He had, for the first time in his life, arrived too early at the airport. The late and the barely punctual were bustling and pushing to get somewhere quickly all around him, and he sat calmly, pristinely, in a situation with which he was wholly unfamiliar. He tried to read, but the espresso had been an insufficient jolt to his system and his attention could not be focused. He walked around, looking with little hope for a seat that had no spilled liquid or wad of chewing gum or human occupant in it.
Flight 484 from Leipzig was arriving. Maybe 494. The announcements were barely discernible above the din of the other creatures who were there with him in this absurdly large enclosure, this cage for animals not favored by natural selection with wings but only with enough neurons and synapses to invent flying machines. He was not hungry, but he decided to spend the last coins in his pocket before boarding, so he stuck them into a vending machine. Pushed a few buttons. There was a brief noise, then the little arm stopped moving short of reaching its destination in front of the chocolate bar he had selected. He pushed the button again. Nothing happened.
The dark-haired woman in perhaps her mid-20s who was at the counter just to the right of the vending machine had seen the whole thing. She solicitously came to him and asked him what happened, then pushed the buttons in his stead. She was met with the same robotic disdain. She fetched for him from her register the amount of coins he had wished to lose in the machine. Her smile was more than worth the return of what he only wanted to give away.
After he found his seat on the plane, he tried the book again, with more success. It looked as though he would have the aisle to himself until just a few minutes before takeoff. Then someone walked up and took the seat to his immediate left. She had long, straight hair, very light skin, green eyes. She was wearing some perfume that he vaguely recognized, berries and vanilla and other things he could not identify. She did not look at him as she took her seat.
As he buckled his seatbelt, he inadvertently bumped her arm, very lightly, and begged her pardon. She did not speak, only smiling wanly and nodding her head while her eyes met his fleetingly and then returned to their previous focus elsewhere. “Is the next stop home, or are you connecting to somewhere else?” he asked. She said she had another plane to catch once they arrived that would take her to the city where she was studying. What was she studying? Business. Some kind of exchange program. It was clear by her demeanor that this was the limit of their conversation. He understood it was best to return to the book, which was after all not so bad, and so he did.
It was an eight hour flight.
Many other things happened between this exchange and the pilot’s announcement that arrival was imminent. Children ran in the aisles while their parents slept. There was some entertainment on the screens in the seatbacks. Food was served twice, drinks three times, trash collected, forms filled out. His legs ached at one point and he asked her if he might pass to get to the aisle. She wordlessly obliged.
The descent to the airport commenced. He buckled his seat belt and put his book away. Thought of the task of finding his way to the baggage claim area and then ground transportation. Mundanity. A way to avoid thinking of the fact that taking off and landing are the two most dangerous times in an airplane.
The earth approached rapidly.
The landing gear banged on the runway once, then the plane went up again, then down, then up again. Then a third time the tires thumped against the ground, and the plane swerved slightly to the right. The pilot did something to correct for the slide, and this caused the plane to tilt in the other direction, so precipitously that one of the landing wheels left the ground altogether.
A collective gasp was emitted by some quantity of the passengers, immediately punctuated by shouts and screams, as that single datum no one on a plane wants demonstrated to them became clear: something was not going as planned and this was potentially very bad indeed.
There was a terrible scraping sound, thunderously loud, and a concomitant shuddering felt through the cabin as the tip of the left wing touched the runway in a shower of spark.
He had no time for a coherent thought during all of this. There was only a flickering memory of his childhood, him on a Big Wheel, flying down the sidewalk in front of an apartment in which he and his parents had lived for a few months during the year he was in kindergarten.
This idyllic snapshot had never previously appeared to him, at least not in waking adulthood, and it is a mystery of the universe why it did so now.
As the Big Wheel and the sidewalk were flickering out as quickly as they had been illuminated, the right arm of the young business student shot out and wrapped itself tightly around his left upper arm, her left hand came over her body and grabbed his upper left thigh, and her whole body leaned over in the seat to pull the two of them into a tight embrace. She whimpered in fear and put her head on his shoulder. It rested there for perhaps five seconds. The smell of her shampoo wafted to his nostrils.
An eternity passed through his consciousness.
Then the plane straightened, dropped down again onto all three wheels, and braked hard. The pilot had regained control.
She released her grip and sat back up straight in her seat. She was breathing heavily but otherwise looked exactly as she had in the instant before the near catastrophe began.
She did not look at him, but fixed her gaze on the seatback in front of her. The danger past, the commotion in the plane ceased, and all reverted to the silent, courteous isolation of modern human existence.
Soon, the plane came to a stop. The pilot said something over the PA that he did not hear. The passengers all gathered their things and exited dully.
Her eyes met his for a split second as she picked up her bag and made to walk down the aisle toward the cockpit, and ultimately toward the airport and her next flight and the rest of her life.
He stayed in his seat until all the other passengers had left, staring straight ahead, trying to hold on to some unnamed thing that was already disappearing. Then he too wordlessly took up his earthly belongings and exited the plane.