuck the town slut.”
How do you explain to someone that first-class feels like a different world? The colors seem brighter. The aisle seems wider. Even the air tastes different, like there’s a hint of spearmint at the back of your throat. Whenever I move through first-class I can’t help but glance at the wine glasses and hot towels. I touch the leather seats as I walk by, relishing that new car smell and dreading the musty odor of all those nosebleed seats in coach. I generally sprint through first-class because I feel like an intruder who’s trespassing on private property and might get shot at any moment. I feel tongue-tied and confused, not sure if I should nod politely and make small talk about immigration and mutual funds, or if I should keep my eyes on the floor and shuffle toward the back of the cattle car with the rest of the herd.
Invariably, I stand there with my mouth hanging open, practically drooling as the flight attendant uncorks a bottle of red wine and mixes cocktails at the mini-bar. I see men in Armani suits draping cloth napkins across their steam-cleaned laps. I see women marinating in Chanel and Estée Lauder, fingering their gold necklaces while I clutch my frayed duffel bag. I hear the ding of metal silverware as it clinks against an assortment of fine China and spirals off into the static lull of coach. I wonder if first-class passengers ever consider all those suckers who sit behind them, huddled together behind a thin dusty curtain that separates an entire tax bracket, trading crumpled bills for cheap headsets while they fiddle with plastic tray tables.
Jeremy opens the freezer and pulls out a plastic bag filled with brownies. “Eat a few of these,” he says.
I turn the bag over in my hands and count seven small brownies. “Why?”
“There’s a lot of love in that bag,” he says, smiling. “Eighty dollars worth, I think.”
“I’m half drunk,” I say. “Am I allowed to mix drugs?”
He shakes his head. “They’re dessert, not blood types.”
I open the bag and grab one of the brownies. It’s cold and hard. I take a bite, chewing slowly as I try to detect the pungent taste of THC. I sniff the brownie, examining it from every angle, and then I poke it with my finger, perhaps expecting a barrage of tiny marijuana seeds to spill onto the linoleum where, months later, they might bloom into a houseplant that we actually remember to water. But there are no hidden surprises, just the sweet taste of Duncan Hines.
By the time Chad arrives, I’ve eaten two more brownies and washed them down with one more Miller-Lite. I’ve brushed my teeth, splashed cologne on my face, and finally found Ray and Sarah’s wedding card, which was tucked away in the side pocket of my suitcase. I’m actually feeling pretty mellow, considering my stomach is twisted into beer knots and my pupils are as big as bowling balls. My current inebriated state is simply a warm up for the drunken golf match the morning of the wedding, that special gathering when the groomsmen meet at the first hole to drink light beer and make fun of each other’s mothers.
I load my suitcase into the trunk, shove the rest of the brownies inside my duffel bag, and then slip into the front seat where I can stretch out my legs, the heat from the dashboard warming my skin. September, and it’s already cold, but the weather in D.C. is a balmy seventy-five degrees. I’m looking forward to driving with the windows rolled down and swimming in the Atlantic, to flirting with drunken bridesmaids and gorging on Maryland crab cakes.
Chad turns on the radio. “Who’s getting hitched?”
“Friend from college.”
He laughs. “You sound thrilled.”
“I’ve been to three weddings in the past two years,” I tell him. “All my friends are dropping like flies.”
Despite my cavalier attitude, I really am happy for Ray. He’s found a lifelong partner, which is considerably more difficult than buying a new car or choosing a different fabric softener. On the upside, he now has someone who can rub suntan lotion into his back whenever he’s at the beach. On the downside, he’s become monogamous and can no longer flirt openly with strippers or high school girls. I guess marriage is mostly about sacrifice, but sacrifice to me means giving someone the last eggroll or agreeing to be the sober driver.
It’s not that I hate shelling out cash for a wedding gift, usually a martini set or a tall crystal vase, it’s more the overwhelming sense of loss I feel sitting in the church. Because an unmarried man never feels lonelier than when he’s a guest at someone else’s wedding. Even if he brings a date. And even if the reception is open bar. Eventually the other guests will stare at me from across the room, peering over the tops of their wine glasses while they whisper away my future, conjuring up outrageous reasons as to why I’m still unmarried. Perhaps they think I’m commitment phobic, or that I have weird sexual fantasies involving baby oil and sock puppets. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before they point their fingers and say, “Why aren’t you married?” or “You’re how old?” or “If you wait much longer, you won’t ever be able to have kids.”
I realize I sound jaded, and perhaps even a bit jealous, but truth be told I’d love to become a part of the norm and settle down in a long-term relationship with a couple of kids, a widescreen TV, and a garage full of expensive tools that I never use. After all, I don’t come from a broken home. My parents have been married since nineteen-seventy-four, so I have no reason to be skeptical of in-laws or engagement rings. Like most people, I want to believe in unconditional love. I want to find that special woman who will always be there for me, regardless of how much I misbehave in public. But when I’m watching a bride stroll down the aisle, that white veil trailing behind her like a shark in the ocean, I can’t help but think that the average marriage lasts nine years.
What if they’re all oyster and no pearl?
As we approach the airport, Chad rolls down the window to smoke a cigarette. He’s talking to me again, but I’m not paying attention. I’m watching a plane take off, its nose tilted upward as it curves south. I try to imagine catching the bouquet, but all I can think about is my plane being struck by renegade missiles and crashing into the Badlands. I try to remember if the hotel provides complimentary breakfast, but instead I envision my plane smashing into Mount Rushmore after a flock of birds gets sucked into the rear engine. Maybe a terrorist will slip aboard, drink a few cans of Budweiser, and drop a match down his throat, incinerating the entire cabin just as the in-flight movie is about to begin.
As adventurous as I am, I don’t want to be trapped underwater, decapitated by a tray table, or pinned under my seat as flames erupt around me. I don’t want to fall through the sky like some suicidal stockbroker who forgot to move a decimal point. And I don’t want my last meal to be stale Sprite and a bag of crumbling peanuts.
Now I feel nauseous, so I lean my head against the dashboard. I take in a breath and eat another brownie, but I can barely taste it. My tongue feels thick and spongy, like a rubber glove filled with sand. I close my eyes and try to imagine a swimsuit model sitting next to me on the plane. I usually get stuck sitting next to some raving sociopath or a group of screaming children, so it would be nice to meet some exotic beauty with cocoa skin who distracts me from the jolting turbulence by feigning interest in me with pining stares and hours of heavy groping.
I’m calculating the possibility of this fantasy actually happening for once when we arrive at the terminal and the car lurches to a stop. I grab my duffel bag and step outside. I hear car horns blare as last minute gate changes echo from the tinny loudspeakers. Planes circle overhead, and they look like buzzards stalking their prey, waiting to strip me of what little self control I haven’t already flushed away with domestic beer and chemically induced brownies. I watch crowds of people rush toward the check-in counters, dragging their suitcases behind them like dogs on a leash. Then the trunk pops open and Chad drops my suitcase on the ground. He pats me on the shoulder, lights up a cigarette, and says, “Have a safe flight, bro!”
Walking through the terminal, I realize how much I hate airports. And it’s not just the overpriced food and the constant delays and the overbooked flights. It’s not just the lost luggage or the broken escalators. It’s that constant assault of extremes, sucker punching me from the moment I walk through the automatic doors until the moment I collapse in my aisle seat and pray for a safe landing. Everybody around me is either incredibly happy or incredibly sad. And there’s no in-between.
The happy people stroll through the airport laughing and smiling, their eyes wide open as they march toward a seven day cruise in the Caribbean, or a quiet weekend ensconced in their lover’s arms. They thumb through stacks of glossy brochures and talk with anybody who will bother to listen. They clean their Bolle sunglasses with the hems of their Hawaiian shirts. Even their smiles look tanned.
These are the people escaping from bosses and shopping lists and household chores. These are the smiling bastards I’m always trying to crosscheck into the luggage carousel. While I’m stressing over love and death and crashing into a five-star resort, these people are worrying about whether or not they remembered to pack their bathing suit, or if they’ve brought enough batteries for their digital camera. For them, this airport is just another layover on their way to better times.
The sad people cry into wads of Kleenex, staring at the floor as they shuffle through the terminal like the walking dead in one of George Romero’s zombie movies. Eyes tired and puffy, they linger near security checkpoints, glancing at their watches as they say goodbye to friends and lovers, refusing to acknowledge anyone else around them. Separated by frequent flier miles, these people remain distantly in love, their relationships surviving on phone calls and postcards, their anniversaries replaced by a series of online bookings.
These are the people torn apart by airspace and time zones. They care about someone so deeply, so intensely, that they go home and mark their calendars, counting the days until they can return to the airport with a lighter step. Heartsick over the present, they anticipate the future so they can relive the past.
They’re a constant buzzkill.
Standing in the ticket line, I realize I’m not only drunk, but stoned and starving. The world seems to be slowing down, and my eyelids feel heavy. I want to sing and vomit. I want to run a marathon. I want to stand in this exact spot for the next twenty-four hours.
I’m happy, but I’m sad.
I’m anxious, but I’m indifferent.
I’m a complete mess.
When I arrive at the ticket counter, I throw my suitcase onto the platform and hand my license to a short, balding man who asks, “Are you flying alone?”
I want to tell him that I am always alone.
“Has anyone packed your bags for you? Have these bags been out of your sight since you packed them? Has anyone given you anything to hold?”
I want to tell him that no one has given me anything to hold, that no one has helped to pack my bags or double check my itinerary. I want to tell him that no one will kiss me goodbye at the security gate or cry for me on their long drive home.
I lean against the counter. “No,” I tell him. “I’m traveling alone.”
With my ticket in hand, and my duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I trudge over to the security checkpoint. A long line has formed, and I feel like I’m at Walt Disney World waiting to go on Space Mountain. People take off their shoes and place their carry-on luggage inside plastic bins, pushing them onto the conveyor belt. I’m fairly certain that if I bend over to take off my shoes I’ll fall on my ass. And I don’t think I have the fine motor skills necessary to empty my pockets.
I’m trying to remember if there’s a quick way to get sober. I could chug some water, but I don’t trust airport drinking fountains, and bottled water costs as much as a third-world adoption. I could exercise to get my blood pumping, but it might look weird if I started doing jumping jacks in the security line. I once heard that a jolt of energy can sometimes kick start a massive adrenaline rush, but I’m not in the mood to run up to the metal detector and kick it as hard as I can to stub my toe. Instead, I repeat the word “sober” over and over again, taking deep controlled breaths like a Buddhist monk and willing myself to regain some sense of self-control.
But now I’m starting to worry. What if they search my bag and find the brownies? What if my brownies show up on the X-Ray machine and they drag me into a secret room where they slap me around like I’m some two-bit hustler? What if they ask me about my dealer, demanding an address or a phone number?
Can I pretend the brownies aren’t mine? What if I explain that I don’t even like chocolate, that somehow the brownies were slipped into my luggage, maybe while I was urinating or watching one of the flight monitors? As extra padding, perhaps I’ll suddenly remember that strange Colombian man with a mustache and a machete who was sauntering through the airport whispering, “Quiere algunas drogas, muchacho?”
What if there are traces of marijuana on my skin, miniscule crumbs from the brownies I’ve already eaten? What if my sweat contains traces of THC? Paranoid, I begin to lick my fingers, smelling them carefully to see if they smell like a dime bag of weed. The lady in front of me places her purse and laptop into the plastic bin, gawking at me as if she’s never seen a grown man smell his fingers in an airport. I bend over and rub my hands on my jeans, my palms burning from the constant friction. Everyone in line probably thinks I’m trying to start a fire.
I lower my head, continuing to sniff my fingers like some crazed lunatic, and that’s when I see the two German Shepherds trot out of a back room and head past the security booth. I tell myself they’re just returning from their bathroom break, or maybe they’re shooting an Alpo commercial, but a tiny voice inside my head suggests that perhaps they’ve been drawn here by a lawbreaking graduate student who not only reeks of alcohol and marijuana, but is acting somewhat suspicious.
I consider leaving the line so I can run into the bathroom, flush the rest of the brownies down the toilet, and dispose of the plastic bag. But with my luck the toilet will overflow. Plus, I don’t want to draw any more attention to myself. So I start humming Born in the U.S.A.. I figure if I appear patriotic, then maybe they won’t view me as an up and coming drug czar. Instead, they’ll simply brush me off as another drunk and contemplative airline passenger who’s fleeing toward someone else’s love because he’s too afraid to pursue his own.
I smile and walk up to the X-ray machine. I’m afraid to talk because I know the security guard will smell the beer on my breath, which will prompt him to look inside my duffel bag, find the brownies, and then open the bag for a closer inspection, at which point the dogs will pick up the scent and maul me. Then, while I lie on the floor, drunk and bleeding and stoned, the security guards will cuff me, read me my rights, and whisk me off to the state prison in Seward.
I drop my keys and duffel bag on the conveyor belt and watch them disappear into the X-Ray machine. The other security guard waves me forward with her little metal-detector wand, swishing it in every direction like she’s Harry Potter. I take in a deep breath and count to ten, then I walk through the portal, counting each mile-long step through hunger pains and blurred vision. I can feel sweat dripping down the back of my neck, and I tell myself to relax, that I’m just being paranoid. I tell myself no one is staring at me, that everyone is minding their own business, that these are all perfectly normal delusions for someone who, only an hour ago, wolfed down brownies and beer like he was attending a bachelor party in Las Vegas.
Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…
I freeze, wondering if I should sprint for the exit or play it off like James Bond. I’m too drunk to run, so I laugh, shrugging my shoulders as if this is just another minor inconvenience, like forgetting to pack my toothbrush. Another security guard appears and drags me off to a side alcove with only a metal chair and a harsh overhead light. He orders me to spread my legs, and then he searches me with his wand and pats me down like I’m a suspect on Cops. Now I’m worried that somebody slipped a gun into my bag when I wasn’t looking, or dropped a pair of brass knuckles into my back pocket. But it turns out I just forgot to place my wallet in the plastic bin, and that spare car key I keep tucked away behind my credit cards set off the damn alarm.
I grab my keys and duffel bag off the conveyor belt, ready to sprint for my gate, when another security guard walks over and says, “Can you step over here, please, sir?”
I follow him to a taped off area. He takes my bag and places it on a white table. Then he puts on a pair of white gloves, pulling them tight until they snap. Suddenly I see my future, and it involves a full cavity search followed by a painful walk to my gate of departure.
He says, “Do you mind if I search your bag?”
What can I say? If I answer “no,” he’ll just call more security guards who will hold me down on the floor while he goes ahead and searches it anyway.
I shrug. “Sure.”
The guard opens the duffel bag and pulls out my portable CD player. I’m about to throw up and my world is spinning out of control. I feel shaken and stirred, a disgrace to suave men everywhere. He pulls out a bottle of Ibuprofen and a couple of books. He pulls out some boxer shorts and a pad of paper. Finally he pulls out the bag of brownies. I’m sure a bag of brownies looks fairly innocent, but at this moment they look as incriminating as four sticks of dynamite stuck together with duct tape. He takes a piece of cloth and begins wiping the fabric, running his fingers over the handles and creases, fondling my duffel bag like he’s familiar with it on a first name basis.
After the rubdown, he places the cloth in a small machine. I’m expecting a red light to flash, sirens to wail, and heavy metal doors that crash down to seal the airport in a sudden lockdown. But nothing happens. The security guard throws the cloth into the garbage can, refills my duffel bag, and then places it in my waiting arms.
“Have a safe flight,” he says.
Reaching my gate, I collapse into a chair and wipe the sweat from my forehead. I’m out of breath, having jogged most of the way. Worse, I almost got run over by one of those golf carts that carry old people through the airport and beep right before they run over your luggage. I want to relax, but I know I won’t feel safe until I’m strapped into my seat, at which point my paranoia will simply shift its focus. I pull pocket Yahtzee from my duffel bag, but I can barely read the numbers. I try closing my eyes, but the asshole sitting next to me is talking on his cell phone, oblivious to those around him. I’m fairly certain that every passenger on our flight doesn’t want to know what he had for dinner, or that he had a swell time at the conference and can’t wait to return home to his wife and kids.
Across from me sits a young couple. They’re both wearing shorts and T-shirts, and spread across their laps is a pamphlet on Maui. They point and laugh, talking of margaritas and fried shrimp. The woman kisses him on the cheek and then wipes away her lipstick. His hand travels down her leg, stopping at her knee where he gives it a light squeeze. She rewards him with another kiss and then leans her head on his shoulder, her hand rubbing the back of his neck. They look so happy, like one of those department store photographs that come with the picture frame and say 5x7 across their foreheads.
I wonder if this is their honeymoon, or if they believe in fate. I wonder how often they argue, or how many lovers they’ve each had. I want to lean over and ask if they believe in soul mates and true love, if they take long walks on the beach and eat ice-cream with the same spoon. I want to buy the man a beer and ask him, “How do you know she’s the one? What makes you believe that your life won’t be as fantastic with any other woman?”
I admit that I’m jealous. After all, I give my heart away with the same amount of caution a naked man uses when climbing over a barbed wire fence. Still, I understand how this couple feels, and not just because I’m eavesdropping on their conversation. My favorite part of a relationship is the honeymoon stage, those first few months when both people are giddy as hell, when each word is chosen carefully like a strategic chess move, every romantic gesture rehearsed over and over again until it’s finally put into motion.
The beginning of any relationship is magical, like being on Ecstasy twenty four hours a day. I feel needed and invincible, confident and smooth, whether I’m delivering a compliment or ordering a pizza. Every aspect of my life, so stonewashed from years of repetition, suddenly shines with a new luster. I become excited by a girlfriend who enjoys being introduced to all the people and activities that I take for granted on a daily basis. I want to lie in bed and talk about nothing. I want to wander through the mall with no intended purpose. I actually go to the grocery store so I can shop for dinner, and I’m not above bringing a list of items that I can check off as I move through each aisle.
But I just can’t seem to hurdle all that passion over the six-month mark. I guess the honeymoon stage disintegrates once she starts leaving her toothbrush in my bathroom, once I begin finding her jeans in the laundry basket and her bras scattered all over my bedroom. I become nervous once we’ve watched all my DVDs (alphabetized, of course), and I desire a new girlfriend just so I can start another cinematic journey that begins with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, ends with Young Frankenstein, and stops periodically along the way to savor all the typical action, drama, and horror that define any normal relationship.
Once the newness wears off, though, I crave it more than ever. Inevitably, the relationship sours and I become an existentialist for a week, feeling convinced that I would be quite happy to wander through life in a never-ending chain of micro-relationships. But then I’ll crave stability, and once more the cycle repeats itself, as frustrating and predictable as a scratched record that always skips the best song.
But isn’t every relationship simply a revision of the one that came before it? Isn’t every relationship just another shot at happiness, like being able to retake a test you failed because you didn’t study hard enough?
I always try to validate my obsession with cycles by arguing that if my last relationship was version 6.0, then the next one will be version 7.0. And so on, and so on. I’d like to think that each new relationship can lasso all the strengths of the previous one while avoiding most of its weaknesses. Idealistic, I know. In the meantime, I keep buying more DVDs.
Over the intercom, one of the gate attendants coughs into the microphone and announces the boarding of our flight. The man across from me folds the pamphlet into a perfect square and tucks it into his back pocket. The woman stands up and plants a kiss on his lips. I want to ask for one, too. Like most people, I’m a breakable toy that needs to be wound up on a daily basis, and right now I’d be overjoyed if some complete stranger invaded my personal space, even if it means she has to sit on my lap.
The woman hooks her arm into his, and together they walk toward the gate. Me, I hook my arm into the strap of my duffel bag and press it against my chest, trudging across the 1950’s carpet as I hold out my ticket for the gate attendant, a tired-looking woman in her thirties who scans each ticket, says “Thank you,” and then greets the next person in line.
I know exactly how she feels.
I always book an aisle seat. In the event that part of the plane comes undone, I’d like to be as far away from the window as possible, even though I do realize that a few extra feet probably won’t make much difference. If the guy next to me gets sucked into a storm cloud, then I’ll certainly be riding shotgun a few seconds later. Sitting in the aisle, though, I feel planted in the crowd. I’m part of a larger group, not squashed against the window like some misbehaving child banished to the corner. It’s a psychological comfort, but it relaxes me.
I stumble and fall as I maneuver down the aisle, pushing past the elderly and knocking my elbows into headrests and small children. After what seems like hours, I finally reach my seat at the back of the plane. It looks so small and musty, but at least I’m close to the bathroom. Judging from all the beer I drank, I’m sure I’ll be in there soon, swaying from side to side as my head knocks into the ceiling and my piss clinks against the metallic bowl like raindrops on a tin roof.
Sitting next to me is a man in his early forties, clean shaven and wearing a red flannel shirt. He looks like a lumberjack, except he doesn’t have a full beard and he’s not carrying an ax. He’s staring out the window.
“Hi.” I shove my duffel bag into one of the overhead compartments.
I fasten my seat belt, making sure to pull the strap taut. “How’s it going?”
I take the CD player from my duffel bag and put on my headphones. The CD is a special mix of songs I created solely for air travel: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Denver. I know it’s morbid, and maybe a bit pathetic, but I figure God can’t be that ironic.
One of the flight attendants makes her way down the aisle. The asshole next to me waves her over with a smile. He pulls out a pad of paper and a pencil, scribbles down his request for a pillow, and shows it to her. She mouths the word “Okay,” and disappears behind the curtain.
The man is a deaf mute, and now I feel like the asshole.
I say, “I’m Mike,” and point to my chest as though he’s a foreigner in a strange land. He nods and writes another word on his notepad. He holds it up, and through my blurred vision I strain to make out one lone word: Gary. We shake hands. I consider offering him a brownie as a sign of detente, but the last thing I need is a starving, paranoid, deaf mute scribbling notes to me for the next five hours. It’s bad enough that I have a layover in Salt Lake City.
Which gets me thinking about the brownies again. I’m still unnerved by my journey through security. I’m nervous that when I arrive in Utah there will be DEA agents waiting for me at the gate. It would be really embarrassing if I missed my connecting flight because I was handcuffed and sitting in the backseat of a police cruiser. I glance down the aisle, searching for any law enforcement officials, but my vision is cloudy, as though I’m seeing the world through a sheet of gauze. Every flight attendant looks absolutely gorgeous, so curvaceous and seductive with those sexy Delta wings pinned to her breast. In the event of a major disaster, I’ve already decided which lucky lady will accompany me into the teeny bathroom for my sought-after initiation into the Mile-High Club.
The cabin doors finally close, and the flight attendants begin their pre-game show on what to do if we’re all going to die. I’m the only one who ever pays attention. Most passengers just ignore the death presentation because they’re confidant the plane won’t crash. They’re more worried about leg room or the in-flight movie, or whether the airline has upped the price for alcoholic beverages. But I’ll bet most of these people would freak out if there was an accident on board. They’d scream and push each other out of the way, trying to find the exit doors and wondering if they should text someone on their cell phones.
The flight attendants stand in the aisle with all their Delta gear, demonstrating a list of safety procedures while the television overhead shows an overly happy woman who explains about pamphlets in seat pockets and shifting baggage. Her words sound tinny and distorted, but I guess it really doesn’t matter. I’m too drunk to properly place the oxygen mask around my nose and mouth. And although my seat cushion can be used as a flotation device, right now I’m so hungry I might actually try to eat it.
I reach down and remove the bag of brownies from my duffel bag, trying as hard as I can to remain inconspicuous, which probably means that everyone on the plane is staring at me, especially because I’m knocking into my tray table and groaning in pain, hunched over like a jumbo shrimp as I squirm around in my seat and pull lower back muscles I never knew I had.
I hide the bag in my lap, glancing around at the other passengers, and then I eat all three brownies in rapid succession. The only remaining evidence is the bag. When Gary isn’t looking, I shove it into the seat pocket across from him, crammed between Sky magazine and a Sports Illustrated. I lean back in my seat and laugh, thrilled to finally rid myself of this last piece of evidence. I do feel guilty about making Gary an accomplice, but I have a wedding to attend, and the last thing I need is to be a major suspect in America’s war on drugs. I close my eyes and imagine Gary shackled to a rickety metal table, scribbling his confession on little yellow Post-it notes while police officers threaten him with sign language.
The captain comes on the loudspeaker and announces our departure. The cabin lights dim, the plane taxis onto the runway, and I feel myself slipping further and further into oblivion. I’m hoping that I’m drunk enough to fall asleep. I want to forget that I’m defying gravity at thirty-seven thousand feet, that there are clouds floating below me, and that I have no control over anything that happens during the next five hours. Because I’m used to surviving on a daily diet of order and structure, and to place my life in someone else’s hands, no matter how trained he might be, is both maddening and frustrating.
I’m crossing and uncrossing my legs, shifting my ass from side to side and fiddling with the arm rest, when the flight attendant returns. She asks if there’s anything wrong and I tell her I’m trying to find my comfort zone. Then I realize she’s not talking to me. Gary leans over me and hands her a sheet of paper. She reads it and rummages through the overhead compartment before moving up the aisle and talking to another flight attendant. Finally she walks over and taps me on the shoulder. She points to a small dusty pillow that’s crammed into the setback in front of me. Then she says, “Do you mind if this gentleman uses your pillow?”
My eyes roam to Gary, then over to the pillow, and finally back to the flight attendant. We stare at each other for seconds, minutes, hours. The sun rises and sets. Seasons change. And there are only two words I can say, so slurred and jumbled that even I don’t recognize them. “The pillow?”
The flight attendant takes the pillow and hands it to Gary. He scribbles another note and holds it up, inches from my face. He’s thanking me for the pillow, so I give him a quick nod and stare past his flimsy piece of paper, watching the terminal disappear from view as our plane approaches the runway.
He props my pillow against the window and closes his eyes.
The flight attendant disappears up the aisle.
I am alone.
I think about that couple in the airport, their future bursting with possibilities, and I realize how much I want that soul mate, how much I want that comfort and security. I want to believe that every single person on this planet will not only find true love, but deserves it. Because don’t we all want someone to go home to at the end of the day? Don’t we all hope to love someone so intensely, so selfishly, that the thought of living without that person actually brings us to tears?
What scares me, though, is the reality that one of us will die, and then the other person will be forced to move on, to wander through quiet, empty rooms with a box of Kleenex, flipping through pages and pages of dusty photographs. I know that death is permanent, and I know it’s inevitable, but I want a love that I can touch, not a love I have to remember. I want to reminisce with someone, not about someone. Because a relationship should fill time, not pockets of loneliness.
But how do you measure time with someone you love?
I keep wondering if true love exists, or if it’s just a marketing tool used to boost movie and record sales, or to earn the top spot on a bestseller list. I’m curious to know if it’s worth all the pain, if diamond rings mean more than just one month’s salary, or if anniversaries suggest more than simply dressing up in a shirt and tie and eating an expensive dinner in some fancy restaurant.
I’m hoping to find out. I really am. But just thinking about it tears me apart.
I drop lower into my seat and close my eyes, gritting my teeth as the pilot taxis down the runway. I grip the metal arm-rests and press my shoes against the seatback in front of me. I feel that familiar, sudden thrust when the plane rises off the ground, and then I take a long, deep breath, listening to the jet engines vibrate throughout the entire cabin, a loud thundering noise that jostles all the passengers as if we’re eggs in a carton. I swallow hard and exhale, my ears popping while the plane turns left and climbs into the night sky, the lights of Anchorage dropping away below me.
Next to me, I hear Gary snoring, and as I tighten my seat belt, I feel certain that even he has someone waiting for him at his final destination, maybe a wife who signs “I Love You” when they embrace at the baggage carousel, a wife who reads his words with careful attention, and who presents him with a brand new stack of bright red Post-it notes, just another testament to their lifelong bond of devotion.
Michael Howarth grew up in Falmouth, Massachusetts. After earning his BA in English at James Madison University, he entered the MFA Program in Writing at the University of Alaska at Anchorage where he studied the novel and short story. Following his MFA, he attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where he earned his Ph.D. in Children’s Literature. He currently teaches Children’s Literature and Film Studies at Missouri Southern State University.
His work has appeared in such publications as The Southwestern Review, Flashquake, Farmhouse Magazine, DASH Literary Journal, Mud Luscious, Cave Region Review and Interdisciplinary Humanities. His agent is currently submitting his debut novel, Fair Weather Ninjas, to editors and publishing houses.