Strapped into our seatbelts, in stiff upright positions, we have cleared the Newark runway and are rising west to Denver when the pilot’s voice comes over the intercom. He is earlier than usual and therefore sounding unrehearsed. He welcomes us aboard his aircraft, and says he is extremely honored to have Intercontinental’s Pilot of the Year flying with us today, a passenger no less. The Pilot of the Year, he says, is in seat 42D.
Most of us look around. I’m in 41C. The plane isn’t crowded, indeed there’s only one of us per row, seated according to our preference for ‘window or aisle.’ The Pilot of the Year is one row behind me. He is the last passenger.
The pilot’s voice asks us to give a round of applause for the Pilot of the Year and we do. I didn’t know airlines had such a thing as Pilot of the Year. Though I fly a lot I dislike flying, but today with the Pilot of the Year on board I feel safer than usual. Except for my journals. I’m on my way home, accompanied by my numerous journals from the last twenty years flying with me in cargo. I worry about them as I would about a large dog sedated for transport yet sure to suffer the effects of flight.
Clearly embarrassed by the attention, the Pilot of the Year stands reluctantly, and salutes the passengers who have turned around to see what a Pilot of the Year looks like. He is not in uniform. Instead, he is wearing a leather flight jacket and a navy turtleneck, but he still looks like a pilot. Close-cut hair, square jaw, boyish. Pilots seem to have secret information about the fountain of youth.
I can tell, as we look around at the Pilot of the Year, that those of us seated nearby feel chosen. (Very occasionally, a flight attendant will recognize my name from my sparsely syndicated column and award me an upgrade—which my newspaper never springs for—”Katherine Kelso,” they’ll say. “I saw your column on those senate hearings,” or “You were right on about Park and Drive.” They then usher me to a wider seat in business and within minutes return with a glass of champagne.) The Pilot of the Year surely could have sat up there in relative luxury, but here he is, with us, in Coach.
The moment of community ends and the Pilot of the Year sits down. Still conscious that he is with us, we settle back into our newspapers or books or pillows, and the stewards spring into motion. When the drink cart goes by I order a Bloody Mary in deference to the time of day—a little after noon. Moments later, I overhear the Pilot of the Year join me, so to speak, with a double Jack Daniels on the rocks. I glance around and the pilot catches my eye and winks approval. I pull out my current journal and wonder about that fountain of youth, given that I could do with a generous spritz of it at the moment. After a few bumps and drops, the plane has leveled off above a dense layer of clouds that looks absolutely solid, and above it a deep blue sky that has no bounds.
My journals have been accumulating and residing in my cousin’s ten-room house in the suburb of Teaneck ever since my drawn-out divorce proceedings from my unfaithful first husband. A week ago she called to say she was moving to an apartment in the city. It’s about the attic, she said, or rather the lack of storage space in the condo. Ah, my journals, I said. Right, your journals, she said—fifteen boxes full. What do you want me to do with them?
I had to think. I’ll call you back, I said.
I called her back. I’m coming out to get them, I said. That is, I’m coming out to read them, then I’ll decide what to do. Whether to bring them back home or send them on to another friend for storage. Now, they are beneath me in cargo, condensed into two large borrowed suitcases that were overweight by seventy-eight pounds and cost seventy-five dollars extra to fly with the Pilot of the Year and me.
When the Pilot of the Year orders another round of Jack Daniels, I signal the bustling stewardess that I too will have another Bloody Mary. I can tell by the expression on her perfectly made-up face that she hopes my inclination to have a second drink doesn’t spread to the other passengers and become an epidemic of extra work. She should realize that is why I silently pointed to my plastic glass.
During my first divorce, my lawyer was going down a list. Any journals, he wanted to know, any safe deposit boxes, foreign or off-shore bank accounts? Why journals? I asked. His pen paused above his yellow legal pad. Because if your husband knows you keep a journal, he can have them subpoenaed as evidence. Evidence of what I said? The lawyer looked pained, having earlier given my intelligence and sophistication the benefit of the doubt. Evidence of anything, he said, anything at all. Arguments, hostility. Time away from the children, time spent with other men. Other men? I said. He shrugged his shoulders. What do people write in journals? he said.
No journals, I said.
I was lying. Before the separation I kept my journal on a pantry shelf labeled “Old Family Recipes.” Knowing my family, my vegetarian husband also knew that “old Family Recipes” meant meat. If indeed he ever thought of cooking, which he’d never done with me, especially after his usual six afternoon scotches and two before-dinner vodkas. When he’d moved out and was sleeping elsewhere on a regular quasi-legitimate basis, given the separation, I kept the journal under the right side of the bed and wrote in it with my bedtime decaffeinated tea. Not every night, or even every week. Only when I had something to say. To work out. Yes, the new man I’d begun to see. Writers know what I mean.
The lawyer clearly did not, but he did know that I was lying. Until your divorce is final, he said, get your journal out of the house. He re-turned to his list: any negotiable bonds, family jewels, property out of state?
I sent my journals east to my cousin’s. There were four at the time—journals I’d begun in high school with the names of lipsticks and boys, the page numbers of explicit, instructive sex scenes in novels. I continued writing a journal through college and my first job as a stringer for Newsweek. After my divorce was final, I asked my cousin to bundle them up, which was still possible then, and send them back to me. “Old Family Recipes” became “IRS Receipts” to discourage the twins who at thirteen had discovered the joys of cooking. Lovers came and went and one stayed to become my second husband, a man with no interest in tax returns, but an eventual addiction to football and Internet auctions. When I started divorce proceedings for the second time, I again sent the journals east, not even waiting for my lawyer’s query. After that divorce, from habit I suppose, I continued to export my journals, two or three entries at a time in brown envelopes. My cousin reported that she threw my envelopes in a box in her closet and when the box was full she stored it in her attic. I’ll visit them sometime, I said, but I hadn’t, even when I was visiting her. Then last week her call came with news of her move to a condo and I knew the time had come for me to confront the past, or at least peruse it once again.
The morning after my arrival, she set me up in the attic with a thermos of Bloody Marys and an old shredded armchair over which she’d thrown a flannel sheet.
“This won’t take long,” I said. “We’ll lunch.”
“We’ll see,” she said and discreetly retired to the second floor where she was sorting purses and shoes.
I got busy. First I unpacked the early journals and placed them at my feet, around the chair, in chronological order. My life in black and white. I’d gone through phases of loose leaf notebooks, mottled chemical notebooks, blank books with flowered covers (the shortest phase), and out-of-date museum calendars. I sat there staring at them, remembering the kitchen table where I wrote in the first journal, recalling the blue-striped sheets on the bed with the second. Quilted headboards. Hotel rooms. My cubicle at the newspaper. The waiting rooms of law offices. Airplanes.
Two hundred plus envelopes were next—but not without a letter opener. I glanced around for something that would do—coat hanger, boomerang—and settled for a Phillips screwdriver. When I stopped for lunch a fourth of the way through, my cousin sensed that her purses and shoes were in more order than my previous life. At the end of the first day, I still hadn’t read a thing—only opened envelopes and arranged them in order on the dusty floor. My cousin had done the linen closet and was starting on glassware.
The next day, I climbed to the attic with a thermos of black coffee, rearranged my chair for better reading light, and started at the beginning. By lunch I was graduating from college. Come dinner I’d had my third of many jobs and my first of four children. That evening, into a second bottle of a good cabernet, my cousin and I compared notes—all over again we were annoyed with roommates, profligate about majors, rueful about the children’s escapades, heartsick over men. What’s it like to read about it all again, she wanted to know. Her hair was pulled neatly into a brisk ponytail, a style that forever eluded me.
“You’d rather not know?” I said. “I mean about your own life?”
“Are you kidding. I know it inside and out—warts and polyps,” she said.
Day three and back to Bloody Marys. I read through my adult loves, my fluctuating weight and marital status, the children’s progress or lack of, the jobs I’d left or been fired from, the books I’d read and quoted for their wit and wisdom. I recalled the friends—betrayers and betrayed, my short-lived experiments with drugs, a life-long affair with alcohol, my abrupt break with religion and slow abandonment of God. My durable engagement with the writing life. A life. My life. I cried. Dust, I sniffled to my cousin, allergies. Never mind, she said, I do know.
I borrowed two suitcases and stuffed them full. “Keep the suitcases,” my cousin said when she dropped me at the terminal. I waved, and weighed my life at check-in. “It’ll cost you extra,” the man behind the counter said, peering at his scales. “Whatever you got in there weighs a ton.” We eyed the bulging suitcases. I was beginning to see his point. Then I boarded a plane for home, still uncertain about what to do with my life in black and white. Which is why I am sitting on this plane with no book or newspaper, no pen and paper for column notes—just a journal entry with only one line so far that reads “do a column about the difference in aging for . . .” I fuss with arm controls for the cunning little screen on the back of the seat in front of me.
Eventually, the Pilot of the Year and I both ignore the movie, which—I surmise without sound—is about Arnold Schwarzenegger and his body. I can’t remember the last time I looked in a full-length mirror naked. Yes, I can. Lord, it’s probably in the journal in my purse. Arnold probably watches the movie without sound, too. I doubt he keeps a journal. The Pilot of the Year is joking with a bevy of stewardesses who, after serving us an inedible lunch, have gathered around his seat. They are loud and some of their talk and laughter has the comforting, singsong rhythm of dirty jokes. I bury one ear in my pillow and think and drink.
Why do people keep journals? my unimaginative lawyer had wanted to know. I’d assumed his “keep” meant “write”—but now I see that “keep” meant “keep”—as in for what earthly reason? and “Keep for whom?”
Three Bloody Marys is too much like lunch, so when the next stewardess nears where I am sitting in 41C, headed no doubt for the Pilot of the Year in 42D, I wave her to a stop. She has six tiny amber bottles threaded in her fingers and I discreetly signal that I wish to switch my choice of beverage: one of those bottles will do just fine.
If I died—something we all say with incredulity—then what? Do I really want my journals read? I consider my gentle third husband and my four children. How would my journals affect them if I weren’t around to temper my anger, explain my cryptic prose, or provide footnotes to desire? My friends might read what I thought of their unexamined, journal-less lives. I recall the sudden fiery death of a friend whose journals were touched and read by her partner and all her friends. We slickly, wickedly interpreted her dreams and foretold her death from our safe vantage points.
Arnold wins and goes away; our screens revert to CNN or a tiny map of the flight’s course.
Finally, our plastic glasses are whisked off, a bit unsteadily, by one stewardess as another reluctantly abandons the Pilot of the Year to tell us that in preparation for our landing we are to make sure our seatbelts are securely buckled, etc. During this announcement the Pilot of the Year arrives at the slurred punchline of another joke and laughs longer than I with my mere three drinks feel is necessary. His cheeks are ruddy as if from a day in the sun. When he leans forward and taps my arm, I can’t help but smile as he thanks me for taking part in his social hour, and I admit it’s nervousness at flying.
“Ma’am you heard him say you’re flying with the Pilot of the Year,” he says.
“True,” I say, “but I think the plane’s in the hands of the Pilot of the Day.”
We both laugh. My laugh is not quite what Colette once referred to as “the laughter of women when the peril of men has passed.”
Daylight dims as we enter the clouds we were flying above and descend into their dome of gray sky. The nose of the plane dips forward by degrees and the engine’s roar changes in pitch. Receding mountains give way to the flat Denver landscape and the city and airport loom into view as the Pilot of the Year begins to narrate this landing for us. “Coming in the chute now,” he says, as we seem to be flatly dropping into a flight pattern for landing. “Right down the tunnel of love.” People in front of me titter nervously. Suddenly, he announces—loudly, to no one in particular because the stewardesses are all battened down like we are and I’m peering out of my window—that we are not going to make it this time.
“You’re coming in a little high,” he says, his voice loud, as if the real pilot flying the plane can hear him. “You gotta take it around again.”
We alternate between peering out our portholes as the city fades from view and craning our necks to 42D to see what the Pilot of the Year is looking at. He’s peering out the window just like we are. His ears look alert.
We bank sharply and turn, circle high and wide, then once again begin to drop.
“You got it this time,” he says. “You got it now.” His voice has lost its slur, which is more alarming than when it was a drunken ramble. “Easy now. Bring it in low. Bring it in,” he says. Any safety I felt has dissolved into an unfamiliar fantasy. I picture my journals flying over the city of Denver for all to read, dropping onto farmlands, confounding the farmers and cows alike.
We’re over trees now, flying low toward the airport. I can see runways that must be parallel to ours. Low. As we go lower the Pilot of the Year says, “Keep it straight, baby, come on.” I picture my journals being delivered by some harried airline official to add to the grief of my grieving family. Fights erupting as to ownership, blood of the children versus the money of the third husband. And page after page: the real me.
The Pilot of the Year is yelling now. “Get it straight. Get it straight. You’re paying out runway you should be using. Take the hit.”
We are not straight. The gray runway is flying beneath us and we are tilting from wing to wing.
The Pilot of the Year gets louder. “Five seconds,” he yells. He must be straining against his seat belt. I can’t look back.
In the next second, my mind replays my entire life—how could I have doubted it was there.
“Three seconds,” he yells, “baby, two to get it straight. Get. It. Straight.”
We hit the tarmac hard. My drink tray slams open. Straight. At the last minute straight. “Jesus,” says the Pilot of the Year. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
I close my eyes and plan my ride home.
I picture the annoyed compliance of the cab driver when I tell him, suddenly, that we are making an interim stop, and ask him to open the trunk. I imagine his bored amazement when I proceed to dump the contents piece by piece of my journal-laden suitcases into the dumpster of an unsuspecting restaurant. “Getting rid of the evidence,” he’ll say, leaning against the car. And I’ll know I can count on his total lack of curiosity about some crazy dame’s life.
As I snap open my seatbelt and lift down my carry-on, I feel light-headed thinking about the light-hearted suitcases I’ll be taking home. The Pilot of the Year is slumped in his seat and I wonder if he had the luxury of seeing his own life in review. We say goodbye. Humbly, I shuffle along with the other passengers toward the airplane’s exit, not one bit tempted to tarry and perhaps hear what will be said between the Pilot of the Year and the Pilot of the Day.
Pamela Painter is the author of Getting to Know the Weather, which won the GLCA Award for First Fiction, and a new collection of stories, The Long and Short of It (reviewed in this issue). She lives in Boston, where she teaches in the MFA program at Emerson College. In 1999 she received AGNI’s John Cheever Award for Short Fiction.