MIRACLE OF FLIGHT.
The job is to coax enormous things into the sky or out of it, and along the way I can only lust after them in glimpses, unless, like today, there is a delay.
The delay is not mechanical. It's thunderstorming in Detroit. I hand-check the luggage of a dozen midwesterners. I take their worn bags with softened corners, insides full of pants and toiletries and underwear, and one at a time toss them on a cart. I wheel them toward the plane's belly and set them inside like eggs, because you have to be careful with other people's things.
On the jet bridge, two flight attendants loiter in the orifice that is the entrance to the aircraft. I steal closer and touch the flesh of the airplane. I run a hand along its cold flank and nobody notices. The rows of buttons; the warning message screams CAUTION. My heart races. Of course I am careful, even as I am electrified from the feeling of metal against my skin. One of the flight attendants has her palm against the entryway and I imagine that she can sense the electricity, that it runs through her veins under her dark stockings. I take my secret pleasure with me down the stairs. Detroit is clearing up, so preparations for takeoff begin.
I take my position, arms raised. The marshalling wands gleam like rubies in my hands. With them, I am a source of light and I beckon the plane, encouraging, flirting with my red limbs. The usual sounds, motions, confirmations, and final pause. Then it happens. The plane gathers momentum--it seems its nose will touch me--and pushes into cloud.
Lunch. I crumple my reflective jacket to signal that I'm off duty, and eat a sandwich on a terminal bench. Outside the window are parked aircraft. Their latent energy piques me, the shapes arousing. The feeling lives in my throat, knees, spine--vulnerable places on the body, places that are easily made to suffer.
I know you are lying because your mouth is moving, I do not tell my roommate when she explains why her portion of rent is late again. Her lies are everywhere, like the tags from the clothing she shoplifts, like the residue of what I believe is cocaine but could be Ecstasy, some gleaming powder that pops up in vials occasionally on the kitchen counter, the bathroom vanity, when she is forgetful.
"So, so sorry," she says through pursed lips, the accent that is British or Australian. I never get the truth from her. Even her place of origin is mutable. She has black waist-length hair, a doll's face, glitter-dusted eyelids. She goes clubbing. The word "Eurotrash" hovers around her like an aura. Antoinette, if this is really her name, with her tube tops and her lip gloss, is of another world. It seems impossible that our existences would have any overlap at all, and yet we live together, and share a kitchen and a bathroom, and give each other the kindness of a wide berth. She lies about everything, but I trust her. She is hiding something, and she expects that I am, too. For this I appreciate her.
"Don't worry about it," I say with a half smile. All the mail is for her, and half the time it's addressed to her other names. Anna, Charlotte, Charlize. I used to try and sort out what her real name was, but now it seems pointless.
"I'll be good by next week, promise," she says with oozing gratitude, and disappears behind her bedroom door.
I started opening her mail when I realized she wasn't ever going to. It seems that she has six credit cards open in all of her different names. She doesn't owe very much on any one of them, but the combined sum is about twenty thousand dollars. After I read the bills, I tear them up and throw them straight to the trash and dump some disgusting food on top, leftover spaghetti this time, so that mail rummagers will be thwarted. I am covering up my own sin of reading her mail and covering up what she owes and hoping that the ritual of reading and destroying the bills neutralizes something, lifts responsibility, makes the debts disappear.
It's a harder job in bad weather, but I do love the look of rainwater dousing the machines. Battered by the storm, I feel weak, but still I take pleasure in the fact that the airplanes obey my commands. Start engine, proceed. The pilots in the cockpit seem unnecessary. I have never felt anything special for them.
What I feel is for the aircraft themselves, and what happens in their wake. The enormity of the sound, the rushing wind, the heaviness that lifts, propelling itself into space. I know in my rational mind that it is simple science, the most man-made of wonders. But stand on the runway and watch it happen and tell me that there is no magic involved.
By the end of my shift, the rain has seeped through my uniform. Underneath my skin, I feel hollowed out from the work and the watching. Desiring something you can't have is a whole other kind of work. I'm soggy and I want to eat.
At home, when I walk through the door, the apartment is dark.
"Antoinette?" I call out, hoping she isn't there.
In the living room I discover something new: a gorgeous blue silk sofa. It has curves like an instrument and is long enough for someone to throw themselves on. Not me, of course, in my dripping clothes, but someone like Antoinette. She is on it now, spotless in short white pajamas.
"Do you like it?" She makes a sweeping gesture, pleased with herself.
"It's beautiful," I say, and peel off my boots. "It's ... big."
"Yeah. We have to get rid of the old one."
My old sofa, an ancient tan love seat, has been shoved into the corner.
"I guess so. Yeah," I say and squeeze past her to sit on the love seat.
"Do you really like it?" She sits up, watching me and stroking the silk.
I am too hungry to think, but to be polite I nod. "It's great. Where did you get it?"
She pauses. "A ... gift. I can return it if you hate it. I picked blue for you."
Her guess that I would love a sky-colored thing is touching. I cringe for being known, even slightly, by her.
"It's beautiful. Let's keep it. We can leave the old one on the curb."
"No," she says. "We'll sell the old one. Are you hungry? I can order food."
The way Antoinette orders food is that she finds a restaurant she's never ordered from before. She calls, gives a credit card number to place the order, then says she'll pay in cash. When the delivery person comes, she greets him with a dazzling smile and a five-dollar tip and tells him she already paid on the phone via credit card.
"It says PAY IN CASH," the delivery boy always says, holding up the receipt. He looks bored. They usually do.
"No, no, so sorry for the confusion," she says, fake helpless, immune to consequences because of her lovely, lovely accent. I have watched this spectacle many times. It always works. The delivery boy takes the tip and goes, because he has other places to be. The restaurant calls us over and over again when they realize the credit card number doesn't work. But there is nothing to be done. They never come after us, they never show up to shake money out of us, and she never orders from them again. The only times I feel rich are when I think about how Antoinette will never run out of new restaurants to rob.
Untouched by them, still I feel possessed. Silver, long, rising in a deafening ocean of sound and hot air. I am working an extra shift this week. The hours pass quickly, luggage piling in and out of hands. The taxiing planes. I grope metal in little moments of unseen freedom and I stockpile the feeling, the hot liquid of desire accumulating. I am saving the sensations for a moment of privacy later.
The vocabulary of my job wraps around me, the near rhymes and singsong expressions that are repeated again and again. Tag baggage luggage gate-checked delays departures. The repetition comforts me. I have never wanted to go anywhere. I do not envy the passengers, I am happy on the ground, crouching down next to the belly of the aircraft. Eye level with it, for an instant nearly its equal, though of course I am dwarfed in my human slightness. I am no match for it, but it pleases me to look at it and run my body along it, pressing my torso to the metal at odd moments.
My old sofa is too homely to sell. There is not a single response to our ad. The second week, we lower the price from two hundred fifty dollars to a hundred and fifty. Only when we drop the price to a hundred is there a response.
I'm very much interested in the love seat if it's still available. The only thing is that I can't pick it up at your address because I can't walk so well. Can it be delivered to me? God bless you and your family and keep you under his care. Thank you very much.
"This is a grift," says Antoinette when I show her the email. "They don't want to hire movers. Ignore it."
But I can't ignore it. I am too pleased that finally my ugly sofa has appealed to somebody. The religious phrase echoes in my mind. God bless you and your family and keep you under his care. The thought of my family, whom I rarely see and do not feel close to, being united underneath the care of God is overwhelming. It rattles around my thoughts like found money, an unexpected source of comfort.
Quickly I respond.
Hi, the sofa is still available. I can try to bring it to you. I can probably get it out of my building and into my van, but it's too heavy for me to bring upstairs by myself. Is there someone else that could help us?
The response is immediate. Yes if you come on Sunday my niece's boyfriend can help. God bless.
I consider telling Antoinette, who is in the bathroom, door open, faucet running, spreading a paste on her face that makes her skin shine. I watch her and I don't tell her.
She is going out tonight, maybe with the man who bought us the sofa. I have no use for men, but because of her I observe them often: their slumped shoulders, pockets heavy with keys, loose change, thick wallets. Every man whom Antoinette brings home feels heavy with the stoop of responsibility; even the shortest fling with them involves a kind of settling, a lowering down to their weighted place. Somewhere else there must be lighter men, younger men, but Antoinette has no use for them. She likes divorces, ones whom life has diminished, who do not expect good times to last very long and understand that romance is expensive.
When I pass them in the hallway and kitchen, they do not speak to me. For this I am half grateful: long ago I learned that it is as terrible to be noticed by men as it is to be ignored by them.
Sunday is the saddest day to fly. People are finishing vacations; they have said their goodbyes. Travelers are always eating to pass the time, but on Sundays they indulge. Those with time between flights sit down for beers and ribs. Their children, dragging miniature rollaboards, slurp milkshakes. All of them cling to treats because so much is out of their hands. Who will fly the plane, and what the weather will be like, and whether there will be turbulence. Their seat on the plane, and if they will get a stomachache from the bumpiness, and if the person in front of them will recline their seat uncomfortably far. Being a passenger is giving up so much, and I feel this sympathy for them as I take their gate-checked luggage and store it. I unburden them, but they do not notice that I am doing them a kindness.
After work I'm exhausted. It's only four o'clock in the afternoon and I want to take a shower, a nap. But when I get home, the blue silk sofa is a shimmering reminder of my errand. I put my hand to its softness. Antoinette was draped on it all weekend, floating like a woman in a swimming pool. In the corner, the poor old love seat is shoved against the wall. I check my email and see one new message. Just want to make sure you are coming today, we are waiting for you.
The address is only four neighborhoods over. I have my van, which I know the love seat will fit in because that's how I brought it here when I first bought it. I remove the cushions and drag them out the door.
Antoinette emerges from her room. "Someone bought the couch?"
"Remember the person who wanted us to deliver it? It was the only offer we got. So I'm taking it to her."
"By yourself? That's not safe." I am embarrassed to be chastised by her, even though she's right. Antoinette, with her knowledge of nightlife, her petty crimes, knows exactly what is dangerous and what is not.
I don't say anything.
"Fine, I'm coming with you," she says. "You'll get murdered if you go alone."
She is not as strong as I am, but it's helpful to have her hoist the rest of the cushions and the love seat through the doorway. The love seat has to be positioned at an angle to get it through the apartment door and out the building. There are only three steps on our stoop, so it's on the ground quickly. I'm heaving, breathless.
She reaches for her phone on the stoop. "We could have gotten some guy to help us. Do you want me to call someone to take it the rest of the way?"
"No, it's OK. Someone's going to help take it inside when we get there."
Antoinette looks like everything in the van will stain her or rumple her clothing, but the whole way to the address, she remains composed in her tight jeans and off-the-shoulder blouse. I am wearing my work pants and boots and feel suddenly harnessed by her daintiness, as though it is the thing that makes us vulnerable. She ignores me, takes her phone out of her purse, and swipes on a dating app, pictures of square-jawed men.
I double-park in front of a rust-colored building. Its windows don't reveal much; the rooms inside are dim. On the stoop there's half a cigarette placed intentionally on a ledge, like someone's coming back for it later. I ring the buzzer three times before someone answers. A woman walks down. She's heavily pregnant and doesn't seem to speak English. But I point to the couch cushion that Antoinette is holding and she understands. She props the building door open; it's a double door, wide enough for the love seat to fit through easily.
"Is there someone that can help us get this up the stairs?"
The pregnant woman shrugs. We follow her up three flights of stairs and into an apartment that is full of women with small children dangling from them. In the corner, an old lady sits in a rocking chair.
"Is it you from the email?" she calls out to me and waves. She is wearing a gray sweat suit and has coppery white curly hair pinned up. A cane is propped on the arm of the rocking chair, and it pleases me that she was telling the truth about not being able to walk.
"Yes, that was me."
"Oh, good. Thank you for bringing it. God bless you. Let me see if I can find the boy to help you."
The boy materializes from one of the inner rooms of the apartment. He is short and skinny and doesn't look like he will be much help at all. I beckon him down the stairs.
He is strong. In fact, he barely needs my help as we haul the body of the love seat up the first two flights. By the third, he must be tired, and I feel the weight of it more up the last flight of stairs. When at last we push it into the apartment, he gestures that it should go into the back room, the one that he emerged from earlier. I steer it down the hallway, no longer uncomfortable at being in someone else's apartment, feeling, rather, like I'm at work, the polite business of touching other people's belongings. The room we take the sofa to has three children in it, six- or eight-year-olds who are eyeing me and the sofa with curiosity. OK, their eyes say. This is our new thing. They accept it with inevitability, because nothing has ever been in their control and so sudden appearances and disappearances must feel natural to them.
"Thanks for helping," the boy says, and smiles, and walks out of the room, leaving me alone with the three children. I arrange the cushions on the couch so that it looks inviting. I bought the sofa originally with one of my first paychecks. It had been four hundred dollars new.
"This is your couch now," I tell the kids. "I hope you like it."
They are entirely silent, as though they'll be punished for speaking, even though I can't imagine that is the case. They look up at me in utter wonder.
Back in the living room, I approach the old lady in the rocking chair again. She waves, delighted. "Thank you for bringing it all the way over," she says, the words in a hurry to escape her mouth. "It's hard for me to get anything done around here without a car. And these legs."
Standing beside her, the boy strokes his girlfriend's back. Her rounded stomach stretches out the T-shirt, and she has a look of utter peacefulness or stupidity on her face as she lets herself be stroked, like a pet. One of the smaller children toddles over to where we are standing and leans into her, ringing his arms around her thigh, and she stands there, adored from all directions.
"Thank you," she says to me, out of her stupor. I smile and nod at all of them and say goodbye.
Antoinette is in the hallway looking at her phone.
"Yep. Thanks for--" I pause, uncertain of what to thank her for. "Thanks for waiting for me."
We walk downstairs to the van. It's past dark outside now.
"Where's the money?" Antoinette says as I start the ignition.
I look at her, feeling stupid.
"She owes you a hundred dollars, right? See. It was a grift, I told you so. She cheated you." Antoinette isn't gloating when she says this. "Little old ladies are the worst."
"No," I said. "I'm sure it's a mistake."
"Well, go back up there and get the money. I'll wait." She looks at her phone again.
For an instant I don't move. I want to ask her to show me what's in her pockets. Maybe she already got the money from the old lady, and wants to see how much more I can extract from the boy or from one of the other women. Maybe I will return to find the van and Antoinette gone.
But then I remember that she can't drive. She can't have an escape planned.
"OK." I step outside the car. In the darkness I hear the sound of an aircraft overhead. The remote passing sound falls over me. I look up to see the lighted, magnificent shape. I watch it until it's gone, my heart pounding.
The door to the building is still propped open, so I don't have to buzz up. I head upstairs, wary of the moment when I must knock again. Up the first flight, and wishing that I had sent Antoinette instead, to be coy and firm and get her way. Up the second flight, hoping that the silent children will not be the ones to answer the door. Up the third flight, finally realizing that I am dreading the sight of the beloved niece, her contented expression. I always expected love to be a huge and dangerous emotion. Now I am unsettled by how small it is. I reach the door and knock, waiting for the moment it opens.
"It's me--me again. With the couch."
The door opens and it is the pregnant woman again, holding the toddler. His face is smashed against her breasts. From the kitchen comes the smell of an onion sweating.
"I forgot to get the money for the couch," I say. "Can I talk to your aunt again?"
She nods and beckons me in, patting the kid on his head.
"I thought you might be back!" says the old lady from her chair. She is rummaging around in a handbag and laughing at me. I like her gapped teeth, as though she could not lie through such a mouth. Antoinette's teeth are capped, flawless.
"Sorry I forgot to pay! Here you go." She hands me some crumpled bills that I do not bother counting, even though I'm certain they will add up, even if to an odd, wrong amount. She smiles at me and leans back in her chair.
"Thanks," I tell her, and since there is nobody else around, I let myself out, waving goodbye to her. I guess that the pregnant woman is back in her room putting the toddler to bed, or talking to her boyfriend. The other women are in the kitchen cooking, and soon they'll wheel their aunt over so that the family can eat together. They'll sit together, some of them on my love seat maybe, until late in the evening.
In the car I show Antoinette the money and she says, "Good."
We drive for a little while. "God, that was a hellhole. All those people crammed into a one-bedroom." She shakes her head. "I took a look around. Nothing worth stealing, of course."
I don't reply, because I don't know how to explain to her that I wanted it all.