It is late in the twentieth century and I’m on my hands and knees for you. Down on the boards of this stationary freight train, it’s dark and your coat is our tent. Toulon: too long ago to clearly remember your hands or the feel of your mouth.
On a speeding train I took off my knickers and the open window grabbed them from my hands. We were glugging red wine from plastic flagons, going to Nice to beg on the beach.
Those sand-blasted beggars were feral, stole your knife as we slept under sheets of damp chipboard. You forced me to shop-lift a tin of sardines, if it wasn’t for you we would starve.
Busking in Brussels was futile, me screaming and you on the bongos, all you’d accept from your father, before he returned to New York. Plastic flowers bunched in my carrier bag, eyebrows unplucked, hair greasily grasping the wind.
Marseilles with a flimsy message propped at my feet, slumped against a wall trying to look hungry, my puppy fat making it difficult. You always watching from a distance, making sure I was safe.
Poverty was too much for me. You said I was too much for you.
At Bettina’s expecting a welcome, we weren’t wanted at all, but she fed us and took us to the nightclub where her boyfriend was a DJ. Our contest to see who could pull first, you seemed gleeful when I won hands down. All I did was stick my head out, under the lights at the bar.
He was a good-looking Belgian, singer in a band he said, and he wanted to buy me a dress. He came round the next day so I had a shower and he took us all out for coffee and chocolates, then dined and seduced me alone. You were angry I didn’t bring a doggy bag back, I was numb with cocaine.
Eating raw cabbage in Oxford watching lots of uppity yahs, we danced with exuberance at their party, heathens, wild for them all. You shagged some girl on the staircase, I nicked a tenner from her dressing-table drawer. It was then you knew I was yours.
I was relieved we lost her before Paris, even though the guards beat you up. I stood frozen, train jolting, as they took turns to punch you and called you ‘roast beef’, your teeth flashing broken and whiter against your open mouth slashed with red.
They threw us from their cells early morning, we walked silent streets swigging milk from the doorsteps and I loved you, your beauty coagulated in blood.
I drew you for three days in Calais, my pencil recording your fantastic face, I should have held onto those drawings, I’d have something left of you now.
You never answer my letters but you still come looking for me. You find me at night when I’m trying to sleep and tell me all about why you can’t stay.
Touchdown Toward Midnight on the Potomac River
Kathryn Megan Starks
The 32 passengers of Delta Airlines connecting flight 7419 plod across the damp tarmac like herded buffalo, leaden and awkward under so much weight of luggage. They are tired after a six-hour delay in the Washington National Airport. They are both reluctant and eager to embark. They are beginning and ending journeys, strangers converging for a single 45-minute transport, and their heads and shoulders are being drizzled on under the open November night sky.
Two by two the travelers stuff their pink-tagged belongings into the underbelly of the weatherworn Bombardier and mount the metal steps into the cabin’s interior.
The first year attorney-at-law carries only an over-night bag with extra pairs of underwear and a black laptop briefcase so she is the first to pass the cockpit in search of her seating. She has streaked-blond hair, wears dark jeans with navy pointy-toed pumps and has flown all the way from Seattle to visit a man she met three months ago on the Internet. She likes to pretend to work on vacation because it makes her feel important. Keeping her laptop bag close, she nestles into the cushiony pleather backing of her aisle seat, B on row four, and munches into a 100-calorie snack-pack of Pringles.
The others follow suit, settle. The flight attendant greets everyone with a cool welcome through the intercom. She speaks in regulations and encourages everyone to applaud the serviceman on board with them this evening on behalf of the carrier. The plane launches.
It is black outside, dim within, and the cabin is warmed by the collective breathing of the passengers. They are soaring through wet clouds. They feel sleepy but also electric, so very alive.
Here is where the story begins: less than ten minutes into the flight, an unexpected, buffeting phenomenon will occur when the first officer retracts the wing-flaps, rendering the plane un-airworthy. Lax regulations have not required the pilot to be trained in intentional water-ditching, and while the plane is equipped with seat flotation devices enough to cover each passenger and crew, they are carrying neither inflatable life-vests nor rafts. The water in the Potomac river is only 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is how everyone survives.
The husband and wife, 12A and 12B, haven’t been speaking since their dog died. From the first days of their marriage, Kodiak, a massive German shepherd-mastiff mix had acted as their buffer. They’d adopted him as an adolescent with a shady past. With the former prize-fighter in the middle (and he had the scars and one mangled eye to prove it) there had been affection, conversation.
There had been someone to dote on. With him slobbering thick, snotty juices all over the bed there had been reason to wash the sheets.
Lately the wife has been sleeping in the guest bedroom amidst the work-out equipment and boxes of holiday decorations. Kodiak had been their common ground, but now speaking with her husband is like trying to chip through a thick block of ice, and she just isn’t sure she can do it all over again.
The wife leans into the husband, intent to ask him how the latest round of lay-offs at work have been when the plane shudders unexpectedly and begins bouncing, wobbles from side to side.
“Turbulence,” the husband says, but the intercom remains silent.
The emergency lights do not flare, oxygen masks do not spill down from overhead. The lit seatbelt advisory sign merely flashes with a ding.
“Turbulence,” the wife says.
But the assault victim four rows ahead knows they’re going down.
The assault victim has been watching out the window. She is Aware. She is the one who firsts notices when the plane dips dangerously close to the tree line.
She is not alarmed. Maybe it’s that she spent so much time being alarmed before that she just doesn’t have any alarm left in her. Or maybe it’s because she can’t hear the sound of the rain for all the battering. It had pelted her on the tarmac, runs across her window in fine rivulets. But rather than a metallic pitter-patter all she can hear is bang, bang, bang.
Crashing is a slower process than most people know, she thinks.
Later, during an interview with CNN, she will say, “It was all very serene and nothing hurt,” which doesn’t account for all that blood in her memory.
The assault victim can hear the thoughts of the man in front of her. He, 7C, is thinking in his glossy-bald head, “It’s all in God’s hands” over and over and over again. “It’s all in God’s hands,” like she thought in the moment she first laid eyes on the frostbitten blanket of that abandoned field.
She went back to see it, the place-where-she-didn’t-die, once the grass had grown up some, had veiled the pockmarked land.
The pilot cracks the intercom, warns, “Brace for impact, folks,” but the assault victim doesn’t because she thinks, What’s the point?
At that time, he didn’t know there were people who loved me and would miss me so I told him, “There are people who love me,” and “I don’t want to die,” and then he shot me in the back three times—would have been more if he hadn’t first missed once—but even with bullets torn into me, my body wouldn’t die. It crawled on palms and elbows, dragging shins and toes through the thorny, glistening grass and when that hurt too much it got up and ran.
And this airplane might not know that I’ve survived worse, but the open-air knows because the half-moon watched me and this black-snake river reflecting that shape knows and even now lifting now out of my seat, struggling to breathe, gravity’s got no hold on me.
There is no screaming this time.
The wife in 12A keeps her eyes downcast because she doesn’t want to watch the space before her shred into mangled shrapnel and bodies. The plane wobbles her in her seat; tray tables rattle in their locked, upright positions. Like this it feels almost like that time they stayed in the shady motel with an actual vibrating bed. Time slows or no longer exists. She thinks waiting is the worst part and let’s just get this over with.
The wife says, “I’m sleeping with your best friend,” because it seems like the moment for confessing.
What she really wants to say is ‘our best friend’ but she doesn’t feel she has the right to make such a claim based on their history.
It doesn’t matter that she only says ‘your best friend’ with such a vagueness because he knows exactly who she means. He understands that she is leaving him for Josh Finnegan—Finn, the high school class clown turned ex-roommate from college who ended up his best man, who at their wedding said ‘You’re like the family I never had’ and who has this infuriatingly easy-going attitude toward anything and everything and can smile his way out of handcuffs for Christ’s sake after attempting to purloin a street sign.
Because the plane is going down and the husband’s thinking the truth is: he hated Finn, hated his languid smile and the way it felt in more recent years when he and Finn got drunk together and held hands, and he’s thinking and I hated her and I hated everyone because they couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to lose the parents you’d grown to love, taken by your older brother’s hand. Because never having a family wasn’t the same as watching them slip through your fingers. So I spent all of my time back then showing him and her and everyone else how much better I was than them, and then I ran away on scholarship, but she followed me and he followed her, and then he moved in, and then I married her, and then his lips touched mine and more, and now she is following me into the grave, fingers clawing into my skin, and I’m terrified that he won’t be able to survive it. How stupid, the husband thinks, that the three of us have become tangled together for so long. But really it’s just sad.
He grips his wife’s hand. “I know,” he says, and, “so am I.”
Then they plunge into the water like a poorly skipped stone narrowly, missing the 14th Street Bridge and a tugboat.
In the aftermath, everyone starts moving even though they secretly believe they are all dead.
The lawyer drags her laptop with her because it has everything—her whole life—inside, not realizing it will be, like her life, as a net of rocks bound around her neck.
The wife is crying because already she regrets. Outside the water level is clear above their window and she’s panicky that they’ll sink, trapped in the back of the plane. It’s a free-for-all to get to the exit doors located in the front of the cabin or along the wings. Because the rear exit door is submerged, it cannot be opened.
It hurts to move, and the husband hauls her along by a slender wrist.
A girl, a young mother, carrying her toddler tries to crawl over the high-backed seats, and the glossy-bald man, a retired investigative officer, barks out, “Women with children go first!”
Coming from his gnashing teeth, it seems like the line he was always meant to say. This is his triumph, the climax, the moment to make up for every murder he could not solve, the missing girls that never were found, the desk drawer full of dried roses, one new for each stretching year—this is his moment, the opportunity to wash the past away, step boldly into the future which is their shared survival: his and hers and the child’s. Survival, because of him.
The emergency exit door is but a single row behind. He could snatch her hand, lead her the way, force open the sealed door. But for the life of him, he cannot manage to stand. In this transition, this trading of moments, of desires, of purposes, he’s become paralyzed finally from the years of guilt and fear. And frustration. And now he is outside of his body; he is groveling on the wet floor, wet from the seeping-in of a river of tears, looking up at his own rapidly shriveling legs and up further at his dulling gray eyes and his shiny, sweaty, bald head.
People in the aisle part reluctantly, some semblance of order is formed without further necessitation. Other men open the exits to let fresh air in. Passengers pile onto the wings, some clutching seat cushions to their chests. It is a cramped fit. The water is too frigid to swim, but the plane is sinking slowly.
In the distance, the tugboat draws nearer.
The husband and wife emerge onto the eastward-facing wing. A man has fallen into the water. He flounders meaty arms above his head, is hauled up onto the tip of the wing only after he’s stopped moving. The husband slips an arm around his wife’s stomach and toward the horizon she thinks she can see the dawning of an orangey ray of light.