I wrote this story at least a decade ago.
It Was Inevitable
The intercom pops and sputters into life. “Welcome passengers, to Universal Airlines flight six-oh-three, with non-stop service from Dallas to New York, with dinner meal service in first class and coach. At this time, we will begin pre-boarding . . .” Jake’s in row 17, well behind first-class, and has a few minutes until they’re ready for him.
He folds his paper and tosses it in the trash can. His wedding ring sparkles in the fluorescent lights, bringing a smile forward. He can feel it in the way that his lips pull off his teeth, the bulges of his cheekbones widening and filling themselves at the thought of a good family. He doesn’t like to travel, hates it actually, what worries him most is take-off, but, hey, you learn to tolerate it after a few years of conferences in this city and conventions in that one and business meetings over there. He watches people boringly line up in a nice, straight, American-way file, not pushing or shoving, queuing perfectly so as to be respectful of others’ privacy and space. How stifling, Jake thinks. Why don’t we rush the ticket-taker and demand our seat now? Must be the two hundred years of peace that’s bred the aggression out of us.
A few families with small children join the first-class passengers in pre-boarding, and then those seated in rows twenty and higher subserviently line up, careful not to intrude. Jake wants to do something about it, he wants to stand up on his chair and launch into the most powerful, uplifting, inspiring speech ever heard. He wants to cheer them to greatness. He wants to move their hearts, bring tears to the corners of ladies’ eyes. He wants men to feel the blood pounding in their veins for the first time in years. Now! Do it now! It’s time! Stop wishing and just do it already!
Steeling himself for the courage he needs, he gathers his carry-on and stands up. Directly into line. The disappointment at his failure to act is slight.
He’s behind a young businessman in a poorly-fitting suit, carrying a briefcase and a carry-on bag and a computer. Hey, that’s more than two carry-ons. Buddy, you should have to check one of those. Excuse me! Miss! He’s got more than two carry-ons! Please make him play by the rules.
The ticket-taker calmly hands him his boarding pass and Jake Carpenter follows the man with the excess baggage down the gangway. Looking behind, he can see similarly arrayed persons of various genders performing other little acts of insubordination, quietly breaking the rules without anyone to stop them. At least I know I’m okay.
The take-off is indeed the worst. Jake is only able to unclench his eyes once they’ve leveled out and he can hear the captain’s voice telling them they are free to move about the cabin, and that drinks will be served shortly, with dinner in about an hour. Relaxing slightly, Jake reaches into his brown leather half-suitcase for a crossword book. Before he can open it, however, a voice startles him.
“Is that the New York Times crosswords?”
Jake turns to face the feminine figure next to him. By god, you’re cute. We should have an affair. She’s pointing in his general direction. Jake glances down and notices that it in fact is the New York Times Crossword Book. He’d only bought it at the newsstand to have something to do on the flight. “Uh, yes it is. I just bought it to have something to do on the flight.”
“I love crosswords.” Beauty crystallized in the air. “I’m pretty good, if I say so myself.” Her attitude hints at indiscretion. “Melanie. From Brooklyn. Born and raised.”
“Jake Carpenter. Dallas. Neither born nor raised.”
She finds that funny, and laughs, touching his arm slightly with her perfectly sloped fingers. Jake stares, wondering what to do next.
“Can we work one together?” she asks. He has no words to reply, taking out a pen.
Dinner is the first break in the crossword experience. She is good, better than he is, but they’ve finished two easy puzzles. Over bland steak or blander fish they begin conversation. Don’t mention your wife. She’ll get turned off.
“You know, my wife makes great salisbury steak. This stuff,” he drips lumps and thin gravy from the plain tines of the fork, “I don’t think this is even meat!” She nods and smiles, holding up a small morsel of imitation sea-dweller for comparison. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’ve just had reports of some bad weather making its way towards New York, but all indications show that we should be able to land before it causes us any trouble. We’ll notify you if there’s any change in the predictions.”
“My husband, when he grills out, can make a fantastic swordfish steak. But this, this,” Melanie hangs her head in dismay, then they laugh together. Good, she’s not hitting on me. So why is my blood pressure soaring?
After the meal he tries to return to the crosswords, but she stops him with painted fingernails on the back of his hand. “Let’s talk. I don’t get to do much talking these days. It seems like all I ever do is take somebody here, there, cook this, work that. Can’t a girl ever get a break?” Her radiance spills over the bare shoulder touching his, and he bathes in the sweetness of her perfume. Wonderful. Why am I thinking this? Because I want to.
“I know what you mean. It’s like I have one meeting after another. Especially with all that the kids have going on, you know . . .”
She doesn’t respond right away. When she does, it’s to tell him that she doesn’t have kids of her own yet, they’re waiting until they’ve been married at least two years. “Only six months now, and I’m loving it!” He listens while she tells her story. He likes to hear her voice.
Average high school student. Accidents, speeding tickets, semi-prestigious college, time afterward to bum around and go visit people. Time to go see places. Time to have a life. Paris. The Grand Canyon with girlfriends. A week in Miami on the beach alone, sleeping in the car she drove all the way from the city, stopping for gas, like, only four times. No worries, no pressures. Then meeting a wonderful man on a blind date, hitting it off, married in eight months, business trips pretty regularly out of state to different parts of the country. “And now, you! A wonderful coincidence, don’t you think?”
Oh, dear lord!
“What coincidence is that?”
“Well, the fact that you and I are both going to the same place!” She is hitting on me! What do I do?
Jake glances around the cabin. “Seems to me that everyone here is going to the same place as you.” Once again she finds this funny, and laughs against his arm. His systems are on overdrive, screaming for attention, recognition, acceptance of the opportunity to put to shame all other regrets, annihilate the past, boring memories of missed opportunities. But Jake won’t let that happen. Not allowed. Not allowed to because I’m married. I’m married and that’s what married men don’t do. So there.
Not that he doesn’t want to.
“Tell me about yourself. Here it is almost DC and I don’t know a thing about you,” she honeys.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain again.” Plain stuff, very similar to hers. “We’ve received an update of the weather situation.” High school sports. College dean’s list a couple of semesters at the state university. “Conditions have worsened.” Started a job three days after graduation. “We’re going to have to decrease altitude to get under the storm.” Two weeks of vacation a year, an additional week every five. “We anticipate a safe arrival at JFK,” Met a wife at church, “in about an hour,” married after a two-year courtship. Three kids, two dogs, and a neighbor who seems to wait until the grass is to his knees before mowing it.
“Any regrets?” she asks, but he has the distinct feeling that she’s just trying to avoid attention on herself.
“A few.” Regret that he didn’t buy the sports car when he was twenty-three, settling for the affordable, practical used sedan that wouldn’t put him more in debt than he could handle. Never seeing the Great Wall of China. Getting married too young. No, can’t admit that. Regret waiting to have kids, he lies instead. Regret not sticking up for myself more in my life. Being too focused on a career, not taking the time to enjoy the simple things, he lies again. Regret thinking of others when I could have thought of myself. He keeps this last part to himself.
Only when he’s finished speaking does he notice the change in her face. “What?” He looks around at the other blank-faced passengers. “Did I miss something?” Nobody’s reading. Nobody’s talking. Across the aisle a Catholic lady has her rosary out. In front of them the young businessman who was in line in front of Jake is hastily scribbling something on a piece of paper. “What?”
Melanie won’t talk. She’s turned cold and inward, facing the still-blue sky across the wing. A young boy, not more than seven, taps him on the shoulder from behind. “The captain says we’re gonna crash.”
“Danny!” who can only be Danny’s mother shrieks from behind Melanie. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know what got into him. Danny! That was a horrible thing to say! Actually, sir, the captain said that there’s bad weather in New York, and that we’ve got to decrease altitude. Danny!” She sat back into her seat, tugging hard on her son’s arm, as if hurting him can keep the plane in the air.
Jake faces forward for what seems like only a minute. A minute in which airline attendants make a dozen trips up and down aisles with airsickness bags. A minute in which the possibilities of his life are played out, false memories that he’ll never have the chance to have. A minute in which the plane drops, lurches, heaving six ways from Sunday. A minute in which he closes his eyes and just barely holds in his own pointless dinner. A minute when he feels the cool fingers of Melanie’s hand slide into his, and he turns to see her looking back at him.
“If we get out of this . . .” she decrescendos.
“If we get out of this,” she continues, “have no regrets.”
“I didn’t think you were listening.”
“Better than you thought.” She turns to the window again, watches the rain explode upon contact with the wing, feels the shudder and shuts her eyes against the vertigo. “No regrets,” she looks at him again.
Never with you. “All right. No regrets.”
The captain’s speaking again, but Jake can hardly hear anything for the shouting induced by the sudden presence of oxygen masks, pathetic safety nets. Is this really necessary? I think I might prefer blacking out to feeling my head crushed between my spine and the tray table, in it’s full and upright position.
Still, he dutifully inserts his mouth and nose into the appropriate orifice, then looks around to see if Danny is okay, because adults are supposed to put theirs on first then help with young children and others needing assistance. All is well in row 18, so Jake Carpenter, father of three, husband of one, adulterer of none, master of two Labradors, grips Melanie who?s hand, bends over, puts his head between his knees and prepares to kiss his ass goodbye.
When the jolt comes it’s more shocking than anything. Pain has never been so far from his mind. He knows it’s there. But he refuses to accept it. Just hold on. If he thinks about it he’ll feel it. No regrets. If he lets go of her hand she’ll die, too. If he lifts his head, it’ll be shorn off by the tearing hull shattering around him. If he opens his eyes, the dream will become reality and he’ll have to deal with it.
Exhaustive bumps, clatters, shouts around him suddenly dim into the background static so frequently heard on radios. Jake is in his own world. He can see. Of course. How else would he know they’re on the ground? How else could he feel the stinging rain smothering his face? How else would he feel the heat filling the void behind him? “Something’s on fire!” a voice shouts. Jake thinks it’s Melanie’s, but when he looks over to see if she’s okay, he finds only an empty shell of a face. Scared to death. Jake removes his hand, dutifully unbuckles his seat belt, and looks around.
Flames are visible in at least three different areas. There are a few dozen survivors. No regrets. Smashed hulking metal strewn across a quarter-mile of land after the runway. Just missed.
The mouths of some of the others move silently. From far away, must be ten miles sound travels well out here he can hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles visible at the end of the runway. No regrets.
A hand taps his shoulder. “Buddy, you all right?” a voice asks through three feet of cotton balls soaked in molasses. Jake guesses so. “What’s your name?”
Jake. Jake Carpenter. From Dallas, Texas. Neither born nor raised. The once-humorous line solidifies in his mind the reality of the thing. “Roger Ebert,” he says, and turns away from the far-off emergency vehicles, the scrambling blue suits, the violently crying mothers and the quietly raging inferno.
Walking past the blaze closest to the cockpit, Jake watches his wallet arc out of his hand into the steaming mess, no regrets followed by his leather carry-on and sportcoat. Money, credit cards, keys, monogrammed pen and pencil set, no regrets handkerchief, feeding instructions for a two-year old female Lab, Certs (with Retsyn!) make the trip inside the brown Italian leather jacket, four hundred dollars from Alfani, worthless now because it’s covered in blood and puke and brains left over by someone who’d been sitting too close.
A blue horizon flashes through his mind. Wonderfully labyrinthine New York City sits on the ocular boundary, waiting. The Great Wall of China beckons. Paris. The Grand Canyon. He imagines his life, just beginning, starting over. No regrets. They’re not allowed.