Communities can be drawn, created, discovered, inferred. But communities can also be overlooked. There is a community of people who are all in airplanes at the same time. At any one moment there are thousands, all occupying the unnatural altitude above the earth. Enduring the same rituals, sitting in the same positions. A community in transit, in transition. A community of space and time and spatial time that transcends both. It’s a giant orgy of collective risk. Climbing into that phallic machine, sitting closely together, touching with every attempt to move. Sharing a limited air supply as you would beneath bed sheets. Sometimes you have a drink or two to take the edge off. But when I’m sitting in a plane, the other people around me—the fellow lonely people, the fellow weary travelers, the fellow fear-of-flighters—are the last thing I am thinking about. Up there in the sky, I get romantic about the aerial views. Romantic and sometimes suicidal.
I’ve flown over the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, the Bay Bridge, the Alps, the German countryside. I’ve flown over Mt. St. Helens, and the midwestern plains, and every time I isolate myself from the humans within reach and fall in love with the geography. At first, it’s the kind of love where I want to take pictures and show people in line at the bank, to remark on the physical beauty and ignore any flaws or discomfort. As the Xanax and the landscape tingle in and catch my firing neurons in a waiting net of tempered emotions, it becomes a deep lust. A wish to reach down from where I am and feel the cottony underbrush of the mountains or stroke the length of Arkansas’ geometric fields. An uncontrollable desire for tactile satisfaction.
That I can’t parachute down into the Great Lakes and taste them with my whole body becomes physically stifling. And slowly it consumes me. A full-body pica. I want to be a part of the landscape. Not to touch it, but to be inside it. To be born of it and die crashing into it. I think: Will I ever see anything as beautiful as a Utah winter from the sky? Crevices carved into the geology like lines in a wisened palm, waiting to be read. The twilight over the deep South, lighted towns stand out like blemishes on the earth’s dark face.
Below us there are people I will never meet, and as we fly above them they might, on a quiet street, they might hear the roar of our engines, miraculously powering forward. I think: This is the biggest impact on the lives of these strangers I will ever have—the faint rush of an airplane overhead, to which I contribute nothing but weight. A minor contribution to the aural landscape of their lives. And at that moment, I can think of no more glamorous, exhilarating, unintentional death than diving headfirst into the Appalachian snowbanks, returning home. I feel the pull of something bigger than our roaring steel cage. Maybe gravity is just the earth missing us when we leave.
It’s a greedy impulse, wanting to be consumed by something unreachable. To look down at the landscape and want more. I would make a terrible bird. It makes me antisocial, wanting to commune with the topography and not with the real people all around me. I can’t watch the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean from my seat in the sky and not want to melt directly into it. To actually physically melt. To willingly donate my skin in an act of selfish indulgence. This is the part where the love gets ugly. I start getting jealous of animals that can fly. Jealous of skyscrapers and astronauts and pilots. Jealous of clouds and imaginary winged creatures. I start thinking of all the things I would give up on the ground to make my own home in the sky. How I can get what I want when it’s unreachable. How I can’t possibly go back down to earth, after having been up so high. I start making bargains. The process of love becoming jealousy is much like the process of grief.
And then I realize, when the lights come on and the flight attendant comes over the intercom, that it will all be over soon. The flight. The journey. The cramps. The lust. The mini bottles of cabernet and that warm, heavy feeling start to empty. I remember that someone I love is waiting at sea-level. I remember that one day soon enough I will be back in the earth, by plane or by disease or by the slow deceleration of my faculties and functions. Until then I should embrace the temporality of human connections. Stop being greedy. Start looking up when I hear an airplane and think about that commune of passengers. How much I share with them and how little. I should ask the woman beside me in row 27 where she is going and where she has been. The solution, maybe, is to give up the window seat. To get up, to stretch my legs. To look around.