I’ve never flown before. Although I told her that I have once, when I was younger. I didn’t know what to expect outside of things I’ve seen in movies: drink carts, long-legged stewardesses, a grainy in-flight showing of an Adam Sandler film. I wondered about all of this as we killed time at the airport bar, waiting for our flight to allow boarding.
I pushed around the leaves of a salad and absently studied a man in a suit while he placed his briefcase on the floor before bending over to tie his shoe. My girlfriend – fiancée, was concentrating on her phone as she finished off her second Bloody Mary. She seemed happy; the veins in her ruddy cheeks were broken, and whatever she had been reading caused her to chuckle lightly. I took another sip of my own beer before offering her what was left out of the half-finished glass. She asked me if I was sure, said that it would help calm my nerves, but I shook my head and told her I was fine.
“I’m fine,” I said. My leg bounced anxiously beneath the table as I tore a napkin into pieces, scattered it, put it back together like a jigsaw puzzle.
“You’re going to love Arizona,” she told me before listing off all the different reasons why I’ll love Arizona. “Just imagine – no more Chicago winters,” she almost sighed in relief before resigning, once again, to her phone.
I reminded her that I enjoyed Chicago winters – or just weather in general. I was mumbling. She placed her phone on the table and smiled at me before taking a long, slow drink of the beer; she grabbed my hand gently and stroked it with her fingers. Her eyes were dark and appeared soothing amidst the frantic bustle of the airport.
When the beer was finished, I flagged down the girl working the bar and paid the check before we took our seats over by the gate. I glanced at my ticket and then looked around. Most of the other seats were vacant as it was still pretty early, and I watched from the window as plane after plane landed and emptied. Workers, buried from the cold in thick neon coats, rushed about dragging hoses, driving carts around the runway. Some scurried to refuel while others heaved suitcases and bags on top of conveyor belts. One of them kept on tossing luggage behind him without looking. He must have missed three, four bags, and I considered those bags as the passengers boarded. Eventually, the massive tires began to churn and pick up speed. The window rattled faintly as the plane trundled from the ground and disappeared into the crisp, full sky. Beside me, my fiancée was nodding off. Her breathing grew heavy and she slumped in her seat.
Feeling queasy, I turned away from the window and stared at a spot on the carpet. I cupped my hands over my kneecaps and held them there. Slowly, the empty seats began to fill as people trickled over to the gate. I glanced at my watch and adjusted it upon my wrist. My fiancée, whose head rested on my shoulder while she napped, stirred and stroked my forearm. I saw her neatly kept nails, the smooth cuticles. I kissed the top of her head and gently stood up; she mumbled in protest and blindly swiped at a few errant strands of hair from her sweating forehead. I removed my sweatshirt and bunched it under her like a pillow and made my way over to the bathroom, stopping once or twice to observe new and unrelated cancellations or delays posted next to some flight times.
On my way back, I was searching a vending machine when I noticed this couple, this man and a younger woman, sitting closely together on the floor. They didn’t appear as though they belonged together, though the printed tickets gathered between them suggested they were on the same flight; I saw the flight number and vaguely remembered it being one of those that had been cancelled, maybe.
The man was thirty something and somewhat chubby. His hair was thin and brown, and on his face was a friendly, exhausted expression. But when he smiled at the woman he did so with his eyes as well as his mouth. I took my time deliberating between Sun Chips or Reese’s Cups, staring sideways at the two of them over on the floor. The guy was fidgeting with his wedding ring when he looked nervously toward the woman. I noticed that she wasn’t wearing a ring before deciding on M&M’s. He said something and she laughed. The woman, who was somewhat younger than him, was attractive and lean. She threw her hair back and exposed the deep grooves of her collar bones; he mimicked the movement of her head with his own. A jacket that she had drawn over her legs like a blanket slipped over onto the floor and her knees bent together. She leaned forward, covered her teeth with a hand, and laughed harder. I punched in the code for the M&M’s, but wasn’t paying attention and mistyped.
That was when I saw him slip the ring into the pocket of his slacks.
The vending machine groaned before releasing a bag of sunflower seeds. I reached down into the tray and pulled out my bag. I tore open the packaging and stuffed a few seeds in my mouth when the two on the floor seemed to come to some kind of an agreement. The man stood and stretched out his hand before helping her to her feet. Then, two of them went off together before disappearing through the rushing knots of travelers. I stood staring dumbly in the direction they went off in and ate some more seeds – spitting the spent shells into a trashcan nearby.
It was nearly time to board when I returned to where my fiancée was sitting over by the gate. Now, the seats were almost completely filled, and there was a bristle of conversations crossing over one another in the excited lobby. I shook my fiancée awake. She looked up at me and smiled, stretching. I looked around the place and started to sort of work my thumb in its socket till there was a slight popping – a nervous habit. My fiancée noticed and grabbed my hand. She whispered something to me that I couldn’t make out over the growing buzz, so I smiled and she kissed my fingers.
We gathered our carry-ons and prepared to walk over to the standing line. I patted my back pocket to check for my wallet. I went over our things two or three times to make sure it was all there. Then, we walked together over to the little podium by the gate.
We were first in line for boarding. I had insisted on paying extra so our positions in line got bumped up, that we could sit together and choose exactly where to sit. Once on the plane, I struggled fitting my carry-on within the overhead compartment, and took my seat by the window just overlooking the wing. One by one, my eyes groped every passenger that walked in in search for some kind of vague threat. When everybody was settled in, the pilot introduced himself and the crew. Then the attendants gave a quick demonstration of the different safety measures: how to fasten a seatbelt, that your cushion doubles as a floatation device, to secure your own mask first before helping others.
A sudden tenseness seized my chest as I watched the attendants fix the masks to their faces and flourish their hands as if they were hosting an infomercial. I saw my fiancée look at me sympathetically.
I gave her a weak look.
“I’m not nervous,” I said, but she knew.
I turned towards the window. A light snow was dusting the tarmac. At once there was a great start, and the plane jerked forward. The wings began a crazed twitching of panels and I watched wildly as the strips of yellow paint marking the runway started to pass by faster, faster. Just then the engines flared. A violent, vacuous howling split the cabin and I was cemented into my seat. My hand clawed at the arm rest as the aisle appeared to lengthen and stretch. I fumbled with the safety belt, shaking, pulling it tighter and tighter against my waist until it grew difficult to breathe. I drew in a sharp breath and worked on the buckle. A small soft hand, unashamed, embraced my own sweating fingers as the plane, great leviathan, tore away from the ground, and what little I knew of Earth disappeared behind me at increasingly distant lengths.