November 16, 2015 § 5 Comments


It is June in North Carolina and we are packing up Jeff’s un-airconditioned studio—all of us sweaty and heat-irritated. I am sent to a corner to go through my things, which Jeff moved from our attic years ago. I find a box I didn’t know I had. I am supposed to be taping things up; instead, I open it. It contains momentos from my childhood that my sisters and I separated from my parents’ effects.

I am easily distracted by this box. It holds my first poems, many certificates, random photos and papers—my mother kept everything without judgment or priority. In the bottom of the box, I find a thin black book, oriented in landscape, with the words “pilot’s logbook” embossed in gold on the front cover. Looking inside, I see that on this same day, June 28, the year I was sixteen, I was flying.

I had almost forgotten this happened.I took flying lessons before I could drive a car. It was another lifetime. Those were some of my parents’ proudest moments. They flew, my grandmother flew, and now, I was trying it. I was an unlikely pilot, not a daredevil, but somehow, in the sky, I felt calm and in control in a way I never did on the ground. I remember that.

“You should do it again,” Jeff says.

“I want to,” I say, “But it’s so expensive. Maybe I’ll write about mom flying,” I say. I pack up the rest of the box, but I keep the book out. On the front page, it has my name in beautiful script. My mom must have gotten my sister Leigh Ann to write it. There is a list of dates and times I flew with Mr. Harris, his cryptic notes on what I did—arrows turning left and right, abbreviated words I don’t understand—for a total of 13.3 hours.

For our anniversary, Jeff and I go to a nice restaurant in Princeton. We are going to a play after, and I have bought him small things—just little gifts to mark the day. I think big gifts are silly when you’ve been married this long. Over dinner, he asks me how my book is coming, if I’m not almost finished. “Who knows if it will ever be finished,” I say. “But you’ll want to write about your mom flying too, right?” He hands me a manila envelope. Inside, there is a certificate for a flying lesson. Tears spill over. I can’t stop them. “Maybe this will help you write it,” he says.

I wait a few months before I call, partially because I am scared, partially because I want to pick the exact right time. In October, I realize that I won’t be with Leigh Ann on my parents’ wedding anniversary. We usually mark it by doing something they would like. That’s when I know. I’ll fly for their anniversary—except it’s Friday the 13th—maybe I’ll do it that weekend. I make an appointment with Mike, a faceless name I have nothing to attach to—and I watch the weather. There are winds this weekend, so I push the appointment back a day. It wouldn’t be right to die in a forty mile an hour wind gust. The night before, I sleep restlessly. I am nervous. What the hell am I thinking? Still, I made the appointment, and Jeff bought me the lesson, so I’m going through with it.

At the airport, a woman greets me. I take it as a good sign that there is a woman pilot here. Mike is what I expect: a heavy set older guy with an AOPA baseball cap and Costco jeans. He is exactly what I want. He reminds me of Mr. Harris, the quiet man who treated sixteen-year-old me as a competent, intelligent flyer. I tell Mike I have done this before, that I have brought my logbook. “Great,” he says. “Then I’ll let you do most of the flying. Take the left seat. I’ll sit in the co-pilot seat.” This terrifies me. I haven’t been in a Cessna 152 in decades, let alone flown one. “We manage the risk,” Mike says. “I’m planning to sleep in my own bed tonight.” He is calm, so I am calm. I will not die doing this today, I am sure.

We taxi and do the pre-flight check. Mike controls the throttle, but I pull the yoke. We rise. “You did the take off,” he says. I did. I feel the rush I last felt in a whitewater kayak, adrenaline—I feel every inch of my skin. I am thrilled.

Once we are up, I feel again that confidence that I am in control of the gigantic sky, above everything, only 2,500 feet, but still, from here it all looks manageable. Mike and I fly to the Jersey shore, just to the edge of the Atlantic. “Next stop, France,” he says. Instead, we turn right, down the shore. Mike is doing most of the flying, but my feet feel his moves on the pedals, my hands are still on the yoke. We find a waypoint-–a white water tower–and I fly toward it. “You have this too, right?” I say. Mike does, of course. Every time we hit a small bump of moisture, I let out a little gasp and Mike hears it over the headphones. “It’s normal, he says. Not a safety issue. You get used to it.”

My grandmother and my mom used to talk about how they liked to feel the air, but I don’t want something to push against. I remember too many trips in the back of a small plane, my mom negotiating thick clouds, my sisters nauseated next to me. I remember so much up here and time folds on itself. I focus on the leafless trees below, the faint outline of New York City in the haze to my right. The air smoothes for me and Mike and we fly back toward Princeton.

Our descent is a little bumpy and angled. That, with my stomach clenched, makes me nauseated. After we taxi in, I open the door as soon as I can and walk around on firm ground until I am stable. I get Mike to sign my ancient logbook. “Introductory,” he writes. I notice that without thinking about it, I am smiling wider and more easily than I have in years. I am proud and thrilled at the same time. I am who I used to be, but wiser: this is joy. Mike is right, it is the beginning of something.

Where Am I?

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