My Mother’s Presence in the Universe
Some bored friend of mine had driven me to the airport and we talked about boredom. We felt it but remained skeptical about it defining our generation. I said I was keeping an eye out for something to happen in my life that would blow my mind. I said I felt like I’d heard everything before and when would I encounter a new idea, maybe when someone I love dies, because that had never happened to me. The friend told me about her uncle’s funeral when she was eight, looking up at his coffin and seeing only the curved edge of his nose like the distant fin of a shark.
I said, “Did you love him?” and she said, “Not really, but he was definitely dead.”
“So the death was like the distant fin of a shark,” I said.
We lived in the city, in order to be going someplace. The flight was to visit home, and I felt virtuous; my mother was depressed and needy. It’d be bare, the gentle landscape muddy that time of year, with a thin gray sky, and beyond every flat-roofed house along the wavy roads, a human splotch wearing plaid in a field. It was not that big a plane, not that nice a plane, but I didn’t know the difference. This was a long flight for me at four hours. It started day and landed into the night. I wouldn’t even see that landscape until I woke in the dusty bed my mother had tried to make nice for me.
This was before they filled planes up. My row was somewhere behind the exit rows but not up against the toilets. I had the aisle, no one was in the middle, and there was a woman in the window seat, staring out the window, dirty blond hair down her shoulders, wearing plaid, maybe a little older than me, but not much, and maybe, in retrospect, just looked older. I took out my book. It was still audio-only with occasionally screens up the aisle. I was never a techy-media person anyhow. Later I made a rule in my life where I could buy a trashy magazine only for an airplane, and later I made a rule in my life about TV only on airplanes. I’d find it hard to get off the plane in the middle of a show, some anger about outside forces cutting me off, the arbitrary nature of time, the force on me of even the basest possible narrative arc, like the getting on and later off an airplane. But I’m not doing the wireless, not even now. I still like to be a little behind the curve and a little judgey about people who keep up and think they’re keeping up, how can you trust anyone who thinks they’re keeping up?
I wonder what I could have been reading. I wonder how I went from reading to being in a conversation with her. I think I felt her shaking, looked up, and she was looking right at me, shaking, like do something about this.
“Do you fly a lot?” she said. I took it as a compliment.
She said, “I think we’re going to die.” She had a fleck of something on her lip but it didn’t disgust me.
Well, I stepped right up. What on earth did I do? I know I didn’t have anything like the data of how crashes hardly ever happen and I’d never heard of “breathing.” Did I touch her? Daphne. By the time the cabin doors were closed I knew her name. She clutched either her seat arm or my hand on a seat arm, I don’t remember, which shows you how connected I felt, to conflate myself with an inanimate object holding her. What magic words did I spew that got us off the ground? She cried and said very fast through an awful clenched face all the way up: “We’re going to die, we’re going to die, we’re going to die.”
But when we leveled off she changed completely. Her face became broad, placid, vibrant. I looked for a remnant of tears and saw none. I felt great about myself. I’d felt like such an outsider growing up with girls who turned into women like her, unlike women like me, who moved to the city with their awesome bored friends. I indulged some reveries about bumping into girls like that when I got home. I spotted their wandering kid at a mall, I fixed their flat on a road, they called me out of the blue and, you know, whatever, I was great. When I noticed Daphne again she’d apparently already pushed her flight attendant button, done some financial exchange right over my lap, and was cheers-ing me with a tiny bottle and then dumping its contents into its plastic cup of ice.
“This is so fucking life affirming, I can’t tell you,” she said. “I been through some shit. Men shit, money shit, you name it shit. But I am turning a corner. I can feel it. Let me tell you, I was scared, friend. But here we are, and cheers to us. Cheers to us and fucking airplanes.” She clucked and chuckled. I knew just what it felt like to be her, elated in suddenly fresh air that is not actually fresh. I told her she was so brave. I ordered a drink, too. I think it was wine. I had a little thing of rosewater to spritz on myself and let her spritz herself with it. “That’s nice!” she said, looked at the label, and moved her lips to memorize it.
I took up my reading again. Camus, Hamsun, Dostoyevsky? Deep in there until it must have been some sound—a snake in the leaves by the creek outside the house I grew up in where I was going—that made me look over at her again, and when I did she was on another emotional planet. Some amount of little tips of bottles were peeking out of her seatpocket like the fingers of a hand, and how could I have missed her getting them from the fight attendant? That’s the inertia of the power of what you think is going on zooming past what is actually going on. She started talking again. She was on her way home after rehab, she had fucked her life up so much, caused so much pain to the people she loved, she couldn’t even tell me the terrible things she’d done, no one should forgive her, something about a child her friend was keeping for her, stealing from her father, hitting her boyfriend, him hitting back, she’d fucked someone, she was supposed to tell him, to begin to make amends. “I can’t face him. None of them. When I get off this airplane I’m going to a motel, I know just the one. Do you know the one over on airport boulevard has a sign with the arrow through the heart?”
“You could get a good night’s sleep,” I said. “See him in the morning.”
“That’s the motel I always wanted to kill myself in.”
So that got me scrambling on the inside and cool, cool, on the surface with lots of crisis intervention ideas about not being alone, bathtaking, time passing, the pure love of animals, did she have a pet? But everyone hated her and she couldn’t face any of them. Then for a moment she could, it was going to be fine, they would see that she had cleaned up, then nope, she could never, never face them, she was going to the motel with the arrow through the heart, it was destiny, she had always known it since she first lay eyes on—what did she say? She said “first laid eyes on it” and then when she came back around to that part of the circle she said, “first laid eyes on him.” I remember that perhaps because I was leaning over the empty middle seat with my hand on her armrest but her hands kept moving around, touching the seatpocket and then the control panel on the ceiling, but not doing anything. She took her seatbelt off as if she were going to get up and leave but then put it back on. She moved the windowshade up and then partway down and then up again, and that is just like yanking a stranger’s eyelid. “I’ll get one more drink, no I won’t, I need it, it doesn’t matter,” around and around and there seemed to have been more drinks and also not more drinks, just as I seemed to have convinced her to call her friend named Lori who seemed the best chance of a person who didn’t hate her, “just in case,” I said. “You could be wrong, and you don’t want to kill yourself and then be wrong.” Ok, she’d call Lori. But then, she had always wanted to kill herself in that very motel with the heart with the arrow through it. Then back around to Lori via my incredibly insightful empathetic logic, then around again so that I do not remember how I got off the plane, only an evil battle somewhere behind the exit rows of my mind about whether it was better for her and the rest of the world to just die if she really wanted to, and an image of her in the motel room with the heart, not yet dead, sitting on the edge of the bed looking at something in her hands that I couldn’t see, even in my own imagination, and sure as shit not thinking about me.
I made it through the airport along the walkway toward baggage past murals in tribute to tobacco, and there was my mother to pick me up because this was before homeland security. And if this will say anything about the quality of my mother’s presence in the universe, by the time I made it from seeing her among the conveyor belts to giving her whatever greeting we made in those days (I can’t picture touching her, but I know we must have touched)—Daphne—and I do not remember her name, I just made that shit up and pretended it was true because I have no memory of what her name was or if we ever exchanged names, and names are just placeholders for human beings anyhow—but anyhow Daphne disappeared like the fin of a shark into the waters of my mother’s presence like a plane going down ironically—but I hope you know how much I mean it.
The visit was okay. My mother and I annoyed each other but also made each other laugh and she was, I don’t know, mothery but in a nice way.
Within a few years quite a number of terrible things had happened. Life experiences. The gruesome deaths of some distant relatives, the gruesome deaths of some beloved animals, the gruesome destruction of the lives of people near and dear. The economy collapsed on the radio and throughout the community. On television, there was an entire show dedicated to nostalgia for secretly savvy stewardesses who wore fantastic shoes and strode through the smoke of a thousand sexy cigarettes gliding above a country where stewardesses were stewardesses and assholes turned out to be people with their own demons. On real airplanes people could spend the entire ride comparing loyalty plans and think they’d gotten to know each other.
Back on that flight with Daphne, ten minutes before our final descent, we hit some turbulence. She clutched her armrests. “I want to die,” she said, and then she said, “We’re going to die,” and then she said, “I want to die,” and then she said, “We’re going to die.” You can imagine the many tones of voice she used when saying these words. Were there even any other people on the plane at this point? I remember no one. Where I definitely didn’t know shit, though, is with regard to my mother, who over the years just went down and down, her body her very own airplane, her brain her very own pilot who eventually tells the control tower how much he loves his wife, and in the final seconds takes his fancy hat in his hands, shuts his eyes, does nothing.
Lucy Corin's third book of fiction, Over a Hundred Apocalypses, is forthcoming from McSweeney's Books.