Authors: Joan Barfoot
Some Things About Flying
Some Things About Flying
Copyright Â© 2013
This edition copyright Â© 2013 Cormorant Books Inc.
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The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for its publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, and the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit Program.
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Graceless and flailing, Lila hurtles through a long darkness deep and rhythmic as heartbeats.
She lands, hard and suddenly, in high shocking light so brilliant she briefly closes her eyes.
Inside her head, tiny jigsaw puzzle bits flung upwards, thrown sideways, fall disordered here and there.
She could lick black water from puddles, sweat from skin, ice from wings, blood from a stone.
She can't seem to hear, but her body vibrates to a kind of rumbling, and to a higher-pitched hum. Mouths close and open in faces with moisture rising off them like hope, forming a mist of desire. In this strange steaminess, she has trouble catching her breath.
Her heart hurts most, then her head.
But how swiftly she begins to quantify injury. What a foolish brain, that sets out so quickly to sort, analyse, file, put in placeâshe does have to laugh at herself. Although it's also familiar, a comfort, that as a companion, irony, at least, remains dependable.
Here are Lila and Tom, going off on their holiday together at last. Since they are headed for something, a shared venture, an adventure, Lila observes the details of their progress with keen and superstitious, if also quite practical, interest, and imagines Tom does too.
They're both experienced travellers in their different ways and fields, and have packed with care. Also they have discussed what they may need, and what may be safely left behind, for two weeks in another country. “We don't want to be weighed down too much,” Tom said, and Lila couldn't agree more. After waiting so long, and in her view so patiently, she has been looking forward to the weightlessness of freedom, anonymity, a refreshing carelessness, and doesn't care to lug along great piles of baggage.
In the end they each have a small carry-on bag and a large case, with a bare-bones range of clothes from hearty to festive. “Because we can always do laundry or drop stuff at a dry cleaner's,” Tom said. Even sitting with Tom in a laundromat sounds fine to Lila. Even dropping off shirts and blouses mixed up together, on the same bill, feels luxurious.
For the journey itself, Lila has chosen sturdy beige shoes, light blue uncreasable pants and a beige sweater, a loose open weave that will let her skin breathe but keep her comfortable, too, if the plane's cabin is cool, as cabins sometimes are.
Tom turns up at her door flushed and nervous. He too has chosen a beige theme, although in slightly different format: beige cotton pants, darker beige cotton shirt, light brown shoes. Lila wonders if, despite everything, they may not be, in truth, a beige pair of people. That would be an awful disappointment.
“Ready?” he asks. “You look great.”
She ought to; she actually spent last evening dyeing her hair back to what once was its natural light brown, covering creeping grey. An embarrassingly transparent thing to do, really. Struggling with the plastic gloves, mixing the ferocious, unfamiliar chemicals and colours, she considered whether this could be a step over some pathetic line: both revealing too much hope, and admitting to a soft and petty kind of discontent.
Still, it seemed a kind of good-luck thumbs-up for the trip, and somewhat transforming.
There was nothing last minute to be done about her pouchy warm belly, but then Tom has one of those, too, only his rides higher. They may no longer have perfect taut bodies, if either of them ever did, which she for one did not, but they do have matching ones. His bulges fit her nooks nicely, and vice versa.
Here are Lila and Tom, optimistic, middle-aged, pouchy lovers, going off on their holiday together at last. Definitely old enough not to imagine details and signs count for much. Nevertheless, everything from the moment he rings her doorbell is part of the journey, and has its significance.
Is it hard to find parking, and is there then a long wait for the airport shuttle that takes them to the terminal? No, these matters tick along efficiently. Are the lines in the terminal long? Not really; at least they're not the worst either has encountered on previous, separate journeys. Does the counter agent treat their luggage with less-than-complete abandon? Yes, and this also seems good, although as far as she knows neither is travelling with anything breakable, except their own crystal selves.
Lila, who is a professor of English, and who, more to the point and unlike some of her colleagues, does actually take pleasure in words, is slightly ashamed of that image: too obvious, and absurdly melodramatic. Still, while it's one thing to love words, she understands it's quite another matter for words to love back. An unrequited romance, it often enough has turned out to be. Or an unbalanced one.
When she and Tom reach the head of the departure line, is either of them carrying some inadvertent, mysterious metal that would send them back and forth through the detectors? Only Lila, and only once, because leaving home she stuck the ring with her house and car keys in the pocket of her slacks, without thinking. Tom waits patiently, kindly, a good sign.
They keep touching each other, reaching out to fingers, shoulders, the smalls of backs.
Even the flight is sharply punctual, a rare treat. And does the flight attendant smile? Oh yes, especially at Tom, but perhaps she recognizes him from days when he was better known. And the aisles and seats are clean, although they're certainly neither wide nor luxurious, not like business class, which Lila prefers for long journeys. “I can't afford to go business,” Tom told her, although naturally he could. What he couldn't do is justify the expense to anyone else.
But economy is comfortable enough, and it's only, with luck and a tail wind, for seven hours or so. Lila and Tom are both accustomed to spending long periods sitting, and this is hardly gruelling, only cramped.
Neither of them has seen the in-flight movie, a nouveau Western they once mentioned renting. They may or may not watch it now, but it's another small, good sign.
Lila sighs happily and grips the armrests. She is tense at takeoffs, Tom on landings, so his armrest-gripping is hours in the future. She holds tight even knowing that if the takeoff were unsuccessful, which this one naturally is not, her rigidity, the way she has clamped her feet hard against the floor and pressed her back into the seat, would result in far more damage than if she were loose and relaxed. The way drunks often escape barely injured from quite serious accidents, too pie-eyed to react to fear.
Still, whatever her mind knows, her body goes its own disobedient way, as it tends to do in various matters.
Now they're up, now they're levelling off. They're away!
This is a moment which has been much imagined. Lila is slightly amazed that, as a moment, it is just as she imagined. They've been anticipating this journey for months, plotting and planning, talking and dreaming. Once, they rented
The Great Escape
for the title alone.
Tom's head falls happily against the back of his seat. “Goddamn, Lila, we did it. We're here.”
It seems to her their desires fit as snugly as their nooks and bulges.
They plan to go first to a little London hotel Tom picked, near theatres and Covent Garden. “It's not luxurious by a long stretch,” he told her, “but it's comfortable, and odd enough to be entertaining.”
He will drop in briefly at a conference of Commonwealth historians, his excuse, reason, justification, whatever, for the trip. For the day or so he's there, Lila will sit in cafÃ©s drinking wine, walk across ancient bridges, rest on benches with her lunch, no doubt fending off pigeons. Then, once Tom has freed himself, they'll amble together through a great gallery or two, indulge in an extravagant dinner, before heading, fairly aimlessly, into the countryside.
“We could pretend we're an obscure branch of royalty,” Lila suggested, “and be ridiculously pampered.”
“I guess that rules out the plaid Bermuda shorts. And the Hawaiian shirt with the palm trees, and the camera on a strap around my neck.”
“And the white belt, don't forget. I always think it's the accessories that make or break an outfit.”
They've had such fun planning this. Their hopes, she feels, are huge.
There is, of course, the conference, a blip in the vision. “There're a few people I'd like to catch up with,” Tom said, “and at least I have to make an appearance, but I'll get away the first moment I can.” Certainly Lila understands there are prices to pay for such luxuries as time, and at least this sounds like a relatively minor cost.
She also understands that ordinarily, on his own, Tom would enjoy the conference, which is right up his alley and would give him a chance to meet, or re-meet, colleagues from all over the world; to discuss new economies, emerging movements, some contexts for disasters he only sees, these days, on television. The best part of such an occasion, and she knows this herself, is when delegates hang around hotel rooms and bars, exchanging stories and questions, hearing tales and ambitions that give genuine glimpses.
He still misses being so close to actual event that sometimes, he has told her, “I could touch it. I could even almost shift it a bit.” He was a historian first, then ran for national office and in his second term was a junior, sometimes rebellious, cabinet minister dealing mainly in foreign affairs. His trouble, when it came to platforms and policies and both international and domestic matters, sounded like an overdose of heart and an eloquent but very impatient desire to accomplish. Lila read about him occasionally in the newspapers. His name, when they met, was familiar.
Sometimes when they watch the news on television, he may still point to some faraway leader. “Poor asshole's way over his head. He thinks he's running things, but you watch, he'll be gone as soon as the guys who put him there make their money and run.” And it's often true that eventually the totemic president or prime minister does indeed vanish, sometimes right off the face of the earth.
Lila is impressed, even slightly thrilled, when he predicts these events. Not that she doesn't regret the attendant upheavals and slaughters, but prior, inside knowledge is exhilarating, undeniably.
Tom has admitted to similar feelings, and also to some pleasure in the domestic side of the game. “Figuring out deals and alliances ahead, it's like chess,” he has told her, “except now and then you'd be reminded it wasn't chess, and moves had real effects. And then, too, you could watch people forget all their intentions and get wrapped up in tactics and go completely to hell. If nothing else, it was a good lesson in knowing when to stop.”
It was not Tom's choice, however, to stop. Voters made that decision for him, and for his party, turfing them both so that he became, in the space of a day of balloting and a night of counting, a historian again.
Although rather a cherished one this time. Rather a triumph, if a minor one, for the university to lure a man with both respectable academic and political credentials. Tom also writes occasional brisk analyses of this trade war and that atrocity for magazines and newspapers, and retains, Lila understands, a credibility, and even glamour, to a few yearning undergraduates. Nevertheless, he remarked recently, sadly, “The past gets remote pretty smartly these days. You have to keep dancing to have much of a future.”
This conference is part of the dance, she supposes. So what sort of sacrifice might he really be making to spend almost two weeks instead with her?
They'll rent a car and head off along roads and lanes, exploring and stopping where they feel like it, walking now and again, curling together in strange foreign beds, sitting together in pubs and on seashores. They will build picture after picture of shared views to take home.
She will notânotâthink of going home.
He'll have to get little gifts for his wife, and his two grown-up daughters, and his one baby grandson. Lila will wander off on her own for a while then.
Tom's wife, Dorothy, runs a craft supply shop. Lila, hardly a crafty sort, has never set foot in the place, but there's no avoiding seeing people when academic circles collide. They've all turned up, inevitably, at the same necessary receptions, but Lila is careful to move in opposing directions. Tom said his wife, who from a distance looks a pleasant enough woman, started the store, where apparently she sells things like bits of felt, ceramic doodads, balls of yarn cuttable for rugs or rag-doll hair, that sort of thing, when their daughters were in high school and he was in politics.
“She was lonely, and she hated politics. She went into a huge depression for a while. You know that stage; I guess it's common, especially for women.” No, Lila does not know that stage; why would he imagine she might? But she nodded.
“Understandable,” he went on, “but tough. I had to admire how she pulled herself out of it. I tried to help, but I wasn't much use. Now, sometimes, I hardly know her. She's really intent on what she does. And a pretty good businesswoman, it turns out.”
Well. Could anything be more obvious? A drift of attention, a diversion of interests, a discomfiting, bewildering strangeness in the formerly familiar air?
Does it matter that it's obvious? These things happen, life goes on, all that. Some events and shifts are more inscrutable than others, and this just isn't an inscrutable one, that's all.
Good for Tom's wife, Lila thinks. She wouldn't wish her ill. She does imagine a handsome craftsman wandering into the shop one day, in search of yarn or one of those ceramic doodads, and sweeping Tom's wife right off her feet.
Oh, Lila roots for love in whatever form it takes. Including hers and Tom's, of course. She reaches out to squeeze his thigh, and he turns to her and smiles.
Pilots really ought to have voice lessons if, when they switch on their sound systems, they're going to sound high-pitched and quavery. Even speaking the usual altitude-weather-time-of-arrival-hope-you-enjoy-your-flight benediction, this fellow sounds uncertain; as if he's as surprised as a Wright brother to have finally gotten so high in the air.
“Dear me,” Lila says, and Tom smiles. After so long, they understand a good deal without words.
Also, even after so long, there's a good deal they don't understand, with or without words. The care, Lila thinks, with which every word should be chosen! And then the care to be sure that it's heard as it's meant. Too exhausting, really, to undertake easily, lightly, without grave commitment.