Against the November sky, the clouds outside the window of my plane look like virgin tundra, all untouched peaks and valleys. On the ground in Indianapolis, where I’d gotten used to perpetual clouds, the sky had felt close and muddy. Now, well into my flight to San Antonio, I see the flip side, perfectly constructed white hills reflecting light like ice. I imagine myself in heavy clothing and boots crunching along those peaks in the sky while the sun burns in every direction. I am on my way to present at a conference on teaching English, but right now, my mind is too full to do much more than stare out the window and listen to Ben Folds.
My flight attendant hands me a clear, plastic cup filled with water. I glance up at him and nod my thanks. His head is shaved, and he has intricate tattoos on both forearms; he wears a leather bracelet on his wrist.
A flight attendant with some edge. Interesting.
Having caught my eye, he mouths, “Are you all right?”
I give him a smile and nod, taking one ear bud out. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Are you sure?” he asks. “Your face is awfully red.”
“I had a beer with some friends before I got on the plane.”
He stares at me for a second, his caramel eyes squinty with a concerned, almost paternal, look.
“You know,” he says, “you’re very beautiful. But your face looks so sad. I feel like I should pretend to be nice until you smile.”
I take my water and look at the flight attendant hard. He returns my gaze with such genuine interest, I decide to be honest with him.
“I am sad. I feel like shit, actually. But thanks for noticing, I guess.” I turn back toward the window and return the ear bud to its place.
It is not a lie. I am sad in a way that makes me breathless. It is a sadness of preoccupation, a sadness of uncertain closure. At home, my husband Mike runs the house in my absence. At home, my children miss me. At home, my brother comes to terms with the fact that his cancer has returned again, and my mother’s own cancer treatment continues. At home, no one notices my red face or self-imposed isolation; the less I say, the more we maintain our façade of normalcy.
Normalcy, much like the tundra clouds I imagine scaling, is an illusion. One step through them, and I would plummet groundward. I get out my notebook and open it to the newest blank page.
I glance up; the flight attendant has not moved. I take off an ear bud again.
“I’m okay. Seriously,” I say.
He shakes his head. “You know what?” he says. “Let me finish up the drinks, and then I’m going coming back to sit with you until you smile.”
With that, he moves away from me, the beverage cart rattling in my ears. I draw looping flowers in the margins of my notebook, hoping to somehow empty my brain and create something before the plane touches the ground. Nothing fits. The music is all wrong, my seat is uncomfortable; the flowers in the margins turn to little boxes on the page, anything to keep my eyes down.
Sometimes I wish Mike could leap into my grey matter so that I wouldn’t have to put into words what is at war inside of me, complex problems with such easy names: brother, mother.
I feel a rush of air on my arm and turn to find the flight attendant sitting next to me.
“Now,” he says. “Where were we?”
He tells me he moved from the Navy to the flight attendant business the year before. He is from Michigan, where he lives with his girlfriend and her ten year-old daughter. He is a flight attendant to pay the bills, but he is about to get married, and in an effort to become a more stable role model, he’s recently applied to nursing school. He goes through the library on my iPod and exclaims, “No wonder you feel like shit. Why don’t you start with listening to some happy music?”
“I feel like a dick,” he confesses finally. “I sat down here to talk to you about your problems. So what’s wrong with you? And I know it’s more than a drink before boarding.”
I tell him about Jeff’s cancer return and my mother’s treatment. I tell him how tired and fucked up I am from trying to keep up appearances. I tell him he is the only person I have encountered in the past year or so who has even noticed I am a little off, or at least who has been bold enough to call me on it.
“You must have an eerie gift for reading faces,” I say.
“I think maybe getting on the plane allowed you to let your guard down,” he replies.
The seatbelt light in front of us dings, announcing our approach to San Antonio; the flight attendant has been next to me the whole flight.
“I have to get back,” he says. “You know, you don’t seem like a sad person by nature. So remember, friend, things are not as bad as they seem. After all, your return home will be shorter, thanks to the tailwind. I’ll see you on the ground.”
He walks away. I see him one last time as I exit the plane. He bows his head and says, “There’s my girl. Have a great stay.”
“I think you’ll make a wonderful nurse,” I reply.
I smile in his direction, and we touch hands for the briefest of moments before I walk away from him.
He never tells me his name.
I never tell him mine.
Photo by James Wang from Boston, Mass, USA (Delta 737-700) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.