“It’s broken,” he says, blushing the way some people do when they find themselves talking about delicate matters with complete strangers. She blushes back, because other people’s shame always embarrasses her.
“Sorry,” he says. “Nothing’s going down.”
“It’s okay,” she says.
The line for the toilet runs the length of the economy section. The lavatory across the aisle is crisscrossed with yellow caution tape. They were warned about this during the three-hour delay at the gate, and again by the captain shortly after takeoff, who also broke the news that the air conditioning unit was “not currently operational,” a vaguely technical description that accepted no responsibility.
“Do you think we should tell someone? he asks.
She wonders how this happened, how they became a “we”. Her luck, to be next in line.
“I’ll do it.”
“Gosh, really? That’s so nice of you.”
He is short, lumpish, a mouth breather in a button-down shirt that is too small at the neck and belted painfully at what passes for his waist, making his torso look like a misshapen balloon. Wings of sweat fan out under both of his arms. His combover reminds her of her father’s, before he married Rhoda and started wearing a piece.
“I feel like hugging you,” he says.
The plane lurches sharply to one side. She stumbles and finds herself thrown into him, a soft, damp landing. He gasps, but moves quickly to set things right, taking her hands and helping her up, blinking and smiling.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“It’s not your fault,” she says, extricating her hands from his. “I fell on you.”
A chime sounds as fasten seatbelt signs light up across the cabin.
“I owe you one,” he says, squeezing past her.
She watches as he makes his way slowly down the narrow aisle, apologizing to other passengers when his body invades their personal space. She looks around for a flight attendant, but there are none at the back of the plane.
The aircraft pitches again, and she widens her stance, bracing herself between the two lavatories. The captain’s voice comes over the speakers, something about air pockets and changing altitudes, but she is not comforted. In her dreams, she always dies this way. She knows this feeling, the feeling of inhabiting a space that is at one moment sturdy and safe and the next plummeting inexorably toward the earth, the quiet terror of the nothingness that awaits. Everything always fades to black before impact, but she has been through this so many times before that it feels like a premonition.
Rhoda’s words echo in her head, complete with her flat midwestern accent. “He sleeps most of the time these days, but when he’s awake, he’s asking for you. You don’t have to forgive him. You don’t even have to talk to him.”
She hadn’t told anyone she was coming, but once the flight manifests are made public, or her body is identified in the smoldering wreckage of Flight 2802 from Los Angeles to Cleveland, they will know why she boarded the plane. She wonders whether anyone will tell her father, but knows in her heart that they will spare him, that he will die the way he lived, insulated from other people’s pain. “Of course she’s coming,” Rhoda will whisper in his ear, “she loves you. She’s taking the next flight. It won’t be long now.”
“Excuse me, miss? You have to return to your seat.”
She is sitting on the ground, her knees to her chest, her face wet. She stands up quickly, running her hands through her hair, and over her face. She is about to tell the flight attendant about the toilet, but it dawns on her that she doesn’t owe anyone anything, and she returns to her seat.