You’ve just settled into a window seat near the front of the plane when the father-daughter duo boards, all smiles and chatter, head down the aisle toward you. “Let’s sit here, Dad,” the leggy teen says, pointing at the two unclaimed seats beside you. Only then does she notice you and flash a smile of recognition. “We’re not stalking you or anything. Promise.”
“Oh, you’re fine,” you say. “It’s cool.”
You shared a row with them on the first leg of your trip from Oakland to Chicago, but you’d only bothered to mumble a few words at them when you needed to be let out to use the ladies’. Other than that, you spent the majority of the four-hour flight doing your best to sleep off last night’s cocktails, your head propped against the frame of the tiny window with every inch of your person safely contained within the perimeter of the armrest that separated you from the girl.
But now, with the bulk of the long day of travel behind you—just a short 50-minute flight to Louisville remaining—you feel more amenable to small talk. The father folds his tall lean frame into the too-small seat, leans over his daughter and asks if you live in Louisville.
You say yes, and at his prodding you offer a brief account of the past several years of your life, the path that led you to Kentucky. Of course, you only include the details you deem suitable for airplane small talk. At the mention of your Nebraska roots the girl perks up, relates how the two of them have been following the Olympic swim trials in Omaha this past week. “’Cause I’m a swimmer,” she explains proudly. She is a pretty girl with long, baby doll lashes and brown skin that matches her father’s—about the same shade as your own. She wears her hair in neat cornrows that end at the base of her neck. In her excitement, she worries the end of one of the braids.
They tell you that they are heading to Louisville to visit family, the first time in two or three years.
“That’s nice,” you say, wanting to be polite.
You have just spent a week in Berkeley attending a writers’ conference. You elected to spend an extra day taking in the sights of San Francisco with some of your new writer friends. Yesterday, you bought kitschy souvenirs in Chinatown. You rode—on the outside!—of a streetcar. You ate seafood in Fisherman’s Wharf and snapped unfocused pictures of Alcatraz through the dense fog of the bay. Today, you are returning to the routine of your life in Louisville: to the day job, and the bills, and the being too busy to really write the way you want.
The last of the passengers trickle in and claim their seats. You fit your travel pillow snuggly around your neck. The father snaps his fingers like some brilliant idea has come to him, and asks you if they still have the fireworks display down at Waterfront Park. A perfectly reasonable question, considering the Fourth of July is only a few days away.
You tell him you’re not sure. Truthfully, it’s been years since you’ve actually celebrated the Fourth. The last time you saw fireworks you were on a date walking downtown on some random evening in late April or early May and out of nowhere, there they were, illuminating the sky. Both you and your date took this to be a sign that what you had was meant to be. It was not.
The plane prepares to push back and the captain announces the weather in Louisville: 103 degrees with storms closing in. He says that to avoid these storms you must take an alternate route, approaching the city from the south. Your ETA has been pushed back fifteen minutes or so. You can only think of how home is on the horizon. You think about dinner, which of your favorite restaurants you’ll be getting takeout from tonight. Buoyed by the nearness of home, you joke to the girl about how you’re already missing the cool Bay Area weather.
To this she shrugs, says: “I’m ready for Kentucky. I packed shorts.”
The father chimes in, tells you they’re planning a trip to Mammoth Caves on Tuesday. “Probably be the coolest spot in the whole state,” he says with a chuckle. He talks with his hands. You notice the absence of a ring.
The father redirects his attention to his daughter. They banter back and forth. He slips into an anecdote about his years at the University of Kentucky. The daughter listens in earnest, asks questions, pokes fun when an opportunity presents itself. She reaches into her bag, retrieves a deli sandwich wrapped meticulously in plastic, and passes half to her father.
It occurs to you that this kind of playful, easy exchange between fathers and their daughters is not something you see every day. You yourself have no firsthand experience with this. Save a couple hollow phone conversations in your late teens, your own father is a stranger to you. Right now, you feel too aware of this void, the way you sometimes feel when you—a single thirtysomething—find yourself in the presence of a loving couple.
The plane takes off, and you prop your head against the hard plastic frame of the closed window and rest your eyes. You stay this way until you feel a gentle tug on your jacket sleeve. Through a mouthful of sandwich the girl asks: “Um, do you mind raising the shade?” Although you had planned to keep it down for this stretch of the flight because you’ve seen the skies between Chicago and Louisville dozens of times, you say, “Sure.”
She regards the unremarkable view and returns to writing away in the open journal on her foldout tray. You don’t want to invade her privacy, but being a writer yourself, you are compelled to sneak a peek. So, we’re still flying . . . she writes in tight cursive. You are reminded of your teenage self, how you used to burn up the pages of your own diary with musings about everything and nothing. You can’t help but think that, in a world of blogs and Facebook, a teenage girl writing in a journal has become something of an anachronism. You are charmed by this. You feel like you should be writing now, too.
As you get closer to Louisville, the sky gets darker. Dark like nighttime, but you know it’s still too early for that. Opaque sheets of clouds make it impossible to see the green prairie of southern Indiana below. The plane yo-yos roughly in the storm. The captain’s voice fills the cabin. He directs the flight attendants to take their seats, says: “The rest of the ride is gonna be bumpy, folks. Stay seated, and keep your seatbelts fastened.”
To this, you pay little attention. Flying is nothing new to you. A little turbulence here and there is to be expected. You press back into the headrest. You look forward to the hot shower you will take tonight before turning into your own bed for the first time in a week. Beside you, the girl snaps shut her journal, brushes crumbs from her fingers, and leans forward to get a better look through the window. The sky gets darker still. Flashes of lightning rip through the clouds. The chatter about the cabin dies down as the storms outside steal the attention of the passengers.
The captain’s voice again. He announces that the storms have made it too dangerous to land in Louisville. He must divert the flight back north to Indianapolis. “Aw, c’mon. You kidding me?” says the head directly in front of you. A few passengers in the back express their displeasure through grunts and groans. Before you have a chance to process this change of course, the plane pitches to the right and drops.
There are gasps. Screams. A woman across the aisle calls on Jesus. An infant’s whimpers crescendo into full-blown wails. Her mother says: “Shhh, it’s alright now.” Luggage bumps around in the overhead compartments. You hold your breath, as the plane climbs against the pull of the storm. You begin to think that you’ve flown out of the worst of it when, once again, you plummet.
Before you can get ahold of yourself, you clasp hands with the girl. You’re holding her dainty hand so tight you worry that you might be hurting her, but with all that she’s got, she is squeezing your hand right back. She is silent, staring into her lap as tears roll off the bridge of her nose. The father sits stiff-backed, his gaze fixed in the direction of the cockpit. The girl places her other hand on his wrist, anchoring him to the armrest. You have formed a chain, the three of you.
You swallow hard to keep down the greasy breakfast you ate at the Oakland airport. You feel hot, and you want to slip out of your jacket, but you don’t want to let go of the girl’s hand.
The plane pitches again. More screams. You think, Okay, maybe I’m about to die. You don’t panic like they do in the movies. You aren’t bombarded by images of your six-year-old self lip-syncing to Ashford and Simpson records, or losing your virginity to the boy you loved, or skydiving in South Africa or any other random scenes from your life. Instead, you practice the deep breathing exercises you’ve learned in yoga. You squeeze the girl’s hand. You cry a little. You wait and you wait for whatever is going to happen to happen.
Then, you break through the clouds. From the tiny window, the lights of the runway come into focus. Your ears fill with the rumble and whir of tires hitting the tarmac. The cabin erupts in applause. Over the intercom, a flight attendant clears her throat and, in a voice edged with forced cheer, she says: “That’s right. Give it up for our captain. That’s how it’s done, folks.”
“Yeah, if this was Delta, we’d be goners,” a man in the first row deadpans.
The girl looks over at you, says: “I guess you can have your hand back now,” and lets go. You stroke her wrist. “You okay?” you ask. She nods and sniffles. Over her head, you catch the father observing this exchange. For a fleeting moment, you wonder if you’ve overstepped your bounds in some way: touching this kid who does not belong to you. You dab your eyes.
All around you, passengers wield their phones. You hear them recounting to their loved ones what you’ve all just lived through. The woman behind you says: “It was really, really scary, Larry . . . Well, no the oxygen masks didn’t come down, but still—” She says the last part through a nervous titter, as if she’s already starting to second-guess whether her life had been in any real danger. The father and daughter punch numbers into their own phones. “I’m calling Mom,” the girl announces, her eyes glossy and pink-tinged. You call your own mother. Even though she lives in Nebraska, you know that by now she would be expecting to hear from you, to know that you’ve made it home safely. You downplay the ordeal, just telling her that you were rerouted to Indy due to bad weather.
You are forced to sit at the gate until the captain receives further instructions. There is movement all around you. People standing up, riffling through the overhead bins, filing in line for the restroom, demanding information from the flight attendants that they are unable to provide. A few passengers, including an elderly couple, linked arm in arm, demand to be let off. Others are so shaken they make plans to rent vans and drive the rest of the way to Louisville. The father gets up to speak to a flight attendant. The girl clicks off her phone.
“So, what’s your name?” she asks.
You tell her.
“I’m J, and my dad’s name’s Greg,” she says.
“Nice to meet you both,” you say.
She asks if you had the chance to eat anything in Chicago. “We have trail mix,” she offers.
You say: “No, thank you.”
“That was pretty scary, huh?”
The captain emerges from the cockpit looking like hell. His face is pale: dark circles under his eyes like bruises. He apologizes for the rough flight. Those were the worst storms he’s seen in years, he says. You’ll only be in Indianapolis long enough to refuel, thirty minutes or so. The storms are moving south and it should be safe to fly into Louisville shortly. In the meantime, he says, you may debark and stretch your legs. A flight attendant finally opens the door and passengers pour into the aisle and off the plane.
The father, Greg, returns to tell J that she may get off to use the restroom. “You coming?” she asks you. You follow her into the empty terminal. She chats away about how her dad will be disappointed that they’ll be missing one of their favorite shows tonight, something on cable that you’ve never heard of.
You let her talk. You’re glad that she has recovered so quickly. It could be that you’re still a bit shaken up. Could be a lack of sleep over the past week, but right now, you feel all sorts of sentimental. Walking through the terminal, you can’t help but think that you could be J’s big sister. Hell, you could be her very young mother. You could be Greg’s wife. You resist the urge to unload a bunch of clichéd advice on her. Keep your wits about you, kid. Take your time with boys. Listen to your folks. Cherish your father. Keep writing.
When you get back on the plane, Greg is standing in the aisle. He doesn’t engage you in any more small talk while you wait for the plane to take off again. Instead, he focuses on his daughter. They discuss who will be meeting them at the airport tonight, their plans for the week. You wait for them to open up their conversation to you. But then you remind yourself that you are just a stranger to them. Nothing is owed here.
You think of your empty apartment awaiting you in Louisville, how the idea of home has lost a bit of its shine. You think that by the time you get there, all of the good takeout places will be closed.
When the plane finally pushes back, somewhere behind you a lady with a Kentucky drawl asks: “Does everyone have their row-saries?”
The ride is mostly smooth. Greg and J are immersed in conversation. You direct your attention out to the sky, as if you’re too deep in your own thoughts to be bothered with them anyway. Rice-shaped pellets of rain fly at the window in a sharp right angle. Twenty minutes later, the plane touches down in Louisville. There is another round of applause, albeit it is softer this time due to the passengers you lost in Indianapolis.
Seatbelts unclick. You reach for your bag stowed beneath the now empty seat in front of you. J turns to say goodbye, just in case she doesn’t see you again at baggage claim, she says.
“Have fun in the city,” you say.
“We will.” She twirls the end of a braid between her fingers.
You file off the plane and are back in another deserted terminal. J is on her phone again. She walks ahead of you and her father. Greg turns to you now. “I’m Greg,” he says although by now you already know this. “Thanks for helping out back there.”
“It’s okay,” you say. “I was scared to death, too.”
He nods sympathetically. “I’ve never been through anything like that before.”
“You know, I was telling J, when she was a baby and we’d take her on planes, she used to yell ‘Up, down, up, down’ whenever we ran into turbulence. She thought it was fun. Don’t think the other passengers liked it too much, though.” He smiles.
“She’s sweet,” you say. “You have a sweet daughter.”
You keep walking in step with him. Your legs feel stiff, wooden-like. He opens his mouth, as if to say something more, but then you clear the security checkpoint and find yourselves amid a throng of loved ones waiting to greet their respective passengers. You can no longer see J’s braids in the crowd or Greg’s lean frame, his confident gait. You look beyond the young man tightly gripping a mixed bouquet. Beyond the gaggle of middle-aged mothers in capris, the little kids who are cranky because it is past their bedtimes, but you lose them.