“Early Morning Landing in Newark”

Dropping from heaven and looking out the window, the clouds thin and lights wink through the whistling dark where tail lights are drifting down lanes and freeways. Beads on a string, red blood cells between malls and primary schools. The loud guy in the back laughs at his own routine, the portholes fog up, and the pilot comes on breathing into the intercom about ice on the tarmac. We might not make it, the loud guy is saying. I mean he’s laughing about it, and his lady is ribbing him and smiling.

I recall Tess last week: confused, shuddering, sobbing on the edge of her reading chair. She was pleading with me, “Where did we go? How did we get here so fast?” Her fingers gripped into her thighs. Her mother came to the bedroom door (it was her house, anyway) and started to say something but Tess stuck out a glistening palm—as if she was keeping it all at bay.

Seeing the machinery of Newark now, above it, I am comforted to be part of it again. Proud to survive here on my own. For a moment I am aware of the trip, enamored by flying vessels and airplanes as if I were at a Victorian exposition hall, turning a crank and watching steam and iron digits stitch the button on a sweater. Air pumped into the cabin, the gliding screens of the phones and laptops, noise-cancelling headphones. It is the reason the loud man laughs—because ice on the tarmac will soon be beneath our feet and we’ve learned from the Titanic.

Tess once flooded my phone with her selfies one night before any of the trouble. I had to find a bathroom after a concert, and she sent 200 pictures via text while she waited in the car. That night, going to set my alarm, I scrolled through these iterations of her—frown tipped to the side, smile with crossed eyes, buck teeth out, flared nostrils, calm grin, insane grin, mouth open devouring phone. I had to delete them one at a time. I wasn’t mad about it. I kept a few, sent them back with black and white filters or captions like “Circus Bait.”

The pilot is on again and mentions crosswinds, the seatbelt light dings, and I dig through my bag for gum and offer a stick to Gabe, the marketing firm guy beside me that I’ve just met an hour ago. He’s leaving his job. Gabe and I have learned to get along because we have to, because we’re pickles in a jar, but the arrangement’s not that bad. We could make it through an even longer trip, I’d say. We get each other. The loud guy begins a story about his girl falling from a boat when the crosswinds hit and an overhead bin is unlatched. Items issue forth. A nylon jacket drifts, a small suitcase rolls, a pillow tumbles, a clear bag of toys crumples. The bag’s owner, a six-year-old, can’t speak his dismay before the bag has crashed and opened on the aisle carpet. In the middle of the emergency exit row rests a small plastic plane, and the fall has snapped one of its wings.

It gets quiet; no one in rows 8-13 misses the omen. You can hear a low groan from the boy, his top half straining over the seatbelt and his mother whispering a hush. The man immediately in front of me summons the emergency procedures pamphlet from a seatback pocket. Gabe runs his hand through his dusty gray hair, grips the armrest, and looks out the window. Tray tables are latched. Lesson learned.

Just last weekend, I was contemplating forever with Tess in Maryland. Working out arrangements like the cake and the dresses and the colors and seating charts. We went back and forth a while about which niece ought to walk the ring to us up the aisle. Ironically, the thing that broke us was the vows. Religion, really. She decided to get serious about it all of a sudden. She had the priest putting promises in my mouth that I would never say—lines like “I will honor our love in worship to god,” or “We covenant to make our house a house of Christian charity.” We both “just wanted to do the right thing for us,” but the right thing was like a cloud whose shape we’d discerned from angles. It depended on where you stood. I took that as a sign, too. This is how people learn to be apart. Tess would discover it too, in time. Even while she didn’t want it, insisting on fighting in vain, I booked a flight home.

The crosswinds won’t let up. Near the cockpit, a cart of refreshments tips back on the stewardess and one of the lavatory doors unlatches and swings. A tired woman is stumbling her way down the aisle from the front and looking on her phone. It appears she has been dreaming about misfortune up in first class, and her baggy eyes squint to make out a text or a weather report. She stops right before the exit row and sways, stepping forward, trying to catch her grip. She is on a direct path to the broken toy plane. I can’t stop it in time. No one can.

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About Michael Grubb

Michael Grubb has his MFA from Sewanee: The University of the South.