The cabin tips sideways. The metal wing juts out toward land. Suddenly, I see the world the way it truly is, a canvas hung vertical. Its surface erupts with hills, mountains, and human structures. Space isn’t up. Earth isn’t down. No, all of everything pushes out instead of up, and the sea water sticks to the canvas by magic.
I imagine the people on the Earth, their feet sticking to it like a spider walking up a wall. I almost laugh, but the strangers would stare. I know you’re down there somewhere in the vastness of that canvas, finding your way home without me. Up here, so distant from your pull, I lose my sense of direction.
Last night I lay next to you, knowing we would separate, trying not to think of it, and wanting nothing more than to lay closer to you than it’s possible to lay close to someone. But it’s you and me, I thought, so the mundane details of physics didn’t matter. But you were sleeping. And I was supposed to be. I would have laid on top of you if I could, knees and noses touching, breathing you into me.
If you were here, you’d squeeze my hand. Your scent clings to me. Through the window, white houses patch the mountainside. Smog hovers over the sea. The water is less blue than gray.
I feel the cabin fight gravity. Earth wants us back, even if we would only snap together like two magnets in an explosion of light. Instead, we climb higher. We stop pulling away, and Earth lets us be where we are. Still in her power but flying untethered through the empty sky. Earth stops pulling so hard, but you don’t. I feel you still. And if I fell out of the sky, I know I’d fall into you.
There’s nothing but clouds through the window now. I recline my seat. Ballcaps, silver hair, and headphones dot the spaces above neckrests. Magazines in worn pleather pockets. Signs and lights and individual air conditioners. Patterned hotel carpet. Crew members chatter four rows back. They’re close enough that I hear their voices rise and fall and interrupt each other. But the engines drown their words. Still, I know there are two of them, female and male, by the pitch and pattern of their voices.
We pitch right. Snow on mountaintops through the windows. I want to watch the Earth go by, but the girl in the window seat looks over too frequently, worried that I’m staring at her. Nice girl, though. She sees I’m looking at the mountains and leans back in her seat, revealing fully half of the middle window. I can see the ocean through that half a window. It’s almost beautiful but for the Los Angeles smog and dirty glass between us. The seat between me and the nice girl is empty.
Sixty-four cigarettes blaze under red slashes. They flank the center aisle, thirty-two on either side. If you were here, I’d tell you that a cigarette sounds kinda good right now. You and I quit smoking. We’ve made so much progress together.
Last time, I flew like a sardine in a can. Is the cabin bigger this time? It isn’t. I realize I’m different this time. Thirty-five pounds different. But people still run into my arm because it extends over the armrest and into the aisle. I can hear what your voice sounds like when you tell me not to worry about things like that. You love me anyway, you would say. And I would believe you.
Cheese platters and coke products. “I’ll have a water, please,” I tell the lady behind the cart. A woman with a sleek, chin-length bob asks for orange juice. The woman next to her rifles through her backpack and pulls her dreadlocks to one shoulder. She orders a coke. One of the crew members, a middle aged woman with dark hair and high cheek bones, takes orders and processes credit card payments on a hand-held device. I remember seeing one for the first time in that ice cream bar in Horb. Remember how European and efficient they seemed? This is the first time I’ve seen one stateside. I wonder if it still counts as stateside since I’m thirty thousand feet above home.
“Are you a writer?” It’s the nice girl from the window seat who asks.
“I like to think so,” I say. It sounds stupid. I hate talking to strangers. You’re so much better at it. Usually I leave it to you and only chime in here or there when it feels natural. But the seat between us is empty, and I carry the burden of her desire to converse.
“I thought so,” she says as though I haven’t been socially awkward. “You have an idea, and you just have to write it down.” She says this because I’m writing furiously in the empty pages of a paperback. I’ve filled in the spaces around the typeset. I forgot to bring paper. I’m writing down the things I would have told you and the things you would have seen if you were here.
I envy the nice girl’s casual ease with strangers. She starts and stops little conversation snippets with me. Her starts and stops feel natural. I try to keep up with her in the space between them. For a second, I consider asking her for pointers. But I decide against it. She’s lovely. But I don’t love talking. I never know what to say, even if it’s to ask what to say.
My water is cold as the arctic. There’s no ice in the cup. I wrap the thick plastic in a paper napkin. There’s a coffee shop logo on it. If you hadn’t already been on my mind, it would make me think of you. You said you were headed there after dropping me off. The mermaid logo smiles through rippling water. She’s more at home than I am.
The man across the aisle chews mashed potatoes with his mouth open. It’s something you wouldn’t have noticed. His sleeves fold and sag around his arms. His face is hard-lined and lean. He catches himself hunching over his plate and looks around at the passengers before easing back into his seat. I watch him sidelong and pretend to read. If you were here, I wouldn’t worry about what it means.
A little girl stares at the out-of-focus nude woman on my book cover. I fold the cover back to conceal it. She leans across the aisle to throw paper napkins at her brother. I write about the exchange in the margins. A fat man sips his cola and spits ice back into the cup. A line forms for the bathroom. A woman bends to kiss her young son as they stand in the aisle. Her hairs smells of oil.
Finally the bathroom is free. The seat belt sign alights when I sit down. I rush to finish. I skip washing my hands to hurry back to my seat. We land. You’re at work by now. I turn on my phone and hope that you’ve texted. You have. And the little message is a small solace when you can’t hold my hand.