The middle seat on a red eye from LAX to Newark. The engine’s drone, the miracle of flight. Thirty-five thousand feet above the curve of the earth. Unbelievable, truly.
I glanced over at the woman beside me. Even in the grey cabin light I could tell she was attractive. She was wearing a black tank top and faded jeans; her light brown hair was pulled into a ponytail, making her appear younger than she was. I guessed she was in her mid-thirties. Her bare arm rested close to me, a small, indistinguishable tattoo on her inner wrist. I tried not to stare at her skin.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“I’m studying for the real estate license.”
“Seriously? I sell real estate in the Valley,” I said, my voice a little too loud. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Thanks, I will,” she replied, focusing on her laptop.
The flight was endless. I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. When the stewardess offered drinks and pretzels, I purchased two small bottles of red wine.
“Sure, why not?” she said after a moment’s hesitation.
We drank in silence. The weight of the wine began to press down on my head like a warm blanket.
“My husband left me,” she said softly, not looking at me as she spoke.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, I was sorry to hear it, too.” And then she told me everything. How she’d followed her then boyfriend to LA because he dreamed of being an actor. How after months of failed auditions and countless rejections he’d begged her to marry him, a rushed courthouse wedding in front of three friends and her disappointed parents. How after a few more struggling years he’d gotten his big break, a semi-reoccurring role on a sitcom as the love interest of a secondary character. And how with minor success he’d gone off the rails, drinking too much and snorting mounds of coke and not answering her texts for long unexplained periods of time. And when she finally worked up the courage to confront him, he’d refused to seek help or even admit he had a problem. Instead, he’d patiently explained that he was fine, that life was good, it was just that he longer wanted to come home to a wife in Pasadena. And so, he’d left.
“He sounds like a real jerk,” I said when she’d finished. “I mean, who would leave a beautiful woman like you?” The naked openness of the compliment embarrassed me.
“I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this,” she sighed. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Are you married?”
“Twenty years,” I said tersely.
“That’s great. Kids?”
“Twin girls, freshmen in college.”
“It must be nice.”
“To be content. To have a family.”
She stretched her arms wide and yawned, leaning back in her seat. “The wine was a good idea,” she said. “I’m ready to sleep.”
“Me, too,” I lied. My eyes burned. I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours. And then I had the most beautiful idea. Maybe I could find her a job in the office, something clerical. She’d like that. And of course, I’d have to bring her along to meet clients, because what can you really learn about selling houses if you’re only answering the phone and filing paperwork? And she’d be a quick study and work hard and as a reward for her first sale I’d take her to that new Irish bar that had opened near the mall. Nothing funny mind you––I’d be her direct supervisor, simply two colleagues having a beer, shooting the breeze, and unwinding after a long day on the job. Then, over time, she’d see me as a mentor, and we’d become close friends, almost inseparable, and people in the office might even start gossiping about us as if we were up to something, those jealous bastards. And eventually, but not too soon, I’d do the right thing and man up and tell my wife that I’d met someone else, someone I could talk to effortlessly, someone who actually found me interesting, but that she shouldn’t feel bad because there was no one to blame, we were simply two good people who had drifted apart after too many years together. And then I’d finally be happy—-truly happy, and so I reached over and tapped the woman sitting beside me on the shoulder and whispered, “I love you.”
Her eyes shot open, black, and wide.
“What?” she spat.
For one wishful moment I thought she might not have heard me, that I hadn’t really said the words out loud.
“Why did you say that?” she snapped. “Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with you?” Her body recoiled and tightened, inching closer to the window.
“I meant, I’d love to talk real estate with you sometime,” I stammered. “When we get back to LA.”
But she was no longer listening. She wrapped her arms around herself, twisting her body as if she were searching for someone.
“I was only trying to…”
“Just stop,” she hissed. “Haven’t you said enough?”
And she was right. I had said more than enough.
The pilot’s voice then crackled over the loudspeaker announcing our imminent arrival. Directly across the aisle a teenage boy lifted his window shade and the darkness lifted. Throughout the aircraft passengers began to stretch and stir and ready their belongings for landing. The plane continued to drift down on a slow and steady descent until we hit the runway with tremendous force, safely back on earth. When we disembarked onto the tarmac the woman rushed to the front of the line, the back of her head disappearing into the crowded terminal. I lingered behind, gazing up at the perfect blue sky; it was a glorious day. I felt the warmth of a rising sun, the cool morning air, the aching splendor of spring. I wondered if I’d miss it when the time came, this beautiful, horrible place.
Ken Drexler is a writer living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. His most recent short stories have appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Bethesda Magazine, and Lost River Literary Magazine.