New short stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie • Aimee Bender • Judy Budnitz • Jennifer S. Davis • Jennifer Egan • Carolyn Ferrell • Mary Gordon • Cristina Henríquez • Samantha Hunt •Binnie Kirshenbaum • Dika Lam • Caitlin Macy • Francine Prose • Holiday Reinhorn • Roxana Robinson • Curtis Sittenfeld • Lynne Tillman • Martha Witt Chick lit: A genre of fiction that often recycles the following plot: Girl in big city desperately searches for ...
New short stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie • Aimee Bender • Judy Budnitz • Jennifer S. Davis • Jennifer Egan • Carolyn Ferrell • Mary Gordon • Cristina Henríquez • Samantha Hunt •Binnie Kirshenbaum • Dika Lam • Caitlin Macy • Francine Prose • Holiday Reinhorn • Roxana Robinson • Curtis Sittenfeld • Lynne Tillman • Martha Witt Chick lit: A genre of fiction that often recycles the following plot: Girl in big city desperately searches for Mr. Right in between dieting and shopping for shoes. Girl gets dumped (sometimes repeatedly). Girl finds Prince Charming.
This Is Not Chick Lit is a celebration of America’s most dynamic literary voices, as well as a much needed reminder that, for every stock protagonist with a designer handbag and three boyfriends, there is a woman writer pushing the envelope of literary fiction with imagination, humor, and depth.
The original short stories in this collection touch on some of the same themes as chick lit–the search for love and identity–but they do so with extraordinary power, creativity, and range; they are also political, provocative, and, at turns, utterly surprising. Featuring marquee names as well as burgeoning talents, This Is Not Chick Lit will nourish your heart, and your mind.
“This Is Not Chick Lit is important not only for its content, but for its title. I’ll know we’re getting somewhere when equally talented male writers feel they have to separate themselves from the endless stream of fiction glorifying war, hunting and sports by naming an anthology This Is Not a Guy Thing.”
“These voices, diverse and almost eerily resonant, offer us a refreshing breath of womanhood-untamed, ungroomed, and unglossed.”–ELLE
If your library buys short story collections, this is one you will want to purchase. The artful title will hook readers, and the stories will reel them in. "Volunteers Are Shining Stars," by Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the best-selling Prep, follows the severe personality clash that occurs between two women's center volunteers. Judy Budnitz's "Joan, Jeanne, La Pucelle, Maid of Orleans" turns the spotlight of modern reality television on the historical person of Joan of Arc. In Jennifer Egan's "Selling the General," a down-and-out PR consultant stages a nearly disastrous PR stunt between a B-movie star and a genocidal general. Chick-lit cliches of the newly married New York status seeker who gives up her job and hires a cleaning woman are undermined by the protagonist's jealousy of her hired help in Caitlin Macy's "The Red Coat." These stories are some of the collection's highlights, but every story is fresh and intriguing, and reading the stories as a whole will lead readers to discover new favorite authors.-Amy Ford, St. Mary's Cty. Lib., Lexington Park, MD Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“These voices, diverse and almost eerily resonant, offer us a refreshing breath of womanhood-untamed, ungroomed, and unglossed.”-ELLE
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the
Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and
the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and longlisted for the Booker. Her short
fiction has won the 2003 O. Henry Prize and has appeared in various literary
publications, including Granta and the Iowa Review. She is a
2005/2006 Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and divides her time
between the United States and Nigeria. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow
Sun, will be published in September 2006.
Aimee Bender is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Willful Creatures. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Tin House, and other publica-
tions and has been heard on Public Radio International’s This American
Life. She lives in Los Angeles.
Judy Budnitz’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Story,
The Paris Review, the Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Fence, and McSweeney’s. She is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize, and her debut
collection, Flying Leap, was a New York Times Notable Book in 1998.
Budnitz is also the author of the novel If I Told You Once, which won the
Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in
Britain. Her most recent book is the collection Nice Big American Baby. She lives in San Francisco.
Jennifer S. Davis is the author of Her Kind of Want, winner of the
2002 Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Her fiction has appeared in such
magazines as the Oxford American, The Paris Review, Grand Street, and One Story. Her new collection of short stories, Our Former Lives in Art, is forthcoming from Random House in spring 2007.
Jennifer Egan is the author of the novels The Invisible Circus and Look at Me, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001,
and a short-story collection, Emerald City. Her short stories have appeared
in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s, among other
publications. Also a journalist, she writes frequently for The New York
Times Magazine. Her new novel, The Keep, will be published in August
Carolyn Ferrell is the author of the short-story collection Don’t
Erase Me, which won the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the
John C. Zacharis First Book Award, given by Ploughshares, and the New
Voices Award from Quality Paperback Book Club. Her stories have been
published in several anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories
of the Century, edited by John Updike, and Children of the Night:
The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present, edited by
Gloria Naylor. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship,
Ferrell teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in the Bronx
with her husband and two children.
Mary Gordon’s novels include Pearl, Spending, The Company of
Women, The Rest of Life, and The Other Side. She is also the author of the
memoir The Shadow Man, among other works of nonfiction. She has received
a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship,
and the 1997 O. Henry Award for best story. She teaches at Barnard College
and lives in New York City.
Cristina Henríquez is the author of the short-story collection Come
Together, Fall Apart. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,
and her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Glimmer
Train, TriQuarterly, and AGNI. She was featured in Virginia Quarterly
Review as one of “Fiction’s New Luminaries.” She lives in Dallas with
Samantha Hunt is a writer and artist from New York. She is the author
of The Seas and the forthcoming novel The Invention of Everything Else. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Cabinet, and Seed Magazine and have been heard on Public Radio International’s This
American Life. Hunt teaches writing at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Binnie Kirshenbaum is the author of two story collections, Married
Life and History on a Personal Note, and five novels, On Mermaid
Avenue, Pure Poetry, A Disturbance in One Place, Hester Among the
Ruins, and An Almost Perfect Moment. She is a professor at Columbia
University, Graduate School of the Arts.
Dika Lam was born in Canada and lives in Brooklyn. She was a New
York Times Fellow in the MFA program at New York University, and her
work has appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999, Story,
One Story, Failbetter.com, and elsewhere. The first chapter of her novel-in-
progress won the 2005 Bronx Writers’ Center Chapter One contest.
Caitlin Macy is the author of the novel The Fundamentals of Play and
is at work on a collection of short stories. Her short fiction has appeared
in The New Yorker and she is the recipient of a 2005 O. Henry Prize. She
lives with her family in London.
Francine Prose is the author of fourteen books of fiction, including,
most recently, A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for
the National Book Award. Her nonfiction includes the national bestseller The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired and Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. Her next book, Reading Like a
Writer, will be out in summer 2006 from HarperCollins. A recipient of
numerous grants and awards, among them Guggenheim and Fulbright
fellowships, Prose was a Director’s Fellow at the Center for Scholars and
Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.
Holiday Reinhorn lives in Los Angeles. Her debut collection of short
stories, Big Cats, was named one of the best books of 2005 by the San
Francisco Chronicle. She is a recipient of the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction
and a Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellowship from the Creative Writing
Institute at the University of Wisconsin/Madison. Reinhorn’s stories
have appeared in Zoetrope, Tin House, Ploughshares, and Columbia, among other publications. She is currently at work on a novel.
Roxana Robinson is the author of seven books: three novels, three
short-story collections, and a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her most
recent book is the collection A Perfect Stranger. Robinson was named a
Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and has received fellowships
from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim
Foundation. Four of her books were named Notable Books of the Year
by The New York Times. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The
Atlantic, Harper’s, One Story, Daedalus, Best American Short Stories,
The New York Times, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City and
teaches at the New School.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep, was a national bestseller. Chosen
as one of the Ten Best Books of 2005 by The New York Times, it will
be published in twenty-three foreign countries, and its film rights have
been optioned by Paramount Pictures. Her second novel, The Man of
My Dreams, was published by Random House in May 2006. Sittenfeld’s
nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Allure,
Glamour, and on Public Radio International’s This American Life.
Lynne Tillman’s last novel, No Lease on Life, was a finalist for the National
Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and a New York Times Notable
Book of the Year. Her most recent book is This Is Not It, a collection of
stories and novellas. Her new novel American Genius: A Comedy will be
published by Soft Skull Press in October 2006. Tillman is a fellow of the
New York Institute of the Humanities and a recent recipient of a
Martha Witt is the author of the novel Broken as Things Are. Her short
fiction and translations are included in the anthologies Post-War Italian
Women Writers and The Literature of Tomorrow. She is a recipient of
a Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship, a Spencer Fellowship, a
Walter E. Dakin Fellowship, and a New York Times Fellowship, as well
as residencies at the Yaddo and Ragdale artist colonies. Originally from
Hillsborough, North Carolina, she now lives in New York City with her
husband and two children
They’re married, but not to each other.
Nat unlocks the door and then steps back, to let Ella go in first.
The hotel room is high-ceilinged and square, and a double bed takes up most of it. On the bed is a cream-colored quilted spread. Pale heavy curtains frame the window; thinner, translucent ones obscure the view. The carpet is thick and cocoa-colored. There is an ornate bureau, imitation French, and a gilt-framed mirror. The room is close and airless. They have no luggage.
Ella moves ahead of him, stopping near the bed. She’s in her late twenties, and thin, with long chestnut-colored hair. She turns, so that she won’t see herself in the mirror. She stands facing away from him,
looking down. She has never done this before. She hardly knows this man, and this is a terrible mistake. She has made a terrible mistake,
coming to this airless room with someone who, it turns out, is a stranger. She stands motionless, awaiting perdition.
Nat follows her into the room.
He has never done exactly this before, either, never done anything quite so bold and crude as to rent a hotel room at lunchtime.
What he did was always out of town, with women he never intended to see again. It was mostly in Los Angeles, a place full of beautiful,
willing girls, happy to be taken out for dinner and then back to his hotel. Those encounters had been brief and distant. But this, now, is in his own city, only blocks from his own apartment, with a woman he does want to see again, and he’s afraid he’s starting something large and irreversible. What it means is the end of his marriage. He won’t be able to go on like this; he’s going too far. This is reckless, indefensible,
and he’s doing it in the name of lust, which is, right now,
notably absent. He understands that coming here was a mistake,
though he believes he loves this woman.
He wonders if today can be salvaged. Perhaps it’s the room—
should he have gotten a bigger one? But no: it’s the silence, the immobility of the room that’s the problem, the implacably fixed furniture,
the hushing carpet, the heavy curtains, the whole place awaiting human animation.
He likes looking at her. She’s small and slight, with a polished curtain of hair spilling down her back. Her head is bent.
Ella is looking down at the bedspread, waiting for the worst. It is shameful, it is excruciating, that she’s become part of this. What if she’s seen by someone she knows, in this corridor of bedrooms, with this man who is not her husband? What is she doing here at lunchtime, with a man she hardly knows? She can’t look at him. She can feel his presence—large, solid, he’s much taller and stronger than she is—as he stands behind her. She’s now obligated to go through with this, since she agreed to come. It feels like an execution.
She dreads his touch.
She thinks of her husband. He’s downtown right now, in his office,
in his shirtsleeves and suspenders. He’s on the phone, or making a point to someone—he loves making points—or having another cup of coffee. He’s doing something completely ordinary. He’s not betraying her utterly, betraying her to the bone, though he has. But he’s not doing it right now, and she is. She could call him, there’s an ivory phone on the table by the bed. He’d answer at his desk, his voice familiar.
It was a mistake, but she has to go through with it. She is obligated:
of course she knew what it meant, meeting at the Plaza for lunch. Now she will have to have sex with him in this strange airless room. She will have to offer him her naked body. She would rather die.
Nat steps closer to her.
It was a mistake, that’s all.
He turns her body to him and glimpses her grieving face. He puts his arms around her and stands still, holding her close without moving.
He can feel her, rigid and fearful. He says nothing, embracing her quietly. It’s a mistake, that’s all. What he wants is for her not to be miserable. He holds her until he feels her quiet, until she understands that she is safe; that all he wants from her is this close holding,
They’re married, and now to each other.
The divorces were tumultuous and unhappy, but Nat and Ella persevered. They weathered the storms, they made their way determinedly through the torment toward each other.
Now they have been married for nine years, and they love each other. They’re knitted deeply into each other, and they warm themselves at each other’s hearts. They long for each other, and their bodies teach each other pleasure, but they fight terribly. They say unforgivable things to each other. Once, Nat took Ella violently by her shoulders. “You make me so angry,” he said. “Someday I’m going to kill you.”
Ella, beside herself with rage, was pleased. “Fine,” she told him,
satisfaction in her voice. It seemed a vindication, proof of something.
When they are not fighting they are happy, drunk on each other,
but when they fight, Ella fears they will split apart, and if they split apart, she fears it will be the end of her. She can’t imagine herself, if this marriage fails. She can’t imagine her life if Nat were to leave her.
She can’t imagine her existence without him; it would be black and meaningless, the void. It is terrifying to her, this prospect, like falling into deep space.
She knows, in one part of her mind, when she is calm, that this is absurd. She has her own life, with friends and a career—she is a literary publicist, and has founded her own agency. Her life won’t really be over if she and Nat split up. Still, there are times, when they are fighting, when rationality is not available. She has trouble breathing,
and she thinks of the blackness of deep space, which seems to be waiting for her.
Now they are driving from Florence to Siena, along a narrow,
crowded motorway. The cars around them are lunatic: on the left,
Maseratis and Mercedeses pass at a hundred miles an hour; on the right, huge trucks sway dangerously, taking up one and a half lanes.
Behind them headlights flare constantly, signaling them to move over. For half an hour they have been driving in hostile silence.
Nat breaks it. “I just don’t know why you couldn’t have gone on to the market yourself.”
“I just don’t know why you couldn’t have waited for me, with the car. Or given me the car,” Ella says. “I don’t know why you have to decide what we do and when we do it.”
Nat makes an exasperated sound. “I see,” he says, “ I decide everything.
Is that what you think?”
“Do you think I decide anything?”
“Do you think you don’t decide anything?”
They get into these maddening, circular series of questions, each challenging the other, losing the point, going off on tangents, becoming increasingly angry.
Nat is exasperated by Ella’s self-centeredness. How can she not know that everything he does is with her in mind? What he wants is for her to be happy. This entire trip—Florence and Siena, the churches, the old hotels, the views—was for her. The impassive faces of the holy martyrs, the mysterious half-smiles of Madonnas. It’s early spring, and wildflowers star the long pale grasses in the fields. This was all meant to make her happy, and why does it not?
“I decide nothing!” Ella says, furious. “Nothing at all! You decide where we go, where we’ll have dinner, what time we’ll leave in the morning, what we’re going to see, everything. You even keep my passport!
I don’t even carry my own passport!”
“I keep your passport with mine, and with our tickets,” says Nat,
reprovingly. His face has darkened, his mouth tightened. She has broadened her attack, flailing wildly about, as always. “It’s just so I’ll know where everything is. If you want your passport, Ella, of course
I’ll give it to you.”
“I don’t care if I have my passport or not,” Ella says wildly. She feels trapped by him, helpless; he seems both reasonable and unjust.
She knows it’s practical for him to keep the passports. Yet why should he have hers?
“Did you not want to come to Italy?” Nat turns his head and looks at her, dangerously, in the midst of the manic speed of the motorway.
The car swerves slightly, then swerves back, in and out of the terrifying stream of cars.
Ella hopes they will crash.
“Of course I wanted to come to Italy!” She is distraught. “But you don’t ask me what I want! You decide everything yourself, and then you tell me what we’re going to do, and then you’re furious if I have a tiny, remote, minutely differing suggestion! I have to do everything you say, always! It’s as though I don’t exist!”
What she’d wanted was for him to come with her to the flea market in Florence, wander through the stalls with him. It was a junky market, only odds and ends, but it was Florence. The people offering the broken clocks and plastic dolls were Florentine. Their faces—
surprisingly fair, ruddy, blue-eyed, with red-brown hair—echoed those in the old frescoes. Ella loved all of it; she always thought the living scene was as interesting as the museum.
Nat thought it was dreary and trashy. “Why should I want to look at a flea market, full of junk?” he had asked. “I have to move the car.
I’ll take it back to the hotel, and you come back whenever you want.”
But Ella feels crushed by the weight of his disapproval, by the thought that she was someone who wanted to look at junk, someone he disdained. All of it makes her feel panicky and abandoned: she speaks no Italian and has no sense of direction. She knows she’d get lost, trying to find her way back up to the hotel. She is afraid of being lost, and afraid of asking questions of strangers. She loves him. She hates being at odds with him. The flea market was a bad idea; she should never have suggested it. He disapproved of it, and of her. And now she has made him angry again; he may leave her. At any time he may leave her. He is easily angered at her. She starts to weep from despair.
She is always doing things wrong. They have been married nine years; she has not managed to give him a child; he may leave her. They are always fighting. She will die if he leaves her. She knows this is irrational; knowing it does not help.
Nat keeps on driving, the corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval. She is so extreme, Ella, so wildly intemperate, and so utterly unfair. Her complaints are wounding: he feels that his life is given over to making her happy, that all their decisions are made on her behalf. He’d thought she’d like the trip to Italy, and she had seemed to. This is the way she acts: at first she says nothing, later she complains bitterly. It’s completely unfair. He loves her. He is easily wounded by her, he is outraged by her when they fight. She is irrational,
messy, late. She maddens him. He is completely absorbed by her. He cannot wait each night to see her, to see her turn her head,
to listen. He waits to hear what she will say; he is endlessly interested by what she will say. His body needs hers. They are joined, which makes all this so excruciating: she levels these wild charges at him, as though she were dismissing their connection. How can she? How can she take such extreme positions over something as trivial as the flea market? These trips seem to be more pain than pleasure. How can she act so brutal and miserable to him? He never thinks of leaving her; she’s at the center of his life.
At the end of their fights everything is somehow righted. A great calm happiness floods through them both, like a neap tide rising and moving through the fields, smoothing out the rutted landscape like liquid silk. This is hard for them to remember when they’re fighting;
it’s hard to believe it’s a possibility.
Nat swerves more now, across the traffic, into the slower lane,
then he swerves again, cutting out of that lane too. He pulls off the highway altogether, onto a tiny semicircular pullout, edged haphazardly by whitewashed stones. A rocky hillside rises steeply above it;
just ahead, on the road, is one of the low stone tunnels that perforate
Italian mountains. The tunnels are pitch-black inside, narrow and claustrophobic, and the cars race through them at supersonic speeds.
Their car was just about to enter this one, and the traffic beside them continues to slide smoothly and hypnotically into the small black mouth, which is like that of a monster. But just before they are sucked into the dark maw, Nat pulls completely off the road and jerks the car to a stop in the turnout, the corners of his own mouth turned down.
Ella sees his disapproving mouth, his lowered brows, his fierce eyes, and she turns away, to the window. A sob swells her chest: whatever he is about to do will be terrible. She is afraid he will hit her,
though he has never done this, or threatened to. She is afraid he will reach across her and open the door, and tell her to get out, to clamber onto the steep rocky hillside rising above them. Then he will pull the door shut and drive on, vanishing into the black tunnel and leaving her there forever.
Nat puts the car into neutral, jerks on the hand brake, and turns off the engine. He turns to Ella, his brows still dark. He leans awkwardly across the tiny car, across the gear shift, and puts his arms around her. He pulls her as close as he can, the upright gear shift between them. He holds her against him and strokes her head, her silky hair.
They’ve gotten themselves into this terrible trough of unhappiness,
and this is all he can think of to get them back to the other place, where they remember each other. He holds her tightly inside the circle of himself, pressing his cheek against her head. He feels her collarbones against his chest, her shoulder blades beneath his hands. Her hair is shorter now, but still silky.
Ella feels his arms close around her, she breathes in the familiar smell of his skin, and she closes her eyes in relief. She feels her whole body yield, give way. This is more than she had hoped for. It is everything.
They have been married for nearly a quarter of a century, and they have stopped fighting. Something between them has steadied, and they no longer frighten each other. Instead, they trust each other.
She is less intemperate, and when he gets annoyed she finds his exasperation amusing. She waits it out, smiling, and smooths his hair.
He finds her exaggerations funny; she no longer infuriates him.
They look different now, of course. She is still small, nearly childlike,
but her waist has thickened, and her face bears a mask of fine lines. She is no longer beautiful, but pleasant-looking. Her hair is now short and iron gray, thin and straight, with bangs, like a felt helmet.
One knee gives her trouble, and sometimes she limps slightly.
This morning, standing in line at the airport, waiting at the ticket counter, Nat saw her lean over to rub it. The sight made him feel tender,
and he thought of her moving, with him, toward age, and toward the dark curtain beyond. He takes comfort in knowing that they will approach this, whatever it is, together.
His own body has thickened as well, and his hair has receded. His forehead is rising slowly, like a cliff from the sea. This disappoints him: his father had all his hair until he died, at eighty-one. Nat’s hair had once been thick and springy—it was his secret vanity.
Ella doesn’t mind his baldness, no longer notices it. She is so used to his face—the deep lines from nose to mouth, the dense eyebrows,
the neat pouches beneath his thoughtful eyes—that it might as well be her own. She barely sees herself in the mirror now, her eyes fading, her lips blurring. They have been living together for decades now, and they belong to each other. They have forgiven each other the dreadful acts, and they appreciate the generous ones.
They admire and enjoy each other. They have grown together into this marriage, adding year after year to the trunk of it, each line encompassing the one before. The years in which they fought are now enclosed, entirely and forever, by these later ones, in which they do not. These are years in which they simply love each other, years in which trust is dominant.
Today they’re on a flight from Boston, where Nat had a business meeting and Ella saw her sister, to San Francisco, where he has another meeting. After that they’ll go on to Los Angeles, to see his daughter Beth, who is a screenwriter. As far as they can tell, she is not a really successful one, but who can read the cryptic signs of Hollywood?
Beth is funny and bright, always full of optimistic talk about meetings and development. She was angry about the divorce when she was younger, but seems to be over it. All three of them have lived it down, settling into enjoyment of one another’s company. Her boyfriend—though is boyfriend the right word? It’s hard to keep track of the correct word now—anyway, the person who is around more than anyone else, is a psychotherapist/mystic/studio musician named
Ralph. He, too, is bright and funny, and if they lived in the East they would have regular salaries and health benefits, instead of this handto-
mouth existence. Or maybe not. Maybe they are both simply outside the world of regular salaries and health benefits, and so it’s a good thing they’ve found each other in West Hollywood.
Ralph and Beth have promised to take them to their favorite sushi restaurant. Ella doesn’t like sushi—why do people still eat raw flesh,
five hundred thousand years after the discovery of fire?—but she eats it with Beth. She loves Beth, and in some ways gets along better with her than Nat does. Nat gets frustrated by Beth; he wants her and
Ralph to get married and get jobs with health benefits. Ella finds this funny and touching. She thinks of it now and she reaches out and smooths his shoulder. He is the beloved. She feels grateful for his solicitude,
the way he wants to take care of them all, herding them toward shelter like an anxious sheepdog. At her touch, Nat looks up from his book and smiles at her.
They’re sitting in business class. Nat works for a large management consulting firm, and he’s flown hundreds of thousands of miles. They both benefit from all the times he’s been weathered in at
O’Hare, fogged out of Portland, delayed at Dallas/Fort Worth. Now,
when they fly together, they enjoy these wide comfortable seats, the kindly attentions of the flight attendant, the little compote of warm nuts after takeoff.
They haven’t taken off yet; they’ve taxied out onto the runway and are waiting in line. Not for long, though: the skies are clear, and it’s after Labor Day, the summer traveling peak over. Their stewardess has taken away their jackets. She’s in her fifties, slightly stocky,
with a wide, pleasant, animated face, slightly pockmarked. Her short hair is dense black, maybe dyed.
During the safety video it was she who put on a life jacket and stood in front of the cabin. She made smooth, ritualized gestures, setting the oxygen mask neatly over her nose, pointing out the emergency exits. No one watched her, and Ella wondered if this was because everyone had already heard these instructions, or if it was a subliminal superstition, the fear of naming dangers. The idea that it’s bad luck to allow the idea of peril into your mind. By doing so you’re calling danger into being, so the less you think about safety measures,
the less likely you are to need them.
Maybe to counteract that superstition, Ella pulls out the plastic safety-instruction card from the pocket in front of her. She studies the people, tidily life-jacketed, who are sliding down the chute in an orderly line. Their faces seem lively and intent, not frightened or unhappy.
It’s broad daylight, and the chute rests on flat ground. If this really happened, Ella thinks, there would be clouds of black smoke and bursts of orange flame. Or maybe they would be sliding into the ocean, at night, in blinding rain and huge swells. Disasters take place in perilous conditions, storms and darkness, not on clear days under blue skies. In any case, it wouldn’t be like this—orderly and pleasant.
Ella, feeling she has somehow triumphed over the card, slides it back into the pocket.
All the stewardesses have disappeared now, up front, perched on their tiny provisional foldout seats. The sky is blindingly bright,
cloudless. They are in a line of planes, all huge and motionless. Heat waves shimmer up from the tarmac, and the planes seem to tremble slightly. The pilot’s voice comes over the intercom.
They’re number four, he tells them, and it won’t be long now. He speaks with a slight southern accent, and his voice is reassuring. The reason that so many pilots are southern is that so many southerners go into the military, and so many pilots are ex–Vietnam War veterans.
This comforts Ella—these men are seasoned by dangerous exploits,
which they have come through unscathed. Their experience is like a bright shield over their passengers. They have always made the right decisions.
The plane taxies slowly to the end of the runway, turns ponderously,
revs its engines, and then begins to rumble down the long concrete strip. As the plane gains speed, the engine noise mounts and mounts, and when the cabin falls silent with the universal respect given to takeoff, Ella is gripped briefly by nerves. She reaches for
Nat’s hand, and he clasps hers firmly and reassuringly, without looking at her. He is not a nervous flier; he flies too often.
The rumbling, hurtling plane nears the end of the runway, racing toward the moment of breathless suspension, the moment in which the arcs of speed and lift and burden all intersect, precisely and miraculously, and the wheels leave the ground, and they suddenly rise up, without pause, smoothly and astonishingly into the clear blue air. The landing gear folds noisily into the belly and the plane banks hard, tipping over the rows of dark buildings of Newark,
now so tidy and precise. They have done it; they have made the transition from earthbound to airborne, and there is something great and self-congratulatory about this moment. They have all succeeeded in this death-defying venture.
When the stewardess reappears with the lunch menu, Ella is no longer holding Nat’s hand. She used to be a very anxious flier, but that has changed, too. She feels remoter, now, from the danger of flying.
Once, without Nat, she flew through a thunderstorm, lightning bolts sizzling off the wings, the fuselage jolting horridly with each shock. Her heart had thudded in her throat, but she had suddenly thought to herself, though she is not religious, “You are in the hand of God.” At that her panic ceased.
Since then she no longer becomes so frightened during flight.
Fatalism, or some sort of calm, has entered her. She is in her fifties,
and she has certainly lived over half her life. She feels less responsible now for the care of the world. If she vanishes, the world will rumble along without her.
Right now she is absorbed in her book, and they are climbing smoothly toward thirty thousand feet, heading slightly northwest,
toward San Francisco. The stewardess smiles professionally and offers her a menu. Ella takes it, smiling back. She wonders how long the stewardess will go on working. It’s a brutal life, they say, especially if you have a family. You’re away so much, and you get bloat, and your cycle is disturbed. Plus you’re on your feet all the time: Ella thinks of her knee, which will at some point, her doctor says, need re-
placement, though she’s putting it off. She wouldn’t be able do this job, but these women must like it well enough.
Ella’s reading Anthony Trollope, Nat a book about Alexander
Hamilton. She likes the symmetry they create, likes feeling that, together,
they are responsibly covering the field of letters: she, fiction,
nineteenth-century, English; he, politics, eighteenth-century, American.
What more can you expect of a marriage? She sinks peacefully into her book.
At first she hardly notices the disturbance, since the noise level on airplanes is already so high—the loud drone of the engines, the staccato voices of video earphones, the conversations around them. But finally it becomes intrusive, and she looks up to see a dark-skinned young man in a pale T-shirt, with a red bandanna tied around his head, coming down the aisle from first class. He has something in his raised hand, and he is shouting at them angrily. It’s the anger that is most apparent,
and confusing. It’s directed at them, the passengers, for some reason. What is he shouting? Behind him there seems to be a cloud of black smoke: is something on fire? Is the plane on fire? He is shouting at all of them, though the words are too big, right now, to understand,
it’s hard to sort through the information—the smoke, the rage,
the T-shirt and bandanna, who is he?—but his anger is very clear, and his insistence. He is motioning at them urgently, gesturing at the back of the plane. He’s angry at them all, he’s beside himself with rage. His rage, the chaotic energy of it, is confusing and frightening. The front of the plane is where the pilots are, and where the stewardesses busy themselves. The front of the plane is the seat of authority, but no one in uniform appears—where is the captain, with his reassuring southern voice, his heroic war record? It seems that this dark-skinned man now represents authority. That’s where he’s coming from, the cockpit,
and the black smoke is billowing behind him. He’s shouting.
“Get in the back!”
Some people stand, bewildered. “What’s going on?” People are asking him questions, but the man is not answering; instead, the questions turn his face darker, thunderous. He has large liquid black eyes, brilliant.
“Get in the back,” he says ferociously. “There’s been an accident.”
“What kind of accident?” More people stand, alarmed, wanting to know, wanting to help.
Behind the man their stewardess suddenly appears, the stocky black-haired one. Her pockmarked face is contorted with purpose.
“Help!” she shouts. Her voice is high-pitched, frantic. “Hijackers!”
The man swivels instantly; his arm shoots out and he seizes her by the throat, his arm snaking around her neck. They are directly in front of Ella, and Ella can see the woman’s hand shaking, held helplessly across her chest. The hijacker’s elbow is raised high in the air,
and he holds her chin up. “Don’t move,” he hisses. The stewardess wears a navy cardigan over a white long-sleeved shirt. There is a gold bangle on her wrist, and her hand is shaking. Ella can hear her breathing: slow and strained.
The hijacker looks around. He looks to be in his thirties, with high cheekbones and a broad, slightly crooked nose. His teeth are very white, and his shiny black hair falls over his forehead. No one moves. Behind him, the first-class cabin is full of smoke. The stewardess swallows convulsively. Her chin is still pulled high by the hijacker’s arm. Ella can see the shifting of her throat muscles beneath the skin. The hijacker tightens his grip, and her eyes roll upward,
then close. She swallows again, with difficulty, and her hand goes up,
reflexively, to his arm. Ella remembers the smooth ritual gestures she made during the safety video. The hijacker hisses at her again, then pulls her chin up, further exposing her throat.
What he has in his other hand is a small straight blade, Ella sees its brightness, and he sweeps the blade across her throat. The pale skin parts easily. The smell of blood is very strong, and the rush of it overwhelming, disorienting. It floods out, dark, and in pulses, down her white blouse, which is now crimson, each wave of fresh blood darkening the blouse, the sweater. The stewardess is trying to scream,
though her voice no longer works; she makes shuddering noises,
sounds of breath and moist tissue. Her arms are all right, and her legs. She grabs at him, and kicks, but her movements are perfunctory,
jerky and spasmodic, and she is not really, now, kicking at the hijacker.
She is kicking the way the body prepares itself for death, the way it jerks itself loose of its earthly connections. She kicks and struggles fitfully, and the hijacker, with each jerk, holds her more closely,
clasping her to himself like a demon lover, the blood pumping out of the terrible dark place on her neck. He holds her closer and closer to his own breast, which is now covered with streams of her dark blood.
The blood is on their arms, it is on the carpet, it is everywhere, and the air reeks. The hijacker’s eyes are black and brilliant, and he stares at the passengers without blinking. The stewardess is still plucking with her hands and struggling, and her throat makes terrible attempts at speech. Shudders of air move through places where air was not meant to go. There are moist sounds of tissue smacking and flapping,
heaves and gasps, a kind of sob.
“Get in the back,” the hijacker says. His eyes are hypnotic with intensity.
It seems that they have no will, now. It seems there is nothing for their weakened bodies to do, now, but stand and move heavily, without a will, down the aisle and back into the tourist section. There they can see rows of faces looking up at them, confused, alarmed.
Alarm is spreading, deepening, across the faces. There are cries and questions, some screams. The hijacker is behind them, still holding his dreadful burden, the heavy body of the stewardess. The smell of the blood—thick and ferrous—makes Ella feel faint. It’s a smell she did not know she knew, but she does. She knows it. The body knows it.
Nat is ahead of her, and she reaches down low, for his hand.
There is nothing now but fear. Just behind them, in first class, there is smoke and chaos. Beyond that, up in the cockpit, is beyond contemplation.
The mind dares not go there. It is too dangerous to call it into being.
“Nobody move,” the hijacker shouts at them. He is beside himself.
“Nobody to move.”
The rows of faces stare up, stunned.
The plane is doing something, it seems to be descending. They are nearing another city, rows of buildings are reappearing. The engines seem louder now—are they going faster?
Ella and Nat are standing helplessly in the aisle—there is nowhere for them to go. Behind them is the hijacker, with his mad eyes. Ella is right ahead of him, facing the rear of the plane, and she presses forward, against Nat. She doesn’t want to touch the hijacker,
or the body of the stewardess, whom he holds in front of himself like a shield. The stewardess seems to have stopped moving. The smell of the blood is rich and sickening. Ella moves her feet to one side; she doesn’t want the blood on her shoes.
They can all feel the plane shifting now. The smoke in first class is drifting into this cabin, acrid, dense, alarming. Ella’s eyes sting,
and she closes them. She leans against Nat’s back, pressing herself against his spine. She knows his back intimately, and now she pictures its beautiful slope. She knows where the scar is, on the left side,
where he fell in a baseball game as a teenager, long before she knew him. The bluish mark, where a BB went in. She knows exactly the texture of the skin, beneath his gray suit, his blue shirt. She puts her nose against his suit and breathes in: she knows exactly the smell of his skin, rich and comforting. She sets her cheek against his shoulder blade, leaning on her good knee.
The plane is definitely descending now, and they’re over another urban landscape, streets and buildings in a bewildering pattern.
Don’t hijackers want to go somewhere else? Don’t they want to be taken to Cuba? Palestine? It’s New York, she can see the Triborough
Bridge. Why are they headed here? Ella feels her body tighten, she is panting, and her stomach is clenched. The roar of the engines seems deafening—is it really louder, or is it fear that makes it seem so? She thinks of the plastic card, the orderly evacuation down the spotless chute. Behind her, the hijacker is still holding the slack body of the stewardess, and when he moves, Ella can feel something—his elbow,
or her lifeless wrist—against her back, and she cringes, trying to move away.
Now the hijacker is shouting again, but not in English. It’s in another language, guttural, unknown, and there’s another hijacker, she now sees, across the aisle, with a red bandanna around his head,
shouting too. What they say is incomprehensible, but it’s the force of it, the loudness and intensity of what they say, that cows the passengers,
defeats them. They are wild-eyed, they are in some kind of insane,
triumphal trance, the hijackers, and one of them holds the dead bleeding body of the stewardess, the woman who was supposed to care for them, to minister to their needs. She has been murdered,
and the hijackers are screaming at all of them, and the tourist cabin,
too, is now filling up with smoke.
The plane is going insanely fast—they can feel it, dizzying,
hurtling low, just above the city buildings. Ella cannot see where they are but it is somewhere in New York, no longer a tidy cityscape seen dreamily from above but a nightmare landscape seen too close and too fast, and her whole body is going too fast, her heart, her lungs, her pulse, are going as fast as the plane. Nat, in front of her, begins to turn.
It’s over, Nat can see that. Everything is over. It’s strange how, as the plane speeds up, his mind slows down. It’s oddly calming. Everything is over, everything falls away, now, all the intentions and crises of life, the small things, his report for the meeting, the conversation with Beth, getting the car inspected, all of these don’t matter, and the large things—what were the large things? None of them matter,
now. It’s all moving faster and faster, and here they are, all of them,
trapped together, their doomed faces staring ahead, stunned, caught in this thundering, rumbling, accelerating plane, and he thinks, his mind slow and calm, that this is, really, what they all faced every day,
hurtling through space together on the spinning planet, rushing, unaware,
toward their final moments. And the spinning planet has been spinning like this, as it is now, for all time, sweeping through the endless black of space on its long elegant loop. It will go on, though for him, for them, it’s all over, whatever happens. There is time now to do only one thing, the last thing; he’s grateful that there’s time and he’s conscious. Gratitude floods him for this.
Nat shifts carefully, keeping his head low, avoiding the wrathful gaze of the hijacker, who is shouting something over and over at the top of his lungs, some sort of fanatical chant, and now the other hijacker is shouting it too. They seem, mystifyingly, to be flying through the buildings of Manhattan, and the engines are whining unbearably,
their pitch is rising higher and higher toward some unthinkable climax, but before this, and just before the plane opens the black maw of its own tunnel, Nat turns and takes Ella in his arms.