There's only so far to go when you run. Physically I can go anywhere, up to the sky to hurl thousands of miles in a handful of hours until the world melts and people I don't recognize drone in odd tongues and scrutinize my passport in lazy attempts to determine whether I am the man with long hair and sallow skin under poor light on the picture. Mentally it's the same, between diving into a book or my mind while eavesdropping on nearby conversations about vacation plans and retreating through wet glass windows as I stare into darkness and only the flashing light on the tip of the plane's wing is visible against the unlit night.
The Airbus rocks as we hurl through the air. Flying terrifies me, and I feel like a bullet loaded in a gun pointed into the air by someone with a sick smile and dubious intentions. I half expect the cabin to depressurize the second we achieve cruising altitude, just as the speakers chime to life and the Captain begins announcing in a tired voice thick with forced attentiveness that we've reached some absurd height and it's now okay to rattle about in our hurtling tube if you need to stretch or use the bathroom or ask for peanuts because you haven't eaten in days and you can't wait for the in-flight service and the carts whose wheels squeak, pop, and lock as attendants in pastel suits push them forward like miniature battering rams.
I order double bourbon and water. I use the water to down a single Vicodin and then sip my drink. The man next to me wears a wrinkled black suit with a blue cream tie. He connected in Los Angeles, he explains, through Boston from Bangor, Maine and he's really tired, but he also notes that he can't sleep on planes and then apologizes for prattling on while he drinks generous gulps of Coca Cola. He's awash in caffeine, a string-less marionette. I lean forward in my seat and press my cheek against the cool window glass and bourbon split drips down my chin.
If the plane depressurizes the emergency oxygen masks will drop; they remind us at the outset you're supposed to assist those around you who need help before you tend to yourself. I imagine a scenario more vivid, with the emergency door many rows ahead blowing off into the sky for no logical reason whatsoever. The smell is vivid and welcome, fresh and wet, but everything else is disaster. Several rows of passengers and chairs and Skymall magazines fire out like the opening's the mouth of a blunderbuss. The suction pulls my hair but little else since I'm advisably strapped into my seat. My neighbor, Coca Cola and all, joins the exodus, and as he exits the plane the soda leaves his hands and he's left alone to have his eyes adjust to the screaming darkness as he becomes gyroscopic through the clouds before colliding with the ocean that hits like concrete. I decide to not help him first if the oxygen masks deploy at some point during our journey, and instead spend the next thirty minutes imagining how fast the plane could drop in the event of a disaster like fire or terror or the finger of god flicking us from the sky while I wring a Skymall into a tube and tense at each patch of turbulence.
My Vicodin hits as the cart passes by again and I feel suddenly lighter, like my head is a balloon and it doesn't matter if the plane splits in half because as the world falls away I'd keep on floating over the Pacific and land at Tokyo Narita without difficulty, only a little wet from the rain. I select vegetarian lasagne because I mistrust mass-produced and packaged meat served at 36,000 feet. I finish my bourbon and I'm rolling. After what might be several minutes but is more likely only a few seconds, I realize the flight attendant has asked me a question and awaits my reply. She smiles with broad, polished teeth. I smile back too-wide and emit a sound that's more a gurgle than a laugh.
Soon the cabin lights dim and people begin to sleep. My neighbor and I remain awake and we get to talking about more than whether either of us can float home in the event of sudden splitting or a water landing. His name is Allen something and he sells refrigerators in Bangor, Maine, where he lives with his wife of fifteen years, Janet, and their three children, Smith, Elizabeth Anne, and Donald. He got into refrigerators because his father got into refrigerators and it seemed like a reasonable solution to life after returning from serving in the First Gulf War. Refrigerators, he sighs, what a life. He laments his lost youth, lost physique, a lost girlfriend, lost time, lost dreams, and a lost edge in his mind which feels duller by the day no matter how much caffeine he pumps in.
I don't know if his name is Allen. He spoke, but I didn't listen. Between the pills and the booze my mind drifted away between lucidity and a blurry, drool-covered haze. The rest of the details are suspicions I fill in between a few choice words I do hear, including "refrigerator" and "First Gulf War." For all I know he's not served a day in his life. Between the stocky frame and extra chin and thinning hair pasted into a weak comb-over, "Refrigerator Salesman from Maine" does feel correct. Smiles and nods, and he's content to carry my end of the conversation as long as I feign attentiveness and grunt in the correct tones in appropriate places. He never does explain why he's going to Japan, I think.
Allen flags a stewardess and upgrades from Coca Cola to bourbon, like me. We clink glasses and toast how remarkable it is to be blasting along somewhere north of 500 miles per hour. He points to my glass but shake my head. The last thing this airline needs is someone losing consciousness somewhere between Alaska and Hawaii above empty Ocean and having to divert the plane to Juneau or Honolulu or wherever's closest because they don't want the bad press that comes with someone like me dying mid-flight. Instead I shake my head, close my eyes, and feign sleep until he shuts up and becomes engrossed in Skymall, no doubt planning how his family would find a ceramic garden gargoyle adorable, or a pet or more likely himself could use a silicone mat to more easily collect clippings during his misadventures in grooming. After an indeterminate length of time I hear his gently breathing coalesce into soft snores, and I look over and his chin is folded down onto his tie knot. The plane rocks and his can falls over, spilling the last drops of his soda next to his chicken with rice.