My co-worker Laureen and I are on a flight to Hawaii. We have been seeing each other. She tells me that we cannot pretend we are ghosts. Laureen sips her Bloody Mary and says that I smell good, remnants of my cologne. We remain an entanglement of lust; we realize that we need to stop seeing each other. Between us, a certain kind of energy fuels our attraction.
She hopes that I will leave Carolyn, but that’s not going to happen. Laureen knows it, and this is our last excursion together—an end to our affair.
The age gap between us is quite alarming: 17 years. There is a crack of her syllables, hesitation in her voice, that maybe Carolyn will find out and divorce me.
“At least I have you for the weekend, and of all places, Hawaii,” she says. “Our last hurrah. Sucks to be us, huh?”
I soak in her sarcasm.
We had gotten the alert to catch the next flight to Hawaii. We were having drinks at one of the bars at SeaTac. Stivarra, our boss, sent us the alert and the electronic itinerary. Laureen says, “I picture that dude in his bright blue Polo and holding his coffee mug at his desk, staring at stock market tickers. His eyes, as usual, remain full of dotted electronic glows of numbers, bemusing the ups and downs of monies and exchanges.”
“He hardly sleeps,” I say.
Stivarra had sent us a video chat, where to go when we landed in Hawaii. Banking convention at the hotel. Japanese investors would be there.
DDC is a good company. Laureen and I have downtime in between our travels. We are “on-call” I.T. travelers. We make fantastic money, but hated the rigorous nature of it.
Carolyn senses something might be going on, but does not allude to the trifles at our therapy sessions. I told her that I am going to resign after this last trip. She will forgive me, I hope.
“Threshold Moon,” Laureen calls her special input of computer code. “I’m finished.”
She closes her laptop, rubs her fingers across her temples. The airplane banks right. Laureen tips her drink and sips the last bit of it.
“Have you talk to your mother?” I ask. “Is she doing better, after getting home?”
“I have not spoken to her in a few days. My brother checks on her while I’m traveling. We hope she’s done with chemo and it’s isolated. Hey, do you think I curse too much?”
I think about my son Patrick, who’s fifteen, plays on the freshman basketball team in Mesa, Arizona, where we live. He amazes me how he’s almost as tall as I am, six feet, and has a much better jump shot than I did at his age.
Laureen and I get along. But it’s not as though we can finish each other’s sentences. We are not so agreeable, but more like two frisky cats attracted to each other, always a paw length away from protecting our egos.
“I’m glad I’m with you,” Laureen says, putting the palm of her hand forcefully around my forearm. “Only as friends, may it be. Just co-workers. Man, that Bloody Mary was strong. It’s kicked in.”
“You want anything, sir?” the flight attendant asks, walking by. “Another Diet Coke? We still have cold beer?”
“No thank you,” I say. “I’m good.”
Laureen runs her fingers through my hair.
“Do you understand all this code, Thomas? Stivarra always has these last-minute assignments for us.”
“I know what you know,” I say. “Big banking convention in Honolulu. I think it involves a new solution to ward off global defaults on mortgages, a new code to protect against Default Swaps. To prevent or at least soften another catastrophe like 2008?”
“You want my flash drive?” says Laureen. “I’m done.”
“Wait until we land. Or until we get to our hotel. Man, a steak sounds really freaking good!”
Suddenly, there’s a crack, like the sound of metal splintering, grinding. It is loud and near the wing by the window where we sit.
“What the hell was that?” Laureen snaps, squeezing my thigh.
“I’m not ready to die, Thomas!”
“It’s out of our hands,” I say.
I knew risk assumptions. Probabilities. I think about how we both accepted the astronomical odds that we go down in the ocean or get torn to pieces. We accepted it, Laureen. Laws of physics now determine our fate.
Of course, I don’t tell her that.
She pulls her hand off my leg. She presses her face to the plastic window. I lean forward, hoping to see if something has hit the wing. In front of us, a teenage boy turns and says, “It blew. The whole damn engine.”
The captain comes on and announces that the plane is stabilized. Laureen closes her eyes and folds her lips strangely until the puckering of them turns clear and her face reddens as if in a flustered thought at any minute we will be sucked out into the atmosphere at five-hundred miles per hour.
And oddly, I feel calm. I feel if it is my time to break away with the plane and disintegrate with it into the ocean—there is nothing that I can do about it. Yes, I can pray to God but stopped that long ago. After Carolyn went through two miscarriages, after my father’s suicide, numerous close friends who have died, and after my sister’s torment with lung cancer… What God?
I can do what the flight attendant lady says: “Stay calm. Everyone, we will be landing in Honolulu shortly.”
People will say that Thomas Callen and his mistress deserved their punishment for weaving in and out of their adulterous behavior. “God struck them down with his Wrath.”
The plane continues to fly straight. We do not hear another crack near the wing. Laureen puts her hand on mine and we do not look at each other or say anything more. Perhaps this will end fine? We’ll walk across the tarmac at the airport, go to our hotel on DDC’s credit card and order in steaks and beer. Take a warm shower together or go for a swim.
The plane banks left and then right, and finally it starts to sway into a nose dive and we hear screams and the captain’s static voice over the speaker. I cannot help but see the flight attendant curled against the wall after she fell, her skirt up to her face and her black underwear exposed, with her left foot shoeless. She sees me and we lock eyes briefly, as if the two of us will die within the confines of the plane’s descent.
“Hey!” I yell at Laureen. I try to squeeze her hand but it has left my grip, and she is jolted in her seat. I do not see the teenage kid in front of us. When the plane corrects out of the dive and we slow down, super slow as if we might be landing or all the fuel ran out and we brace for impact. I recall the “Miracle on the Hudson.” I close my eyes and see Patrick as a baby, holding him in my thoughts. My whole life does not flash in front of me, but fragments of it, like the spurts of a jumpy candle flame: the good times, it was all there, in a hand reach of warmth and love.
A hard jolt, then a wave of rumbles, the sound intense enough to ring my ears.
The plane does not break apart. My left arm feels numb, a surge of pain up my spine. I imagine the dark Pacific water engulfing me. Sharks.
I don’t know if that is Laureen’s voice or a vocal tick in my head from another voice. I think she is near me in the water. I pull out my caught leg in part of the seatbelt and land in the aisle. The minutes that pass could have been twenty, thirty, an hour—I don’t know, but I must’ve conked out at some point. It is my seat that I have been in before the plane hit the water. I think everything is intact.
The waves are cold and I hear people, passengers saying “It will be fine, everything will be all right. We are safe.”
“Laureen!” I yell. “Hey?”
We often hear about plane survivors walking away with a broken hand, lacerations, a bump the size of a melon on their heads…
“I’m here, Thomas,” says Laureen. Her face is the color of frost. “Thomas, don’t look at your legs,” she says. “Keep your eyes on me, O.K.?”
I cannot feel part of my left leg, and I do what Laureen told me not to do and look down and see my mangled ankle. The adrenalin, our body’s way of blocking out the pain, churns through my chest and neck, and I’m almost in a mood of sedation.
The sun has not set and the clouds in the distance absorb a purple color of fading light over the water. I am rushed into an ambulance. I see a small cut on Laureen’s chin. She grabs my hand. The intense aroma of jet fuel, my heavy eyes, a weightless feeling throughout my body. I think about dolphins, clown fish. I think about Carolyn and Patrick in Arizona and how everything will be fine in our family. I will let Laureen go. I am sorry for all of this.
I will resign from DDC and find a new job with fewer travel responsibilities.
I fall asleep.
The next morning the sun heats my face and arms through a big bright window in the hospital. The smell of fuel still lingers. And it all becomes exact and finite when I am wheeled in for extended surgery on my leg, where nurses and doctors huddle around me.
“Thomas,” I hear from Laureen, walking slowly behind me before the surgery. She must be on her cellphone, informing who we are. “No, I’m not his wife,” Laureen continues. “We work together. He’s a good friend. That’s all.”
I pucker my lips and go into surgery. There, everything is devoid except my memory and hopeful future.