Wheels Up

7928294800_05e44f2983_tI am the last ticked passenger to board, followed only by a few stragglers on standby and the pilots. The paint near the cabin door is peeling, leaving streaks of raw aluminum along the side of the plane. My seat is always in the last row – 26D.

Twelve rows in front of me and three seats over, there is a blonde woman chatting on her cell phone before we take off. She was listening to music on her headphones when it rang, but must not like talking through them. She unplugged them and is wrapping them around her free hand while she cradles the phone against her shoulder. I think it may be her husband on the other end of the line, but I didn’t see a ring, so maybe not. Her hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail, and her makeup is minimal. The athletic pants and loose t-shirt she is wearing are purely functional – she wants to be comfortable on the long flight. She will die when the seat in front of her comes unbolted and crushes her windpipe.

In the exit row, an elderly couple is sharing a large muffin from the Starbucks in the terminal. They are refreshingly active, unburdened by the various gadgets and distractions of the younger people around them. They chat pleasantly with the flight attendant as she passes and wipe crumbs from each other’s faces. I overhear the word grandchildren, just as the old man produces a plastic chain of photos from his wallet. Little Leaguers, tree climbers and a prom queen smile from the small pictures. The flight attendant gushes over each one before reminding them to buckle in securely. He will die before her, but only barely. Their hands will be locked together when that portion of the plane is ripped away.

The ground crew outside is making a show of loading the bags, which have been thoroughly abused up to this point. In plain view of their owners, each piece of luggage is lovingly placed on the conveyor belt and whisked into the belly of the jet, where I assume they will be chucked against the wall in a pile. It is cold enough that the workers are wearing face-masks and wool hats, leaving only their eyes exposed to the biting air. I wonder how many bags they load like this every day; most likely, it is thousands. When these men and women settle onto the couch to watch the 10 o’clock news, they probably won’t even recognize anything special about the smoldering wreckage of our plane.

The plane begins to roll backward from the gate, a behemoth being shoved by a golf cart. We turn to the west and slowly taxi away from the terminal. The pilot takes his place in a curling line of other planes waiting to take off. Some have the same markings as ours – white with a large blue stripe down the middle – but others are more exotic, with animals on the tails or bold red sashes around their middle. I watch, as one-by-one they gun their engines and rumble down the runway, only to sheer off the face of the earth at the last second en route to their destinations. Any one of them could be the one to plummet from the sky or overshoot the runway, but it is our flight number that will be called. Finally, we reach the front of the line.

The sun has almost set making the flashing signal lights lining the runway seem brighter with each pulse. The engines on either wing begin to roar, and the pilot lets the brakes go. The lights  pass outside one at a time, but begin to blur as we gain speed. The nose of the plane strains to break free from the pavement, pulling the fuselage with it. There as a moment of hesitance before the rear wheels spin free. We are airborne.

Three hours later, the blonde retrieves her rolling suitcase from the baggage carousel. I scan the area for the elderly couple, but they are already gone. The plastic curtain at the beginning of the conveyor belt bulges and my worn out duffle bag emerges. I snag it as it goes by and hitch the strap around my shoulder. On the television in the waiting area, the evening’s lead story scrolls across the bottom of the screen. Violence on the other side of the world is impacting oil prices.


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