Turbulence (Short Story)
There was a low mechanical groan when the engines stalled and gave out.
The A320 seemed to hang in the air for a moment as the ascent came to its conclusion, like a paper airplane reaching its apex. The plane banked abruptly to the left and began to fall from the sky like an amusement park ride.
Passengers and luggage violently spilled from the right side of the plane and smashed against the interior. She was surprised how loud the alarms were. Most of the overhead bins on her side of the plane were hanging open like screaming mouths. Her seatbelt kept her in her seat as the plane began to roll upside down. Her arms raised over her head and swayed lifelessly as gravity took over.
The plane rolled over again and the nose dipped towards the earth in free fall. She reached out and grabbed the back of the seat in front of her and locked her arms. A body from the back cabin of the flew past her. Its legs caught a row of seats sending it tumbling end over end towards the front of the plane. She was able to catch brief glimpses out of the window. It was hard to make anything out other than flashes of the ground getting closer and closer.
She looked down towards the front of the plane. There were many passengers still strapped into their seats. No one was praying or calling their loved ones like in the movies. It was just panic, chaos and indecipherable noise.
“Brace for impact.”
She wondered if she would be able to experience the millisecond before death. She pictured the nose of the plane smashing into the ground like the back of that Beastie Boys album cover, crumpling in on itself in slow motion as a ball of orange fire rushes from the front of the plane towards her and instant oblivion.
That’s how she always imagines it happening, anyway.
/ / /
Jessica made her way down the sky bridge to the airplane entrance. The flight had been delayed twice for weather, so in addition to being on edge, she was now also late.
She touched the fuselage exterior with her right hand, gently sliding it across the cool, wet surface as she passed through the doorway. She couldn’t remember when or how this had become part of her ritual, but it made her feel good. With minimal eye contact and a sharp nod, she made her way past the eager flight attendant greeting passengers and moved into First Class.
It slipped out under her breath as she checked her boarding pass. The line had stopped moving. An older man comfortably settled in his seat lowered his newspaper and looked at her over the top of his glasses. She watched his eyes move up and down her body and instinctively raised her bag, pulling it close and wrapping both arms around it. He lingered for a moment and went back to reading his paper.
Once through First Class, she began scanning the seat letter assignments below the open overhead bins on each side of the aisle.
“Please don’t be a middle seat.”
32 F turned out to be a left-side window seat in the back of the plane. The last row to be exact. She let out a deep sigh of resignation. Aisle is always preferred, but It was a short flight. She wouldn’t need to get up and would have control over the window shade. Being able to see outside of the plane was important. Having control was important.
After what seemed like an eternity, she arrived at the empty row and took her seat. She slid her bag into the space under the seat in front of her, fastened her seatbelt and adjusted the air vent. Determined to get some reading done on the flight, she slipped her Kindle into the seat-back compartment and collapsed into 32 F.
Eventually, the plane backed away from the gate, taxied out on the tarmac and stopped. Jessica could see a few other planes ahead of hers waiting to take off into the dark afternoon sky. Raindrops ran down the outside of the window. She was relieved to have the row to herself and stretched out a bit. A rare luxury. She looked over the top of the seats towards the front of the plane just in time to see all the screens pause in perfect unison.
“Afternoon, folks. This is your captain speaking. Apologies for the delays…this weather has been really unpredictable. Looks like we are third in line for takeoff here…should be just a few more minutes until we are on our way. It’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride today…once we’re in the air I’m going to ask you to please remain seated with your seatbelts fastened for the duration of the short flight to Los Angeles.”
Jessica immediately began to feel hot. Her armpits flashed and she could feel sweat against the inside of her shirt. She closed her eyes and and inhaled deeply through her nose. She tried to visualize the breath moving in and out of her body just as she had been taught. After a minute or two of mostly unsuccessful mediation, she felt the plane begin to move forward and swing onto the runway. The sound of the engines increased from whine to roar and the plane began to gently shake. Without stopping, it surged forward and the force of speed gently pushed her body back into her seat. She gripped both armrests. Signs with numbers and letters that made no sense to her whipped by the window as the plane careened down the runway. She felt the increasing tempo and rhythm of the wheels moving over the runway segments. Raindrops pushed off the window horizontally. She felt the nose pick up off the ground, followed shortly by the familiar pit in her stomach as air and wings took over to lift the plane off the ground into the sky.
The cars on the freeway grew smaller and the industrial buildings around SFO eventually flickered out of sight as the plane cut into the clouds. A few small bumps caught her off-guard. She was able to see out the window. It made perfect, logical sense to be tossed around a bit in this weather. She started her mantras.
“There’s nothing wrong with the plane.”
The plane banked to the right and Jessica instinctively shifted her body to the left as if to somehow offset the imbalance. The plane leveled out and she felt embarrassed. She quickly scanned the other side of the aisle. No one had noticed.
“Everything is fine.”
She pulled the Kindle out of the seat-back compartment and turned it on. She swiped through her library on autopilot. It was purely routine. Preoccupied, she put it down on the seat next to her and stared out the window. The plane suddenly dropped a little and gently drifted left and right. She could hear the woman in front of her whooping and laughing about it.
“This is normal.”
Jessica reached into her pocket and pulled out the coin. She moved her thumb over the triangle outline point to point, then ran it around the edge of the circle as she looked out the window. She felt the small, raised words of the inscription on the other side with her index finger. She didn’t need to see it, she knew it by heart: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
/ / /
Getting sober had come easily to her.
Her drinking career was mostly unremarkable. A social drinker who took it a little too far and occasionally made some bad decisions. It was enough for her to notice the effect it was having on her life and the lives of those around her. There was no final incident. No horrific mess that required cleanup. She hadn’t experienced hitting rock bottom. She had simply run out of road and was tired. The hangovers weren’t helping either.
Seven months of sobriety was a real accomplishment. It never felt like work. She immersed herself in AA. Steps, sponsors and service were all part of her new life. She felt confident. Friends, family and colleagues propped her up with love and support. Her photography career was beginning to pick up again. The hard times were slowly fading into the background.
Still, she had work to do. Henry had forgiven her for the infidelity, but the relationship and trust were damaged. Work trips were triggers. He had a habit of checking up on her location with Find My iPhone and asking just the right amount of questions to get under her skin. Of course this was justified, but sometimes it felt punitive. Cruel.
Their last conversation hadn’t gone well. Between the fighting and the delays, she had no idea if he would even be at the airport to pick her up.
/ / /
“Small update from the cockpit, folks. Due to the bumpy weather, I’ve asked the crew members to remain seated with their seatbelts fastened for the remainder of the flight. Unfortunately, this means we’ll be skipping the beverage service. We apologize for any inconvenience. We’re looking to have you safely on the ground in Los Angeles…just about 35 minutes from now.”
Jessica was thirsty and annoyed that they wouldn’t be coming through. Her mouth was dry. Ginger Ale with ice was part of the ritual. She reached down to her bag for her water bottle, only to remember she had been on the phone arguing with Henry at the gate and had forgotten to fill it.
She thought about the Instagram video she had seen the other day on @passenegershaming. The entire service cart had been thrown up in the air due to severe turbulence. The cart was upside down in the middle of the aisle. Ice, cans, food and storage drawers where everywhere. Passengers were wiping drinks of themselves with towels and helping the attendants clean up. If a metal cart can be destroyed like that, imagine what it would do to a person. Maybe skipping service was for the best.
She checked her seatbelt and tightened it.
/ / /
She hadn’t been able to make it to any meetings in San Francisco. Truthfully, she hadn't;’t really put the effort in. She needed a break. Hitting meetings every day was good for her. There were peaks and valleys, though. The monotony of the routine eventually got to her. The pink cloud was lifting.
“Is this it? Is this all there is?”
Going to meetings in different cities or countries was never easy either. The program is structured universally and each meeting has its own unique fingerprint and flow. Always familiar enough to follow along. Even in a foreign language. She laughed to herself about that meeting in Frankfurt where only one other person showed up and neither spoke the other’s language. Longest hour of her life, but she got through it.
So she just didn’t go. She was in San Francisco for a shoot and she focused on that. The client had thrown a small party at the studio the night before and she decided to attend. She had been testing herself periodically. She wasn’t worried about slipping. It was more about fitting in socially. She just really didn’t know how to do that without a drink in her hand. She was open about being sober and people treated her differently because of it…as if she were made of glass and could shatter into a million pieces over the slightest thing.
Spending an evening with drunk people can be very sobering.
/ / /
The Serenity Prayer wasn’t just for sobriety and spirituality. It had become an integral part of her flying ritual. Repeating it over and over again helped her understand how much control she had (zero) and allowed her to come to terms with fact that every time she stepped onto an airplane she needed to be at peace with the concept of death. Once she accepted that truth, flying became slightly easier.
An announcement about final approach, tray tables and seat back positions snapped her out of deep thought. The cabin was bustling with activity and the bumps, which had never stopped, picked up as the plane began its uneasy decent through the storm clouds.
The plane suddenly banked to the left to turn away from the coast on its approach to LAX. Jessica looked out the window on the other side of the aisle just in time to see grey sky transform into the brown grid of suburban El Segundo. Blue tarps and swimming pools accented the sprawl. The plane evened out into a series of bumps and drops. She looked south towards Long Beach and remembered meeting a pilot in a bar who told her that landings were mostly computer-controlled and the pilots were there in support roles.
She never found out if that was true or not, but it was weirdly comforting.
The plane banked left again, turning over Inglewood. It dipped and swayed erratically over the 405 freeway as it approached the runway. It felt like a big boat on choppy seas. Her body tensed up. She pushed the back of her against the seat, closed her eyes and held her breath The plane’s rear landing gear slammed into the runway. Hard. The nose followed with an equally forceful thud. She could barely hear the sound of scattered applause over the howl of air colliding with the open wing flaps. She put her right arm on the headrest of the seat in front of her to combat the force of the plane dramatically reducing speed.
The plane slowly taxied to the gate. She grabbed her backpack from under the seat and placed it next to her. She stuffed the unread Kindle inside it and checked her phone. No text messages, no voicemail.
She was the last passenger in line to get off the plane. As she made her way back through the cabin past the cleaning crew and an empty First Class, she remembered the older man. One of the pilots was standing in the cockpit doorway with a big smile, thanking everyone as they passed by.
She touched the inside of the door on her way out to complete the ritual loop and made her way up the sky bridge to the gate. She stopped and checked her phone again.
She opened Find My iPhone and waited for the device list to populate. Henry’s iPhone never appeared.
Jessica stood in the middle of the terminal for a few moments as busy travelers moved around her on both sides. She put her phone in her pocket and made her way to the taxi pickup area.
“I should probably get to a meeting.”