Nathan Hill’s stories have appeared in Fiction, AGNI, Denver Quarterly, Born, and several other publications. He teaches writing at Florida Gulf Coast University

Aero phobe

posted Jan 18, 2011

n, One who fears flying; one stricken with fears of airplane disaster.

Etymology: It begins here, at the moment of takeoff, when the airplane is between two and ten feet from the ground, when you imagine a sudden wind blowing up and under one wobbling wing and everybody dies: the plane tilts into the brittle concrete, upripping the tarmac like a knife on clay, and the nose comes down and the plane pole-vaults into the air, rolls, bursts like a tomato, and all the plastic and metal and human pieces come spurting out, how the plastic armrests and windowshades melt and vaporize, how the metal unconstructs itself and gets buried into the earth, becomes again the glowing hot rock from which it was made, and oh the people, the people everywhere, their bodies butterflied and mangled and torn, how you feel your own body popping apart at the joints as you dig your fingernails into your leg and the plane gains its altitude and the engines chug and chug: higher you go into the fog, into the full moonlight above the clouds, the buzzing cabin and popping ears, the seatbelt ding, and when the pilot eases up on the engines it sounds as if they've died—you're gliding now, drunk on physics, slick with sweat, one-hundred tons heavy with nothing to keep you up but long, dumb wings—and so you try to settle into your routines, you have your ginger ale, you make eye contact with the flight attendants during the safety instructions because you think they appreciate it, and you appreciate them, their dependability, their utterly reliable speeches (please stow your traytables, etc., in their upright and locked, etc., tampering with bathroom smoke detectors is strictly seated in an exit row please leave your seatbelt fastened until an oxygen mask falls from the seatbelt sign so please feel unable or unwilling to move about the luggage may have shifted during the hope you enjoy your local time is thank you for flying with us) but now, uh-oh, the plane shudders and you're certain that mechanical parts you don't know the names of have failed: the valve-opener, turbine-stamper, gasoline-sorter, engine-damper, wing-bearing-smoother, they've all failed or soon will, they'll all break apart when you hit a pocket of turbulence—whatever turbulence is, whatever evil substance turbulence is made from: that nothingness, that unair—and the plane falls from out of the troposphere like a coconut, six miles up, falls end-over-end screaming and panicking for ten full minutes and you wonder why you think about these things instead of other more normal and nice and happy things, why can't you be more like this guy next to you, for example, watching TV, trying to make small-talk, says he's flying into Pittsburgh, then going to Harrisburg, which is between Millersburg and Gettysburg, and you're trying not to panic and you're trying to appreciate these small lessons in American geography and he asks you where you're going and you think I am going to die, a crash so big it can be seen from the news, flashing lights, no survivors, maybe they'll talk about threats and warnings and letters, bombs in carry-ons, shoes and underwear, or somewhere newer and cleverer, the alert status pushed from yellow to orange, to bright-burnished red, then to deathly crimson and you can't, you can't, you can't think of anything else, and you try to read your book, you take your pills and try to sleep, you think I'm okay up here, you try to convince yourself that statistically speaking this is safer than driving, but what you're thinking about—you can't help it, your brain won't let you forget it, how it pushes like a linebacker through the beta-blocker haze, punctures a hole in the Zoloft and Paxil and Xanax you take to fence it in—is that day years ago when everybody watched those planes, and you watched too and you couldn't move on the couch all day and night and into the next day and even after you picked up the phone again and people said you should go outside get some air turn off the TV and even when people started visiting and bringing food and sympathetic smiles you couldn't stop watching as the planes crashed the planes crashed the planes crashed the planes crashed oh god the planes crashed so many times eventually you were on them, you died inside them, and how afterwards you knew at any given moment there loomed inevitable death and disaster, you'd see a firetruck on the other side of the street and think it was your house on fire, your family dying, your loved ones burning like charcoal, or you'd cough and become convinced of unreversable cancer, how it'd feel like two twin stones in your lungs, how heartburn became a riot of tumors in your soft, thin belly, how the number of potential muggers on the sidewalk suddenly tripled, how everyone looked evil and out to get you, and how you were now, for the first time, afraid to fly, how you discovered this on your next trip, a full year later, when you sat gripping the armrests so tight one of your fingernails actually popped off, and so now you do the best you can: you stare out the window, keep to yourself, think mild thoughts to pass the time—you note how cities look orange from above but never from below, and that's tame enough, no danger there, but then you also note how clouds look like smoke from demolished buildings, how they rise in thick middle fingers, like violence in super-slow-motion, and this takes you back into your head and down a hole you don't want to go—clenched teeth, bleeding nose, make it stop—and you suffer this way until finally, thank god, you feel the gentle bump of a safe landing, you return to the kindness of solids, terra firma touchdown, and you melt into your seat, you grab your bag, you scutter down the gangway, you breathe that recycled monolithic airport ventilation and you run, past the bathroom lines and smoking rooms, past the food courts and first-class lounges, past the airport chapel empty but thick with repentance, back through security and limo drivers and baggage claims and into the wild and free and turbulent merciful air.