Michael tried to control his panicked breathing into the little yellow cup while his eyes followed the umbilical tubing to the ceiling where it connected to a seemingly empty plastic bag. The woman next to him was slumped forward onto her open tray table, her eyes closed, in a peaceful slumber while her oxygen mask dangled above her.
All around the cabin, most were in similar unconscious poses, although the few who had managed to don their masks looked to him with panicked eyes that pleaded for help or stared off blankly into their own thoughts.
A roaring assaulted his eardrums, and he couldn’t help but clamp his hands against his head to try to dampen the noise, fingers clawing through his hair. He shivered violently as a burst of cold hit him, then lingered in the air, stabbing with icy fingers between every fiber of his clothing.
The plane glided along, level and smooth as before the thundering boom when the masks dropped and blood had trickled down from his nose. His eardrums pulsed with pain, and as time passed, the sound of his own blood pumping drowned out the deafening howl of air in the plane. He tried not to wonder about the pilots, tried not to even guess at the cause of this, instead his focus was solely his breath, keeping it as steady and calm as possible. At least they weren’t plummeting, he told himself.
Minutes rolled by sluggish and slow, as if to torture him, and his mind raced despite his efforts. He urged himself to think of something, anything else, and that’s when she popped into his mind and refused to leave.
Mindy, three years old and beaming like the sun as she waved goodbye from the front porch, standing on the bench swing that threatened to pinch her tiny fingers in its rusty grasp. Her bright eyes bent into crescent moons by her cheeks as they were pushed up in a wide smile.
“Bye Daddy! I’m gonna miss you!” she shouted and wetly kissed her palm before blowing it to him. The dark ringlets of her hair bounced as she laughed and jumped down from the swing, running back inside the house with her loud giggle trailing behind.
Michael hadn’t hesitated at all when he’d turned and walked to his car, throwing the laptop bag on the passenger seat and suitcase in the trunk. Within seconds, he was pulling out of the driveway. He drove just over the speed limit all the way to the airport, singing along to oldies on the radio, and smiled when he saw the parking spot so close to the elevator. His suitcase bumped behind him as he wheeled it down the blacktop, swerving around taxis aggressively honking at pedestrians in the crosswalk.
At the ticket counter, he’d flirted with the young blonde woman, but she’d only sighed, avoided eye contact, and clacked the keyboard with her well-manicured nails. In the security line, he’d laughed with the TSA officer when his scan showed an abnormality in his crotch region.
“Must not be used to a man like me,” he’d joked, even winked, and both men chuckled and pretended to ignore the awkwardness during the quick pat down which produced nothing, as he knew it would.
Two hours early, much too early for a domestic flight, and yet he’d rushed to get there. Anything to get away from the leaky hose faucet, the leaves scattered across the yard, the broken lawnmower, the little passive-aggressive to-do list on the fridge door in his wife’s loopy handwriting with the irksome heart-dotted i’s, and especially from his daughter’s constant chatting and sticky hands, always grabbing at him even when he’d given her his all and just needed one minute alone.
Sitting down at the airport bar, he ordered two overpriced whiskey sours and tried not to look nervous. The dusky skinned woman, coifed hair and tailored pantsuit, rolling the compact carryon, sat next to him at the bar, and with a sly feline look, picked up the one of the glasses and took a long drink.
“Thanks. You even remembered my favorite,” she said. A hint of playfulness flashed across her face, but then she was all business, even as his eyes couldn’t help but rove down her body. “Did you close that McMillon renewal yet?”
They tossed around ideas as they passed the time before their respective flights, hers only a few steps away at the adjacent gate; his own a distance requiring both a short tram ride and three long corridors of moving sidewalks. When she’d asked his gate, she didn’t even feign surprise to hear he’d picked a bar much closer to hers. There wasn’t a hint of a thank you for his chivalrous act, but he wondered if men made such sacrifices for her routinely enough that she didn’t notice anymore.
He spun his wedding ring with his thumb and couldn’t stop moving his hands from his lap to the counter and back, sweat collecting on his brow and darkening his shirt beneath his arms, but he knew she was a known flirt and ten years his junior. Still, he gazed and awed and practically bowed down before her breezy laugh, smoky eyes, and dark stiletto nails.
Five drinks sloshed in his stomach and rattled his brain as he half-jogged toward his gate, eyes and feet heavy, smirking to himself. Just in time, the flight attendant didn’t attempt to hide her scorn as she lectured about the importance of punctuality and how flights can’t wait for one man. As she ushered him on board, he’d said something his lacquered mind thought was witty and biting at the time but was likely only rude when he thought back on it.
It was a smaller plane, with a row of two seats on either side, and he could sense the disappointment in the woman seated next to him when he finally sat down, inadvertently invading her space, although she didn’t turn away from the window where she watched the crew checking the plane, readying for departure.
He’d drifted off in a drunken stupor before takeoff but had awoken in time for the drink service as they hit altitude. Tempted to have another whiskey, he’d instead settled on a soda so he could sober himself a little before the business dinner that night, which would certainly include many more whiskeys of its own.
Unfortunately, the flight attendant serving drinks was the same one from the gate and not the sweet-looking redhead that had been reciting the safety debrief before he passed out. She stayed professional, if somewhat cold, but he noticed the soda cup was handed back only half full.
Then it happened. A loud noise, like an explosion, followed by a sudden, incessant roaring, the dropping of the oxygen masks, the shocked faces and screams, grabbing in panic, and seconds later, it was over. He couldn’t even remember pulling the mask down and putting it over his face, yet there it was, giving him that invisible slow flow of oxygen he’d heard about from flight attendants on countless flights while everyone else rummaged through their bags, skimmed through the movie choices, or played on their phones, barely listening at all.
Remembering the flight attendant, he turned to the aisle behind him and saw the drink cart a few rows back. There was the woman he’d insulted, collapsed half on the floor and half on top of a little boy, no older than ten, her hand resting limply on his shoulder and her face on his chest, both with calm unconscious expressions while his oxygen mask hung above them. She seemed to have forgotten those instructions she must’ve repeated hundreds of times about helping yourself before others, even children.
Uneasiness swelled in Michael’s stomach. He willed himself to breathe deeply as he struggled to keep the whiskey sours from creeping up into his mouth. Finally the nausea abated, but a headache appeared in its absence and the static screech of the wind continued.
His mind reeled, trying to understand what had happened and would happen next. The plane’s steadiness eased his anxiety a little. At least they weren’t crashing. But then he scanned the cabin again, all the sleeping blank faces, the freezing cold, the feeling of vacuum in the thin air. Was the woman beside him turning blue? Her lips definitely seemed to be changing colors. This thought accompanied a dry heave, but he kept his stomach contents down, terrified of dirtying the lifesaving cup and tube connecting him to the life-giving fuselage mother.
He thought of his suitcase in the belly of the plane, dark and cold below him. He suddenly wished more than anything to tear open the floor, crawl down through the wiring, and bring it up to the light. He’d unzip it, digging through the clothing and toiletries to get to the small black velvet bag he’d tossed inside: the first item he always packed. His fingers would pry apart the tiny drawstring and pour the contents into his palm: a set of gold cufflinks, each with a glass stone, impersonating a ruby, set in its center. Never had he left on a business trip without them, even when he hadn’t packed any shirts requiring cufflinks. They were a Christmas present from Steph when they first married.
That looped and hearted to-do list from their kitchen appeared in his mind’s eye. Steph couldn’t fix the lawnmower. She’d have no idea where to even start. As he remembered each item on the list, each project he’d promised to handle, his face flushed red.
His eyes wandered down the fridge to the weekly meal plan, written in that same looped hand, and he noticed she’d planned pork chops and scalloped potatoes for dinner Thursday, the night he was supposed to return. A favorite of his that she hadn’t made in years.
The headache was starting to fade, and the thought of Steph’s cooking helped to ease the pain from the ever-biting wind. He returned to his memories and could feel himself in their warm kitchen again. Steph was baking something sweet. The sugar wafted around him, and he smiled. The smell of apple pie. Another of his favorites.
She’d be in the next room over, singing slightly off key as she folded laundry. Soft light spilled across the kitchen floor and beams of gold reflected off the chrome refrigerator. Then he saw the drawing, held up by magnets below his wife’s list. Three round figures, two large and one smaller one between them, with stick arms and legs, smiles stretched wide from each scribbled eye. A crayon rainbow arched above them, and misshapen hearts floated in each corner. Little labels, written by Steph, graced each character’s head: Daddy, Mommy, and Mindy.
As if on cue, she burst into the kitchen, wearing a striped paper plate mask and her leopard print leotard from ballet.
“I’m a tiger! I’m gonna eat ya!” she roared, bringing up the mask to reveal her beautiful face marred with black marker stripes. She let out a piercing squeal before running around his legs in a circle.
Bringing his hands to his face and pretending to quake with fear, Michael cried out, “Oh no, good tiger, don’t eat me! I know a better, tastier animal who would make a good dinner.”
His smile grew as he looked to the living room where Steph was still singing.
“No Daddy, not this time! Tiger’s so hungry!” Mindy roared and clawed the air with her hands.
“I think Mommy would be yummier,” he said and winked, but Mindy suddenly stopped, dropped her arms and her smile, and encircled his legs in a tight embrace.
“I wish you could stay longer and play. ‘Member? I asked you.” She nuzzled her head against him, the words muffled into his pants leg.
“Yeah, I remember. I’m sorry, honey.”
“That’s okay Daddy. You have to go on the airplane.” She brought her teary eyes up to meet his, and the sob he hadn’t realized he was holding in escaped his throat.
He kneeled, holding her, both weeping. He could smell the watermelon detangling spray in her hair, the sharp odor of black marker streaked across her face, and below all that, just the faintest whiff of something light and powdery from her swaddled, sleepy form in the hospital. He let himself erase the memories from the day and allowed her to fill up his entire life with her play-doh smell and soft skin.
Breathing deeply into the yellow cup that no longer only appeared empty, Michael closed his eyes and held onto the hope from the steady cruise of the plane that he would see her again.