Why Fall When You Can Fly?
When falling in love failed, I tried to disappear into the clouds instead.
The breeze blows, whipping my dress around my calves. I stare up into the hazy afternoon sky, momentarily unaware of my surroundings. My head is in the clouds, my focus on the fluffy cumulus cotton interspersed with cerulean blue. A honk from a passing car alerts me that my dress has risen higher on a gust with my thighs flashing bright white in the dull afternoon. But I am above it all, lost in my own thoughts and sleeplessly dreaming.
The small plane leaves the county airfield rising into the distant blue to join the clouds. With a single thought, I’m inside piloting the craft as we zigzag across the wide expanse of sky. I only look ahead, no longer interested in looking back or keeping my head down to avoid what comes next. I take the throttle in nimble fingers and pull back, climbing up and up and up into the unknown.
The cell phone suddenly buzzes in my hand and I look down confused, part of me still back in the plane above the rest of the world. I blink and grudgingly press the key to light up the screen. The number makes my heart beat faster and I take one last look at the plane as it slips behind a cloud and leaves me behind.
“Hey,” I answer. Upbeat. Light. Airy. Smile so he can hear it in your voice.
“Hi. It’s me.”
The motor sputters and I’m frozen in my seat. The controls buck under my hold, my confidence evaporating as my auto-pilot ejects himself from this led zeppelin sinking from the sky towards the muddy blur of the earth below. I’m losing altitude and yet my mind grows increasingly numb, unresponsive. DO something, I scream. Do SOMETHING. Do anything.
“I know it’s you, silly,” I spit out in rapid-fire staccato tones. “You don’t think I’d recognize your voice after all these years?”
Calm down there, Turbo. Keep the conversation light. Light, floating on a cushion of air like a plane on a thermal. Don’t look it in the face, don’t call it by its name.
“So, uh, how’s it going…” the voice begins.
I stutter back to life and jerk backward on the throttle. It’s too late. I’ve lost speed and my bearings. Everything goes topsy-turvy for a second before I jerk myself back into control. By sheer strength of will, I find that cushion of air between the heavens and the ground.
“I’m fine,” I reply. Softening my face, keeping the smile I don’t feel somehow in my voice.
Don’t look the devil in the face. Don’t call it by its name. Keep your wits about you in a storm and your horizon in the windscreen. Always center and find your ground. Someone could get hurt. YOU could get hurt.
“So, that’s what’s going on…” the voice finishes, summing up the quick rundown of the whos, whats, wheres, and whys, the things he has no business telling me but I’ve been the one for so many, many years. His co-pilot in every storm.
“Good. Good to know. She’ll be alright, she always… I just mean… Well, I hope it all works out.” Not my plane anymore. Not my crew. Not my business.
We manage to never talk about ourselves or delve deeper than the conversation I might have with the man at the gas station who sells me cigarettes each week. Light and airy. Casual. Easy. A cushion between heaven and hell. That’s where we live now.
“You know… I…” he begins but never finishes. The silence stretches out awkwardly for 30 seconds… a minute… a lifetime.
Too much speed. You’re losing pattern. Don’t lower the flaps yet. May-day, May-day… we’re going down. Do something, pilot! Do it now! Raise the flaps. Bring up the speed. Correct the pitch and bank, bank, bank. Bring that horizon level again. Five thousand two hundred feet. You gotta decide here, Captain.
“I’m sorry,” I say suddenly.
A pause. “I know,” the voice says. “Me too. But… well… you know how it is.”
I nod, not considering the voice can’t see me. I’m acknowledging I know how this is when I don’t know at all. How can I understand something that makes no sense even months after he packed his suitcase, loaded up the truck, and rolled down the driveway one last time? How can I know what comes next when the last three months have been nothing but a tailspin.
Twenty-five hundred feet. Buck up, young lady. There’s no time for feeling right now. It’s your job to make sure all the passengers are safe. The little ones depend on you. They depend on you to keep your head when the crash comes. They depend on you to put your oxygen mask on first so when it is time you can help everyone else. It’s the first lesson of survival. Don’t you want to survive, Captain?
“I understand,” I say quietly, breaking the next in a series of awkward pauses.
The voice laughs, “Yeah, I know what that means. ‘I understand’ is code for shut up, quit talking about it. You’re making me uncomfortable. I’m not going to argue anymore.”
I laugh. It’s easier to laugh. Remember, keep it light. Airy.
I see the ground hurtling towards me and the trees shaking with laughter. The observers are clucking their tongues as if they knew we’d end up here all along. I can’t find the downwind I need. The runway is at 45 percent behind my shoulder. Lower another 10 degrees of flaps. Gently flare. Add power. You can do this. You have to do this. To hell with the co-pilot, to hell with the crowd.
“It’ll be okay,” the voice says after a moment.
“It’ll be fine,” I say woodenly, scrambling for something to fill the pregnant silence wondering why he still calls. I miss you, almost slips out, but I bite it back, the taste of bile rising in my throat. I can’t do this, I think. Not again.
I’m almost home, I can’t give up now. It’s coming at me too fast. Pull the power back to idle. Apply full pressure on the yoke. Keep the nose wheel off the ground. Don’t settle and get stuck. Don’t give in to the fear of what comes next. Caution, young lady, caution. You’re almost home free.
“For what’s it worth, I appreciate it,” I say. “It’s been a tough… Uh, it’s been rough, you know? For all of us… and for you, too. I know that, really I do. And, um, I’m just sorry.”
“You know what your Grandma used to say,” the voice says with a laugh that quickly falls flat and trails off without finishing, realizing it broke the rules. It went too deep. The conversation takes a nosedive.
Slats. Flaps. No lift. Raise the nose to flare. Main wheels bump across the ground. Reduce power to idle and apply brakes gently. More pressure or you’ll skid. This is it, Captain, we need you.
Another pause. The voice sounds tired and maybe a little bit of something else. But I pretend not to notice. I keep my voice controlled, my breathing shallow. “Just take care of yourself, would you?” it asks.
“Sure,” I answer, and the line goes dead.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. You may now remove your seatbelts and de-board the plane. Sorry about the turbulence, but it’s part of the ride. I step back on solid ground and immediately yearn to reach for clouds again. I miss the way it felt to fly with the birds, his wind beneath my wings. But this, here, is where I belong now no matter how much I might want it otherwise. Crash and burn. Crash and burn. Rise from the ashes and maybe one day reach again for the sky.
“You okay?” a man asks as the back door opens and the figure shuffles past.
I wince and drop the cigarette as it burns my fingers. I risk one more look at the sky, searching for my plane. Only jet streams crisscrossing the sky prove it was ever even there, that we were ever there. They too will fade, like the tan line on my finger or the gaping hole in the closet where his clothes once hung. But I’m okay.
I turn back to the man standing before me, looking concerned. I soften my face, keeping the smile I don’t feel somehow in my voice. Upbeat. Light. Airy. Smile so he can hear it in your voice.
“Sure,” I say, “I’m fine.”