There are two competing impulses in her mind right now. The first is to run. To where, she’s not sure. The second, and stronger, impulse is to scream. Instead, she finds herself frozen to the seat.
“Are you okay?”
Liv pries her fingers from the laptop keyboard and manages to move her head to face the man in the seat beside her. Somehow she contains the reflex to vomit when her eyes catch sight of the window behind him. She nods vaguely, only then able to focus on his face.
He must find her expression comical. She can tell from the slight curl of his lips and the playful light in his brown eyes as they survey her trembling fingers. He’s gone to the trouble of lowering the headphones he’s been wearing since they boarded. Her ears hone in on the faint dull thud of the bass still blaring. “Nervous flyer?” he asks.
The clouds shift across the window behind him and she looks back at the laptop, gripping both armrests. The words in the unsent email to the college student affairs office blur and seem to vibrate right off the screen. She’d purposely paid extra for the in-flight wi-fi but now regrets overestimating her ability to focus.
“How could you tell?” It’s not a joke and it’s not delivered as such. It’s the only sentence she can manage to flatly speak out loud, queasiness pooling at the base of her throat. “Can you pull down your shade?” If she can’t see the clouds, maybe she can pretend she’s in a bumpy car. A car that can plummet down to the earth at any moment.
He tilts his head. His cologne is heady with the scent of cedar and ginger. “What?” He glances over his shoulder. “Oh, sorry.” The shade clicks with a soft thud as he pulls it down.
“Thank you,” she says, finally taking the full breath she’s been craving. The nausea ebbs slightly. The turbulence hasn’t even come yet, but her body is still frozen from take-off, braced for the next round of trauma. She’s convinced herself that maintaining this huddled rigidness will somehow make the jolts to come more bearable.
“It’s been pretty smooth so far,” the man says in a calm, even tone. “We’re probably in for a boring, uneventful flight.”
She stares straight ahead. “Yeah?” She can tell what he’s trying to do. Normally, she would appreciate it, but today it makes her angry, pushing the fear to the backseat for only a moment.
“So, what’s in Amsterdam?” he asks, sliding the headphones from his shoulders and resting them on his lap beside his phone.
She wipes at her eyes, the grit of the smudged mascara rubbing against her fingers. She hadn’t even bothered to check a mirror before getting on the plane. “I don’t know.”
That makes him laugh. “Okay,” he says, running a hand across his face, trying to conceal his smile. “Sorry, I was just trying to help, but I get it. You’re obviously not in the mood to talk.”
Her heart sinks at the thought of going the rest of the flight in tortured silence. “No, that’s not – I just – I’m not going to Amsterdam really,” she says, finally untangling the words. “It’s a layover for me.”
He nods. He has a face that could easily belong to a thirty-year-old or someone in her year of college. His skin is absent of wrinkles or lines, other than around the lips, but there’s a quiet sophistication uncharacteristic of men her age. Without that, one may even say he has a babyface. “Where’s your final destination?”
A bump against the floor sends her hands into a tighter grip on the edge of the armrests, her elbow knocking into the sleeping man in the aisle seat. He doesn’t stir. Her stomach drops at the thought of the plane crashing. “Scotland,” she croaks. “What about you? Why are you going to Amsterdam?”
He shrugs. “Mostly for the red light district, I guess. But a little bit for the drugs too.”
She stares at him out of the corner of her eye.
He catches it and laughs. “That’s a joke. Sorry, that was bad.”
A small release of tension leaves her body.
“I go back and forth between Boston and Amsterdam for work a lot,” he finishes. She rethinks her analysis of his age. He’s old enough to have a stable job with international travel involved. He must be well past her age. He’s wearing a plain black t-shirt and jeans with minor distressing around the knees, but it’s hard to tell if it’s fashion or just worn.
“What kind of work?” she asks.
He grins. “Would it help distract you if I made you guess?”
Probably. But something about his manner seems more condescending than helpful, like he’s playing with an anxious toddler. Admittedly, she feels like an anxious toddler right now. “DJ?” She means it as a slight, but he smirks and tucks his headphones into the seat pocket in front of him.
“Funny, but no.”
She spots the thick class ring on his finger. It’s a wonder that she didn’t catch it earlier. She’s filled with a hollow satisfaction when she makes out the class year. 2014. So he was upwards of 27, at least. “Engineer,” she says firmly.
He glances down at his finger. “That’s pretty presumptive. Not everyone who graduates from M.I.T. is an engineer.”
This is true. But almost all the successful graduates are. Her own parents majored in Economics and Business at M.I.T. and died with barely a penny to their names.
“But, I am,” he says. “I’m an electrical engineer at an energy company.”
She nods, a little disappointed that she no longer has a viable distraction.
“So what’s going on in Scotland?” he asks after a pause.
That’s the question she’s been dreading. “Just a trip.”
He glances at her laptop, the draft of an email requesting further deferment from the registrar still open. She doubts he can make out the words on the dimmed screen, but shuts it all the same. She can’t finish it right now anyway.
She ventures to look around the plane for the first time in a while and can see the flight attendant with a cart only a few rows away. “So, are you from Boston or you were only there for college?”
The man picks up his phone and then flips it over onto the open tray in front of him. “I’m from there – well, Winchester. You?”
She nods. “Somerville.”
The flight attendant is upon them now. He smiles at the sleeping man in the aisle seat and then turns to her. “Drink or snack, miss?” His accent is vaguely European. She assumes it’s Dutch.
“Vodka soda, please,” her voice overlaps with his end of the question. She’s been waiting for this moment since boarding. Even though her 21st birthday was only weeks ago, she’s spent the entire time almost perpetually in stages of drunkenness. The gap in time between now and her last drink in the terminal Applebee’s has caused a throbbing headache to form behind her eyes.
“Any snacks?” the attendant asks quietly over Aisle Seat before stooping for the lower shelf on his cart and pulling the bottle of vodka.
She shakes her head.
The attendant hands her the drink and looks over at Window Seat. “Sir?”
Window Seat gestures to her clear plastic cup. “I’ll take the same and two waters, please.” Somehow he already has his credit card ready and passes it to the flight attendant swiftly before she realizes what’s happening. She didn’t think through the cost of alcohol on the plane. He replaces his card in his leather wallet and takes a sip of vodka. Window Seat places one bottle of water on her tray. “I have a feeling you’re going to need this,” he says, with a smile. She likes his smile, the way a dimple appears at the edge of his cheek when his lips curl.
“Thank you.” Her tone is a little warmer now that she’s taken a few gulps of the drink in front of her. She can almost feel the anxiety beginning to release its chemical grip on her brain as the alcohol renews her numbness. That feeling, that brief release of everything is what she’s been chasing in the past few weeks. But each time a higher dosage is required.
Window Seat clears his throat and sets his cup down. “As an engineer, I feel like I have some kind of civic duty to let you know air travel is completely safe.”
She’s heard it all and read it all before. She hates when people say this. “Until it isn’t.” She means to say it only to herself, but it comes out through her lips anyway. She immediately regrets speaking it, for her own sake. Now, she’s shattered her own illusion of safety that she’s been struggling to construct. “I mean, I know that, but it’s like my body doesn’t,” she continues after a moment.
“Some say that alcohol only makes it worse.”
She can’t imagine that’s true when it makes everything else so much better.
“How many have you had already?”
It would be an intrusive question if she wasn’t certain he can smell the previous drinks on her breath. “A few.” She’s ashamed to admit the actual total to this man, stranger that he is. It’s 9 p.m. but she’s had at least twelve, not counting the one in her hand presently. Not all at once, but since rolling out of bed after another sleepless night and leading up to this goddamn flight. She finishes the vodka in one more long draw. “I’ve had a rough few weeks.” More like months, maybe even years. But the last few weeks were definitely the peak difficulty of her life to this point.
He leans into the window behind him to face her better, their legs almost touching. “Is everything okay now?”
She hesitates, the warmth of old tears threatening to renew behind her eyes. She adjusts in her seat to see him better. What the hell? She’ll never see him again, right? “No,” she answers honestly. She doesn’t have to care about making this uncomfortable. He’ll probably sleep the rest of the flight and when they part at the gate in the early morning, this will just be a funny anecdote about how he met a girl on the plane who freaked out and unloaded her drama on him. “My mom died two weeks ago.” Ella wasn’t her mom. Legally, maybe, but not really. Ella was her aunt and the only mother she’d ever known. Ella was her home and now she’s gone. For the average person who grew up in a normal, complete family it’s hard to imagine that dynamic. But everyone can understand the impact of losing a mother.
He looks into her eyes. “I’m so sorry.” There’s something about his steady gaze that’s comforting but also makes her want to avert her eyes. His words are unremarkable, but their simplicity is a relief. She’s exhausted from the “she’s in a better place” and “at least she’s not suffering anymore” comments. It’s like a prod with a hot iron each time she hears it. She doesn’t believe in the sentiment behind those phrases even though she wants to now more than ever.
“Yeah. Thanks,” she says.
He takes another sip and cups the drink between his hands. “What was she like?”
“What?” She’s taken aback by this question although she’s not sure why. Maybe because its sincerity is so unexpected. Why would this man ask something like that? Why does he care?
“Your mom – what was she like?”
The burning starts again behind her eyes. “I don’t know.” She picks at the skin around her cuticles. It’s her disgusting habit. She usually keeps her nails painted as a deterrent, but they’ve been unvarnished and picked raw since days before the funeral. “She was fun and smart.” She laments that her cup is empty. “Crazy smart.”
From her periphery, she can see Window Seat watching her.
She shakes her head and rubs at the dampness under her eyes. “That’s such a stupid, meaningless thing to say.” Ella was indescribable.
“No, it’s not,” he says quickly. “I only hope people say that about me after I’m gone.” He laughs. “But honestly, the best I can hope for at this point is ‘he wasn’t a total fucking moron.’”
She laughs with him at that. Her laughter continues past his, though. She keeps laughing, not so loud that everyone turns to look, but loud and long enough that Window Seat’s expression changes. She laughs until it morphs into a strangled sob. She covers her face with her hands and leans her elbows onto the tray. Her body shudders with each breathtaking, gasping, hiccupping cry from her lips.
His hand is heavy on her shoulder, but in a good way, like one of those weighted vests they put on lap dogs scared of lightning. “Why don’t you drink some water?” he suggests softly, so close to her face she can feel his breath rustle through her hair and warm the back of her hand.
His hand lingers as she pulls away from the tray and unscrews the bottle of water. He scrambles for a moment before handing her the two cocktail napkins that came with his drink.
She turns away and furiously wipes at her face until black streaks stop appearing on the napkin. Somehow the man by the aisle still hasn’t moved in his seat.
Window Seat squeezes her shoulder lightly and then releases it. Liv’s normal instinct would be to pull away but, just like his smile, there’s something comforting about the weight of his hand.
She faces him again. “I’m sorry.” Her voice is thick now.
He seems unfazed. His eyes are unchanged although now his smile is gone. There’s absolutely no trace of it. “No, don’t be. It’s me – I keep making stupid jokes. That’s just my default. Sorry.”
She lays the crumbled napkin on the tray. “No, it’s not that. I’ve been such a wreck lately.” She drinks from the bottle of water, the cool sensation trickling down her throat. She sets it down and meets his eyes. “Actually, that’s why I’m going to Scotland,” she says, taking in a shaky breath. “She wanted her ashes to be scattered there.” Subconsciously, she glances above their seats at the overhead bin.
He raises his eyebrows at that, following her gaze. “Oh.”
She nods with a wry smile.
“Oh,” he says again. “So, in a way, your mother is still with us?”
She laughs out loud again, taking another sip of water. “Yes, in a way. Don’t worry, I didn’t smuggle it on.”
“I didn’t know that’s how it works, you know, um…carrying someone’s remains on a plane.”
She had carefully chosen an airline that allowed her to bring the ashes in a carry-on. There was no way she would take any chances with checked baggage.
She leans her head against the headrest and sighs. “That’s where her side of the family is from. She grew up there. My grandfather uprooted her and her sister when they were little to come to Boston. He got his Ph.D. at Harvard, and then they just never left.” She massages her temple with one hand. “She always wanted to go back someday. They still have some family there.”
“You mean you still have family there?”
She starts fidgeting with her nails again. “I never thought about it like that. I mean, I don’t know any of them. They don’t even know I exist.”
“That’s really nice that you’re doing all of this for her,” he says. “Especially since you hate flying.”
She’s almost forgotten they were on a flight. The sudden remembrance makes her stomach sink. “Well, I didn’t know I would hate it. This is actually my first time flying,” she admits. “Now, I can’t believe I have to do this all over again just to get back home.”
“It’ll be easier the second time,” he says, smiling.
She glances down at the display on her phone screen. The entire cabin has gone dark, with a few people huddled under their jackets watching the screens on the back of the seats in front of them. “Aren’t you going to try to sleep?” she asks.
Window Seat shakes his head. “No. I’ll stay up with you.”