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Up in the Air

And what it does to you. Altitude. The first leg I am between two grumpy men, a sort of filling in a belligerent sandwich. He on the right of me, who I do not know, is sighing and hissing: ‘Jesus Christ” long and drawn out like: Jeeeezus Chrrrrrist. While he on the left of me, who I do know, innocently drones on the phone, and is the cause of the meltdown on my right. Meanwhile the aircraft idles hotly on the Denver runway waiting, waiting for the air above San Francisco to make space for us to dare to take off because we know that we can land.

I feel protective of my fiercely communicative husband and sympathetic towards the fuming stranger. He’s trying to write emails and every time he comes up with the first few words Michel makes another call. I want to tell him “ssssh” and I want to reprimand the other for cursing so uncharitably. It’s not a good start to this endless journey half way round the globe.

Finally we’re up there. He who was recently blaspheming has settled down with one elbow well into my space while my husband has grown still and sleepy on my left. I am no longer such an agonized filling. But the space is minute and the man on my right is unforgiving, broad shouldered and frantically scrolling through downloaded emails, twitching at his Blackberry. I have drawn my shoulders in so that the sides of me would converge if I sketched me head to toe. I can barely breathe.

We land without crashing and I am prostrate with gratitude, saved again by United, who otherwise exudes an air of ‘frankly my dear, …’. There is an urgent sweeping march across the glass bridge in San Francisco, a ghastly tumult at the departure gate for Hong Kong, a towering babel of tongue speaking and we are on the next leg, the endless one, higher this time and now I am another kind of filler in a similar sandwich.

On the left of me is a man as wide as he is tall, and he is tall. He wears a floral blue Hawaiian shirt and is kind. This man is two men’s worth but he draws his elbows in and contains his spill. He smiles and apologizes when I must climb over him to the damp, long distance toilets where every disease lies ready and waiting to catch at my meek and briefly bare nethers.

On the right of me is that same man, the one constant, my husband of more years than I can count. Now he knows, through training, that he must give me an inch of the armrest even though we are feet apart in height, though not girth.

I am up against the bulkhead. Overhead the crew struggle with the basics of communication, their radio frequency reliably frazzled, urgent but indistinct causing me to hope, as I always do, that the technological virtuosity absent here is not equally absent in the serious matter of keeping us aloft in space.

My ipad balances beside my teetering glass of wine and glass of water, double death by liquid. Inside England unfolds, slow and mannerly even as it enters the deadly slow shock of WWII. I have done it properly this time, downloaded a great big series that is stately and careful, that paces me into a leisurely peace powerful enough to help me feel less pinched, adrift and upright. I am rocking along in my 5x10 world, protected from Hawaii on my left and husband on my right by the darkness. In my little lit rectangle things come and things go, but oh so lyrically. I am brought to tears, not silent but gushing and clamorous. It is dark and high and noisy enough for my unraveling to pass unnoticed.

In this dim, catapulting capsule I am surprisingly unprotected, advancing, ready or not. What I feel, behaving like some hot spark sobered by the cold ash it will become. I am once, no several thousand times, removed, but what moves me when I have my feet on the ground, floors me up here. It is as if the high, cold air collides in glorious physics with the ordinary of my life. I am not moving mundanely from departure to arrival. I am some miraculous Catherine wheel hurtling through deep space away, away from everything I know, and yet closer than ever to my life.

These 30,000 feet effect me like this every time, and every time I am laid bare by it, crying more easily, laughing at anything. This time is awkward for my body but unsurpassed for my spirit. It is impossible, this flying through the air, and we could just as soon plummet and die. At any moment.

So when I think about things here, like love, it’s untrammelled by gravity, huge and magnificent, something I fall into while flying.

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