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Airplane Mode

Story by Raven Leilani (Read author interview) January 28, 2019

Art by Mitsuru Sasaki

There was snow in the turbine. The runway was slick with ice. The plane skidded to a stop in Philadelphia, and the attendants extended the portable stairs. The plan was to wait out the storm, so she brushed her teeth in the airport bathroom and pressed the hotel voucher into her purse. The Sabbath was a few hours away. In the winter, she could see the Sabbath coming in the ice. She could see the sky inverted, blushing, and then black. No one could tell her what had happened to her luggage. So she had underwear, cash, and some perfume. Her mother was always worried about her underwear in the event of her death. She said, don’t you want to look good, when the doctors undress you for the last time? When she asked about her luggage, a police officer yelled at her. My Bible is in there, she said, as she backed away. She hadn’t seen her parents in a year. In this year, there had been another country, and there had been men. When she’d left her parents, she’d been a virgin, and every Sabbath had been carefully kept.

In the other country, the night had more precarious physics. It demanded participation to stay upright.

In the hotel, there was a Gideon Bible. She flipped through Luke and called her parents to say her flight was delayed. In the morning, she noticed that all of the towels in the room were dirty. So she used the sink, washed her face and between her legs. She taxied to the airport and a Lufthansa representative said her flight would be a red-eye, but that she was welcome to go standby for an earlier one. She decided that she would. She peeled off her socks, put her phone in a plastic bowl, and looked at the x-ray where she saw her old underwear, folded neatly into a square. At home, her parents were already in church. Already beginning service by saying welcome brother, welcome sister, pulling fellow Adventists into their arms. She wondered if her parents would see the other country on her face. The wet bridges. The boy. The deep mouths of all the bells. There was a long food court between the even and odd gates. At gate 48, a Chicago-bound 747 was being defrosted. She bought a coffee and counted her change, listened to “Going Up Yonder” on her phone. The song was about rapture. She learned the song when she was fourteen, and each time the chorus came around the choir director would tear up. Everyone in the choir knew it had something to do with the choir director’s mother. She had grown frail, and every time she came to service, she was wearing a different wig.

In the other country, rapture did not feel like yonder. It felt like it was close. The ceilings were high and gilded, and when it rained the city sank deeper into the sea. She met the boy at an expat church group. He was demure and pious, but he liked to drink. He was an American student too, though on his side of the country, they didn’t have snow. On the Rialto bridge, he forced the cork into the bottle and they shared. He said he’d had his first drink the day he arrived in the country, and now he couldn’t stop.

For the first few hours, all the planes were full. Then she stood on the standby queue for a 12:45 and a 3:00 pm. There was another girl on standby who beat her to every gate. They glanced at each other, and the girl looked embarrassed, but then she shrugged, and what this gesture meant was Christmas. She had noticed it as soon as she walked into the airport, the merry violence, everyone sleepy and hating each other. In the bathroom, there was tinsel on the floor and the changing table was torn out of the wall. Back on standby, she began to hope that someone, anyone, had slept through their alarm. After a third attempt, she went to a bar by gates 31-43. The bartender didn’t ask for her ID. An older man sat next to her and said that his wife had recently had surgery. He showed her a photo of his son, and she reached over and put her hand on his thigh. For the rest of their conversation, she kept her hand there, and his desire, his calculated ignorance, made his words bright.

In the other country, she and the boy removed cork from their teeth. They spent a few euros for another bottle of wine and they watched a man blow glass. The boy was Lutheran, but unable to explain what that meant. In the dark, his hands were uncertain and soft. A few nights later, an email came from the university listserv. It said that he had fallen into the canal and drowned.

Classes proceeded normally. There was Dante and Savonarola and per Communications 101, Marconi. There were back rooms of glove shops and Internet cafes and crypts where they kept the heads of decapitated saints. During the next expat prayer meeting, they used a baseball cap as a collection plate. They had a moment of silence and decided she would be the one to send the flowers. In the post office, she wrote his parents’ address carefully, kept checking the spelling for Anaheim.

Five hours after sunset, she got on the red-eye. There were twelve people on the flight, and no one slept. At the gate, her parents were waiting with a sign they had fashioned from cardboard. They ushered her through the snow and into the car and offered her warm Tupperware. On the drive home, they allowed her to eat in silence, but a few times her father looked into the rearview mirror, and she could see he knew that something had changed.

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Notes from Guest Reader Bix Gabriel

What first interested me in this story — as it does many readers — was the title, and its play on technology. But I was soon intrigued by the premise/setting — airports and delays are so mundane! Yet, very quickly in Airplane Mode, we are drawn into the protagonist’s interrogation of herself. I found this self-reflection, and sense of loss examined through the tedium of delays fascinating. And, Raven’s authority as a writer was so evident in how she develops this character within the economy of this piece, and in the ending. Though there were many great stories, it truly was a pleasure to read and accept Airplane Mode for publication!

About the Author

Raven’s work has appeared in Granta, Florida Review, New England Review, and McSweeney’s. She is currently an MFA candidate at NYU.

About the Artist

Mitsuru Sasaki is a Canadian photographer specializing in wildlife, skyscapes and landscapes.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Three
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