The Chaos of Standing Still
Descending Through Weather
The view from the window of seat 27F is like trying to look through a snow globe after you’ve shaken it so hard the artificial white flakes don’t know which way is down.
“Restless” is the word that comes to mind.
Is it safe to land a plane in a snowstorm?
I stroke my fingertip against the screen of my phone, leaving behind a sweaty streak of mysterious residue.
Is it normal for fingertips to sweat?
My heart pounds in anticipation of our landing. In the battle between solid ground and thirty thousand feet in the sky, solid ground wins every time. Hands down.
We’ve been circling for almost forty-five minutes, waiting for our turn on the one plowed runway.
I glance around to make sure no one is looking, unlock the screen of my phone, and swipe the little green Airplane Mode toggle to Off.
My phone searches for a signal. I silently will it to connect. But it won’t. We’re not close enough to humanity yet.
I toggle the switch back to On.
The flight attendants were all asked to take their seats fifteen minutes ago. “We’re expecting a little turbulence as we descend through some weather in Denver,” the pilot said.
Why do they call it “weather”? Why not use a less innocuous word? A more accurate word? “We’re expecting you to be bounced around like the last few Tic Tacs in the box while we descend through this shitstorm that we probably shouldn’t be flying through to begin with.”
“Weather” could mean anything. It could mean sunshine and fucking rainbows. It could mean warm rain and cool breezes. But they never use it to describe anything good, do they? When it comes to the airline industry, “weather” is unequivocally bad.
Maybe that’s how I should start referring to my life.
As in, “Don’t worry about Ryn. She’s just descending through some weather. It’ll be choppy for a bit.”
At least then it implies transience. Weather always changes. It eventually morphs into something else. It never stays for long.
It sure as hell beats the term supplied by the therapist my mother has been making me see for the past ten months. “Survivor’s guilt.”
There’s nothing short-term about that.
I will always be a survivor. I will always be the girl who didn’t get in the car that day. That will be my identity until the day I die.
After that, no one can call me a survivor anymore.
Miraculously, through the chaos of white, I finally spot the ground below. It’s dark down there, even though it’s only two o’clock in the afternoon. Spotting the ground makes me feel how I imagine old-time sailors felt when they spotted land after months in treacherous seas. It’s a beacon of hope. I am that much closer to not perishing in this storm. I am that much closer to continuing my legacy as a survivor.
The plane shudders, dropping what feels like a thousand feet in a heartbeat.
A few passengers yelp.
What causes turbulence?
Do pilots ever get scared when they fly?
I peer down at my screen and try the toggle again. This time, my phone starts to connect. We are close enough to make contact with the rest of the world.
I know I’m not supposed to use my portable electronic device in transmission mode until after we’ve landed. As a girl who’s never so much as stolen a cookie from a cookie jar, this little act of defiance makes me feel strangely alive. Is this what it’s like to be a criminal?
What do kleptomaniacs feel when they steal something?
Fortunately for me, my crimes will most likely go unpunished, because no one is around to witness them. The flight attendants are still fastened into their double-duty restraints.
Why do flight attendants have different seat belts than the rest of the passengers?
The guy sitting in the aisle seat next to me has been completely absorbed in his e-reader since we took off. The fear in this cabin is palpable. I’m surprised the oxygen masks weren’t released after the collective breath everyone stole when we started to toss around the sky like a balloon that someone let the helium out of. But this guy has barely looked up. Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t. Maybe his book is just that good.
The middle seat between us is empty.
I wonder if that person was running late and missed the flight.
If we crash in the next five minutes, two months from now, he’ll be sitting in a stuffy therapist’s office getting outfitted with the shiny new label of “Survivor’s guilt.” It will fit him as awkwardly as a suit made for a one armed, three-legged man. No matter how you put it on, there will always be an extra limb dangling out. An extra hole that will never be filled.
As soon as I have bars, I race to open an Internet search page and type in my first query.
Is it safe to land a plane in a snowstorm?
The answer surprises me. It’s not the storm in the air that’s the problem. It’s what it’s doing to the ground. Ice, slickness, snow-clogged runways. Nothing that makes me want to choose pilot as a career path.
The rush of finding the answer eases my anxiety. The answer itself does not.
My fingers move fast, one by one resolving the remainder of my backlogged inquiries. In the next few minutes, I learn the following:
1. It’s not particularly normal to get sweaty fingers, but it’s not abnormal, either.
2. Turbulence is the random, chaotic motion of air, caused by changes in air currents.
3. Yes, sometimes pilots do get scared.
4. Kleptomaniacs feel a fancy cocktail of emotions when they steal something: fear, anxiety, sometimes even relief.
5. Flight attendant seat belts are actually safer than ours. They need to physically be able to help us in the event of an emergency.
The adrenaline of the search distracts me from the fact that we are landing on what could be a runway made of slippery glass, and I highly doubt this plane has been equipped with snow tires.
We touch down hard, and the plane seems to tilt too far to the left, like the pilot’s attempting to do an impressive “wheelie.” I clutch my phone in my hand as the brakes screech and complain, and I wonder if sparks are flying out behind us. I suck in a breath along with the rest of the passengers. I bet they’re all really wishing they’d stayed in Atlanta right about now.
We finally slow to a safe, controlled crawl, and the plane erupts in applause.
I skip the ovation and type another question into my awaiting search box.
Why do some people live while others die?
Although the search results are numerous, there is still no conclusive answer.
I’m not sure why this time I expected there to be one.
Terminal A of the Denver International Airport is a hornet’s nest that some idiot eight-year-old boy has smacked with a baseball bat. The crankiness in the air hits me like a brick wall as soon as I step off the plane.
Every chair is taken. Tired passengers are sitting (and lying) on the floor. Small children are running through a maze of bodies. Gate agents are fighting for airtime on the overhead speaker system. People are grumbling to each other about flight delays and their ill-fated decision to fly through this particular airport.
I check the clock on my phone, which has recently synced to the new time zone. It’s now 2:58 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. Even after our in-flight game of Ring Around the Denver Airport, I still have more than thirty minutes to make my connection.
Plenty of time.
I grip my phone tighter in my hand, feeling the sharp corners of my Doctor Who Tardis case biting my skin. Gate A16. All I have to do is get to gate A16. That’s where I’ll find a plane waiting to take me home to San Francisco.
It’s been eleven months, and the word still doesn’t sound right in my head. San Francisco isn’t Home. It’s a city on a
postcard. A pin on my mother’s vision board. A destination on a boarding pass.
Then again, Atlanta isn’t Home either.
No. Portland is a just a dark spot in a rearview mirror that gets farther away with each passing day. All the things I once loved about the Portland house—drawing in my sketch pad on the back porch, Mom and Dad sharing a love seat in front of the TV, Lottie sleeping on the pullout trundle bed in my room—is gone.
That’s the thing about Homes. After you lose the things that make them worthy of a capital H, all you’re left with is an empty, lowercase house.
My phone buzzes in my hand and I swipe on the screen.
The tiny red number above the message app has changed from 1 to 9. I tap it and read seven texts from my mom and one from my dad. Pretty typical. Mom’s texts usually outnumber Dad’s by at least three to one. She’s a big fan of texting. She says it’s the least intrusive means of communication. Then she sends eight stream of consciousness messages in a row.
Mom: Hey . . . have you landed yet?
Mom: The news says there’s a huge storm in Denver!
Mom: I hope your pilot is properly trained.
Mom: Do they practice landing in snow?
Mom: I mean like real snow. Not simulated snow.
Mom: Simulated snow is NOT the same as real snow.
Mom: Text me as soon as you land!
Dad: Hope you made it safely to Denver! I hear there’s a big storm.
I delete the texts without responding and return to the home screen, holding my breath as I watch the little red counter above the app return safely to 1.
One unread message.
I release the breath and shut off the screen.
Hiking my bag farther up on my shoulder, I step into the crowd. Bodies press against me from all sides. There’s a distinct smell in the air. The kind that results from staying in one place for too long.
I glance up and take note of my current gate number. A4. I bow my head and push on, reminding myself that I only need to get to gate A16.
The plane waiting there may not take me Home, but it can certainly take me far away from this.
The only reason I have a layover in Denver is because Dad wanted to save money. So he booked me a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco on one of those cheap-o airlines that makes you zigzag across the country to get anywhere and charges you for every little thing.
Do you want a sip of water?
That’ll be two dollars.
Do you want your stuff to fly with you?
It’s twenty-five dollars to check a bag or thirty-five to carry one on.
I’m surprised they haven’t outfitted the bathroom doors with coin-operated locks. You have to pay to preselect your seat, but if you want to sit on the toilet, that’s totally free. Something to be grateful for, I suppose.
I think about writing this one down. Dr. Judy, my therapist, says there are silver linings everywhere—hidden in plain sight. It’s our job to look for them and identify them. She wants me to keep a list in my phone of all the ones I find. But somehow, I don’t think she’d appreciate my literal toilet humor here. Plus, if I added this one, I’d have to show her the rest of the list, which consists of approximately zero items.
I guess there was no way for Dad to know that this New Year’s Eve Denver would experience one of the worst blizzards in its history.
That’s a pretty bold statement given, you know, how long Denver has been around.
When was the city of Denver founded?
I try not to run into anyone as I walk through the sea of people and tap the question into my phone.
So I suppose I shouldn’t exactly blame Dad when I arrive at gate A16 and spot the big fat DELAYED sign posted behind the counter, dooming me to spend God knows how long in this overcrowded airport full of cranky travelers.
It would be so easy to, though. Blame him, that is.
But Dr. Judy says that’s a trap you don’t want to fall into. It only feels safe for a minute. Every minute after that is just paving a road to eternal misery.
I’ve never actually told her (or anyone, for that matter) that I’m already on that road. That I’ve been on that road for the past eleven months and thirty-one days. That I’m not sure life will ever be anything else but that road.
And since I’m already there, I guess there’s no harm in laying a few more bricks.
I swipe at the screen of my phone, tap on the Productivity folder, and open my note-taking app. I click on my other list—the one Dr. Judy doesn’t know about—and add three lines.
72. I blame Dad for being too stingy to spring for a nonstop flight home.
73. I blame Cheap-O Airlines for placing their “hub” in a city where it snows.
74. I blame Shannon for marrying my father and making him move to Atlanta.
When I finish typing, I do what I always do. I scroll up, skimming my long list of grievances, until I find the first three stones in my path to eternal misery. The ones that started it all.
1. I blame the cook at Pop’s for serving me a beef hot dog that was way past its expiration date.
2. I blame Lottie for being a health-nut vegetarian and ordering salad.
3. I blame the universe for giving me food poisoning that day when I should have been in that car too. When I should be dead.
I stand in the long line of people ready to grumble to the poor, overworked gate agent about the delayed flight. As if she, herself, placed an online weather order directly from God.com. I overhear her saying the same things she probably told the last ten grumblers and will repeat to the next ten.
“No, we don’t know when the flight to San Francisco will take off.”
“No, we can’t reroute you through another city. All flights out of Denver are currently on a weather delay.”
“No, I don’t know how long this storm will last.”
“If you want more information, please see a representative at our customer service counter at gate A44.”
Okay, so now I just have to get to gate A44.
As I pass by the food court and step onto one of the many long, moving walkways that appear to define the Denver airport, I hear my stomach protest my decision to skip breakfast this morning. It sounds a lot like the grumblers waiting at gate A16.
I lean against the railing of the walkway and type furiously into my phone.
Why do stomachs make noise when you’re hungry?
I press Search, but before I can read any of the results, my foot snags on something and I go tumbling forward. My phone flies into the air, and I, in a failed effort to catch it, crash into something hard before landing ungracefully—facedown—on the dirty airport floor.
My stomach, always with the one-track mind, lets out another growl.
My chin feels like it’s on fire. I try to stand up but a wave of dizziness overtakes me, and I settle for kneeling. That’s when I see what I tripped on. The end of the moving walkway. I was so focused on my typing, I didn’t realize I had reached stationary ground again. That’s also when I see what I crashed into.
He’s on his butt a few yards away. Dazedly, I watch him jump to his feet and rush over to me.
“Are you okay?” His hand reaches down to help me. Embarrassed, I bypass it and push myself up.
“Yeah,” I mumble. “Just great.”
Once standing, I have a better view of my would-be rescuer. He looks about my age. He’s dressed in jeans and a navy blue T-shirt with Animal, the Muppet, on the front. The strap of his messenger bag is pinching the shirt so that Animal’s overly bushy eyebrows look like they’re knitted together in confusion. Despite the snow globe outside, I don’t see a coat anywhere on or near his person.
A connector, like me. Probably flying from one warm climate to another.
His hair is short and dark, his skin is light brown, but his eyes are iridescent blue. It’s a startling contrast.
If I were anyone else in the world, I’d say he was cute.
But I’m not anyone else in the world. I’m me. So he’s just a guy.
“That’s the thing about moving walkways,” he teases. “They kind of stop.”
And, apparently, also a comedian.
“Thanks.” I force a smile and bend down to pick up my fallen phone. I’m about to swipe it on to check the message app, when he says, “Where you heading to?”
He really wants to do this? Right here in the middle of the moving walkway junction between gates A32 and A34?
I can hear Dr. Judy’s voice in my head, reminding me that my actions affect people. Even if I don’t want them to. Strangers don’t know what happened to Lottie. They won’t understand my desperate need to avoid human interaction (her words). So my best bet is to just be polite.
I clear my throat. “San Francisco. You?”
“Miami. Well, at least, trying to. Or not trying to. I haven’t figured that part out yet.”
I’m not following. But I don’t want to get involved. I have my own ambiguity to deal with. “Well, good luck with that,” I say, forcing a smile that Dr. Judy would be proud of.
I count the seconds that social propriety requires me to wait before I can turn and leave, but I must miscalculate because he’s
staring at me like I’m supposed to say something else. Then, to my surprise, he’s suddenly reaching for me, finger outstretched toward my face, and I fight the instinct to swat his hand away like a hovering fly.
He points to—but doesn’t touch—my chin. “I think the carpet might have taken a little bit of your skin as a souvenir.”
I rub at the raw flesh. It screams in response.
“Does it hurt?” he asks.
I adjust my backpack on my shoulders and stand up straighter. “I’ll be fine . . . thanks.”
Then, without bothering to count another second, I stride off in the direction of the customer service counter, wisely opting to skip the next moving walkway.
Politely exchanging destinations is one thing. Comparing pain thresholds with a complete stranger is a whole other ball game.
Besides, he’d definitely lose.