By Mike Scalise
I’d been circling Detroit in a 747 for forty minutes, low enough below the cloud line so that anyone with a window view could spit out personal trivia about the city below. Take, for instance, my friend Matthew, who by luck sat in front of me, and pointed down to a pack of beige, interlocked buildings.
“I went to school there,” he said.
Then less proudly: “We’ve passed over it five times.”
I’d also been talking with Annie in the seat next to me: a pleasant but game public radio producer, with a long sweatshirt and hair tucked behind the ears. We talked about her job, what she wanted from it, and like Matthew we talked about our relationship to the version of Detroit swirling below. (I’d never been there. I was only connecting to my home in DC, Annie to hers in Minneapolis.)
It was elevator talk, and we kept it going well enough, until the pilot’s calm voice said over the speakers that we’d been stalled in the air because the landing flaps on both wings of our 747 had, as he put it, malfunctioned. We’d have to perform what he called a “hard landing,” something equivalent to stopping a car using just the hand brake. But we trusted the professionals, and the air they drove us through, so Annie and I shared a nervous grin. From his seat in front of us, Matthew shot us a thumbs up.
It wasn’t until minutes later, when the pilot’s voice came over a third time to insist that this kind of landing was “common,” and that his crew could “handle it”—that we’d see ambulances and fire trucks blistering our way on the runway “only because the plane’s brakes will be on fire”—that it visibly struck me and Annie and Matthew and everyone else in that thin tube that the city of Detroit might very well be the last place we’d ever visit.
And yet: hadn’t we figured that already? We’d all made the same unsaid deal with ourselves, that reluctant negotiation with fate that ends the moment we gave over to the rigors of commercial flight, when we traded safety for expedience. We’d all held our IDs on top of our tickets as told, filed into our seats and clasped the weak fabric of our safety belts across our laps as a silly matter of ritual and obedience; a comic reminder that by these actions we’d made ourselves one-hundred percent complicit in our own smoldering ends. Every moment we lent over to altitude was one we also lent to science and wind speed, jet propulsion and human error. And worse: we’d paid for the opportunity. It’s a resignation, as fliers, we’d chosen to live with, probably because all it normally yields is a lame visit with fate, a trip to its zoo, to admire the look of its wildness en masse, insulated from its danger. Look how close we can get to it. And maybe because the sky is forgiving, or maybe just because of the vastness of its workload, it continues to accommodate the grand majority of us.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t close-talk with our fate up that high. For me each hiccup on a flight becomes at once something grim, a series of death-fantasies I can’t help but indulge. A spell of turbulence becomes a violent fall, a burial at sea. The lift of a takeoff becomes my muffled voice on a recovered black box, etc. But in the rare case like two years ago, when those ill fantasies got paired down, and it became clear to me and Annie and Matthew that if flying did kill us, it would do so because of faulty wing flaps and a mishandled hand brake, and that I’d likely perish with them in tumble of flame, wearing shitty jeans I hadn’t washed in days, pretending to enjoy a so-so Harper’s article about education reform—that resignation was really all we had left.
In recent years I’d taken to punctuating banal conversations by telling friends, acquaintances, and borderline strangers I loved them. “I’ll email you a link to the GIF when I get home,” I’d say to a coworker, “I love you.” Or paying a cabbie: “Just give me five bucks back. I love you.” And so on. Most didn’t think it was funny, or became numb to it, which only made me say it more, in even less appropriate contexts, to test how ill-fitting that sentiment can seem, how far we can stray from the truth of it. So when the pilot of that Detroit-bound 747 came back on a fourth time to announce that at last we’d begun our descent, the collective air around us now an invisible knot, all of us caught in a nether-region somewhere between disbelief and uncoiled panic, it struck me as the perfect, terrible context in which to clutch my hand hard around Matthew’s shoulder.
“I fucking love you, buddy.”
Matthew smiled. I could tell he didn’t want to.
“I love you too,” he said.
For two years now I’ve been thinking: how much of that did I mean? Or better, how much did the altitude allow me to? As the 747 angled its nose down maybe Annie was thinking something similar, because as I gripped my kneecap and tried to look calm, Annie, now weeping, thought I, of all people, was the fit enough to answer the question, “Are we going to be okay?”
“Yes,” I told her, with no break in my tone, “totally fine,” still unsure how much of it I meant, or could mean, or how much—given the extremely likely chance I was wrong—it mattered.
I’ve been thinking of that lie, and how true it felt to tell it. I’ve been thinking about how anything that would have left any of our mouths at that moment would have been at once outrageously false and true to the bone, how when we give ourselves over to altitude—its aching heights, its ceaseless winds—its transforms our meaning, cuts us down, leaving only that binary.
When we landed minutes later, just like the pilot said we would, there were no ambulances, no fire trucks. The brakes were fine, and so were we. When the fasten seatbelts sign came off we applauded, used our phones and such to explain the whole mess.
“Not dead,” I said to my wife, who expected nothing else. “One-hundred percent not dead.”
“Tell your husband,” I said to Annie. “Tell him we’re NOT. DEAD.”
Matthew, Annie and I walked slowly on the people movers in the Detroit Metro Airport. We passed through long blinking corridors and up escalators. We were elated and embarrassed, but we were also bound now. To what degree I still have no idea, but it manifests in happy birthday wishes over crude social media. A sincere welcoming of a new child. A handshake gripped a beat longer, squeezed a touch tighter. And while I can’t speak for them, in those blips of moments I’m back in that high, flat air with the last people I’d know, all of us performing services, trading the most honest lies we could think of.
I’ve moved recently, a slow, deliberate haul in a truck stuffed with odd sections of my life I tote around, but feel nothing for—my old Case Logic, empty picture frames, books and old furniture, knotted extension cords and unused office supplies. I’ve been thinking a lot lately of that flight, that air, as my life sits dark in boxes around my feet. It’s as low to the ground as it can get—all of it making an ill fit with a new context, and I wonder about what a little elevation might do for it these days, that if I brought it all high enough, what the altitude might distill it to.
Mike Scalise‘s articles and essays have appeared in Agni, Post Road, Ninth Letter, The Wall Street Journal, HTMLGiant, The Rumpus and a number of other magazines and websites. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Corporation of Yaddo, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University.