I like to sit in my car and watch them. Sometimes I don’t even need the binoculars to see their beauty marks: burn scars behind rear-mounted engines or scuffs and dings thoroughly pocking the bottom of fuselages. The one before me is at least twenty-five years old, carries more than 5000 gallons of fuel, and waits there interminably, number one for take-off. It’s really a piece of shit as compared to the newer models. But knowing that a piece of shit can fly, I feel a strange empathy.
I imagine sitting on that American Airlines MD-80: alternating between looking down at the book in my lap and staring back out at the airport through the porthole window, comprehending neither the words of the book nor how the hulking machine will get off the ground. A line from Rilke comes to me—Beauty is nothing but the beginning of a terror—and my hands start to sweat despite the ice-cold AC. I take a drink and then another. Although I believe differently each time I fill the flask at home, the bourbon does nothing for me now.
Alcohol, drugs, sex, TV, exercise, gaming, shopping, gardening, napping, a six-pack of low-fat double-dutch chocolate pudding—there are any number of ways to get through the day. The only thing that keeps me going, however, is a regular drive out to the New Orleans’ airport. I sit in my car in the cell phone lot, witness the last of the planes take-off and land, and get worked up into a neurotic, though life-affirming, frenzy.
This is the problem: I can remember a time when I truly enjoyed flying, but it seems impossible to get back there, and the more I fly, the farther away that time seems.
My first flight was in 1975 when I was five: Boston to Chicago before a cross-country family move. There are no photos of the event, yet I have held on to a memory of blue, orange, and white striped seats—to which I ascribe the notion that the plane must have belonged to United Airlines. I have the vague impression I climbed a spiral staircase, which would have made the plane a 747. But after doing research, it’s unlikely that a 747 would have been used on a short domestic route.
I didn’t fly again until I was a sophomore in college: Chicago to Florida for spring break. A friend’s parents paid for my ticket because I said I didn’t have the money, which was a lie: I just didn’t want to fly. I’d never been south of Champaign-Urbana, so stepping out of the airport in Sarasota I felt that the thick, humid air was as invigorating and exotic as the flight.
After my first overseas flight at age twenty-one, I memorized the date, place, flight number, and scenario of every major plane crash since 1903 because I thought the knowledge would help ease a growing apprehension. But I didn’t yet realize that, like consciousness, too much information can be paralyzing.
My fear has grown over the years, but I never recognized it as more than a personal inconvenience until I met the woman who would become my wife. A month into our relationship, I was supposed to fly to Chicago to visit my parents for a family reunion. The trouble was we lived in Berkeley. This was summer 2003, so not only was I terrified of flying (I hadn’t in two years) but I also feared a nuclear explosion in the Bay Area, as I had scrupulously followed all newspaper reports speculating that a dirty bomb could be sent undetected to a U.S. port city in a cargo container. I went to bed each night listening to the wind skirt the windows, with our cat safely perched on my chest, mumbling last-minute mantras before checking to make sure my iodine tablets were still in the drawer of the nightstand. Sometimes I took them from the drawer and put them in the pocket of my flannel pajamas, thinking I might not be able to get to the nightstand in time in case of a blast.
But flying frightened me more than a dirty bomb. And so when I told my wife-to-be I was taking BART to Oakland’s airport to go visit my parents, I was actually walking two miles down to the Amtrak station in Berkeley to catch a Chicago-bound train. The ride took forty-eight hours, and I have never told anyone about this lie until now.