Tony's company usually paid for him to sit in business class. But today, he headed toward the rear, past the pearls and Rolexes of first class, past Wall Street Journals puffing open like spinnakers, through the madness of economy with its harried moms and hung-over college kids and rollicking Australian tourists in matching t-shirts, until he reached the last row.
"Before the merger with Delta, that row was a closet," the flight attendant said brightly, pounding on an overhead storage door that wouldn't stay closed. She had the bedraggled look of a former cheerleader who'd been living too hard.
"Ooh, cashmere, let me take that for you," she said, fondling Tony's sleeve. She folded his blazer in half and tossed it into an overhead bin and he winced. In first class, they carefully hung your coat in a closet.
There was someone in Tony's seat, a caramel-skinned teenage boy, sleeveless black t-shirt, heavy gold chain, spiky hair, knee bobbing up and down. The teen was harassing a smaller, pudgy boy next to him, flicking him on the ear every time the boy bent down to read his book.
"The window seat is mine," Tony told the teen, expecting sass, hoping for it really, for the chance to let loose after that disastrous meeting—though normally he wasn't the type to seek out conflict. The kid lowered his gaze, however, and muttered "sorry." He maneuvered over his brother and across the aisle into an empty seat, then twisted around to say something in Spanish to the people behind him, an Hispanic couple with brightly colored clothing and Indian features—presumably the parents.
The little brother burrowed into his book as Tony settled in. Beneath the folds in the boy's fleshy fingers, Tony saw a volume of poetry, of all things. It occurred to him that it might be helpful to say something encouraging, for a successful person like himself to endorse the boy's scholarly efforts. But his tank was empty after that meeting, after hearing Jack and Kayana dress him down for doing exactly what they ordered him to do—well maybe not ordered, but repeatedly implied—that it would greatly reduce the company's risk with the INS if they let the agency stage one raid at the plant, let them get some press coverage, deport a dozen workers who could easily be replaced and that would be that.
Tony removed his Ferragamo wing-tips, placed them in the plastic bag he'd brought for that purpose, and tried to get comfortable. Though he doubted he'd be able to in these cramped quarters, with his seat refusing to recline, and the kid next to him breathing loudly through his noise, and the Australian tourists laughing too loudly at unfunny jokes. All Tony wanted was to be back in his quiet loft apartment with its picture-window views of the Rockies and calming expanses of cherry flooring. Though at the same time he knew that if he were somehow magically transported there, he would quickly grow restless and bored and wish that Adriana were around.
He was always doing that—desperately wanting something, and after he'd gotten it, changing his mind. Before breaking up with Adriana, he'd ached to be rid of her, all her noise and uncertainty, her dizzying shifts in how she felt about her career ("Maybe graduate school is the wrong place for me, I need to do something to help people"; "God, there's nothing more satisfying than presenting a well-received paper"), her elaborate culinary projects that dirtied every pot in the kitchen. But afterward, he'd longed to have her back. He didn't know how to occupy his free time.
Same thing with his career. When he'd started with the company, he'd thought finally he was going to show those assholes at his high school who'd pounded on him for being a nerd. He was going to make some serious money. He was going to show his Italian grocer dad that all that sitting around reading could add up to something. But now here he was, just another suit, waiting impatiently for the drink cart.
The plane climbed through the high ceiling that had been hovering over Seattle since Tony landed that morning. There was a ding and the pilot informed them they'd reached their cruising altitude and he was turning off the seat-belt sign but later in the flight they'd be encountering some "bad air that might cause some fairly serious bumps." Which was the last thing Tony wanted to hear. In spite of all the traveling he did for business, he was borderline afraid of flying. He felt pressure growing inside his brain, as though someone had inserted a bicycle pump in his ear and was filling him up.
He thought about how a week after Adriana had moved out, she'd returned to get her computer, and he'd sensed her wishing he'd ask her back. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. He couldn't picture himself acting that way—passionate, pleading, insistent. So he just sat there, the king of inertia. He'd done the same thing today in the meeting, sat there stone-faced as Kayana and Jack laid into him. Why hadn't he challenged them as they puffed out their little speeches about the ethical dangers inherent in backroom deals with government officials? As they admitted that what bothered them was not the raid but the negative coverage it had received in the Boise Star and Rocky Mountain Ledger—at a time when the company was pushing hard to brand itself as the progressive wood products company. Why hadn't he replied to their post-meeting email in which they'd encouraged him to fly coach on his return—"a kind of good citizen gesture," Kayana had called it. In which they'd said this was not about terminating him, which he hadn't thought it was, but about clearing the air, prioritizing open communication, giving him a heads up.
Then again, that approach had worked well for him until now, hanging back and keeping a low profile while those around him self-destructed. This had been one of Adriana's big complaints. "Just because you're being passive doesn't mean you're not causing damage—you sit idly by while your workers get carted off by the INS—think about the lives being disrupted." At the time, though, he'd thought of the INS deal as just a task to be dispatched so he could get to the next thing on his list. It wasn't until afterward that he'd taken in the reality of families being wrenched apart, of dreams destroyed.
When the drink cart finally reached him, Tony, usually a beer guy, ordered a double scotch and knocked it back. He clawed a couple nuts into his mouth with the crook of his finger and turned toward his seatmate. The kid was still reading, book on fold-out table, head a few inches above it, finger twisting vigorously in right ear.
"So you like reading?" Tony said.
"Yup," the boy said, looking up briefly. At the top of the page Tony could see the name T.S. Eliot, the only poet Tony had really liked in college.
"I was always reading when I was your age, too. Still do. Would be reading right now if I hadn't left it in the terminal. Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. If you're interested at all in World War I, that's your book."
The boy rubbed his nose hard with his palm. There were specks of dried ketchup or marinara sauce on his brown cheek. He blinked rapidly.
"Eugenio, you idiot, answer the man," the teenager said from across the aisle.
"He didn't ask me a question, dummy," the boy said. The parents looked over with grave concern. There was flurry of discussion in Spanish, after which the father reached across to whack Eugenio on the arm with a newspaper.
"He's right. I didn't ask him a question," Tony said, but no one was looking at him. Eugenio dug into an economy size bag of Cheetos he'd pulled from his Alladin II backpack.
Tony was feeling fizzy from the scotch, so he grabbed a pillow from the seat pocket and pinned it against the window with his head. After a moment, he felt something rap his scalp: the shade had fallen. He slid it upward but it came out of its track slightly and stuck unevenly out of its plastic sheath, which was cracked and speckled with mold. How shabby planes were these days. How rough-edged the whole experience of travel had become: box lunches, clogged toilets, lost luggage, flight attendants moody and disheveled from overwork. You didn't notice it so much in first class, but back here it knocked you over the head, literally. Everybody these days seemed to think the free market was the way to go—like Jack going off on how unfettered competition made us superior to the Frogs and Krauts. Tony was not one for macroeconomic theory—he had no control over those things, why waste time stewing over them. Yet in the case of air travel it seemed clear: de-regulation had created a situation where no one was happy: certainly not employees, with the endless rounds of union concessions, not middle managers, with all the downsizing, not even executives, who had trouble turning a profit.
The shade dropped on his head again, this time falling completely out of its sheath. He heard a noise from his seatmate.
"Excuse me?" Tony said.
"It's a present for you," Eugenio said softly. Tony laughed and Eugenio ducked his head shyly.
"Just what I always wanted."
Tony took the shade and walked toward the galley. In the passageway behind the lavatories, he came upon the flight attendant who'd helped him with his blazer. She was having a moment, leaning against the bulkhead, gazing at the small emergency door window through which the clouds looked like viruses in a microscope. Standing behind her, Tony placed the shade on a counter top. He liked the way her position accentuated the curve of her hip. She was not his usual type: in college, he'd acquired a taste for well-bred, natural looking girls.
Sensing him there, she turned and said, "Don't even think about calling me darling."
He took a step backward. Her face crumpled and then she was crying.
"The fucker," she said. "I did everything conceivable to make him happy. Did everything he asked. I went on Atkins that time. So he cheats on me. And now he thinks I owe him something." Her crying got so intense he couldn't hear anything else, except the phrase "custody rights." He put his arm on her shoulder, rubbed a little, wished he could think of something good to say. It was a little alarming, the intensity of her outburst, the way she suddenly filled the air with the weighty goo of personal disaster. Just what he needed at the end of day like today.
"Angie to First Class please," a voice said over the loudspeaker.
"Oh god, that's my cue," she said, dabbing at her eyes with the heels of her hands. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."
"Don't sweat it," Tony said.
Settling back in, Tony felt a finger poking him.
"That isn't your girlfriend, is it?" Eugenio asked. Tony shook his head.
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
"I used to." He used to until one day on the way home from work he found himself unaccountably stopping to visit a prostitute—craving the simplicity and straightforwardness. And then even more unaccountably he told Adriana about it afterward.
"I have a girlfriend. Well, there's this girl I like. I haven't really told her." The boy had swiveled around and was whispering, not wanting his family to hear.
"That's great." Tony couldn't think of anything else to say. He turned away and again tried to nap. Eyes closed, he felt Eugenio's presence over there, heard him snorting to clear his sinuses, wondered what he made of T.S. Eliot. What did he think, for example, of J. Alfred Prufrock, who had everything the boy lacked—status, money—yet was paralyzed by fear and indecision. In college, Tony had gotten so into Eliot for a couple weeks that he and a buddy once dressed like him for a party, with little black bow ties, clear round glasses. For a time he'd so had Eliot on the brain that, to his roommate's great amusement, he'd mistakenly assumed the Allman Brothers album "Eat a Peach" was a reference to Prufrock—not realizing it referred to Duane Allman's motorcycle collision with a peach truck.
At Eugenio's age, he'd been obsessed with biographies and history, something his dad had no patience for.
"Why do you need to know about this Teodoro Roosevelt, this Georgio Custer, what does this have to do this us? You fill your head with that, you no good for work."
When Tony woke up, the light was different. There was a greenish tinge to everything that made other passengers look sickly. Outside he could see the cauliflower-like caps of several thunderheads. Idly leafing through the closet and storage section of SkyMall magazine, he felt the plane start to bob, as if it were floating up and down over ocean swells. Gradually the waves got rougher and closer together and then there was a strong bump, as though they'd run over somebody. The seat belt sign dinged on and there were more bumps. Tony felt odd G forces acting on his body, something pulling him downward, as though a giant vacuum cleaner was trying to swallow the plane. Next to him, the boy had pulled the laminated safety-instruction placard from the seat pocket and, out of boredom or anxiety, was snapping it back and forth across his chin.
The plane entered a bank of gray clouds that were unusual for this altitude. Then it lurched and dropped precipitously for several seconds, eliciting gasps from a few passengers. A flight attendant—not Angie, she must have been aft—stumbled toward the back, barking sharply at passengers to take their seats, looking legitimately concerned. Every few seconds, there was that elevator dropping sensation as the plane hit more pockets.
Tony turned and Eugenio looked at him with wide eyes, his face wrenched into a grimace or a smile, it was hard to tell. The plane hit an especially bad pocket and there were new sounds coming from the machinery, revving and whirring and deep humming, as if the pilots were scrambling to find ways to make the jet work properly. It tipped forward and began descending at a steep angle, as though they were now sliding down the side of a mountain, slamming massive boulders as they went. The passengers fell completely silent except for the boy, who began whimpering in a high-pitched way, like a dog in distress.
Tony felt terrible for the kid, separated from his parents at a time like this. He wondered if Eugenio had ever even been on a plane before—was this his first turbulence? He thought maybe he should try to reassure the boy, but he was not sure how, preoccupied as he was with trying to will the plane through bad air. He heard someone nearby retching and, thinking the boy might be nauseated, tried to grab an air-sick bag from the seat pocket. But the plane bucked and Tony flew up out of his seat, his hips pushing into the seatbelt, and the bag dropped to the floor. He struggled to face the boy, to offer encouragement, and bumped out of his seat again. He reached out to pat Eugenio on the back and the boy fell toward him, collapsing into his arms, still whimpering. Tony closed his eyes and held the boy as tightly as he could.
"You poor guy," he mumbled into the boy's hair, feeling Eugenio's small bones, his soft flesh, his bristly haircut, smelling his innocent smell of dirt and limes and sweat. There was a sputtering from the engines, more mad revving, groaning, metallic banging. Every few seconds, the plane accelerated abruptly then slowed. Tony sensed there was a problem with the plane, that it was struggling to cope with the turbulence because something had broken. He thought it was probably inadequate maintenance, standards lowered, corners cut, in the scramble to remain profitable amid cut-throat competition. Fucking asshole managers gambling with passengers' lives to save money. It was so fucked up. So this poor kid was never going to get the chance to prove himself. To show that he was not freakish and weird. To show his family what he is capable of—because of stupid fucking free-market ideology.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," Tony thought.
After what seemed like an agonizing eternity of hugging and hoping, Tony heard the boy emit a strange breath, a kind of phlegmy sniff. Opening his eyes, Tony saw an odd smile on the boy's face. He also noticed a flight attendant walking down the aisle without holding onto the seat backs. A guy across the aisle had resumed reading his thriller and someone else was opening his laptop. The plane was bucking less and there were a few patches of completely smooth air. It slowly dawned on Tony that he'd held onto the boy well past the point where the plane was in danger. Angie walked by carrying a brick of paper towels and winked at him.
Pulling out of Tony's grasp, the boy opened his tray table and rested his head on it. He emitted several more of the sniffs, which Tony now realized were laughs. Tony heard similar sniffs from across the aisle and when he looked over the boy's parents and brother were all smiling, trying to keep from laughing outright. When they caught sight of Tony's perplexed face, they lost control and burst into hysterics.
"I'm sorry mister," the teenager said, in between bursts of laughter, twisting in his seat to face Tony. "My brother is a strange dude. He likes to pretend things sometimes, mess with people. We tell him to stop, but you know how it is with kids." His laughter got the better of him and the teen turned away. He said something in Spanish to his parents and they roared with delight.
"He wasn't really afraid. He was just goofing wich you," the teenager said, leaning into the aisle, fingers curled in a rapper's gesture.
Tony should have been mad. He should have resented the kid for taking advantage of his neighborly spirit. But in fact he was amused. What a hoot that the little bugger would pull such a stunt. What a surprise that he had the balls to do that to a stranger. Tony punched him playfully on the arm.
"You really weren't scared, little dude?"
"Not one tiny little bit?"
Eugenio leaned toward him and whispered, "Last time we crossed the border, we had to hide in coffins." Tony shook his head and laughed to himself. The boy gave him the biggest, most beautiful smile.
Tony felt himself filling up with fellow feeling toward the world—a generosity. Maybe it was just adrenaline, but he felt good about everything: an integration and clarity he associated with the aftermath of sex. It was the kind of buzzing state where if he were at his desk right now he'd be prioritizing like a madman, zipping through long-ignored stacks of paper. The bullshit with Kayana and Jack, that was still dancing around at the edge of his consciousness. But it was like, whatever, I can deal with that. It was a patch of uncertainty. But compared with the certainty of death, it was nothing.
As the air smoothed out and the seat belt sign turned off, Tony felt too jazzed to sit still. In the galley he came upon Angie loading a drink cart, moving with great efficiency and clarity of purpose. You'd never know the plane had been madly plunging a few minutes before. There seemed something almost heroic about her, her resoluteness in the wake of danger—the frontier set of her jaw as she filled the ice bin, stacked the plastic cups, chatted with another flight attendant, still managing to smile politely in Tony's direction. He wanted to hug her more than when he had the chance to. It might involve grazing his cheek against a gritty surplus of pancake on her cheek, feeling the prickly outskirts of her stressed hair against his fingertips, but that would only enhance the pleasure of finally pressing his lips against that indescribably soft piece of neck hiding beneath her earlobe.
Angie's co-worker was a perky little women with the body of a teenager but a deeply lined face and a cigarette-deepened voice. She appeared to be on break, leaning against a counter sipping a coke. She chatted with Angie about some woman whose husband had cheated on her while traveling for work. Tony stood there, trying to look busy with stretching, touching his toes, twisting side to side, and it took him a moment to realize they weren't talking about friends but about a famous couple from the tabloids. Usually this disgusted Tony, wasting brain cells on celebrity minutiae. He'd once broken up with a girl over her addiction to Entertainment Tonight.
But now he was seeing it differently. Celebrity gossip seemed just a vehicle to connect for these women, a way to indirectly address other issues—the way sports functioned for guys.
Angie noticed Tony staring and held his gaze for a long time and he wondered if she was thinking about him hugging the boy.
"Hillary here thinks that Jen deserves how Brad treated her, because she's so controlling and high maintenance," Angie said, generously drawing Tony into the conversation.
"And what's your feeling?" Tony asked Angie.
"Well, I think that whatever issues Brad had with Jen, he should have addressed them head-on with her, instead of moving on to the next warm body."
"It's a pretty awesome warm body," Hillary said. "We're talking Angelina Jolie."
"I tend to agree with you, Angie," Tony said. "I think Brad Pitt wimped out—it was about complexity versus simplicity—things started getting complicated, as relationships will. There were stresses. Instead of accepting the challenge of working through the problems, accepting the roller coaster ride, he chose the simpleton's route."
Angie beamed at Tony. Hillary swigged the last of her drink and threw the ice in the sink. She looked back and forth at Tony and Angie a couple of times, smiled, and went off to deal with the first-class cabin.
After a long silence, Angie said, "That was really sweet how you comforted that freaked-out kid."
"Are you a teacher?" He shook his head. "You seem like you could be. You have a patient energy."
"I used to think about teaching history." He'd never told anyone this.
"Now see," she said and went off with the drink-cart.
Eugenio was sitting on his mom's armrest, laughing with his family. They were such a nice family. They didn't deserve whatever struggle he assumed they were going through. A great idea came to him.
"Hey listen," Tony said to the boy. "If your dad is ever looking for a job in Boise, tell him to give me a call." He took a business card out of his wallet and handed it to the boy, who passed it to his dad and said something in Spanish. The dad looked at the card and an angry look came over his face. He gave the card back to the boy.
"What did your dad say?" Tony asked.
"I'm sorry but he said that your company is no good to work for. He says it hands its own workers to La Migra."
Tony got up to de-plane and Angie was there with his blazer.
"I thought about keeping it. You've got great taste."
"My ex didn't think so."
"My ex should be so lucky to wear such clothes. But then he'd have to get a job."
"Can I ask you a question?" Tony asked.
"Depends on how personal," she said with a flirty smile.
"That turbulence back there. Was that serious at all? Were we in any danger?"
"Those were some strong bumps. But no, it wasn't anything serious."
Tony was about to say, "That's what I thought," but something changed his mind and he said, "Because, you know, I was scared shitless."
"Happens all the time. You should see some of these macho guys, CEOs, professional athletes, crying and screaming for their mommas."
"I feel better," Tony said, touching her arm.
"You take of yourself," she said.
In the terminal, through the plate-glass, Tony saw mountains lush with Douglas Fir below a rich blue sky. It was still light out, one of those long June days, and he needed to figure out something fun to do with his good energy. He didn't want to waste it watching TV—he wanted to be with people. But there weren't that many people like him, educated professionals, in Boise. When he was with Adriana, she'd sort of handled their social life. Through her, he'd gotten to know a nice group over at the university, but he'd lost touch with them since the breakup. He could call Patrick from his department, but that would inevitably necessitate a rehash of the Seattle meeting.
Going through the sliding doors toward the taxi stand, Tony was suddenly noticing smells, pine and hay blowing down from higher elevations, blasts of exhaust, body odor. Dipping his nose to check his own stink quotient, he spotted the crew from his flight coming toward him. They gave off a vague military air, with their epauleted blazers and upraised chins, striding purposefully in tight formation, the crowd parting for them. Tony made eye contact with Angie and smiled, but her face remained blank. Perhaps she only spoke to passengers when she was on the clock. Or maybe some mechanism in her brain deleted her memory of passengers as soon as a flight ended.
But as the crew neared, Angie flashed a crinkly smile and peeled off from the others.
"Hey you," she said. "Sorry if I'm a little near-sighted." She set her wheeled suitcase on end and combed through her mussed hair with fanned out fingers.
"So do they put you up downtown or do you stay out here at the airport?" he asked, suddenly alert to the prospect of a guiltless romp. That'd be a perfect use of his good energy.
"No I live here."
"Oh really? You too?" This was a different story. There'd be obligations.
"Yeah I have a place in the warehouse district. Pretty cool, with all those new clubs. Not that I go there much, with my daughter and everything. Do you ever get over that way?"
"I guess," he said.
"What do you like to do for fun?" she asked. He was picturing her in a small one-bedroom crammed with tricycles and plastic kids kitchen sets: low ceiling, the smell of Craft mac and cheese, air heavy with burdens that Tony didn't need.
"I don't know. I work a lot. I'm always traveling."
"That's great. OK. So . . . " She seemed to sense him pulling back.
"So." He reached out for some kind of farewell gesture. She met his hand with hers, squeezing it tightly in a firm handshake, but then loosening her grip so her fingers slid lightly along his palms. She was nodding her head, scratching the heel of one foot with the high heel of the other, adjusting her grip on her suitcase. He started to walk away toward the taxi stand. But the softness of her touch had done something to him, left a tingling in his hand and it crept up his arms and his shoulder until he could feel it somewhere much deeper inside. And maybe he wouldn't have felt it at all if his senses hadn't been put on high alert by that craziness on the plane. And maybe he'd have been unwilling to risk his carefully streamlined life if he hadn't spent part of the afternoon thinking he was going to die. But, for whatever reason, he turned again.
"Hey," he said. "Could I give you my email or cell and maybe we could check out one of those clubs in the warehouse district some time?"
"Yeah that would be nice." Her face looked determined as she dug through her purse for pen and paper. She gripped the pen tightly as she wrote.
"OK, got it," she said and smiled.
Later, as his taxi inched through a tangle of rental car shuttles and limos, looking for an opening toward the highway, Tony spotted the Mexican boy and his family gathered with their belongings along a cement wall, at the far end of the terminal. They were slumped on their bags, looking glum. Each was staring off in a different direction, except Eugenio, who was reading. The dad was rubbing his forehead, kicking a suitcase. Tony wondered if someone was coming for them, if they had anywhere to go. Maybe he should stop and offer assistance.
But the taxi found an opening and started to speed up. He rolled down his window, waved his arms, and shouted, "Hola mis amigos."
He saw their faces brighten, heard them saying, "Mira el loco. Es el loco." As the taxi careened off toward the highway, he saw them back there laughing together, slapping each other's arms and generally carrying on. They were having such a good time it was almost as if it was they were the ones who would be heading home tonight to a fancy loft.