Love in Mid Air: Exclusive Preview
Read the first chapter of Charlotte writer Kim Wright's new novel
I wasn’t meant to sit beside him. It was a fluke.
It’s the last Sunday in August and I’m in Phoenix for a pottery show. I won a prize for my glazing and sold seventeen pieces, so I’m feeling good. On the morning I’m due to fly out, I go for an early hike in a canyon behind my hotel. Arizona’s deceptive. It’s cool in the morning so you climb all the way to the top of the trail, but an hour later, when the sun is fully up and you’re winding your way back down, you can feel a pulse in the dome of your head and you remember that this is the West, not the East, and out here people can die from the heat. By the time I get to the bottom I’m so dizzy that I bend my head over a drinking fountain in the hotel lobby and let the water run over the back of my neck until my vision returns to normal.
I drive to the airport, turn in my rental car, go through security, call home, eat a burrito, and drag my carry-on to the plane. There’s a man beside me in 18A, a man with a strong accent who immediately begins explaining to me that his son is stuck in 29D and he doesn’t have much English and would I mind switching seats with him? Twenty-nine D is a hell seat, near the back and in the middle of a row. I don’t want to switch. There’s burrito juice all over my shirt and my hair has dried funny from being washed in a water fountain. I’m hot and tired and all I want to do is get home. But when Tory was little I was always asking strangers to help me in airplanes and most of them were nice about it. So I say sure, shove my magazine into my bag, and go trudging to the back of the plane.
The kid in question turns out to be about thirty years old. I try to explain that we’re switching seats by showing him my boarding pass and pointing to his and saying, “Papa, Papa,” but his dad wasn’t lying. He doesn’t speak a word of English. Everyone in the vicinity of the twenty-ninth row of the aircraft gets into the act and for some bizarre reason the flight attendant begins speaking French. We’re almost ready to pull back from the gate when he finally stands up and heads toward Papa in the front of the plane. I crawl over the guy in 29C and drop into my seat, thinking this is one of those times that you regret trying to do the right thing, only I’m wrong. This is one of those times that karma turns around faster than a boomerang.
The man sitting beside me in 29E says, “That was a nice thing to do.”
He’s tall, so tall that he is turned slightly in his seat, his knees just on the edge of my space. I ask him why he was in Arizona and he says he was on a climb. He’s an investment banker, he climbs mountains on weekends. He doesn’t like to fly.
He turns slightly more toward me in the seat and I turn slightly more toward him. I tell him it seems strange that a person who can climb mountains is afraid to fly, and he shakes his head. It’s a matter of control, he says, and he tells me about the scariest thing that’s ever happened to him on a climb. Years ago, when he’d just begun the sport, he’d found himself linked to a guy who didn’t fix the clips right and something broke loose and both of them slid. There’s nothing worse, he says, than to be halfway up the face of the mountain, past the turnback point, and all of a sudden to realize you can’t count on the other person. I ask him what the turnback point is and he says there’s a place you get to in every climb where it’s as dangerous to retreat as it is to advance. I nod. It seems I should have known this.
He asks me if I’m married and I say yes, nine years. “Nine,” he says slowly, as if the number in itself has a kind of power. “Nine is sort of in the middle.” I don’t feel like I’m in the middle of my marriage—but I don’t feel like I’m at the beginning or the end of it either. I find marriage immeasurable, oceanic. The man in 29C has put on headphones. We have our vodka and pretzels by now.
“It’s such a funny sport,” he says. It takes me a minute to realize what he’s talking about. “Each time I summit I think the same thing, that we shouldn’t have come here, that human beings have no business being in the sky. Every time I think, ‘This will be my last climb,’ but then I get home and in a couple of weeks I want to do it again.”
“I guess once you start, it’s hard to stop,” I say. I’ve never met anyone who used the word “summit” as a verb. But he has shut his eyes and leaned back in his seat, as if just telling the story has exhausted him.
I pull the Redbook magazine from my bag and the cover says “48 Things to Do to a Man in Bed.” I bought the magazine just for this article. Defying all logic, there is still a part of me that thinks I can save my marriage through sex. Gerry—his name is Gerry—opens his eyes and begins to read over my shoulder. His minute-long nap seems to have revitalized him because he suggests that we go through the list and each write down three things we’d like to try. Wouldn’t it be something if they were the same three things?
I strongly suspect they will be the same three things. He’s married too, of course, married to someone he met in the drop-add line his freshman year at UMass. At one point they’d been together so long that they just looked at each other and said, “Why not?” Two boys and then a girl, and the daughter especially, she’s the love of his life, he says—but his wife, that’s a whole other issue. He has pressed his thigh against mine, opened his legs as if I am a weight he must push away in order to make himself stronger.
“Marriage is difficult,” I tell him. “It’s the only thing in my whole life I’ve ever failed at.”
I’ve never said this to anyone, never used the word “failed,” but it rolls off my tongue like a fact. Maybe this is the way you should always confess things—just like this, in mid air, and to a total stranger. I wait for him to convince me that it isn’t true. God knows if I tried to say this back home, a hundred people would rush in to correct me before the words were even out of my mouth. They would say it’s just the vodka talking, or the altitude. Or maybe my desire to intrigue this man by saying something dramatic, anything that will keep him turned toward me in his seat. Any marriage can be salvaged, my friends would tell me—especially a clean, well-ordered little one like mine. No, of course I haven’t failed. We’re just going through a rough spot.
But this man doesn’t correct me. He is smiling as he screws the top off his second bottle of vodka. His hands are very beautiful. I need for a man to have beautiful hands, hands you can imagine slipping down you at once, hands that can make you feel a little breathless even as they go through the most mundane of tasks, even as they rip open a package of pretzels or reach up to redirect the flow of air.
“The list?” he says, pointing toward the magazine.
“Do you have paper?”
He digs something out of his pocket. “You can type it into my BlackBerry.”
“I’m supposed to type three things I want to do in bed into your BlackBerry? Are you going to delete it?”
He smiles. “Eventually.”
The flight goes fast. When the pilot comes on to say we are beginning our descent into Dallas it startles me so much that it’s like I’d forgotten we were even on a plane. “Can I hold your hand?” Gerry asks me. This is the part he hates, the landing. This is the part where you are statistically most likely to crash, and he explains that this is true for climbers too, that most are killed on the way down. He smiles again as he tells me this, flashing strong white teeth. I have visions of them ripping flesh from bone. Good hands and good teeth. He’s a type, of course. He’s a player. He’s the kind of man who meets women at 30,000 feet and persuades them to type sexual fantasies into his BlackBerry, but for some reason I don’t care. He asks me how long I’ll be laid over in Dallas.
Almost two hours. He thinks maybe we should have a drink. There’s definitely time for a drink. At least a drink. He says he’s a little lightheaded too, the result of the climb. It’s been so strange, such an intense day. He changed planes at the last minute, and maybe he needs something to press him back into himself. This is probably all quite meaningless. He’s probably the sort of man who does this all the time. People meet in planes and do it all the time, huddled under thin airline blankets or in those cheap hotels that offer shuttle service from the terminals. An in-flight flirtation, nothing special, and I shouldn’t even be talking to him. I have not had sex with any man other than my husband in nine years.
“I suppose we could have a drink,” I say.
“Here comes the dangerous part,” he says, and he reaches out to hold my hand.
We land without dying. He helps me retrieve my bag from the bin above row 18. We walk down the tunnel and find a departure board. The time at the bottom flashes 5:22.
“That can’t be right,” says Gerry.
We were supposed to land at 3:45. We were supposed to have a two-hour layover in Dallas. I look at my watch but I’m still on Phoenix time and when I find Charlotte on the departure board I see that my flight is scheduled to leave in fourteen minutes. “What time is it?” Gerry asks the guy standing beside us, who got off our flight and presumably is privy to no more information than we are. He looks at us with a kind of pity and says, “Five twenty-three,” and then adds, “We circled fucking forever.”
I am leaving out of Gate 42 and this is Gate 7. Gerry lives in Boston. He is leaving out of Gate 37 in twenty minutes. “Come on,” he says. “We’re going to have to hurry.” It seems easier to follow him than to think, so I do. Follow him, that is, away from the departure board and down the long corridor that leads to the higher numbers. We put our bags over our shoulders and begin to run, run full out until we get to the moving sidewalk and hop aboard. My chest hurts and I feel sick.
“We’re being cheated,” Gerry says. “We could just forget our flights and find a hotel. This is Dallas. Nobody knows us. We could say we missed our connection.” We are walking fast on the sidewalk, cutting right and left around couples and old people, blowing past them like they were obstacles on a video screen, until we come up behind a woman with a baby stroller and we have to stop.
He glances at me. “I’ve offended you.”
“No,” I say. “I’m thinking.” We might run like this and miss our planes anyway. If we stopped running right now it would be one of those lies that isn’t much of a lie, and they’re my favorite kind. He’s quite right, this is Dallas. Nobody here knows us. He is sliding his hand up and down my spine and I lean into him a little, feel the sharp angle of his hipbone cutting into my waist. The moving sidewalk carries us past Gate 16 and the clock there says 5:27. There’s a very good chance we won’t make it.
“I just have to be back for a meeting on Monday,” he says.
He frowns, like maybe I’m wrong.
The moving sidewalk ends, spilling us in front of Gate 22. I see a cart that sells bottled water, but there isn’t time. I put my bag over my right shoulder, he puts his over his left, and we join hands and start running again. The airport is interminable, it’s like a dream, and he looks over to me at some point and says, “It’ll be all right.” What? What will be all right? I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirrored wall as we pass. My shirt is stained with burrito juice and my hair has dried really strangely and I start to tell him that usually I don’t look this bad. Which isn’t exactly the truth. I often look this bad but I guess what I want to tell him is that I am capable of looking much better. I am watching him for a sign that he does this all the time, for surely he is the sort of man who does this all the time. He’s strong and tall, with the kind of teeth that are designed to rip flesh from bone, and just then—the clock says 5:32—he pulls me to the side and I go with him, unquestioning, into the Traveler’s Chapel where he drops his bag, puts his hands on my shoulders, and kisses me.
It’s one of those kisses that gives you the feeling that you’re falling, that the elevator floor has dropped out from under you, and when I finally break away I see a mural of Jesus, a sort of Hispanic Jesus looking all flat and distorted, with long thin hands reaching out to hold a 747. His eyes are sorrowful but sympathetic. Here, in the Traveler’s Chapel of the Dallas airport, apparently he has seen it all.
“I need your card,” Gerry says. “Your business card.”
“Okay,” I say. The blood has rushed to my face and my ears are ringing. Gerry and I are practically screaming at each other, as if we are climbers high on a mountain, as if we have to yell to be heard over the sound of the whipping wind. “But you can’t call me. I’m married.”
“I know,” he says. “I’m rich.”
“I make a lot of money, that’s all I mean. I don’t know why I make a lot of money, I don’t really understand why they pay me what they pay me, but it could make things easier.” He glances over at Jesus.
What does he mean, it could make things easier? For the first time I am wary. He’s like an actor suddenly gone off script and I don’t know what to say. He has been so smooth up to this point, so smooth that I could imagine he would slide right off me when we parted, never leaving a mark. I have already been practicing the story I will tell Kelly on the phone tomorrow, imagining how she will laugh at the cliché of it all. Elyse drinking two vodka doubles and getting herself picked up on a plane. (“That’s a vodka quadruple,” Kelly will say. “Exactly what did you think was going to happen?”) Elyse making out in an airport chapel. (“With some Tex-Mex Jesus watching you the whole time.”) Elyse walking toward her plane while the man walks away in another direction, toward another plane that will carry him to a different town and a different life. (“It’s just one of those things,” she will tell me, as I sit on my kitchen countertop with the phone pressed to my ear and my legs swinging. “Nothing really happened so there’s no point in feeling guilty.”) Kelly is the only one who knew me when we were both young and pretty, when we were impulsive and the world seemed full of men, and we would find ourselves sometimes transported by sex, picked up and carried into situations that, in the muddle of memory, seem a bit like movie scenes. She is the only one who would understand that I am relieved to find a sliver of this girl still inside me. Relieved to find that, although older and more suspicious and heavy with marriage, under the right circumstances I can still be picked up and carried. That I remember how to kiss a man who doesn’t seem to have a last name.
But now, suddenly, this man standing before me isn’t acting like a player. He’s awkward and embarrassed and real. He is determined to make me understand something, something that I suspect will not fit well into the story I’ve planned to tell Kelly. I raise my fingers to his mouth to stop the words, but it has been a long time since I have been in a situation like this and perhaps the lines have changed. If a mistake is being made here, it is undoubtedly mine.
He pushes my hand aside, squeezing it for a moment to soften the rebuff. “No,” he says. “I need you to hear this. My first car was a fucking AMC Pacer, do you even remember those? They blew up if somebody ran into you. I spent a whole summer sleeping in a tent on my friend’s grandmother’s back porch because a bunch of us were going to move to New Orleans and start a blues band but we couldn’t half play and we were stoned all the time and you know how it is with the blues . . . I used to eat those ramen noodles, do you know what I’m talking about, those kind that were like four packages for a dollar? I didn’t think I was going to turn out to be some rich asshole banker flying all over the place. Today was probably the first time I’ve sat in coach in five years, can you believe that? I fucked up and missed my earlier flight, I wasn’t even supposed to be on that plane. Do you understand what I’m telling you? I wasn’t even supposed to be on that plane and the money isn’t who I am. It’s just, you know, energy, a kind of raw energy, and it could make things easier. That’s all I’m trying to tell you, that it could make things easier.” He exhales sharply. “Are you mad at me?”
I shake my head. He kisses me again. This time he breaks away first and I am left hanging and abandoned in the space between his chin and his shoulder, my eyes still closed and my mouth still open. “A card,” he says into my hair. “I need your card.”
I am trying very hard not to faint. I flatten my back against the stucco wall and open my eyes. Gerry is adjusting his pants, looking away from me as he arranges things, his face as flushed as a teenage boy’s. I am digging in my purse and my hand is finding ink pens, breath mints, Tampax, everything but the business card that could propel this madness into the future tense.
“I’m shaking,” I tell him as he presses something into my hand, and then we are running again, out the chapel door and through the airport to Gate 37. People are lined up waiting to enter the tunnel.
“I’ll go with you to your gate,” he says. “If you’ve missed your flight, I’ll miss mine.” I look at the monitor behind the desk. My flight was supposed to have left two minutes ago. There is nothing I can do about the situation one way or another and this thought thrills me. We are walking now. Five numbers down to my gate and the sign says charlotte and there are no people except for one woman in a US Airways uniform. “Are you still boarding?” I ask her and I am amazed at the neutrality of my voice. She asks me my name and I realize this is the first time that Gerry has heard it. She looks down at the monitor and says, “They haven’t pulled back. I can get you on.”
Somewhere in the high thin air between Phoenix and Dallas we took turns reading the Redbook article about what a woman can do to a man in bed and Gerry picked three things from the list. The only one that I can remember now is that he said he likes for women to show that they want it. Jump the guy. Take charge of the situation. All men like that. I know he wants me to be the alpha female, the un-wife, the person you meet in strange cities who is cool and aggressive and uncomplicated and self-assured, and so, right on cue, I burst into tears. Gerry kisses me again, only I am so weak that I can hardly move my mouth. I slide off his tongue like a climber with bad equipment.
I break away and follow the US Airways lady down the tunnel. I don’t look back. As we walk I sniffle and she pats my arm and says, “Airport goodbyes can be very hard.” I have never been the last person on a plane before. Everyone looks at me as I bump my way down the aisle to the only empty seat. A nice-looking older lady is beside me and I want to tell her everything but the overhead is full and it takes my last ounce of strength to shove my carry-on under the seat in front of me. Gerry’s crumpled business card is in my hand. I never found a card so he can’t call me. I can only call him and this is no good. If I call him first he will always know that I walked in free and clear, that I’m willing to have an affair, that I don’t care that he’s married and I’m married, that I chose it, that I wanted it, that I knew what I was getting into before I picked up that phone and made that call.
As we pull away from the gate I am calm, or rather I am in that strange state where you’re so upset that you behave as if you were calm. I close my eyes and try to picture a flat thin Jesus holding up my plane. Gerry doesn’t like landings, but I don’t like takeoff. I don’t like the feeling of being pushed back in my seat. This is the point where I pray things like, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” or maybe it’s “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Neither one makes a lot of sense but I’ll say anything on a runway. I’d speak Hebrew or Arabic or Swahili if I knew them, anything to hedge my bets. But today I am too exhausted to bargain with God. Hell, we all have to go sometime.
I open my eyes and look around. The nice lady beside me has bent her head forward and her lips are moving. Good. Let her pray for all of us. The odds are if God chooses to spare her, I’ll live too, through sheer proximity. I look down at the card in my hand and practice saying his name aloud. I’m not sure what has just happened to me. I don’t know what it means. I press my palms against my trembling thighs and listen to the engines beneath me gain strength. Strength enough to thrust us into the sky where we have no business being, but where we go sometimes, nonetheless.
*From Love in Mid Air, Copyright © 2010 by Kim Wright Wiley. Posted with permission of Grand Central Publishing.
Signed copies of Love in Mid Air will be available at Park Road Books beginning March 29. Contact Sally Brewster at 704-525-9239 or Sallybrewster@parkroadbooks.com. Kim will be reading there at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 31.