On my way home from San Diego last night, I stared out the window of the plane for two hours. The cabin was dark with only a few tiny lights on, many empty seats. And silent, no whispering conversations or headphone spillover, no babies crying or old men jawing about sports, no sound except for the steady, lovely roar of the engines. When the attendant came by collecting our empty cups and napkins, she was as shadowy and murmuring as the night nurse in the ICU.
I looked out the window across the aisle, no one to block my view, and I remembered being 16, coming back to Detroit from Los Angeles, very late at night, the plane circling it seemed for hours before landing. The planes were ‘stacked up’, they explained to us. We had to wait our turn.
I’d gone to Los Angeles to visit my older sister who, the year before, had abrubtly left Detroit with her new husband. He dumped his family’s hardware store and she gave notice at the gas company and they put everything in a new silver Corvette that they financed from the sale of their house and they drove to L.A. I thought it was the most amazing and sickening thing that had ever happened. So in a rare show of indulgence, my father agreed to financing a visit to my sister. It was the first time I had been in a plane and I did it alone – like so many things before and since.
Many things happened in L.A. I drove my sister to work (in their second car, a Falcon station wagon) in the morning and got lost on the L.A. freeways until 5 in the afternoon when I pulled into their apartment building parking lot and hit a pole. I got a life-changing sunburn on a fishing boat, sat on my sister’s lap as we peeled through the city to make it to the airport in time for my return flight, and had to call my father to explain I’d missed the plane. I spent a week seeing palm trees and eating Jack in the Box and when I came home my best friend told me that I had changed and somehow we stopped being friends.
I had changed. The plane had changed everything.
When I was divorced, I made the mistake of falling for a guy who lived in Michigan. Every month or so, I’d get on an old Northwest Airlines propeller plane and fly from Milwaukee across Lake Michigan. Two days later, I’d fly back, always at night, always in the dark. I’d sit next to the window, my lit cigarette the only light, flicking my ashes in the tiny ashtray on the arm rest. I’d stare out the window and wonder, “what am I doing?” Why am I going to this place to be with that person? Why am I going home feeling so awful and sad? Why did I end my marriage for this misery? The flight over Lake Michigan, in the dark, the propeller whirring, the glow of my Benson and Hedges. It changed me. That exquisite feeling of not being loved enough changed me.
Out the window last night was just darkness, no stars or magical sights, no propeller to watch, just the black night.
There are things that are so important that they can’t be written about. Those were the things I was thinking last night looking out the plane window. The death of a friend’s beloved son, the dread of old age, the surprise of new grandchildren. The things that I saw out the window, the dreams and nightmares, those things will change me, they’ll change everything.
I know that and it’s ok.