They had been in the air for less than an hour when Rhea heard a popping sound.
It seemed to come from outside, maybe from one of the wings, and though it wasn’t anything Rhea had ever heard before, she knew instinctively that it was a bad sound.
“Did you hear that?” said the woman in the next seat.
Rhea said no.
“You didn’t hear that?”
Rhea said no partly because she found denial a perfectly acceptable way of preventing panic and partly because she did not like—again, instinctively—this woman, who, as a standby passenger, had claimed seat 36B at the very last minute, just when Rhea had confidently placed her backpack there and arranged along both tray tables the novel she suspected she would not read, the two magazines she knew she would, and the little leather journal in which she recorded tersely phrased personal insights. Then came this big woman, too much of her for her seat, with coarse dark hair and a broad shock of white on top, like a skunk. She looked to be a good forty years older than Rhea, perhaps in her late sixties, and wore enormous eyeglasses that wove in gold across the bridge of her nose. The air immediately filled with the too-sweet smell of imitation perfume, probably, Rhea thought to herself, something in misspelled French. The glasses were real, Christian Dior–printed on the outer part of the left temple, another horizontal gold braid.
It was at that point, after gathering back her belongings, that Rhea had written in her little notebook, “I am living proof that it does not take money to be a snob.”
From the way the woman wedged herself into her seat with an unrestrained wheeze, her long flowered skirt catching on the armrest, Rhea knew that she was one of those people who had no trouble falling asleep in public places, drooling even, sprawling out on bus seats and in movie theaters. And true to form the woman had even snored a little, while Rhea skimmed an article entitled “Turn Him On–With Minimal Makeup!”
“There, did you hear that?” the woman asked again.
But it was no good lying any more, because just then the plane took a sudden dip and, just as quickly, righted itself.
Around them, people murmured nervously.
“Oh my god,” said the woman. “You can’t say you didn’t feel that.”
“Fine, you’re right.” Rhea blamed the woman for forcing her to admit it. “Happy now?”
The woman turned to stare at Rhea, enormous glasses magnifying her dark eyes. Rhea too was shocked at her outburst. She attributed it to fear—of the plane’s odd behavior, and of the coming weekend in Massachusetts, yet another event she preferred not to think about. She wished she had taken advantage of the airport bar before boarding. There had certainly been time enough, two hours of delay due to technical problems with the plane, which Rhea now considered mentioning to the standby woman, who had conveniently missed that whole chapter of the experience.
The captain’s voice, a lazy-sounding one, came at them:
“Folks. It appears we’re having some problems with our right hydraulic system. What that means is that rather than continue on to Logan, we’re going to have to land at the closest runway, which is in Baltimore. I’ve just spoken with the folks at BWI, and it looks like they can clear us for landing in about twenty minutes. So, if you’ll bear with us. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
“Inconvenience?” said the standby woman. She sounded like she might be from New Jersey. “Landing without a right hydraulic system.” She shook her head. “Well, I’m sure he’ll do a fine job. Even without the right hydraulic system. I’m sure he’s a fine pilot.”
Rhea said, “It doesn’t matter if he’s fine or not.” She hadn’t mean to snap. But the plane was veering a little to the right, now back to the left, and now made another sudden, brief, plunge.
The woman took a short, frightened breath. Her perfume seemed momentarily stronger.
“He’s probably testing the plane,” Rhea told the standby woman, wishing it were true. “Seeing which functions are still working.”
“It’s my fault,” said the standby woman.
“What’s your fault?”
“I’m bad luck. Nothing ever goes smoothly when I’m involved. If I’m in a car, there’s a flat tire. Or a traffic jam. If I go to a movie, there’s some black thing flickering on the screen. If you invite me to a wedding, it rains.”
Rhea thought for a moment and said, “That’s incredibly egotistical.”
The standby woman did not seem to have heard her. “I’m a jinx.”
“Everyone thinks that about themselves,” said Rhea.
“But with me it’s true,” said the standby woman.
“Believe me. It isn’t. I know for certain. None of this is your fault.”
“How do you know?”
Rhea knew because it was her fault. This fact had become suddenly clear to her. For months she had been dreading Callie and Mack’s wedding, regretted ever having agreed to be Maid of Honor. But Callie had always been such a good friend, and had asked her without—Rhea could not even allow herself to continue the thought. Every day that the wedding drew closer Rhea had waited for some emergency to present itself, something that might prevent her from attending. If only a problem arose that were completely out of her control, then she would have an excuse.
The plane tilted oddly back, as if stretching its head to yawn.
Around them, people were making panicky sounds.
“You see?” said the standby woman. “I’m bad luck.”
“Fine!” Rhea said. “Blame it on her, everyone. She’s the cause of all this.” It came out more loudly than Rhea had intended.
The woman turned toward her, gigantic lenses for eyes, looking stunned. The plane tilted forward, and then more forward. Rhea gripped her armrests. More general panic was expressed before the structure found its balance.
The woman’s eyes had welled with tears. She sniffed into the little square napkin that had come with her complimentary beverage, and reached behind the enormous gold frames to dab at her eyes.
“See that,” said Rhea. “You thought things were bad, and now you see that it wasn’t so bad after all. So what if the right hydraulic system failed. Maybe it’s worse to have your neighbor saying mean things to you, making a spectacle of the both of us.”
“I’m glad you’re able to see that.”
“Look at the bright side. We’re heading to the airport, and the plane’s still, miraculously, in the air. Be thankful. Be glad.”
“Okay, I will,” said the woman.
“Because I’ll tell you something,” Rhea continued. “No matter how bad it gets, it can always get worse.”
As if to confirm this, the captain came on the intercom and said, “Well folks. It looks like we’re having some trouble with our front wing flaps.”
Nervous groans came from all around, the intonation of whiny question marks.
“What this means,” the pilot went on, “is that our landing is going to be more difficult than anticipated. We do still have full brake control, but we are going to have to instruct you in the proper emergency landing procedure. So I’d like you to please give your full attention to Irene and Nat, who in a few minutes will provide detailed instructions.”
“See that,” said Rhea.
“Oh God,” said the woman.
“And you know what?” Rhea went on, unsure of what exactly propelled her. “Even now, it could still get worse.”
“What, do you want it to?” The woman gave a huff.
“I’m just trying to put it in perspective. This is not at all as bad as all kinds of terrible things. You know what I read in the paper the other day? I read about some guy, some young father here in the good old U.S. of A., who went out with a buddy of his and left his baby daughter in the car, windows rolled up, on a sunny, ninety degree day. Just left her there while he and his friend went fishing or something.”
“That’s horrible,” said the standby woman, and added, tentatively, “Did she die?”
“Of course,” Rhea told her. “But that wasn’t the worst part. When they came back to the car, the baby had been so hot and miserable, she had torn her hair out of her head.”
“Oh my God.”
“A little baby with fists full of her own hair.” Rhea took a breath. “So you see, we don’t have it so bad.”
The woman said, “I can’t believe you just told me that.”
“I’m sorry,” Rhea said. “Talking makes me feel better. I like to put things in perspective.”
Actually, Rhea suspected that her habit of putting things in perspective was the very problem with the way she lived her life. To be so aware, so constantly aware, of the many horrors in the world made it hard to take your own problems seriously. And yet it was no help, Rhea knew, to belittle her own existence. Living cavalierly hadn’t helped her shake that greater pessimism–the resigned acceptance of life’s constant abominations. She supposed she would never free herself of that persistent reminder, the threat of calamity, which had allowed her to justify all kinds of actions she now regretted. She had lost her fiancé that way, and had betrayed Callie with the same reasoning. She had done this with jobs, with friendships, with everything, really.
Rhea opened up her little leather-bound notebook and wrote neatly, “Hypothetical life is always better.”
The captain asked them to please give their attention to Nat and Irene.
Rhea thought for a moment and said aloud, “Don’t women ever get to be captains?”
The standby woman took only a moment before saying, “No, no, I don’t think so.”
Rhea nodded, mystery solved. That was what Rhea liked about women who were older than her. You could count on them for the truth, because they had lived it. Young people pretended that the world was better than it had once been, because that was what should have been true. Older women could state the actual reality–the limitations and injustices–because they had grown up in a world where these things were said outright.
Rhea opened her little notebook again and wrote, “Old women are good for the facts.”
Nat and Irene had begun their performance. On a broad screen glowed a detailed accompanying video. Rhea focused her attention on Irene, who stood closest and, with hair in a stiff ponytail, told her audience that they would need to remove all jewelry, eyewear, headwear, hair clips, and false teeth.
Even though Rhea knew that what she was being told might save her life, the old student in her had dredged up from her school days a natural resistance to instruction, so that she found it impossible, even now, to give Irene her full, respectful concentration. Instead, she found herself wondering who would pick her up at Logan. “Don’t worry, someone will come get you,” Callie had said in her easy way. But what if it were Mack? Would Rhea be able to keep from telling him? Would she be able to not cry? And then Rhea remembered that she might not make it to the airport.
Irene was now demonstrating how to crouch in the proper position, head between knees, hands grasped behind the neck. She asked the passengers to please practice this position, and Rhea bent over forward. The position was not comfortable. She sat up, as others had.
Irene instructed them to please practice this position again.
She’s just saying that to kill time, thought Rhea. But, like an obedient child, she bent over again.
The standby woman was too big to do this properly. Giving up, she said to Rhea, “I used to be thin, like you. On my wedding day I weighed ninety-nine pounds.”
Is that some sort of threat? Rhea wanted to ask. No, she thought, just another musing on loss, now that tragedy seemed imminent.
The captain spoke. “Folks. We have not yet been cleared for landing.” There was the pause of the intercom clicking off, then on again. “It looks like we’re going to have to circle for about ten more minutes. Thank you for your patience.”
The flight attendants were making their way down the aisles, checking that everyone was following the proper procedure.
“I suppose I should introduce myself,” the woman said. “I’m Gaylord.”
Rhea thought to herself how many times this poor woman had said that name and watched people act like it was perfectly acceptable. Except for when she was in primary school, thought Rhea. I bet she was teased a lot.
“My name’s Rhea.”
In primary school they had called her Dia Rhea.
Gaylord said, “I’m going to visit my son. He has two boys. I haven’t seen them in a few months. Not since my husband’s funeral. I’m a new widow.”
She said “new widow,” Rhea thought, the way one might say “recent graduate” or “nouveau riche.” Well, maybe she was newly rich, buying whatever she could off of her husband’s insurance policy. Only that, come to think of it, might explain the showy eyeglasses.
Some rows ahead of them, a woman was refusing to remove her jewelry. A stewardess could be heard insisting in reasonable, businesslike inflections.
“This was my grandmother’s necklace, and I will not take it off.”
“Good for her,” said Gaylord, carefully folding her glasses into a case of purple leather, which she now clicked shut.
Amazing, thought Rhea, seeing Gaylord’s face exposed, puffy pockets of darkened skin under her eyes, little lines all over, her expression sad and overwhelmed, as if she had been suddenly asked to shave her head or walk naked in public. Without her glasses, she no longer looked at all appalling. She did still look a little skunky. Rhea watched as she took from her purse, also purple leather, a gold makeup compact, which she sprung open and peered into with a sigh. With a tiny brush, she applied pale green powder to her eyelids. Then she dabbed a different little brush into some red gel, which she swiped back and forth over her lips.
Primping for death, thought Rhea. Gaylord peeked at herself in the mirror one more time and said, “I look dreadful.”
And Rhea thought to herself that they all were, really were, everyone on the aircraft, full of dread. “If we live through this,” she said, though she hadn’t meant to put it that way, “do you know what this whole experience will become?”
Gaylord shook her head.
“An anecdote.” Rhea knew that the sick feeling that they all had in their stomachs right now would not even return in the telling. It would be recalled and described but not felt.
Gaylord said, “We’re going to die together.”
“I can’t believe you just said that. Will you please not say that? I mean it. Do not say that again.” Rhea could hear the annoyance in her voice. “You may feel you’ve lived a full life, but I’m not finished yet, okay?”
“I apologize,” said Gaylord, sighing.
Behind them, a baby began to wail. All around was the snapping sound of rings, chains and watches being placed in purses, sunglasses removed and folded.
Rhea opened up her little leather notebook. In all caps she wrote, “REGRETS” and underneath, in lower case, “Do I have any?”
She sat and thought.
“Well, do you?” asked Gaylord.
“Do I what?”
“Have any regrets?”
“So, do you?”
Rhea considered saying, “I regret not having flown first class.” But instead she found herself nodding, “Yes.” Before she could lose track of her thought, she printed carefully in her notebook, “I regret having spent the majority of my life trying not to offend others.”
Gaylord raised her eyebrows and said, “Could have fooled me.”
“You’re still spying!”
“What do you expect?”
“See, that’s what I mean.” What she meant was the Gaylord, unlike herself, dared to tell the truth. She had dared to admit she was looking over Rhea’s shoulder. Rhea never felt comfortable admitting what she was thinking.
“I always try to keep my mouth zipped,” she told Gaylord, “I try to hide my true thoughts, but they always seem to pop out. And then I feel rude, when I say what I think. It’s just nerves today, freeing me up that way. And I resent that. I resent that it takes an emergency landing for me to really say what’s what. It’s only now that I see that I’ve lived my life trying to be polite.”
“But why would you want to be impolite? What good is there in that?”
“I’ve just spent so much time holding my knees closed, you know? Clasping my hands on my lap. What good does that do the world? I’ve spent so much time and effort on trying to dress appropriately, trying to say the appropriate things. Trying to be polite rather than a person who accomplishes anything. That’s my regret.”
Gaylord seemed to be thinking this over. She said, “In other words you regret having been a woman.”
This fact had not occurred to Rhea before, not in those precise words. But now she saw that it was true. “Yes, I regret not having been a man in this world.”
She thought of this now, and, returning to the memory she so often arrived at, asked Gaylord, “Any secrets you’ll be taking to your grave?”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe I’m just thinking aloud. Wondering if I have a secret I’d rather die than tell.”
“I have a secret. But I’d rather tell it than die.” And it suddenly seemed that she alone could save the airplane, that if she told just one person, they would all be saved. This feeling was overwhelming. She whispered, to Gaylord, “When I was twenty-six I had an abortion.”
Gaylord nodded her head and said, “When I was twenty-six I had a miscarriage.”
“An abortion is different,” said Rhea, annoyed. “And anyway, that’s not the whole secret.”
Maybe, thought Rhea, Gaylord was one of those religious ladies who stand outside the clinics on weekends, holding rosary beads and photographs of bloody fetuses. But no, Gaylord with her bright stripe of hair simply wouldn’t fit in with those skinny, pale women. That shock of white. It suddenly struck Rhea as an incredibly bold thing, to enter the world each day with hair like that.
“So what’s the story?” Gaylord asked.
“It was almost two years ago. I’d known I was pregnant for nearly two months,” Rhea told her. “I went through everything you probably did, morning sickness, everything. But I had gotten this job as a travel writer for a magazine, a dream job, and I was supposed to start it in a few months, and I knew there was no way I could be pregnant and go traipsing around the continent. And the father—he wasn’t my boyfriend. He was my friend’s boyfriend.” She paused to bite her upper lip. “I finally convinced myself that everything would be better once I ended the pregnancy. So I didn’t tell anyone, and I went to have the abortion and felt completely prepared. Completely ready, and I got there and they did the final checkup beforehand, and you know what? There were two. I was carrying twins.”
Rhea felt herself about to cry, but the voice of the head flight attendant came from the intercom.
“We will now complete our descent. Please take your positions. We remind you that you are to have removed all headwear, eyewear, jewelry, dentures, retainers, and studs. Please take your positions.”
The air swelled with the eerie quiet of controlled panic. Only the screaming baby continued to complain. People spoke in whispery tones as they bent forward, heads between knees, and grabbed their necks.
“I guess this is it,” said Gaylord, whose face wasn’t quite between her knees.
“What about you?” Rhea asked, head down, voice muffled.
“What about me?”
“What’s your secret?”
Gaylord said, “I’m still wearing my false teeth.”
“I look bad enough without my glasses. If I die I’m going to at least have my teeth in.”
“Top or bottom?”
“Bottom. I look ancient with my jaw all sunken in.”
Gaylord sighed. “My husband.”
“I guess that’s my secret.”
The captain came on. “Flight attendants prepare for landing.”
Gaylord said, “I started gaining a lot of weight after my first child,” as if in explanation.
That was when the plane began heading swiftly toward the ground. No one dared to sigh or squirm. Even the baby stopped screaming. Rhea gripped her neck as tightly as she was able. Down, down, they went, and went, and went, and then hit the ground with incredible force. There was another popping noise, and the plane continued forward at great speed. But it was still in one piece, thought Rhea, at least it seemed to be, unless they were about to slam into something. Rhea supposed that was entirely possible. But then the plane began to slow. Rhea could feel it. They could all feel it, and the air seemed to itself relax, to refill with a collective exhalation.
Gaylord said, “I think we may actually be okay.”
“Are you trying to jinx it?” thought Rhea. But right
then the plane came to a stop.
Without waiting for word from the captain, everyone sat up. Above them, oxygen masks dangled like pinatas. They must have been released on impact. Looking out the window, Rhea saw an array of emergency vehicles–fire trucks, ambulances, lights and neon colors. Nat the flight attendant was already making his way down the aisle, explaining that they should not use the oxygen masks.
“They’re just for dramatic effect,” said Rhea. Indeed there was an odd air of festival, the hanging masks all around them.
Over the intercom, the captain stated that they were going to have to evacuate the plane via emergency chute. “Please leave all belongings on the plane,” he said. “Do not take your belongings with you down the chute. Follow the flight attendants, and leave your belongings on the plane.”
All around, women grabbed their pocketbooks. Gaylord had already put her glasses back on. Now she snapped her earrings into place. Her hands were shaking. “I can’t believe we made it,” she said. Rhea realized that her own hands were trembling.
The emergency exit had been opened, and from outside came the whine of a siren. It really was unnecessary, thought Rhea. But the siren continued as, row by row, passengers stood up to shimmy out of their seats, ducking through the vines of oxygen masks. It was already Rhea and Gaylord’s turn. As they waited in the aisle, shaky-legged, Rhea looked at Gaylord, at her astounding glasses and heavy earrings and bright makeup.
“What your husband did to you,” said Rhea. “It has nothing to do with your weight. You know that, right?”
Gaylord looked at her in a way that suggested she just barely knew this. But she nodded, as Rhea said, “What I mean is–”
Gaylord said, “I know. It was just violence.”
As they moved up toward the exit, the siren became louder. Just violence. Funny that those words should be allowed side by side. Rhea glanced at Gaylord and did not want to imagine her past. The situations people found themselves in any day, Rhea reflected, were really no less absurd than the one she was in right now, standing here like a third grader, about to go down a giant, inflated slide. I must note this, Rhea thought to herself, and then realized that she no longer had her little leather book. She had left it back at her seat.
“Wait till I tell my grandkids about this slide,” Gaylord said, looking truly pleased. “Who ever would have thought I’d be given the chance to go down a slide again.”
The slide really was quite something, enormous and bouncy and neon yellow. Some people hesitated before jumping out. Women kept smuggling their purses along with them.
Rhea said, “Are we really going down that thing?” The airplane itself, improbability incarnate, suddenly seemed safer than that clownish slide.
Gaylord did not appear at all worried. She took the flight attendant’s hand and then let go. Rhea watched her slide fearlessly down, her skirt hitching up above her waist. With clenched fists, Rhea stepped out to follow her into the world of sirens and lights.