The seatbelt sign went off, off with a bing strong enough to jar her out of the fitful doze that was all she could ever manage on planes. The no-smoking sign stayed on, of course, and the idea drifted through her mind to wonder whether there was even an off-switch for it at all. Deceptive of them, really, to have an on with no off.
Her neck complained stiffly about the headrest as her legs reached for the last bit of room under the seat. Heels had been a bad choice, one side of her mind — the side she had inherited from her mother — told her logically, but she shushed it back to sleep. She reached up to pull her hair back in a pin, holding her phone in her lap, and watched the burnished face of her watch catch the reading light and send a splash dancing across his seat. Things had been so last-minute that the only seats left for them had been divided by an aisle; now the other side of her mind sent the oblong flash shining in his eyes, blinking him awake.
She loved to watch him wake up, the way he did on the third Sunday of the month when he didn’t have a shift the night before and she didn’t have classes either and they’d tucked into bed early. Something told her it was honesty she was watching, the most honest time of the day, when he didn’t push the hair back from his forehead and hadn’t shaved yet, when he quietly struggled out of sleep and into morning. And she saw that now too, differently, more darkly, as the pools of reading lights hit highlights along the sleeping aisle.
Two seats over was the window, and she turned to it and looked past the business-suited forty-something and the young blonde with him, looked past to see the pinprick patchwork of ground and buildings and cities and streetlights that they had left behind, now smaller even than they had seemed that morning. For a shrinking had happened, she realized with surprise as the miniature life-scenes below looked familiar to her; a shrinking, yes, a miniaturization of what had before seemed so large. The classes, the extra shifts, the debt and the new bonsai for the side table — all these took up such huge bits of life before this morning, and the phone call, but now, she thought quietly, she could see them for the tiny things they had been all along. Only the phone call was left large, left centerpiece and looming, an exclamation mark to what with cleared eyes looked like remarkably period lives.
He was awake, and she turned from the window as he touched her shoulder, leaning over the armrest to ask how she was doing, if she’d been able to sleep. She said something funny about being jealous that he had gotten the exit row, for she was almost as tall; but behind the joke lay what they both knew, that the weakness, the fatigue wouldn’t let her open the stupid exit door in the unlikely event of an emergency, and how airlines were so strict about it. He handed her a bottle of water, said she should try to drink, and she held it half-unscrewed, watching his back recede down the aisle to the lavatory.
The restroom door snapped shut, unfolding and latching in the awkward airplane way that sounds thunderclap to the next three rows. He sat, pants up, hands to his head, and leaned back against the slanting wall. The single light traced shadows around mirror and tiny bowl-sink, and his eyes fell down to the boots on his feet and how they kicked up against the door. His closet was bigger, and the thought came that even the closet in their old apartment, the studio with a Murphy, even that had been bigger.
Head up, he raised himself to the mirror, hit the tiny faucet on and splashed cold on the tired, tired tousle that stared back at him. The bulb above caught the handfuls of water and sent tiny fireworks of light across the walls, and he rubbed his eyes, trying to blink them awake again. The phone call had been early, he remembered, but the night before had been late too; and did the account ever balance, or had he dreamed that bit? The washing machine, that was it, the thought fell through his brain and landed with his palm as he slapped the water off — the repair bill had come in just as the water bill had gone out, and there was all that still to deal with, to make work.
Snap was the door, open, panels folding and crashing one into another, and the boots followed lights on the floor as reading lamps pooled onto navy blue patterned aisle carpet. He heard the sound just when the rest of the plane did, and watched the crunch-splash of bottled water come leaking down between the seats to his feet. And he was running, chasing the last few rows to her and the people jumped up around her. And her arm was limp, pale again, and he held it in one and reached for his bag with the other, for the orange-bottled tablets that gave breath again. And he called her, shouting her name through the vacuum until oxygen came again. And the business suit was calling for the stewardess, and his twenty-something blonde was crying, shocked, and digging through her purse for the phone that would be useless at thirty thousand feet.
And the cap was stuck. The safety cap with her name in red printing that he had hastily slammed shut after her dose on the subway, it wouldn’t open, and in anger the left boot came down, crushing it unreadable and freeing the tablets to scatter under the seat. Two were in his hand, then between her lips, and he cradled her head and begged her to swallow. Her name, he still heard her name, and realized it was in his voice, reaching desperately to pull her back again, long enough for them to land. Her hair fell loose as the air racked its way up her throat, and she shook into his arms when it exploded out, ragged, hard.
The white coat left and the door closed behind it, slammed in that heavy solid-wood way, and she stirred soft on the bed. Something beeped, up and down, and her right arm was lost under clear wires of liquid and air. Her left found him, stretched and long, jeans and shirt on linens and whites, catching sleep next to her heartbeat.
She loved to watch him wake up.