He was late for his flight and his wife still wasn’t pregnant. They’d tried four times a week for the last two years, sometimes five.
“Can we try before you leave?” she asked.
“Look at the clock, already, Nance.”
“It’s five minutes of your time.”
After they finished, he put his suit back on, his watch, his socks, his shoes. He checked his teeth in the bedroom mirror and asked her, “Is something wrong, today?”
“Why are you always asking me that?” She walked into the bathroom and shut the door. A toilet flushed, she opened the door. Her eyes heavy, hooded. “Maybe, it’s that I’m thirty-nine years old. And I want to conceive already.”
He left the bedroom and went into the kitchen where he had to lift his voice to be heard, “Why can’t you just use normal words like everyone else?”
Opening the refrigerator, he took a sip from a carton of orange juice. A car rolled up front of the house and set off a quick one-two honk. Out the bay window, he saw a yellow cab idle at the curb.
She drifted into the kitchen, dragging a grey curl over her ear. “What’s even normal to you?”
“I mean, conceive?” He shook his head. “But listen, I can’t talk. I’m going miss my flight.”
The cab beeped, louder this time. He leaned over to kiss her forehead. She turned her head, his lips grazed her ear.
“Hold on. There’s something else I wanted to tell you. I just forget now…”
He looked at the stove clock. “I really can’t, Nance.”
The cab driver blasted the horn, holding it down for what seemed like a full minute. He gazed outside when the sprinkler system flicked on. He turned back to her and she looked like she was about to cry.
“Please, stop with the sad thing all the time,” he said. “It’s enough already.”
“I’m not sad.”
“Listen, I’ll be back in two weeks.” He grabbed his sunglasses and bag and kissed her on the forehead. “We’ll keep at it for as long as we have to. You just have to stop with this whole sad thing. You don’t want me to have a nervous breakdown, do you?” he laughed. “You know I have enough stress already with work.”
She stared, said nothing.
“Whatever you want. Whatever you want. You’ve saying the same damn thing since college.”
“Well, you had a choice to marry me, right?” He looked out the window when her phone began to buzz on the countertop. “It’s probably your crazy-ass sister, again.”
She looked right at him. “You don’t feel anything, anymore, do you?”
“Maybe, I just can’t keep up with your moods every day.”
“Screw you. My moods.”
He contrived a laugh, craning his neck toward her face. The urge to crack her in the head overcame him but instead, “You ever think it’s your mood swings that’s getting in the way of us ‘conceiving?’”
Her eyes welled-up. She started to mouth something when she let off a quick sob. She ran into her room, slamming the door behind her.
Outside there was another honk.
The cab smelt of onions and coffee and the Indian man behind the wheel pressed on the gas even before the backdoor was shut. No one said a word the entire ride as they glided between lanes, reaching the airport just in time. When he grabbed his suitcase from the trunk, he paused at the sky, the sun sat between rows of buildings, plumes of blue-grey smoke braided the air above. Maybe, I shouldn’t have left her like that, he thought. But he had to get on that flight. It was a big week of sales coming up. And he didn’t want to fall out of favor with his company. They already laid off ten people last few months. When the cab driver closed the trunk, he over-tipped the guy by accident and ran inside, sprinted up the escalator, waited for security, hurried through gate and found his seat.
The plane started to roll, the seatbelt sign flashed red, and he looked down at his phone as if he forgot something. There was a picture on his screen of Nance smiling. It was from a vacation they took in Aruba maybe four or five years ago. That floppy straw sun hat. The man next to him coughed. He was grey-looking, squeezed into his seat, the seatbelt taught about his waist. His eyes sun-green, teeth coffee-colored. Tom turned toward the window when a dark-skinned flight attendant approached their row asking about dinner.
“I’m gonna have to order two dinners,” the man said. ”As you can see,” he said, clutching his belly, smiling to himself.
“That’s fine, but you’ll have to pay extra, sir,” she said.
“Absolutely. Then if I could, two steak dinners, and can you bring them out at the same time?”
Tom stared at the man. When the attendant asked him what he wanted, he told her he’d like just the chicken with a salad, instead of the rice.
The plane at once collected speed, lifting, spearing the sky. Tom pushed his face against the window. The view always reminded him of the smallness of his own life, the endless rows of houses, the big dark ocean that flattened landscapes as lights scattered below.
The man swiveled in his seat and said to Tom, “It’s amazing that we’re flying, right?”
“Yep. It is.”
“Bet those cavemen would think we’re flat-out cuckoo.” The man took a fast, hard breath. “I mean tinny tin machines carving up the cloudy expanse. I’m Carl by the way.”
The man put out his hand and Tom shook his soft, sweaty palm.
“And you are?”
“Yeah, I’m Tom.”
Carl was seventy-eight years old, a retired Broadway actor, whose wife just died of brain cancer two months ago.
“The cancer just sucked the life out of her,” the man said.
“I’m sorry to hear this.” Tom looked down at his phone when he remembered that he forgot to tell Nance to pay the landscapers this weekend.
“I’m actually going to visit my son. He’s a principal in Shanghai. Years ago, he couldn’t find a job in the States, so went there. Now I think he wants me to move there since his mom died.”
The attendant rolled up with a cart of food and the man thanked her. He immediately peeled off the foil from both trays and scooped up a lump of mashed potatoes. Tom watched the man chew. He opened his chicken dinner, sticking his fork into the salad, holding it there.
“But I’m not going anywhere,” the man said, shoving a rip of steak into his mouth. “My home is where my wife is.”
Within ten minutes, the man finished both plates, his breath grew heavier. “You know, I loved acting. I loved it with my whole being. Shakespeare, Beckett, Ibsen, I can’t tell you. I lived through my art.”
“I bet,” he said.
“You don’t say much, Tom, do you?”
“Sorry, it’s been a long day.”
When the man saw the flight attendant quicken down the aisle, he requested a bag of chips. She took their plates and within a few minutes she came back with two bags.
The man beamed at the attendant. “You shouldn’t be so kind to me.”
He opened a bag and grabbed a handful. Then he held out the bag towards Tom. “You want a chip, amigo?”
“You know, when I first started acting, the theater was jammed every night,” the man said, munching with is mouth half-open. “The energy was palpable in that room and everyone hung on every word as if words actually had meaning then.”
The man gasped for air between each phrase. Tom couldn’t look at him any longer. He set down his fork and pushed his tray forward a few inches. He peered out the window, then back at the man, who was still talking. He spun to the window, again. The stars were sheathed in haze and every once and awhile the clouds would break and he’d see the sky’s purple-white glow. The plane suddenly jostled. The turbulence sign flashed red. He straightened his posture, sitting back.
“You’ll be okay. It’s all part of the ride.”
“I know this.” His face drained of color, lips parted. “I’ve been taking this flight for ten years, actually. It’s just that my back is hurting me, today.”
Tom grabbed his tray, stood up and said, “I have to use the bathroom.” He tried to pass the man but saw that it was impossible. They looked at each other and the man laughed, realizing he had to stand to let Tom to pass.
“Hey, hold my chips for a second, will ya?” the man asked.
Tom took the chips and the man struggled to lift himself up. He then squeezed past into the aisle, and hurried down the lane. A bland hum, blue light filled the cabin and everyone was either fixed to a movie or their phone or sleeping. The flight attendant was near the bathroom so he handed her his leftover tray. Inside the stall, he splashed cool water on his face and looked at himself for what seemed a long time. It was as if he didn’t see himself, only the eyes evoked a younger self. The creased skin, the black rings deepened under the florescent light. He tried to remember when his boss said his first meeting would be. It was either 10 or 11 AM but he’d figure it out when he got to the hotel. He dried his face and walked back to his seat.
When he returned to his spot the man was downing the last of his wine. He labored to stand up once more and soon they were both seated.
Tom looked down at his phone. The man ate a few more chips, sucking the salt from his fingers.
“You know, I loved that woman every day of her life. I was happy. Now? I’m ready. I go on. I can’t go on. I’m done. I’m done without her,” he said, his eyes glazing over.
He turned from the man and looked out the window. Clouds skimmed by. Each one disappeared behind the wing. He didn’t want to listen any longer. This guy should just shut his friggin’ mouth already. Nance was probably with her sister now, anyhow. I’m sure she’s not that upset anymore. And she was the one who said, ‘screw you.’ He didn’t say anything like that. He just yelled a little, that’s all.
He reached into his bag below and pulled out his Business Week magazine. “Listen, I don’t mean to cut this short. But I have to get some reading done before we land.”
“Well, we’ve got hours to go. So I’m sure you’ll be able to get some of it done.” The man arranged his pillow behind his head, straining to get comfortable. He then looked down at Tom’s finger. “You have kids, too?”
“You’re married, right?”
“No, I’m not. Why do you need know that?”
“Oh, I saw the ring.”
“It’s just a ring. That’s all.”
“Well, if you’re ever lucky enough to find someone, hold onto it. It all comes up so quick.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
He opened the magazine and followed the text with his finger without absorbing a single word. Then turned to the window, tracing the skyline. After some time, he shut the blinds, switched off the light and attempted to sleep.
When he woke up there was a thin, young man lunging at the chest of the man that sat next to Tom. The man’s skin was blue and white and he wasn’t breathing. The young man reached for the man’s pulse. Pinching his nose, he drove air into his mouth, then heaved into his torso, over and again.
“C’mon! Breathe!” the young man shouted. “Breathe for me, breathe!”
The people in the seats looked on as if this man were simply an object of curiosity. One lady stood up and darted into the bathroom, a dry gag repeated, echoed through the door.
Someone behind his seat cried: “Shouldn’t we land this flight?”
Another man: “You want to land in the ocean there, buddy?”
One lady said: “This is absurd. I can’t watch this.”
He quickly looked at the man’s face and then forced his eyes shut. He wanted to call Nance and he wasn’t sure why. He kept his eyes closed for what seemed like a long time. When he opened them the young man stood above the man, his hands were shaking, his face slack. He then walked to the rear of the plane and returned with a sheet that he gently draped over the man.
Over the monitor, a flight attendant spoke: “If anyone needs assistance at this time, please let us know. We’ll be arriving in Beijing in just under eight hours. Also, please gather any garbage you have. Someone will be walking around to collect it all, so please remain seated for the time being.”
The attendant walked down the aisle, stopping in front of Tom.
Tom insisted, “Where are you going to move me to? Cause I can’t sit here. And I can’t get past him unless someone moves him.”
She smiled and said, “I’m really sorry about this. Unfortunately, there are no other seats.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” He looked at the sheet where the man lay and then back at her. “I’m not going to sit here. This, it’s not going to work for me.”
“I’m sorry sir. The flight is at capacity. There’s nothing I can do. You need to be in a seat with a seatbelt for when we land.”
“But you’re not understanding me. I can’t sit here.”
“I understand, sir. But I really don’t have anywhere else to put you. Would you like another drink perhaps?”
“Miss, I don’t think I need to explain myself. I can’t get past even if I needed to.” He looked at the sheet, again. “Eventually, I’m going to have to go the bathroom. There must be a spare seat up front for emergencies like this.”
“Sir,” she smiled, “there’s really nothing I can do. I’ll get you that drink.”
“I don’t want another drink damnit,” he yelled. “Just get me your manager then.”
“Please, lower your voice, sir. And I am the manager,” she said, smiling. “Now just relax and maybe close your eyes. We’ll be landing before you know it.”
She smiled again and hastened towards the back of the cabin.
He punched the paneling below the window. “This is fucking bullshit.”
If he could stand up and run or at least hide in the bathroom but he was massive. It was 8:37. He drew the blinds and peered out the window. When he began to wonder what the man looked like under the sheet he decided to put on a movie. It was some comedy where every joke felt overwrought, forced. He flipped it off and tried to read his magazine. He tried to sleep for a while. When he opened his eyes it was 8:41, and the man now looked like he was breathing under the sheet. The flight attendant bought over a drink. He drank it and asked for another. And then two more after that.
The flight was more than half way over and everyone was asleep on the plane besides a lady at the back of the aisle who was rocking her baby. He watched her for a while then moved towards the window, again. The sky was clear but his head stung from the wine. 8:43. That man’s son has no idea what’s waiting for him at the airport. He considered his own parents and how he saw them only on Christmas ever since they moved to Florida, five years ago. Each year they were noticeably older. He could swear that this man was breathing now. Looking around the plane, everyone was still asleep. He looked back at the man and was about to lift the sheet when the baby started to whimper. He let go of the sheet and turned toward the window. The stars sparkled beyond the wing and he took a deep breath. He turned back and the sheet seemed to rise and fall. The baby stopped crying so he pulled back the sheet. The man’s mouth hung open, rolling over his chin fat. When he put his hand over the man’s mouth there was no air exiting. He poked the man’s side but he didn’t move.
“Carl?” he whispered. “It’s Carl, right?” The baby cried, again. “Hey, I want to tell you something.” A small pit formed in his stomach, burning. “I’m actually married, Carl. I’ve got a wife, I’ve got Nance back home. Can you hear me? I saw you breathing under there.”
When he tried to close the man’s mouth it just fell open. “Yeah, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. But we’ve been trying to have kids. For a while now, ya know.”
He looked over his shoulder. “And I’m not always good to her. I know this. I just don’t know how to be. I mean, she does this whole sad thing. But she’s just sad, right? We’ve been trying for a long, long time, Carl. I hate my job, too, Carl. I don’t know if I told you that.”
He grabbed his cold hand and shook it. “Carl? Come on, Carl! I saw you breathing. You’re missing the whole flight. We’re flying, right? Isn’t it amazing, Carl?”
He put his fingers below the man’s nose when he heard footsteps approaching. He jerked the sheet back over the man. The attendant stopped by his seat and just glared at him. He tried to smile and said, “Hi. Hello.” He eyes fell to this lap. “I think I’ll have another drink. Whatever I was drinking before. Pinot, right?”
When he looked up she was looking through him.
“You know, this guy was a Broadway actor. He was in everything, actually. He was in Shakespeare and this other guy Gibson or something. I forget. But he was in everything.”
She shook her head, “I’ll be right back, sir,” and then walked away.
Tom folded backward into his seat, crossing his arms, as if hugging himself. His throat thickened, a dull pressure built at his ears but he held back any tears—if there were any.
Brian Kelly lives on fading shores of Long Island. His writing has been featured in BlackBook, The Southampton Review, The Recorder, and various others. His off-Broadway play Hello Superstar was presented by Alchemy Theater Company, and his band Aeroplane Pageant’s last album Float Above the Yard charted on CMJ’s top twenty in over 30 US cities. He’s directed several music videos that have premiered on MTV2, AOL Spinner, Consequence of Sound, Prefix and Magnet.