When a woman boards a plane with a crying baby in her arms, the aircraft swells with the collective wish of every other passenger on board: Please don’t sit near me. Sally feels their stares as she follows Rick’s hulking frame and stubby ponytail past the wings to seats 21A and B.
This is always the way when Meggie fusses. Rick, who may have spent the entire morning catching up on videotaped episodes of Dallas, would hear the child wail, and be struck by the timely need to head to the office.
“You’re marrying your father,” her mother had said the night before the wedding.
Rick was anti-establishment, even for a pro-bono lawyer. The man wore Doc Martens and a thrift-store blazer to the ceremony. He didn’t own a car until he was 33. He was nothing like Don.
Rick stows all but the diaper bag in the overhead and folds himself into the aisle seat, holds out his arms for Meggie. Happy now, the baby stands on her father’s lap and looks around. A Muzak version of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean wafts through the PA system and Meggie steadies herself with Rick’s beard and bobs to the beat.
“My God. I didn’t think that song could get any worse.” Rick pins his legs to one side so his wife can climb over them. “So, what do you think? Will your dad bring her?”
Seated now, Sally runs a hand through her messy layers and shrugs. “Trying not to think about it.” When Megan was born, Don showed up at the hospital with two things: a Cabbage Patch doll not yet available in stores, and an Elizabeth Arden sales rep at least half a decade younger than Sally. They lived in L.A. now with their three-month-old son. Meggie’s younger uncle. Katy had been fairly quiet. All she said after the initial introduction was that Meghan was a pretty name. Sally couldn’t help but look for the reaction: Don buried his face in his granddaughter’s neck.
A stewardess – no, they’re called flight attendants now – leans over with a smile, revealing an airplane-shaped nametag that says Ana. Her perfume is L’Air du Temps. Sally used to spray it on herself back in the old house when her mother went out. “You want to smell like her,” Carla had said when she came in with an armload of clean towels. Sally never touched the bottle again.
“The captain is preparing for takeoff,” says Ana. “I’ll have to ask you to put your seat in the upright position.”
Rick adjusts his. Sally doesn’t. “I will,” she says, unbuttoning her blouse. “As soon as I get the baby settled.”
Ana tightens her mouth and moves away.
“She’s not a threat,” Rick says. “He isn’t even here.”
Sally offers Meggie the breast and waits for the prickled relief of letdown. “It’s not the time, okay?”
“I’m just saying. We all had our shit.” He opens his magazine.
“Welcome to Flight 726 from Boston to Westchester …” A tiny male flight attendant at the front of the plane has begun the safety announcement. Ana holds a detached seatbelt between her fingers with such pomp, she could be presenting a diamond choker on The Price is Right.
“Insert the metal fittings one into the other,” the man says. “And tighten by pulling on the loose end of the nylon. To release, simply lift the upper portion of the buckle. We suggest you keep your seatbelt fastened throughout the flight, as we may experience …”
Ana holds up an oxygen mask, stretches the elastic straps toward the back of her head without messing her hair. “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your own mask first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a crew member …”
Rick leans close. “Remember? Your therapist said it’s best to normalize –”
Surrounding passengers turn to stare and Rick presses a finger to his lips to shush Sally. Unperturbed, she traces the curve of her daughter’s cheek with one finger. Meggie’s every swallow finishes with a determined sigh. It’s a sound Sally adores. For a one-year-old, the girl takes her bliss seriously.
“A life vest is located beneath your seat. Should there be an emergency, you will be instructed to reach under …”
Sally rubs Rick’s knee. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m a lousy wife.”
“No. It’s my fault. It was wrong to stress you out. You have complete immunity until this is behind us.”
“I was thinking; let’s take Meggie to Rye Playland tomorrow afternoon.”
He stares at her. “Sally, tomorrow morning is the –”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
Between the sun pouring through the window and Meggie sprawled across her lap in milk-drunk slumber, Sally is drenched in sweat. The mid-flight hush has stilled the cabin. There doesn’t seem to be any air at all, and Sally doesn’t dare reach up to redirect the overhead vent lest she wake her daughter and be forced to entertain a bored toddler until they land.
“Rick?” She nudges him with her shoulder. “Baby? Can you get me a cup of ice water? I’m melting here.”
He sits up with a jolt, stretches. Looks around for the beverage cart.
“No one’s come by in a while,” she says. “Just walk to the back. They’ll give you a drink.”
“No problem. I’m on it.” He yawns. Unbuckles. Staggers down the aisle like a newborn Clydesdale.
The plane bucks with unexpected turbulence. An aircraft bumping across chaotic eddies in a cloudless sky always unnerves her. The wrongness of it. Like having a fever in summer.
She cranes her head around Rick’s seat to motion for him to return. There he is, talking to Ana, plastic cup in hand. They’re sharing a cigarette. He points toward something on her uniform, her airplane nametag, maybe. Ana grins. Reaches for a pen. Writes something down.
He slips it into his pocket.
Sally turns around. Staring at the Exit sign a few rows ahead, she bites down on her lip and waits for the dirty metal taste of blood to fill her mouth.
Slowly, carefully, so as not to wake Meghan, Sally pulls a note out of her bag. Unfolds it.
Sally, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. I’ll look for you at the funeral.
P.S. Is it wrong that I can’t wait to see you?
P.P.S. Don’t answer that.
She sits back in her seat and tries not to smile.
Special to The Globe and Mail