Flight 437 to Sky Harbor
It is her book that catches his eye. It is her hair that keeps his eyes fixed. He finds a pencil and touches it to the pad in his hand. He has never thought of himself as being particularly talented, yet the failure of the dream never leaves a shadow on his work. His eyes stray to her to catch different aspects and they lock upon the book. Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison.
I am an invisible man, he remembers. I am not invisible because people can not see me but because they choose not to see me. If I had been younger, he thinks, those words would have melted my brain and I would have adored the book for its message alone. But he leaves the book alone and his eyes drift higher and they catch again. They catch on the hair, the short stray blonde hairs tucked behind her ears that made him find the pencil, watches as they float out from behind her ears and settle on her shoulders. His pencil catches and he tries to give it a likeness, take something beautiful in life and commit it to paper.
The blouse is a light shade of blue, of a material that does not particularly lend itself to pencil, demands something more like chalk, but a pencil is all he has in the bag. He is attempting to get the curve of her legs when he takes another look up at her face. His eyes touch hers.
“Shit,” he whispers. Her eyes do not shy away and he gets a first guess at how old she is. When she stands he guesses again and revises down a couple of years.
This would be a great start for the school year, he thinks, explaining why I sit in airports and draws pictures of teenage girls; I can just imagine what airport security is gonna think. He has no time to think of what to say when she walks over and sits down next to him. She leans over his right shoulder and takes the drawing in.
“That’s not bad,” she says softly. Her eyes take him in. “How old are you?” she asks.
“Twenty-nine,” he answers, fighting a childish urge to shout out, ‘but I’m almost thirty.’
“You don’t think maybe twenty-nine could be a bit old for drawing pictures of twenty year old girls in airports?”
“I don’t know. Better than thirty-nine.”
“Is this a regular hobby?”
“And this is your preferred subject matter?”
“Your book caught my eye.”
She looks down at the book in her lap. She pauses for a minute while he is thankful that she is in fact, apparently twenty, and not seventeen as he guessed when she first stood up.
“Have you read it?”
“Twice. Or, well, I was assigned it twice. I read it once. Most of it.”
“That’s not a ringing endorsement.”
“I wish it had been more subtle.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean that if I had read it when I was in high school, I probably would have loved it. A big important book with an important message would have swallowed me whole, like To Kill a Mockingbird but with far more complex use of language. But I read it in late in college and by then I was tiring of messages. There are lots of books with a message, implicit, explicit, small messages, big save-the-world, change-the-world messages. But don’t shove your message down my throat. Like anyone with enough brains to attempt to read Ellison, I got the message on the first page, in the first lines. I didn’t need to have it hammered home to me for 500 more pages.”
“It seems like a great narrative.”
“But one that outstays its welcome. But, hey, Lit professors, they can’t get enough of it. Read Invisible Man. Read Middlemarch. Read Ethan Frome. Read Tristram Shandy. We promise you won’t be so bored that you drop the class before we get to Dostoevsky.”
“Well, Ellison had all this bitterness and anger and he found a way to focus it. Too many people just give up.”
“Well, it’s not anger I’m gonna inflict on my students.”
“Are you a professor?”
“No, I teach high school English.”
“And you can do that and get away with not making anyone read Ethan Frome?”
“It was actually something I mentioned when I first interviewed for the job.”
“Do you feel like you make a difference with your students?”
“If I can get just one kid from each class to walk away with an appreciation for Faulkner then I feel like I’ve made a difference.”
“How long have you been a teacher?”
“How many kids have walked away with an appreciation for Faulkner in your five years?”
“Not even one,” he answers and this makes her giggle. He leans back and looks at her. Her hair is a pale blonde and her face and arms are deeply tanned, the marks of someone raised in San Diego.
“Why do you teach then if you don’t feel like you make a difference?”
“Do you want the, ‘we all need a job that pays the bills’ answer?”
“How about an honest answer?”
“I can’t hack it as a writer.”
“I thought drawing strange girls in the airport was your hobby.”
“Oh, it is. But I never had any thought that it could be something I could do for a living. Too many awkward conversations for one thing,” he starts to stammer as he says that, and quickly adds “not that this conversation is awkward. I mean talking to security, things like that.” But she doesn’t seem to have lingered on the phrase “awkward conversation” and she continues as if he hasn’t said it.
“You’re a writer?”
“Well, no. Well, maybe, I don’t know. I write, but not professionally. Or successfully. I took a year and a half off to write after college. It didn’t pan out.”
“Did you have a job that paid the bills then?”
“No, my wife worked. I wrote and raised our daughter.”
“You’re not wearing a wedding ring. If you had been, that really would have made this an awkward conversation.”
He waits for a minute, looking at her. Her eyes are also pale, the same shade of blue as her blouse and he wonders if that’s deliberate, or if she’s like his friend Jennifer whose eyes can adapt somewhat to what she is wearing. He slowly speaks, measuring out the words, trying to decide how best to put it.
“It didn’t make any sense after a while to keep wearing the ring. It just confused people.”
He doesn’t answer that, but instead turns away to watch the people coming and going, the afternoon life at Lindbergh Field. She wonders if she is making a mistake, taking this chance, trying not to be everything she has known before and wonders if the question hurt him.
“You’re not divorced,” she softly whispers.
“I am not that lucky,” he says. She’s heard the voice before, a kind of ashen voice trying to find all the things that once brought moisture to his lips.
“You think of divorce as lucky?”
“If I were divorced and I found myself missing her, I could call her. It would seem stalkerish and possibly disturbing but I could at least hear her voice, know she was out there somewhere. Death doesn’t hold that possibility.”
Even though he is still facing away from her, she now looks away, her eyes seeking the lights, the ground, the people, anywhere else to say I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I wish I could say something, anything, just the words that came out but then his fingers brush her shoulder.
“It’s okay. You didn’t know. These things happen.”
“It’s called ALS.”
Her eyes raise now, come around to touch him.
“ALS? Do you mean Lou Gehrig’s Disease? Oh God, I’m sorry. I had a teacher who died of it. But most people don’t call it ALS.”
“If I say ALS, people just think she died of something, like some flu or something. They don’t picture the horrid thought of what it actually is, what it does to a person. It allows them to keep themselves at a distance.”
“How long ago?”
“Almost two years.”
A call comes over the loudspeaker, a boarding call for the last ten rows on flight 437 to Sky Harbor. She starts to stir, standing, pulling her book to her chest.
“Look,” she says, “it’s my flight. I’m not meaning to run out on this conversation. I really am sorry. I’m not running out on you, really.”
He starts a smile, stops, then ends up somewhere in between.
“If you’re twenty that makes you what, a junior?”
“Um, I’m an incoming Freshman actually. I took some time off. But yeah, yeah, Arizona State. How did you know?”
“I live in Tempe.”
“This is your flight as well?”
“Then maybe I’ll see you somewhere in the desert, I guess.”
“Weirder things have happened out in the desert.”
She stands then stops. Slowly, she half turns, giving him a profile, a slow glance of everything external she has to offer.
“What’s your name?” comes the question.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Yale,” she says with a smile, then smiles even more when she realizes that the use of the title has drawn a wince from him. “You’re not so old. That much is certain.”
“Have a good flight.”
“Don’t you want to know my name?”
“Very much so.”
“Do you make a habit out of letting chances walk out of your life?”
“You wouldn’t be the first,” comes a quiet response and again she wishes the words could be taken back, that the world of adult interactions wasn’t so hard to navigate.
“Have a nice flight, Rebecca.”
She passes before him, walking towards the gate. He sees her glance nervously back before she hands the ticket to the gate agent and walks down the tunnel and then she is gone.
He is swearing to himself that he will never again eat another hot dog, especially not one from a vendor in the street when the soft voice enters his life again.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” she says. He turns and sees her talking to the middle-aged woman in the seat next to him. “We had some problems when we were getting our tickets and my brother and I weren’t able to get seats together. I’m about six rows back, on the aisle. I don’t suppose you would consider switching with me.”
He has a nice memory from high school, his best friend’s sister pulling a similar routine, coming on cute and desperate to a cop and getting herself out of a speeding ticket, the words coming from her mouth but the plea coming from her eyes.
“I don’t think that would be a problem.”
When her eyes meet his they take a different routine, the cute smile of someone who has gotten what she wants.
“I told you someone would switch if we asked, Bruce.”
“So I was wrong.”
When the woman stands, Rebecca drops into the seat and kisses him on the cheek.
“Have a little faith in human nature sometimes,” she says with a smile and locks her eyes to his.
“She’s gone,” he whispers.
“Well, I guess it’s good we went and got that awkward first kiss out of the way,” she says, the smile still on her face, in her eyes, washing over him.
“Well we should probably stop with that since that nice woman now thinks we’re brother and sister.”
“I dahn’t know, I thank sometimes I cahn do a nice impressive Sathern accent,” she whispers, leaning in with a dead perfect Scarlett O’Hara impersonation.
“You’re really only twenty?”
“Born the twenty-fifth of August, the year of our lord, 1985.”
“So you’ve been twenty for all of two days?”
“How old would that have made me for your senior prom?”
“A little short of eight.”
“Would that qualify you for the Confederacy of Dunces?” she asks, nodding towards his book.
“Only if I’m aligned against a genius.”
“You like it better than Ellison?”
“It’s really damn funny. That counts a lot with me.”
“What about your boy, Faulkner. Is he funny?”
“If you look at things the right way.” There is a pause as he allows himself to drink in her youth. “That was a gutsy move.”
“I really was sorry. I wanted to keep talking.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“You said you have a daughter.”
“Want to tell me about her?”
“She’s nine, she loves baseball and she will be in a considerable amount of trouble as soon as I step off the plane.”
“What did she do?”
“She may or may not have given her babysitter a concussion.”
“How exactly does a nine year old do that?”
“A curveball that didn’t curve apparently.”
“She’s nine, you say?”
“Yes. Almost ten.”
“Am I supposed to do that math on that and determine that you had her in college?”
“That is a long story. Really more of a second date story.”
“Is this a date?” she asks.
“It would not be the strangest date I’ve ever had. But, according to the definition we agreed upon in college, this would meet the requirement.”
“What definition is that?”
“A connection. With a potential for more.”
She sits back a little and nods at that. She looks forward for a minute before saying anything more.
“I guess that’s what I missed the last two years. The kind of conversations you have in a campus dorm.”
“Should I ask what you spent the two years doing?”
“The quick answer would be that I was taking care of my mom. The not-so-quick answer wouldn’t even be a second date story. Maybe a tenth date story.”
“But you’re going now. You’ve still got time for all those conversations.”
“Is that what college is all about?”
“For me, college was about falling in love and trying to spend the rest of my time figuring out how to fall out of love. In between I went to classes.”
“Somehow I don’t think you’re talking about your wife.”
“Not my wife.”
“The chance who walked away?”
“You’re very smart, Rebecca.”
“Maybe that’s why I read Ellison,” she says and he smiles, thinks back, remembers, not loves past, but a love, a day, a wish that time could stop, that a moment could be captured in time and the world would never have to start again. He remembers her and thinks love is not so fun, not so beautiful sometimes.
“What did you think when you first looked up and saw me drawing?”
“I thought, ‘there’s a guy who’s lonely’,” are the words, but she seems to realize, even as she says them that they are too honest, forthright, uncivilized, even rude. But he is thinking through the weekend, the beach, trying to talk to her, trying to forget that he was in love with her, that time did stand still for a moment, that for a brief time nothing moved and everything was just how it was supposed to be. “I’m sorry,” she says, backpedaling, trying to find the mood again that felt so right, made her remember why she came over, what she had really thought, time doesn’t have to be prayers for second chances, hopes for time to flow better. He seems to realize her sudden anguish and he gives her a sad smile.
“Don’t be sorry. You didn’t say anything wrong. I was just thinking about how I ended up lonely at Lindbergh Field.”
“What were you doing in San Diego?”
“College friend got married in Coronado. The whole gang gathered by the beach.”
“Was that chance who walked away there?”
“Yes, she was.”
“Are you wishing you were with her?”
He is silent at first and she catches herself wondering, what is going on, why do I care if he spent the weekend with the long lost love of his life, things don’t happen this fast, he doesn’t just throw out some nice literature babble and capture my heart, he’s much closer in age to my step-father than he is to me, this is crazy, why do I want him to say no?
“Time is supposed to heal all wounds, right? I mean, she left a long time ago. I had a life after she left. I had love, I had six and a half years of marriage. Things shouldn’t hurt anymore.”
“But they do.”
“You weren’t ready for her.”
“No. I wasn’t,” he says, his voice soft and hard. She wonders if this will be the end of the conversation, if somewhere out above the eastern California desert this all falls apart, if things have to fall apart, if that Yeats poem was right, that the centre can not hold, so she thinks of what else she learned in high school that made her want to read all the great books in the world, she tries to think of anything, everything, a thing that can maybe get him to talk, to respond, to anything but fall into silence.
“I guess you didn’t take Hamlet’s advice.”
“What do you mean?”
“Isn’t he the one who says it? If it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all . . .” but even as the words come forth, he turns and before she is even finished, his lips are touched softly to hers.
She slips silently into the kiss. He feels her tongue slide between his lips and softly run along the edges of his mouth. Instinctively his hand moves to her cheek, brushing the hair back from her face, coming to a rest behind her ear. His eyes closed against the world, he thinks that this is so much better than trying to fight against ten years of memories, so much better than wanting and wishing and waiting. When his lips slide from hers, they press close to her and in a whispered kiss she is able to hear him whisper words, syllables, noises that connect to make her understand that no, he does not wish he was with her, that things happen the way they are supposed to.
“You’re right,” he tells her. “The readiness is all and I wasn’t ready for her. We like to think that when people come back into our lives that we will know everything perfect to say, the right way to make the moment go the way we think it should. But nothing is ever the way you would like. Your plans always ended up smashed into the reality of the situation.”
He stops, stares out the window as the plane crosses the border, the river running far below him, back to the state where he has chosen to live his life.
“No battle is ever won,” he says. “They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
“I thought you weren’t much of a writer,” she says. He turns back to her, a smile touching upon his lips.
“I’m not. That was Faulkner.”
“Then you should feel good.”
“How do you mean?”
“You’ve just made a difference. I’m gonna walk away with an appreciation for Faulkner,” she says and the smile becomes infectious.
He sees the tear drop when the plane begins its descent into Sky Harbor. He turns and the look in her eyes is enough to break his heart, make him forget everyone who has come before.
“What . . .” he whispers, breaking off to keep his voice from cracking.
“My ears. They hurt. I don’t . . .” her voice trails into another tear, not understanding what is happening and he realizes that she has never flown before.
“It’s the pressure. We’re dropping from cruising level down to the ground. It creates pressure.”
He kisses her softly on the forehead. He leans forward and reaches into his jacket, pulls out a packet of gum. He hands her a stick, saying “chew it. The chewing will help your ears to pop. You’ll feel better.”
She takes it, allows it to slip between her lips. After a minute of chewing the flood of tears dries up.
“Thank you,” she whispers softly. Her head falls gracefully against his shoulder and passes into something like sleep. He lets his arm fall around her and she settles into a vale of dreams with her descent into the Valley of the Sun.
The rough touch of the tires startles her. She turns to face him and finds him staring back. Neither are sure what they are supposed to do now. He decides that now is the time to take control of his life, to fight the idea that he is dead inside.
“Your first month is going to be really long, but really fast, so much happening all at once. Give yourself a month to get used to all of this, to settle into Phoenix, especially with the monsoon season here and all. Then, if you want, give me a call, let me know how you’re doing. But do yourself the favor. Get used to everything. Let go and find yourself. Give yourself that month. You’ll be happy for it later.”
He writes the name, writes the address, writes the number and presses it to her fingers, lets his fingertips linger against the skin of her palm. People are starting to stand on the plane, it has come to a final stop at the gate. Their eyes linger on each other. She speaks before he can.
“What’s her name?”
“Kayce. With a ‘k’ and a rather a unique spelling.”
“I don’t . . . I don’t think I could really deal with nine right now. If she were younger, maybe. Or even older, I suppose. But not nine. Might take the month to get used to that. I think I’ll wait a few minutes before I come out.”
“Goodbye then,” he whispers.
“For now.” She kisses him quickly, lightly, softly, then he moves past her and is up and gone and she is watching him go and thinking that she never could have imagined this, never in her wildest dreams, never could have been ready for this. He is lingering at the door, smiling at her, with her, upon her, and thinks, fortune smiles for me, sometimes we get that lucky and this is now and I can see it and as he walks through the door and up towards his daughter he is thinking she was right, I was right. The readiness is all.