Forgive us, O LORD, for not looking, for averting our eyes, for opening the Sky Mall magazine even though we couldn’t truly be said to be interested in Roland the Gargoyle Sculptural Rainspout or the Tranquil Sounds Oxygen Bar. Forgive us too for scrolling through our phones and powering up our electronic readers or twisting the plastic doohickeys above our heads to decrease the stale-smelling airflow pouring onto our faces. We are ashamed, LORD, to watch these ladies—and yes, LORD, those attendants who are women are all ladies, by which we mean strong and selfless arbiters of hospitality—as they do the thing they are, by law, required to do, and the thing that they, in fact, are paid to do, which is to deliver pertinent information concerning what nobody wants to think about, which is what to do and how to proceed if the giant vehicle we all will soon ride into the sky somehow malfunctions, or a Canadian goose flies into a turbine, and pilots are forced to crash land into earth or water. And while we fear dying, LORD, the truth of the matter is that we also fear that we will be caught watching the Attendants during their speeches, that our fellow passengers will notice our forward-looking gaze and cast judgment upon us, because we don’t want to give the impression that we are new enough to air travel to not ignore the safety speech. It’s not that we don’t think the safety speech is important, LORD; we do. And it’s not that the safety speech itself doesn’t ignite the fuse of our fear, which, in moments like these, can be palpable, as we admit to having faith in the ability of a giant winged capsule launch us and other strangers to a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, and despite knowing words like “turbine” and “wingspan,” we don’t have any idea how this machine works, and why—like cars steering off embankments—more planes simply don’t fall out of the sky. We also don’t know what our Flight Attendant is thinking, of if she feels awkward, or if feeling awkward is old hat, and thus is not awkward at all. We don’t know how many times she had to practice before she memorized the speech in its entirety or, as seems to be the case nowadays, mastered the timing required to synchronize the buckling and pulling taut of the safety belt while a pre-recorded voice describes its fastening, or the placing over her head the oxygen mask with the instructions to do so, and though we recognize that there’s a sort of off-putting, automated quality to most of these speeches/pantomiming, we definitely notice when the actor—that is, our Attendant—takes the role seriously, by which we mean that she doesn’t look bored but pleasantly engaged with this activity or that she never gives up trying to maintain eye contact with the uninitiated few who are actually paying attention, as this imbues her with a kind of authority that, whether we take the time to recognize it or not, allows us to be more comfortable, to settle back in our seats, and subsequently more likely to stow our electronic equipment during take-off and landing, as we would hate to disappoint someone with such an authoritative yet convivial presence. Furthermore, LORD, protect our Attendant, post-safety-speech, for that is when many of us—and we’re not proud of this, but it happens—will eyeball her, will note the hip-hugging skirt, the collared shirt open enough to reveal an expanse of neck flesh, and the absence of a ring on her left hand, and embark upon a detailed fantasy in which we might, in some alternate universe, have occasion to meet her later at an airport bar, and saying something like, “Hey, I remember you,” and “You were the Attendant on my flight,” to which she’d maybe raise an eyebrow while snatching a complimentary pretzel from wax-paper-lined basket, and say something like, “Yep. That’s me,” and although she’s suffered this same rigmarole on many occasions, has been approached by her share of admirers, or those who are merely curious about the life of a Flight Attendant—a life that is, let’s be honest, so often and rightly romanticized—she’d say “Sure” when we ask if we might buy her a drink—a vodka tonic, or another glass of Merlot—and if we’re lucky (and, as you know, LORD, in our imaginations we always are), we might hear stories about the places our Attendant has visited, how she once listened to a symphony at the Singapore Botanic Garden or tried mulukhiyah in Dubai or shopped for trinkets in Abidjan’s Treshville market, and that her favorite place to stay is the Kempinski Hotel in Budapest, one of the cheapest luxury hotels in the world, where she’s quite fond of following a full body massage with a dinner of Black Spaghetti with Fried Seafood and Tomatoes. Of course, it’s not all glamor and glitz. There was that one time when the turbulence was so bad over the Atlantic that our Attendant—bless her heart—had to shut her eyes and bite her lip and think about the pale blue water lit by lantern light at a Tahitian bungalow. And maybe she tells the story of the spilled coffee. Or how, in some countries, when you touch down and pick up passengers, it’s totally legit to walk up and down the aisle with a can of air freshener, to reduce the odor of bodies that consume pungent herbs and rarely bathe. Maybe she tells us how she hates it when travelers ask for Diet Coke, because the drink’s particular fizz takes three times longer to pour than the average soft drink. Maybe she tells us that she has a son who dropped out of community college and is touring Europe in a hardcore band. Maybe she has a daughter studying Human Nutrition at a State University. Maybe her husband killed himself, or left her, or died of a pulmonary embolism, or still loves her, or never existed. Maybe our Attendant is lonely or fine with being alone, or perfectly happy, or jaded, or vengeful, or taking online courses so she can finish a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies. Maybe she imagines, during each and every takeoff, that the Boeing 787 in which she travels, and which is the first line of aircraft to be built with composite materials, will take a sudden nose-dive, and that on this day she and the passengers whom she attends will be incinerated by a giant ball of flame. Maybe. The truth is, LORD, we don’t know. And, in all likelihood, we never will. And probably, we shouldn’t. Because we’re pretty sure that the last thing our Attendant wants, LORD, and of this we can be quite certain, is to be the subject of our assumptions, or to come alive, as it were, in our imaginations. So please, LORD, let us avert our gaze. Let us not order Diet Coke. And, as we depart, let us thank her for her service, and wish her a heartfelt and sincere goodbye.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America and the forthcoming Gateway to Paradise (both story collections), as well as inscriptions for headstones (a collection of essays). With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes. He is assembling a multi-authored manuscript titled A Book of Uncommon Prayer.