The Girl Next Door

Here I am on this airplane, taking the same trip that Jaimee and her fellow passengers took that last day of her life.  Only, as it turns out, I will probably manage to get to where I’m going with nothing worse than a headache. I am surrounded by grieving people – people who have lost children and spouses and parents, people whose lives are forever changed. We’re all sitting on an airplane making a trip we never imagined we’d make. 

To distract myself, I first focus on the flight attendant in front of me. Then I peer past her, into First Class and at the closed cockpit door – locked tight, I would imagine, against any possible terrorist threats as well as coffees served by flight attendants. I remember when we used to be able to get a good look at the control panel, the steering system… I would always scan the area just in case I could see the famous Black Box. 

Of course the Black Box isn’t even black – it wouldn’t stand out in the midst of the gray fuselage at a crash site if it was.  It’s actually bright orange and usually kept in the back of the plane. Everyone who flies knows the back of the plane is the safest place to be. The few times Jaimee and I flew together I wanted to sit in one of the back rows. But she never liked being the last one to get off the plane.

The woman to my left is wearing a multi-color striped blouse; a bit festive for a sombre occasion.  I was mildly checking her out from the corner of my eye when she turned to me.  Probably felt my stare.  I gave her a gentle look, the one you give someone who is grieving; that kind of closed mouth, eyes down turned, slow nod look.  Then I respectfully turned my head away.  

I enjoy being in the air.  It’s anonymous.  You rarely see anyone you know on an airplane.  Now sometimes you meet an interesting stranger and then you get to enjoy that unique experience of anonymous intimacy.  With the proximity of seating, and the sharing of a drink, an airplane cabin can become quite a friendly place. Not that I think right now is a time to be friendly really – just pointing out the opportunities of air travel.

The woman in the striped shirt was the kind of mourner I respected; the quiet type.  There were real sobbers a few rows up; loud, sniffling, moaning grievers sharing their emotions with everyone on board.  Even after I put my headphones on, I could still hear weeping

Unlike me, my ex-fiancée was not easily diverted.  Jamiee probably could have read a novel written in Sanskrit through all the wailing on the plane today.  Actually, she wasn’t really a novel reader.  She read trade journals mostly.  And prospectuses, those thin sheeted over-sized pamphlets full of tight little words and numbers all squeezed together.  She was smart, good with numbers. Could add anything up in her head in a minute. I really admired that about her.

What is one supposed to do with a crying person? Have you ever tried calming a crying person?  I did with Jamiee once.  I put my arm around her shoulder when she was crying, like they do on TV.  I pulled her close.  Her body went rigid.  She stayed upright, resisting my pull, completely immobile.  I tried to bring her near me a few more times until finally I just started laughing at the absurdity of this tug-of-war we were having.  Jamiee did not find it funny.  But she did stop crying. And of course now I can’t even remember what would have made Jamiee cry in the first place.  Something wasn’t going her way and it was probably my fault. I guess I didn’t always make it easy to be with me.

Jamiee is gone. And I am not devastated.  I mean, even if she was still alive she wouldn’t be my fiancée anymore.  When her parents called to tell me the news, I got the impression that they thought the two of us were still engaged.  If Jamiee was around I would ask her why in hell she never told her parents we broke up. Months ago! Instead, I am put in the awkward position of remains identifier, representative of a family that isn’t even mine.  Not that I resent an impromptu trip to Florida during an especially frigid New York winter.  

Mona, my seatmate — I glimpsed her name on the engraved gold plate of her leather daily planner — was doing pretty well.  Just a little sniffling now and then.  She thumbed through magazines and tried to sleep at one point.  I watched her eyes close. She shut them with such a vengeance as if telling herself, “You will sleep, goddamit.  And when you wake up this will all have been a dream.”  I wondered who she’d lost but it just doesn’t seem right to go around asking people that question.  I wouldn’t have known what to say in response to my own question.  

I had a bad feeling on the phone that day her parents called me, beyond the obvious bad feeling that comes when a plane crashes with someone you know on it.  I thought about it, but it seemed an inappropriate time to break the news to my ex-fiancee’s parents that their daughter had died unengaged.  Plus, I’ve never been to Fort Lauderdale before. Why her parents didn’t make this trip themselves, though, still eludes me. Even if they did think I was their son-in-law to be.  I mean of course it would have been a horrible thing to have to do, to identify your daughter’s body; I would have found someone else to do it if I were them, too. Perhaps they thought my youth would allow me the strength to handle things better. More probably, they figured it was my job. The Potters tended to respond to obstacles by paying someone else to overcome them. 

Mona and I didn’t speak; we just left each other alone.  I admired her restraint and therefore decided I liked her.  She was a good looking woman, somewhat older, but still with sexy legs.  That was one of the upsides of sitting in the Exit rows, women had room to cross their legs. Of course it wasn’t the time to make a move on her; I had some thinking to do.  Like how was I going to get through these next few days?  Was everybody else on this flight in mourning?  Was there no one besides me making this pilgrimage simply because of a misunderstanding?  Across the aisle sat some real parents; the kind that actually came themselves instead of sending estranged fiancés.  This couple held hands throughout the whole flight and barely spoke.  They probably belonged to one of the college students who had been in the crash.  They looked to be that age.  

Besides the wailers up in the bulkhead, it’s a fairly quiet flight.  I can’t tell what’s happening in First Class, of course, because the flight attendants keep whipping that blue curtain closed every time they walk through it.  I bet there are some people up there drowning their sorrows in free champagne.  How did the airline even choose who got to sit up there? Or maybe those passengers are not even involved with the crash.  Maybe those were just leftover seats on the flight.  Maybe not every one of the victims had someone in their life willing to claim a body.  That would mean that on this plane there were possibly some regular, airfare-paying clientele blithely on their way to surf and sun.  They must wonder what kind of flight they’ve gotten onto.  I mean, you can feel the depression in the air.  No one would dare laugh or yell out in any way.   I must say I am grateful for the mood.  

Even the flight attendants are polite. Mine didn’t even flinch when I asked for the whole can of tonic to go with  my gin.  He just handed it right over. When I requested an extra bag of pretzels, however, Kenneth knew he was being tested; like a dog with a bone balanced on his nose.  Kenneth was the flight attendant who made the announcements before we took off. As he introduced himself, I wondered if anyone named Abraham or Conan  ever signed up for that job. Perhaps names did predestine us at times. Kenneth elected to remain calm at my request, but I think he really wanted to gnaw at me.  As flight attendants usually do.  Why are they so mean?  They only seem to like a certain type of passenger.  I haven’t figured out what type exactly, but it’s not my type.  Maybe they like Jamiee’s type.  Jamiee never would have asked for the whole can of tonic (or quinine as she insisted on calling it) or request seconds on snacks.  I wonder now if, all her life, Jamiee actually wanted seconds and full cans and that now, wherever she is, she wishes she had just asked for them.  Life is short after all — finite anyway — and, well, I plan to ask for what I want. 

With hindsight, I realize that soon after I learned about the crash would have been the perfect time to start things up with Jamiee’s sister.  I could have offered to call her for her parents, in case they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.  Joanne is such a good person; of course she’d be heartbroken to lose her sister.  But I know it would only be because she was a sister.  The two had little in common.  One was cold and critical and the other loving and encouraging.  Why did I pick the former? Probably because I met her first I didn’t lay eyes on Joanne until the Fourth of July Party at the Potters’ country club. She was wearing a red one-piece bathing suit, cut high at the legs.  Her muscular thighs were long and lean.  The top of the suit showed off her powerful, yet graceful shoulders – one of my weaknesses in a woman.  It was a Speedo swimsuit. The insignia lay just above her left breast.  I stared at that word, envying its position.  I imagined how soft the Lycra would feel, how warm her skin probably was beneath the material. 

When I was a kid, I knew a girl named Johanna.  I admit that the similarity in names might have played some unconscious part in my attraction to Jaimee’s sister.  One day I was following Johanna home from school.  Something I did quite often.  She lived on Greenview where all the kids who were anybody lived.  Johanna was walking home with her best friend, Karen.  Karen was a classified loser at school. This made me admire Johanna all the more for hanging out with her.  I shuffled behind, keeping at least seven squares of cement sidewalk between us.  I was feeling desperate; as if I didn’t talk to her that instant I would become invisible to her for the rest of my life.  I finally quickened my pace until just before I reached her and then slowed to a casual walk as I passed the two girls.

“Hey,” I said, “I’m going to McDonald’s.  Wanna come?”  I was very pleased with the relaxed sound of my voice. 

Johanna didn’t say a word.  She just looked over at Karen with an expression I couldn’t quite place.  

Finally Karen said, “Uh, no thanks, Marc. Johanna and I sorta had plans.”  

I slowed down my pace again.  I accepted the rebuff without a fight.  I had used all my strength in the asking.  I decided to go on to McDonald’s anyway.  I ordered large fries and a strawberry milkshake.  When it came time to pay, I fished around in my jeans for money and found nothing; I’d forgotten to put my small wad of bills back in my pants pocket that morning.  After apologizing to the cashier, I silently thanked fate.  It would have been so much worse to have had the girls accept my offer only to discover that I had no money.  This way there was still a chance, still a minute possibility that Johanna would say ‘yes’ next time.  At that moment, as I left the McDonald’s, I decided I was a lucky guy and that the heavens were with me and that everything really did always happen for a reason.

I caught sight of something out the window of the plane, a particularly odd-shaped cloud.  It seemed to stand vertically; it was tall instead of wide.  It was as if the plane had turned itself all around and had me looking at things from the wrong perspective.  This cloud was so unusual and I wondered if maybe Jamiee saw it right before she crashed.  I realize that the particular cloud I was looking at could not have actually been there on the day of Jamiee’s crash. But perhaps there was a similar one floating outside Jamiee’s window at that time. And maybe she saw it as a sign, directing her to heaven. She didn’t really believe in all that – heaven, signs, stuff like that.  I’m not sure I do either.  But when our life is clearly about to end, we people tend to start believing in a lot of things – real fast.

 It’s difficult for me to imagine Jamiee scared or ruffled.  She probably didn’t even notice that day if there was an initial drop in cabin pressure, or whether the wheels were disengaging for an emergency landing – all those sounds we listen for during take-offs and landings when most plane crashes occur. But Jamiee didn’t consider those sorts of things.  She was the kind who seated herself on an airplane and immediately flipped open her laptop – had to be reminded to turn it off for takeoff.  No respect for the gravity of the situation, the laws of physics that are being challenged right and left.  I always envied her that calm.  She never needed three vodka and tonics to get her through a flight.  

And it’s not that I don’t – didn’t…  Do you still love someone after they’re dead?  I mean of course you do.  So it’s not that I don’t love Jamiee in some way.  I mean, she was my fiancée at one point.  I wanted to marry her, and spend the rest of my living days with her. She was very rich.  I don’t mean to say I loved her because she was rich.   It just so happened that she was. It took me a while to declare my undying love to Jamiee.  I am distrustful of those who would hurry such a thing.  Feelings should be carefully doled out.  Even in circumstances such as air crashes.  Even when there are others in the seat next to you supposedly going through the same thing you are.  That is still not enough in common for me.  I believe a person’s environment affects one’s sensibilities – one’s potential for bonding – much more than a single event ever could.  An event is a one time deal, while environment wears away at a human being like waves over rocks.  And that is how we are formed, just like the beach, by waves. 

 I will miss Jamiee.  After the break-up we used to run into each other now and then in the hallway of our building.  We lived on the same floor, it was inevitable. Neither one of us was willing to give up our own apartment after the split; we just returned to our original lives-down-the-hall-from-each-other as if nothing had ever happened.  I watched her through the peephole now and then, and I must say she always looked good.  A bag of groceries in one hand, briefcase in the other, she looked just like a shampoo commercial; successful, beautiful, extremely busy with very shiny hair.  I loved her hair.  I loved being seen with her.  We looked good together.  I really miss that.  

The crash was not what caused the missing, of course. Things had fizzled out months before we even broke up and we both knew it. There wasn’t any chance to get back to how we were.  Just as I know now there wasn’t any chance that Johanna would ever go to McDonald’s with me.  I have learned to accept things like that as I get older.  And I know there will come a time when I will meet yet another woman and force myself to believe I’m in love.  And I will put all sorts of effort into that relationship.  And then there will come that moment, that moment where we look at each other and realize we’re headed nowhere, that actually we’ve been losing altitude for quite some time.  And hopefully I won’t have said too much, won’t be haunted by my words that should have gone down with the ship but instead might live on as a reminder of just how ridiculously optimistic a man can be. There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship between a man and a woman. It’s just about getting the best ingredients you can before it’s too late and then seeing what you can make with what you’ve got.

Well, here we are. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I just love the sight of palm trees. They’re hopeful.  I am actually feeling good about this trip. I mean not that it’s a good trip to have to take but I plan to make the best of it. Sunny and 86 degrees won’t hurt! Who is that woman standing in front of the cabin? Looks like she’s going to make some sort of announcement. I love the color red on a blonde.

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