Read an Excerpt
They had been in the air for less than an hour when Rhea heard
popping sound. It seemed to come from outside, maybe from
one of the wings,
and though it wasn't anything Rhea had ever
heard before, she knew
instinctively that it was a bad sound.
"Did you hear that?" said the woman in
the next seat.
Rhea said no.
"You didn't hear that?"
no partly because she found denial a perfectly
acceptable way of preventing
panic, and partly because she did
not like-again, instinctively-this woman,
who, as a standby
passenger, had claimed seat 36B at the very last minute,
when Rhea had confidently placed her bag there and arranged
both tray tables the folder full of student papers she suspected
not read, the magazine she knew she would,
and the little leather journal in
which she recorded tersely
phrased personal insights. Then came this big
much of her for her seat, with coarse dark hair and a
shock of white on top, like a skunk. She looked to be a good
years older than Rhea, seventy or so, and wore enormous
eyeglasses that wove
in gold across the bridge of her nose. The
air immediately filled with the
too-sweet smell of imitation
perfume-probably, Rhea thought to herself,
misspelled French. The glasses were real, Christian
printed on the outer part of the left temple, another
It was at that point, after gathering back her
Rhea had written in her little notebook, "I am living proof
does not take money to be a snob."
From the way the woman wedged
herself into her seat with
an unrestrained wheeze, her long flowered skirt
catching on the
armrest, Rhea knew that she was one of those people who had
trouble falling asleep in public places, drooling even, sprawling
on bus seats and in movie theaters. And, true to form, the
woman had even
snored a little, while Rhea skimmed an article
entitled "Turn Him On-with
"There, did you hear that?" the woman asked again.
But it was no good lying anymore, because just then the
a sudden dip and, just as quickly, righted itself.
Around them, people
"Oh my God," said the woman. "You can't say you didn't
"Fine, you're right." Rhea blamed the woman for forcing
to admit it. "Happy now?"
The woman turned to stare at Rhea, enormous
her dark eyes. Rhea too was shocked at her outburst.
attributed it to fear-of the plane's odd behavior, and of the
weekend in Massachusetts, yet another event she preferred
not to think about.
She wished she had taken advantage of
the airport bar before boarding. There
had certainly been time
enough, two hours of delay due to technical problems
plane, which Rhea now considered mentioning to the standby
who had conveniently missed that whole chapter of the
captain's voice, a lazy-sounding one, came at them:
"Folks. It appears we're
having some problems with our
right hydraulic system. What that means is
that, rather than continue
on to Logan, we're going to have to land at the
which is in Baltimore. I've just spoken with the folks at
and it looks like they can clear us for landing in about
minutes. So, if you'll bear with us. We apologize for the
"Inconvenience?" said the standby woman. She sounded
she might be from New Jersey. "Landing without a right hydraulic
shook her head. "Well, I'm sure he'll do a
fine job. Even without the right
hydraulic system. I'm sure he's a
Rhea said, "It doesn't
matter if he's fine or not." She hadn't
mean to snap. But the plane was
veering a little to the right, now
back to the left, and now made another
sudden, brief plunge.
The woman took a short, frightened breath. Her
seemed momentarily stronger.
"He's probably testing the plane,"
Rhea told the standby
woman, wishing it were true. "Seeing which functions
"It's my fault," said the standby woman.
"I'm bad luck. Nothing ever goes smoothly when I'm
If I'm in a car, there's a flat tire. Or a traffic jam. If I go
a movie, there's some black thing flickering on the screen. If
invite me to a wedding, it rains."
Rhea thought for a moment and said,
"That's incredibly egotistical."
The standby woman did not seem to have heard
her. "I'm a
"Everyone thinks that about themselves," said
"But with me it's true," said the standby woman.
"Believe me. It
isn't. I know for certain. None of this is your
"How do you
Rhea knew because it was her fault. This fact had become
clear to her. For months she had been dreading Callie
and Mack's wedding,
regretted ever having agreed to be Maid of
Honor. Never mind the
inconvenience of it, with the semester
barely started and Rhea only a month
into her new job. Never
mind that the flight from Virginia, where she had
professorship at a small private college, had cost enough to
her regret ever having moved there in the first place. That
the half of it-and yet Rhea had said yes. After all, Callie was
oldest childhood friend, and had asked her without-
Rhea could not
even allow herself to continue the thought.
Each day that the wedding drew
closer, Rhea had waited for some
emergency to present itself, something that
might prevent her
from attending. If only a problem arose that was completely
of her control, then she would have an excuse.
The plane tilted oddly
back, as if stretching its head to yawn.
Around them, people were making
"You see?" said the standby woman. "I'm bad luck."
Rhea said. "Blame it on her, everyone. She's the
cause of all this." It came
out more loudly than Rhea had intended.
The woman turned toward her, gigantic
lenses for eyes,
looking stunned. The plane tilted forward, and then more
Rhea gripped her armrests. More general panic was
before the structure found its balance.
The woman's eyes had
welled with tears. She sniffed into the
little square napkin that had come
with her complimentary beverage,
and reached behind the enormous gold frames
to dab at
"See that?" said Rhea. "You thought things were bad,
now you see that it wasn't so bad after all. So what if the right
system failed. Maybe it's worse to have your neighbor
mean things to you, making a spectacle of the both of us."
"I'm glad you're
able to see that."
"Look at the bright side. We're heading to the airport,
the plane's still, miraculously, in the air. Be thankful. Be
"Okay, I will," said the woman.
"Because I'll tell you something,"
Rhea continued. "No matter
how bad it gets, it can always get worse."
if to confirm this, the captain came on the intercom and
said, "Well, folks.
It looks like we're having some trouble with
our front wing
Nervous groans came from all around, the intonation of
"What this means," the pilot went on, "is that our landing
going to be more difficult than anticipated. We do still have
brake control, but we are going to have to instruct you in the
emergency landing procedure. So I'd like you to please
give your full
attention to Irene and Nat, who in a few minutes
will provide detailed
"See that?" said Rhea.
"Oh God," said the woman.
you know what?" Rhea went on, unsure of what exactly
propelled her. "Even
now, it could still get worse."
"What, do you want it to?" The woman gave a
"I'm just trying to put it in perspective. This is not at all as
as all kinds of terrible things. You know what I read in the
paper the other
day? I read about a guy, some young father here
in the good old U.S. of A.,
who went out with a buddy of his and
left his baby daughter in the car,
windows rolled up, on a sunny
ninety-degree day. Just left her there while he
and his friend
went fishing or something."
"That's horrible," said the
standby woman, and added, tentatively,
"Did she die?"
"Of course," Rhea
told her. "But that wasn't the worst part.
When they came back to the car,
the baby had been so hot and
miserable, she had torn her hair out of her
"Oh my God."
"A little baby with fists full of her own hair." Rhea
breath. "So you see, we don't have it so bad."
The woman said, "I
can't believe you just told me that."
"I'm sorry," Rhea said. "Talking makes
me feel better. I like
to put things in perspective."
suspected that her habit of putting things in
perspective was the very
problem with the way she lived her
life. To be so aware, constantly aware, of
the many horrors in
the world made it hard to take your own problems
And yet it was no help, Rhea knew, to belittle her own
That hadn't made it any less painful when her fiancé left
or when she didn't get the Tufts job, or when a journal
rejected a paper of
hers. If only she could shake that greater
pessimism-that resigned acceptance
of life's constant abominations-
that she so often let guide her decisions.
given so many things up that way, and betrayed Callie with
same reasoning. That persistent reminder, the threat of
allowed her to justify all kinds of actions she now
up her little leather-bound notebook and
wrote neatly, "Hypothetical life is
The captain asked them to please give their attention
Nat and Irene.
Rhea thought for a moment and said aloud, "Don't
ever get to be captains?"
The standby woman took only a moment
before saying, "No,
no, I don't think so."
Rhea nodded, mystery solved.
That was what Rhea liked
about older women. You could count on them for the
they had lived it. Young people pretended that the
was better than it had once been, because that was what should
true. Older women could state the actual reality-the limita-
injustices that prevailed-because they had grown up
in a world where these
things were said outright.
Rhea opened her little notebook again and wrote,
women are good for the facts."
Nat and Irene had begun their
performance. On a broad
screen glowed a detailed accompanying video. Rhea
attention on Irene, who stood closest and, with hair in a
ponytail, told her audience that they would need to remove
jewelry, eyewear, headwear, hair clips, and false teeth.
Rhea knew that what she was being told might
save her life, the old student
in her had dredged up from her
school days a natural resistance to
instruction, so that she found
it impossible, even now, to give Irene her
full, respectful concentration.
Instead, she found herself wondering who
pick her up at Logan. "Don't worry, someone will come get
Callie had said in her easy way. But what if it were Mack?
Rhea be able to keep from telling him? Would she be able to not
And then Rhea remembered that she might not make it to
was now demonstrating how to crouch in the proper
position, head between
knees, hands grasped behind the neck.
She asked the passengers to please
practice this position, and
Rhea bent forward. The position was not
comfortable. She sat
up, as others had.
Irene instructed them to please
practice this position again.
She's just saying that to kill time, thought
Rhea. But, like an
obedient child, she bent over again.
The standby woman
was too big to do this properly. Giving
up, she said to Rhea, "I used to be
thin, like you. On my wedding
day I weighed ninety-nine pounds."
some sort of threat? Rhea wanted to ask. No, she
thought, just another musing
on loss, now that tragedy seemed
The captain spoke. "Folks. We
have not yet been cleared for
landing." There was the pause of the intercom
clicking off, then
on again. "It looks like we're going to have to circle for
more minutes. Thank you for your patience."
attendants were making their way down the aisles,
checking that everyone was
following the proper procedure.
"I suppose I should introduce myself," the
woman said. "I'm
Rhea thought to herself how many times this
had said that name and watched people act like it was
acceptable. Except for when she was in elementary
thought Rhea. I bet she was teased a lot.
"My name's Rhea."
elementary school they had called her Dia Rhea.
Gaylord said, "I'm going to
visit my son. He has two boys. I
haven't seen them in a few months. Not since
my husband's funeral.
I'm a new widow."
She said "new widow," Rhea
thought, the way one might say
"recent graduate" or "nouveau riche." Well,
maybe she was
newly rich, buying whatever she could off of her husband's
policy. That, come to think of it, might explain the
Some rows ahead of them, a woman was refusing to remove
jewelry. A stewardess could be heard insisting in reasonable,
"This was my grandmother's necklace, and I will not take
"Good for her," said Gaylord, carefully folding her glasses
case of purple leather, which she now clicked shut.
Amazing, thought Rhea,
seeing Gaylord's face exposed,
puffy pockets of darkened skin under her eyes,
little lines all
over, her expression sad and overwhelmed, as if she had
suddenly asked to shave her head or walk naked in public. Without
glasses, she no longer looked at all appalling. She did still
look a little
skunky. Rhea watched as she took from her purse,
also purple leather, a gold
makeup compact, which she sprung
open and peered into with a sigh. With a
tiny brush, she applied
pale green powder to her eyelids. Then she dabbed a
little brush into some red gel, which she swiped back and
over her lips.
Primping for death, thought Rhea. Gaylord peeked at
in the mirror one more time and said, "I look dreadful."
thought to herself that they all were, really were,
everyone on the aircraft,
full of dread.
"If we live through this," she said, though she hadn't
to put it that way, "do you know what this whole experience
Gaylord shook her head.
"An anecdote." Rhea knew that the
sick feeling that they all
had in their stomachs right now would not even
return in the
telling. It would be recalled and described but not
Gaylord said, "We're going to die together."
"I cannot believe you
just said that. Will you please not say
that? Really. Do not say that again."
Rhea could hear the annoyance
in her voice. "You may feel you've lived a full
life, but I'm
not finished yet, all right?"
"I apologize," said Gaylord,
Behind them, a baby began to wail. All around was the
sound of rings, chains, and watches being placed in
sunglasses removed and folded.
Rhea opened up her little leather
notebook. In all caps she
wrote "REGRETS" and underneath, in lowercase, "Do I
She sat and thought.
"Well, do you?" asked Gaylord.
"Have any regrets?"
considered saying, "I regret not having flown first
class." But instead she
found herself nodding. "Yes." Before she
could lose track of her thought, she
wrote in her notebook, "I regret
having spent the majority of my life trying
not to offend
Gaylord raised her eyebrows and said, "Could have
"You're still spying!"
"What do you expect?"
that's what I mean." What she meant was that Gaylord,
unlike herself, dared
to tell the truth. She had dared to admit she
was looking over Rhea's
shoulder. Rhea rarely felt comfortable
admitting what she was thinking. "I
always try to keep my mouth
zipped," she told Gaylord, "I try to hide my true
they always seem to pop out. And then I feel rude, when I
what I think. It's just nerves today, freeing me up that way. And
resent that. I resent that it takes an emergency landing for me
really say what's what. It's only now that I see I've lived my
trying to be polite."
"But why would you want to be impolite? What
good is there
"I've just spent so much time holding my knees
know? Clasping my hands on my lap. What good does that do
world? I've spent so much time and effort on trying to dress the
way, trying to say the appropriate things. Trying to fit in
rather than be a
person who accomplishes anything. That's my
Gaylord seemed to be
thinking this over. She said, "In other
words, you regret having been a
This fact had not occurred to Rhea before, not in those
words. But now she saw that it was true. "Yes, I regret not
been a man in this world."
She thought of this now, and, returning to the
so often arrived at, asked Gaylord, "Any secrets you'll be
to your grave?"
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe I'm just thinking
aloud. Wondering if I have a secret
I'd rather die than tell."
"I have a secret. But I'd rather tell it than die." And it
seemed that she alone could save the airplane, that if she
just one person, they would all be saved. This feeling was
whispered to Gaylord, "When I was twentyeight
I had an abortion."
nodded her head and said, "When I was twentyeight
I had a
"An abortion is different," said Rhea, annoyed. "And
that's not the whole secret."
Maybe, thought Rhea, Gaylord was one
of those religious
ladies who stand outside the clinics on weekends, holding
beads and photographs of bloody fetuses. But no, Gaylord with
bright stripe of hair simply wouldn't fit in with those tedious,
That shock of white. It suddenly struck Rhea
as an incredibly bold thing, to
enter the world each day with hair
"So what's the story?"
"It was two years ago. I'd known I was pregnant for
two months," Rhea told her. "I went through everything you
did, morning sickness, everything. But I had been
awarded a travel grant, a
research scholarship, actually, and I was
supposed to leave in a few months,
and I knew there was no way
I could have a baby and go traipsing around
Italy. And the
father-he. Wasn't my boyfriend. He was my friend's
She paused to bite her upper lip. "I finally convinced
that everything would be better once I ended the pregnancy. So
didn't tell anyone, and I went to have the abortion and felt
prepared. Completely ready. And I got there and they did
final checkup beforehand, and you know what? There were
two. I was carrying
Rhea felt herself about to cry, but the voice of the head
attendant came from the intercom. "We will now complete
descent. Please take your positions. We remind you that you are
have removed all headwear, eyewear, jewelry, dentures, retainers,
Please take your positions."
The air swelled with the eerie quiet of
controlled panic. Only
the screaming baby continued to complain. People spoke
whispery tones as they bent forward, heads between knees, and
"I guess this is it," said Gaylord, whose face wasn't quite
"What about you?" Rhea asked, head down, voice
"What about me?"
"What's your secret?"
Gaylord said, "I'm
still wearing my false teeth."
"I look bad enough without my
glasses. If I die I'm going to
at least have my teeth in."
"Bottom. I look ancient with my jaw all sunken
Gaylord sighed. "My husband."
"I guess that's
The captain came on. "Flight attendants, prepare
Gaylord said, "I started gaining a lot of weight after my
child," as if in explanation.
That was when the plane began heading
swiftly toward the
ground. No one dared to sigh or squirm. Even the baby
screaming. Rhea gripped her neck as tightly as she was able.
down, they went, and went, and went, and then hit the
ground with incredible
force. There was another popping noise,
and the plane continued forward at
great speed. But it was still in
one piece, thought Rhea, at least it seemed
to be, unless they
were about to slam into something. Rhea supposed that was
tirely possible. But then the plane began to slow. Rhea could feel
They could all feel it, and the air itself seemed to relax, to refill
Gaylord said, "I think we may actually be
Are you trying to jinx it? thought Rhea. But right then the
came to a stop.
Without waiting for word from the captain, everyone sat
Above them, oxygen masks dangled like piñatas. They must have
released on impact. Looking out the window, Rhea saw an
array of emergency
vehicles-fire trucks, ambulances, lights and
neon colors. Nat the flight
attendant was already making his way
down the aisle, explaining that they
should not use the oxygen
"They're just for dramatic effect," said
Rhea. Indeed, there
was an odd air of festival, the hanging masks all around
Over the intercom, the captain stated that they were going to
to evacuate the plane via emergency chute. "Please leave all
the plane," he said. "Do not take your belongings
with you down the chute.
Follow the flight attendants, and leave
your belongings on the plane."
around, women grabbed their pocketbooks. Gaylord had
already put her glasses
back on. Now she snapped her earrings
into place. Her hands were shaking. "I
can't believe we made it,"
she said. Rhea realized that her own hands were
The emergency exit had been opened, and from outside
whine of a siren. It really was unnecessary, thought
Rhea. But the siren
continued as, row by row, passengers stood
up to shimmy out of their seats,
ducking through the vines of
oxygen masks. It was already Rhea and Gaylord's
turn. As they
waited in the aisle, shaky-legged, Rhea looked at Gaylord, at
astounding glasses and heavy earrings and bright makeup.
husband did to you," said Rhea. "It has nothing
to do with your weight. You
know that, right?"
Gaylord looked at her in a way that suggested she just
knew this. But she nodded as Rhea said, "What I mean is-"
said, "I know. It was just violence."
As they moved up toward the exit, the
siren became louder.
Just violence. That those words should be allowed side
by side . . .
Rhea glanced at Gaylord and did not want to imagine her
The situations people found themselves in on any day, Rhea
were really no less absurd than the one she was in right
standing here like a third-grader, about to go down a giant
inflated slide. I
must note this, Rhea thought to herself, and then
realized that she no longer
had her little leather book. She had
left it back at her seat.
I tell my grandkids about this slide," Gaylord said,
looking truly pleased.
"Whoever would have thought I'd be given
the chance to go down a slide
The slide really was quite something, enormous and bouncy
yellow. Some people hesitated before jumping out.
Women kept smuggling their
purses along with them.
Rhea said, "Are we really going down that thing?" The
itself, improbability incarnate, suddenly seemed safer
clownish slide. Gaylord did not appear at all worried.
She took the flight
attendant's hand and then let go. Rhea
watched her slide fearlessly down, her
skirt hitching up to her
waist. With clenched fists, Rhea stepped out to
follow her into
the world of sirens and lights.