words: Marla Cantrell
On the plane, the cooling system shot clouds of fog out into the crowded cabin. The old man in front of me, thinking it was toxic gas designed by terrorists, made such a fuss the co-pilot came out to ease his fears. We were flying out of Atlanta, so I knew it was the icy air’s reaction to the hot plane, to the humidity that defeated my once-straight red hair, making me look clown-like and downtrodden. As the plane rose, I gazed out the oval window.
Down below, some of the street lights were copper colored, and others silver in the night. They looked like pieces of glowing metal, illuminating neighborhoods, outlining streets where I could imagine belligerent sixteen-year-olds sneaking out of bedroom windows and car stereos blaring and couples arguing yet again. The last clutch of lights I saw on our ascent formed a perfect butterfly, and I wondered if the city planners had deliberately done this, if they’d suspected that people like me would be watching their handiwork, searching for a sign that life could start over, that it could be beautiful again.
The flight attendant working my section looked to be about fifty. Her hair was shoulder-length, dyed black, shiny. She had a run in her dark stockings, starting low on her left shin and running all the way up underneath her navy blue polyester skirt. There were faint stains, shaped like wedges of oranges, on her white blouse, and when she raised her arms to demonstrate how not to die should the plane dip and fall, the spots shone. Her name tag read “Edith.”
I remembered the safety conference I’d attended when I was twenty and getting ready to travel abroad for the first time. “Two words of advice,” the speaker had said. “When flying, don’t wear polyester or nylon hose.” And then he had gone on to describe the flammability of both, the hazards that could fell a woman such as myself, intent on looking my best when I boarded a plane. Now, I was dressed in yoga pants and a yoga T-shirt that read “I’m just here for the Savasana.” At thirty-six, I was old enough to realize that I’d die if a plane crashed, whether I wore cotton from God’s green earth or fabric made from its underpinning where petroleum pooled and waited.
I smiled at Edith when she handed me a child-sized bag of peanuts, and she smiled back, all teeth and vacant eyes, the way a politician does. I ordered a Bloody Mary.
“Here you go, Honey!” she said, when she handed me the drink, the enthusiasm in her voice like the edge of something sharp.
Two rows ahead of me a baby wailed. I took a drink. Beside me, a teenager with shimmery blonde hair and neon orange nails read a novel and cried, and beside her a woman in a black eye mask so big it made her look like a bug, snored. I drank a little more.
The man across the aisle—Roman nose, a head and a half of golden hair—was headed to Bentonville, Arkansas, to pitch his grand idea to Walmart. “See,” he said to the woman next to him, while holding a white piece of fabric between his two strong hands, “it’s a bra with a pocket sewn into it, you know, right in the middle there, so you could keep your money safe, or your keys, or even your cell phone. And it has a battery pack so you can plug in your Smartphone and recharge it on the run.” He craned his neck; I think to get a better view of her, and she folded her hands across her measly chest. Then he said, “Well, if there’s enough room for all that, of course. I haven’t worked out the details yet.”
The man was a buffoon, I thought, but what did I know. I’d never put a thing inside my bra but what was supposed to be there. I lacked creativity. This was what I worried over as we started our initial descent, dropping like a feather from a tower. I closed my tray table. I tossed my trash in the bag Edith carried. She had a vertical line in the middle of her forehead. Her eyes were puffy. Her hand, bright with rings and red nail polish, shook when she took my plastic cup.
I like the feeling of a plane descending, that movement that says the world is calling you back to it. I tugged my unruly hair into an elastic band that held it, mostly, in a ponytail, and dabbed rose-colored balm on my lips.
Edith was at the front of the plane now—I was midway back—and she picked up the microphone. “I’d just like to thank y’all for flying with us,” she said. “We’ll be at XNA in Highfill in just a little bitty bit. How many of y’all are from Arkansas?”
Maybe half of us raised our hands.
“I don’t usually tell this,” Edith said, “but I live in Little Flock. How many of y’all know where that is?”
About the same number of hands went up.
“And today’s my wedding anniversary,” she said, and then cleared her throat in a way that made me lean forward on the edge of my seat.
“Thirty years,” she said, and I watched the other flight attendant standing beside her, a young guy who kept calling everyone “Dude.” He rolled his eyes.
Most of us clapped. The bra guy next to me whistled between two fingers.
Edith said, “Well, thank you so much!”
She clicked off the microphone, and I sank back in my seat, feeling as if I’d just escaped something indefinable, but then she flipped the mic on again.
“So,” she said, “here’s the thing. Galen, that’s my husband, planned a party. Had my mama come all the way from Hot Springs Village. I asked for the whole day off, but then this other flight attendant got sick, and they called me to take her place. I told them about the party, and they said I’d be back in plenty of time, and I thought, Well, at my age I should be glad I have a job at all.”
Edith laughed, but the laugh sounded bitter. “So I said OK, and Galen said, ‘You’re going to ruin everything.’
“I took this flight anyway. We were supposed to touch down at three o’clock, plenty of time to get fixed up before our first guest arrived. And then there was that mechanical problem in Atlanta. I mean, I’m not trying to scare any of y’all, but they were out there screwing in missing bolts where the wings attach!”
The old man in front of me drew in a wheezy breath so deep I could hear it. He said, “I’m never flying again!”
Edith said, “So I called Galen and told him. And then I called three more times before we left the airport, and he didn’t answer until the third time, and when he did, he said, ‘You break my heart, you really do.’ And then he said, ‘Please don’t call me again.’”
The girl beside me with the neon nails closed her book. She looked at me, her eyes big. “I know,” I said, and she said, “She seems kind of old to be a heartbreaker,” and I said, “That’s all this world is about, sweetheart, breaking hearts or having yours broken, right up until the day you die. I wish it wasn’t true.”
A woman a few seats up from me, silver-haired, said, “I’m going to say a prayer for you and your man.”
Edith nodded. “I bought a really nice dress. Silver. Sparkly. I bought heels that kill my feet, but I was going to wear them. Galen made four dishes of lasagna—his dead mama’s recipe—and he ordered a three-tiered cake like a regular bride and groom would have.”
Edith blinked. “Well, anyway, thank y’all for flying with us.” And then she squeezed her eyes shut and said, “Although I do believe my marriage might be over, and it just about kills me.”
The other flight attendant cut her a look and then made a slashing motion across his throat as if to say it was time to stop. Edith glared at him, and then said, “Here’s where I usually have everybody call the Razorbacks, but I’m just not feeling it. I’m just not,” she said, and then she switched off the microphone for good.
I stared at my hands. This woman, paid to make me feel safe and distracted while I dangled 30,000 feet above the hard earth, was making my heart race with her trembling voice and damaged marriage. I started doing my yoga breathing, deep breaths in, throat constricted as I breathed out, the sound like the wind at the edge of a prairie.
Edith sat down in her hard little seat. We stayed buckled in. After the plane had landed, almost every passenger stopped to speak to her. An older man in a suit, seventy maybe, slipped her his business card. He might have been a divorce attorney. He might have been a man on the prowl. By the time I got to her, she was wiping tears.
“Men,” I said, and she smiled, but the smile never reached her eyes.
As I reached the gate, I turned around. Edith was walking toward me, carrying her small bag. The rip in her stockings had gotten bigger, and her shoulders hunched. She looked older than I first thought. I upgraded my estimate to sixty years. Then I saw her smile, and she started walking faster. When I looked behind me, I saw why. There was a gray-haired man, and beside him maybe twenty other people, all dressed for a night on the town, even the oldest lady who wore purple slacks and a leopard-print blouse and leaned on a pink cane.
The gray-haired man, tall, broad-shouldered, carried a bouquet: peonies, ranunculus, hydrangeas. I said aloud, “Galen,” just as he stepped in front of the others, and then he began to jog toward Edith, the flowers held high, and when he reached her they kissed, and the crowd cheering sounded louder than the jet engines that hummed all around us.
That scene looked like something from a movie. I watched, stricken by their love, bowed down in the presence of it. I’d never been treated like that, not by my ex-husband who climbed out our bedroom window in the middle of a dinner party when I was only twenty-seven and never came back. And not by the guy I’d gone to see in Atlanta, who dropped me off at the “Arrival Zone” because he didn’t want to pay the parking fee the airport charged to anyone who stayed longer than a few minutes.
As I passed Edith, she reached out and squeezed my arm. The girl from my row on the plane was standing nearby, open-mouthed, watching, the book that had made her cry earlier clutched to her chest. I walked to her, and I said, again, “I know!”
She was almost as tall as me and beautiful in that way of youth: smooth tan skin, silky hair, cheeks that turned pink just because they could. She looked at me, and pointed at Edith and Galen, and then she said, “I want that to be me someday.”
I put my arm around the girl’s shoulders, and she leaned into me. “I do too, Honey,” I said.
Anyone passing by might have mistaken us for a mama and daughter, home from a trip where we caught memories like fireflies in a jar. But we were just two hearts, wounded in one way or another, standing on the edge, looking into the Holy Grail of love, neither of us ready to turn away.