Laura Tanenbaum has taught writing and literature at New York University, Queens College and Suffolk Community College. In 2006 she was a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars Fiction contest, and studied with SLS in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her fiction is forthcoming in The Steel City Review. She is a founding editor of Vibrant Gray, a new on-line literary journal.

Middle-Aged Men on Planes

posted Oct 2, 2007

It’s a talent she isn’t always happy to have. In the waiting area it’s impossible. Jessica hunches over a paper bag from the nearby restaurant. A woman’s name is stamped in red on the bottom. She brings the water bottle to her lips and its plastic sides collapse when she inhales. It makes her look skittish. But once on board, she’ll tuck her short legs under each other and look just small and just tired enough.

She’s young, but she reads a thick hardcover. It’s about an arduous topic in foreign affairs, and the dusty black-and-white on the jacket looks not unlike a candid someone caught of the middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding last spring. He looks across Jessica’s shoulder at the photo and thinks she’ll be on his side.

He admires her fortitude as she keeps reading while they sit through another delay. He’s sighing how hard is it to stick to a schedule and if I ran my business this way. But Jessica’s a patient person, and the middle-aged man knows she treats her father correctly, not like young Stephanie, who told him just last month she didn’t mind dropping out of college and working crap jobs forever. The worst part was, he believed she wouldn’t mind. What kind of person was content with that? If she was married, sure, but she thinks no one’s good enough. Good enough for what?

He tells Jessica all this and she says, gently, maybe she doesn’t think she’s too good. Maybe she’s shy.

Yes, he says, maybe it’s that.

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Early on, Jessica made peace with the things she didn’t believe. These included things many people seemed to believe. Things like, your mind determines your reality, natural is better than chemical, your pain is stored in your body, which remembers things you don’t. Her last year in college, she shared a bottle of Jim Beam with her suitemates and decided that having a calling in life, or searching for one, was another of the things she didn’t believe in. The next day she straightened her hair and sent out fifty applications for jobs in sales.

Odds are the middle-aged man in question doesn’t believe these things either. This isn’t important except for the fact they’re things his ex-wife and teenage daughter are likely to believe.

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“You know what Ingrid Bergman said?” She asks this of one who looks younger than most. His silvering hair is spiky with gel, his puffed face radiating a mischief that goads her on.

He doesn’t, but he’s always loved her. Such grief they gave her for falling in love with Roberto Rossellini before she divorced the Swedish doctor. Wouldn’t even rate as a scandal today.

“She’d always felt guilty about how much attention she got for being beautiful. How much money she made because of it, and of course it was work, no question, but still, for something given to her. Then her flights were messed up and she was stranded in an airport for four hours. No one recognized her, she was travelling with her sister—things were different then, like you say. She didn’t like the script she was reading, so she looked around. After a few hours staring at that crowd, she didn’t feel guilty anymore.”

“Is that a true story?”

“Sure. Why not?”

He leans towards her, jacketed sleeve on the lowered armrest. “I can see why this crowd made you think of that.”

They laugh and he gives her his card.

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She looks for rings. Not that it’s reliable, not that it matters. She’s only talking to them. But she looks—notices where the finger swells, where the flesh is cut.

Where there are rings there are pictures. The children tend to be girls—girls in soccer uniforms, girls in figure skates, girls with missing teeth.

Rarely are there pictures of wives. A programmer from Florida has none of his kids, none of his wife, but three of his girlfriend. None of his friends know, he tells her. They’re religious. So is his girlfriend. In fact, they met at church.

The girlfriend has bright red skin—hundreds of Florida tans congealed into deep burn. Her lips are bright pink and turned downward. Her neck and arms are covered in gold. Jessica tells herself this is what happens to girls who stake out their lives on youth and looks. This thought makes her feel better about what she’s been thinking. But just a bit.

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These men look sad only on planes. Their suits rumple no matter how carefully they’re hung on hooks or tucked in garment bags. When the jacket comes off, their torsos lose their squareness and dissolve into a slump at the waist. The slump makes her glad when the plane lands and they give her their cards and she watches them step onto the moving walkway. But then the jacket goes back on, and the crease slides down the back, and she’s sad to see them go.

But no matter how sad he seems, she doesn’t ask if he wants to do something else, or make any general inquiries related to his happiness. He likely does not consider his happiness to be a serious question. Even if he sometimes experiences an unhappiness impossible to ignore, or treat with the cheerful bonhomie he wears everywhere but on cross-country flights, she never confuses this unhappiness with self-loathing. Whatever middle-aged men on planes hate, they like themselves just fine.

For the rare cases of true self-hatred, none of the rules apply and there may well be nothing to be done.

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Turbulence always gets them talking.

“Hope this guy knows what he’s doing.” The man will have been in the army and know about engines, or he has a motorcycle in the garage. Once there was a meteorologist who spent a half-hour delay explaining lightning. There are advantages, she’d realized, to spending one’s time with men for whom facts are the only truth.

“Well, if we go down,” she smiles, “anything you’d want to tell someone?”

There was. A friend had ripped him off years ago. He’d let it go. He couldn’t remember why. He wasn’t angry at the guy, would just let him know that he knew. He doesn’t want to go down a sucker.

They talk about people they’d wanted and couldn’t have, and so had pretended they didn’t want. They discuss the ethics of a plane-going-down-call declaration of love. Certainly more appealing than simply telling it to someone you told it to that morning.

“But wouldn’t you feel badly about that? Your last act is turning over someone else’s world, making them deal with it.”

Jessica says, “Think about it. You’re dying horrifically! In your prime! Aren’t you pissed about that? Shouldn’t they have to deal with it?”

He likes this. They’re both a little disappointed when the turbulence clears.

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Eventually she’ll be in her hotel suite and take out one of the cards. They’ll make plans to meet in one of their cities. She’ll see him walking towards her instead of drifting away into the terminal.

Just a few years ago she’d spent hours preparing to go out, complicated plans of meeting friends and friends of friends who’d gather and splinter apart. She was glad to have it boiled away: two people, a small table, one of the same few restaurants. Always a carafe, never a full bottle. He’s nice to the waitress and tips twenty percent.

He tells her about taking his daughter and her boyfriend to dinner. They boyfriend accused him of taking money from the poor in the form of his daughter’s scholarship, but, of course, lets him pay for dinner.

Jessica tries to pay but he won’t let her.

Soon, she takes him around. Friends, his kids, her parents. Even the middle-aged man who came before, whom she keeps close to her from guilt. He understands, or pretends to.

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But of course, this is the easy part. Next to the things Jessica didn’t believe, there were a few things she did, and one of them was that falling in love, or at least making someone fall in love with you, was the easiest thing, as easy as falling off a log.

The nerve comes later. Being ruthless enough to live in the shadow of those beginnings for years without thinking too much about how she got there.

If she kept her head down, and worked on this for twenty years, they might throw her a party and she might get out without too much damage.