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Authors: Joan Barfoot

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BOOK: Some Things About Flying
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“You okay?” he asks, glancing up briefly.

“Just fine.” He has the nerve to reach over absently to touch her hand. “But what are you finding to say?”

It's private, of course. He looks vaguely towards her shoulder instead of her eyes. “Just things about what different people mean to me, I guess. Some things that are important to me. Like that I want my girls to know how much I love them.”

Anyone else?

“But what, specifically?” She smiles at him in her brightest, most disinterested way, another lie, oh dear. And why bother? Except there may be no more chances. “Because you know, what you say to them is a message to me, too. Since I fit in the gaps between all those words and feelings, I'm curious about what those gaps are at the moment.”

He gets angry when she says things like that. He should be careful.

How foolish, though, and sad. Like those men wrestling red-faced in the aisle.

“For god's sake, Lila. All this time and you can still say that—I don't know any more ways to say who you are to me. What you mean.” He sighs. “If you don't know now, you never will, I guess.”

Heaven knows that's true.

“I've been watching you,” said the man who turned out to be Tom, more than five years ago.

She knew who he was, but women have to keep on their toes, judging possible menaces. Also campuses, like some small, very rural, very isolated communities, tend to breed their own varieties of weirdness.

He saw what she was thinking and laughed. She has always been alert to the shapes of men's hands and the quality of their laughter. His hands were still in his pockets, but his laughter rolled out with delight. “For no evil reason, honest.” He has a winning, glinting smile. He is a man with charm. Perhaps, knowing she was a professor of literature, he mistook her for someone poetic, or soft.

Over their drink in the faculty lounge, he grinned. “You looked at me as if I might be a stalker, or a serial killer.”

“Well yes. And you might be, mightn't you?” But she was smiling, too.

Weeks later, he said, “This is terrible. What should we do?” As if she were an emperor, he handed her power over the life or death of love: thumbs up, thumbs down.

Who turns thumbs down on love, except for saints and martyrs?

Later still, he told her, “You have no idea how much courage it took to go up to you. I thought, ‘Maybe she'll say no. She's a smart woman, and that would be the smart thing to do.' But I also thought, ‘Come on, Tom, you have to. If you don't, you'll wonder till your dying day.'”

How lightly such expressions trip off the tongue. Once, Lila had a blind student to whom she gave extra help. She was horrified by how often she heard herself saying, “So you see,” or “Picture this.”

“It's all right,” he told her finally. “I do see, in my head, and anyway I know it's just an expression. Don't worry.” He had the wandering, unfocused eyes some blind people have, and was a ferociously determined young man. What has happened to him, has his ferocious determination kept him speeding forward, whatever forward meant to him, whatever it was he was aiming for? As she recalls, he wanted to be a meteorologist, but that sounds peculiar and may not be right.

“Love is in the air”—another expression, or a song. As if it's contagious, a virus. Well, at the time Lila happened to be vulnerable, and it leaped to her skin, and came to infect her. And certainly it's been an interesting disease.

Only, like measles or chicken pox, not always an attractive one.

In the lounge she regarded Tom's fingers surrounding the Scotch glass and judged them to be competent and strong. A surgeon's hands, she might have imagined, if she hadn't already felt the hands of a surgeon. Even if she'd known it would come to this moment, she'd have to say she does not regret him. There was promise, and on the whole she would have to say it's been kept.

Only, he has multiple promises to keep. He is still a politician, juggling various interests, and his constituency is inordinately large.

“One more minute,” he says. “Okay?” He must be running out of ways to explain himself.

Here is one of the questions that govern civility: what would be the result if everyone behaved as you do? If everyone behaved as Tom and Lila have, the world of love and promises would be an anarchy. They have made exceptions of themselves.

If everyone here unleashed full, true emotions, the result would also surely be anarchy. People would get badly hurt, some might be killed. And that would be without even crashing. It would look very foolish indeed if the plane landed safely, but with a cargo of dead and mutilated passengers who had turned on each other.

Although of course disaster does bring out the virtue in some. Just as, no doubt, some people do turn thumbs down on love.

It must be hard for him to find a way to end his letter. Will “Love, Tom” do the trick? Or “Sincerely”?

Goodbyes are by nature troublesome. They may be right, necessary or inevitable, but they are also sad and frightening.

Tom is tamping his pages into line on his lap—would he like to read them over, see what he's done? He leans to his briefcase, opens it, removes a large brown envelope, folds the sheets inside it. Who will it be addressed to? His wife only? His wife and two daughters?

“To my family,” he scrawls, uneasily shifting the envelope so that it's difficult for her to see.

He tucks it all back in the briefcase, which Lila supposes makes as much sense as tucking it anywhere else.

Won't briefcases sink? Won't they hit the water like rocks, then spin slowly to the bottom of the ocean, far beyond even light? She imagines his briefcase settling into sediment and rock, being nudged by strange, curious sea creatures. All those pages will soak up salt water. Their ink will run, turn liquid; his words will become a tiny portion of foreign matter, an infinitesimal pollution in the sea-scheme of things.

“To my family.” Well.

She has known and touched at one time or another every line and wrinkle of the face he now turns to her. She is familiar with each eyelash and every curling hair of eyebrows and with the whiskers which these days come in grey each afternoon. He has more lines at the sides of his eyes and his mouth than when they met. Today they look especially deep and permanent.

This is the day everything about them may finally become permanent. Hardly what she had in mind; like that old warning, “Be careful what you wish for.”

When he looks at her so intently, does he recognize every eyelash and hair, every wrinkle and line, each mark and freckle? “My dear,” he says, reaching to stroke her cheekbone with his finger. “Thank you.” So she supposes he does.

“Remember,” he asks, “the accident?”

Oh yes, their only previous encounter with disaster. Strange, really, how little experience a woman her age may have with life-threatening crisis, a different matter from loss or grief or heartache. What an amateur she is in some regards.

People must skirt death all the time, something slipping near and sliding away again, sometimes unnoticed, sometimes glimpsed. “Whew!” they say if they do spot the moment. “That was close.” And on they go.

“I was thinking how brave you were, and sturdy.” He smiles. “You didn't even complain about losing the car. You're an awfully good companion in an emergency.”

Less appealing, it seems, as a day-to-day companion, not to mention one to die with. “Thank you,” she says.

That accident he speaks of, a couple of years ago, was if nothing else a dramatic example of the perils of simply sitting beside each other, trying to do something together. They failed, it appears, to take it sufficiently to heart—how easily people forget lessons, warnings, little parables of misfortune.

But what are the odds?

That accident was quite different from this, however. It required much frantic action, instead of this frantic inaction, and it also took only a moment, nothing like this business of life or death hanging suspended; although it was a long moment: an instant when suddenly a car was coming straight at them over the hill ahead, passing when it shouldn't, but no one was sorting out rights and wrongs just then.

It had a slow-motion quality, as accidents do, each movement bright and distinct, as if there were all the time in the world. She remembers Tom's desperate turns of the wheel, the nasty, helpless sliding, sunlight reflecting off brown fenders and silver ones, the rich greens of roadside grasses. She remembers thinking, Oh my god, and then, Now we're caught, which later she found interesting. Also later she was able to consider questions of chance: that if Tom hadn't been the one driving, they might have been killed. If Tom hadn't freed a weekend to spend with her, neither of them would have been on that road in the first place, headed towards a beach and an overpriced, out-of-the-way inn.

But alert, quick-reflexed Tom was driving, although it was her car, which also turned out to be a blessing of sorts. He swore and braked and swerved and twisted, and they flew and rocked and screeched until they were, yes, halted and right side up in a ditch of glorious wild tiger lilies, the car's front end crushed into the bank of the ditch so hard the dash at her knees would have collapsed in the next moment. As it was, the radio was twisted and her tapes were wrecked.

There must have been sounds around them, but Lila recalls absolute stillness. They reached for each other's hands and sat staring ahead, absorbing the abrupt change of situation and view. Finally they became aware of excited voices and worried faces around them. Other vehicles were pulling up, stopping. She and Tom looked at each other at last. “You okay?” he asked, and she nodded.

“You?” and he nodded.

They pushed at crumpled, protesting doors and got out.

People hovered, offered help, blankets, places to sit, somebody had gone off to call ambulances, police. They asked anxious questions, tried to get her and Tom to lie down or to be embraced. It felt like waking up in winter, feeling cold air with fingertips and nose, but cosy under the comforter. How kind people were, Lila thought.

“We'll be fine,” she assured them. “We're lucky, it's only the car that got hurt.” She put a hand on Tom's shaken shoulder. “Thank heavens you're such a good driver. You saved our lives, you know.” He straightened, and even smiled a little.

“Your car,” he said. “I'm sorry.”

“It doesn't matter.”

By the time the police arrived, they were reasonably steady and able to tell what had happened, as did several witnesses, and it was a very good thing that none of it was Tom's fault, and an exceptionally good thing the kids in the other car weren't much hurt, so that Tom and Lila could escape the next step of public scrutiny. If the event had been serious or fatal, there would have been a story in a newspaper. Even a paragraph in print would have ruined them.

After ambulances had taken everyone involved to the nearest hospital in the nearest little town, and they'd been checked and treated for, mainly, mild shock, they looked for ways to tell each other how relieved they were and how lucky they'd been. Not wanting, though, to say aloud specifically and precisely which disasters they'd dodged, besides death, they didn't get much beyond “We're so lucky.” Anyway, they both knew. Words were more than unnecessary, they risked a perilous opening of wounds when they were already slightly wounded.

Lila's car was towed and Tom went off to rent one to get them home. It was hours before, having given up on the getaway, they were back at Lila's house, unlocking Lila's door, collapsing on Lila's sofa, safe and invisible again behind Lila's walls.

They were tentative, however, for one reason and another, about touching. It seemed the sort of event that drew them intensely together, but also hurled them apart in the sharp reminder of drastically different, unbridgeable circumstances.

But they've made many small trips in which nothing worse happened than returning home.

If this plane goes down, it'll amount to a lot more than a paragraph. She imagines police and reporters knocking on doors, making announcements, seeking pictures and reactions and epitaphs.

“And remember,” he asks, “the snowstorm we drove through that other weekend?”

Yes again. Another tribute to his driving skills, a long, white-knuckled, headachy journey. But what is he playing at, with this do-you-remember? Is it what he played at in his letter? An appeal to past, in hopes it will overwhelm present?

“I felt perfectly safe,” she says, “but bad for you.” Arriving at last in their hotel room, they'd thrown off their clothes in celebration. “You were exhausted.”

“Not
too
exhausted, I hope.”

“Not right away.” It is, after all, a happy memory. “But you were snoring by the time room service came. I had to throw the bedspread over you and hustle into my robe. Hotel people must wonder what they're getting into every time they knock on a door.”

“The place tonight doesn't have room service, so we won't have to worry about that.” Probably that's intended to reassure that, once again, their future will triumph. Kind words, and brave ones, no doubt; although sabotaged by his letter.

BOOK: Some Things About Flying
9.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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