Takeoff

Patrick Thomas Henry

It was early November, and already frost webbed over the squarish airplane windows. The captain announced that the maintenance crews had nearly finished de-icing the wings. Takeoff was imminent. Marten pressed his forehead against the cool glass as he gripped Allyson's fingers. She sighed. When they had boarded the plane, older men and women wrinkled their brows, regarded them with dismissive stares, confused glances: Marten draped his arm around her shoulder, clung to her like a barnacle, as she leaned in toward a stewardess, whispered a question, and nodded in thanks at the girl's reply. Red-faced, she urged Marten toward their seats and struggled against his inertia, against those glares from the older men and women seated in the plane. No, not older, Allyson thought, but adults, since she and Marten were young, still, only a year and a half in to their life as man and wife. And she hardly felt mature next to Marten, who shivered, sweated, and rustled along in his wrinkled suit, his necktie already loosened. Theirs were the only passengers' heads without graying hairs, without distinguished wrinkles furrowed across their foreheads. The men consulted their watches as if waiting impatiently for a meeting to end, and the women, their glossy magazines, as if the models on the pages were long-lost acquaintances. The women bantered about the trinkets they would collect for their children and grandchildren. Overhearing a mention of heirs, Allyson blushed. Marten whispered to her to look at these people with their diamond-studded cufflinks, gold watches, pearl necklaces, long cigarette holders. She pushed him to their seats while the stewardess hurled another passenger's bag into the overhead bin. The stewardess nodded curtly at them and touched Allyson's shoulder as she passed. Allyson winced, as if she had stumbled against a doorframe. As if she and Marten had been pointed out as children, ill-behaved things that had no business being on an airplane. But she and Marten were adults, yes, but not old enough yet to have succeeded in casting off the vice of their unhappy youth in an America where the marriages of their parents' generation were suffered, not cherished. And with the pad of her thumb Allyson revolved her golden wedding band around her ring finger. A stewardess, standing in the center of the aisle, explained how to operate the seatbelts. Allyson buckled Marten's, then hers, and awaited liftoff.

Allyson blotted at Marten's sweat-dappled face with a crumpled handkerchief as the flight crew prepared the passengers for takeoff. She stole furtive glimpses of her fellow passengers; her shoulders tensed at all of those wives, iron-haired and lips stitched tight, who sat with their backs angled to their stoic husbands, busy with newspapers and cigarettes shedding flecks of ash. Like a painter applying a wash to a canvas, Allyson worked Marten's brow, the handkerchief saturated and clammy in her hands. He took her wrist suddenly and reminded her: there were people watching. She bobbed her head to the aisle, indicating that only the stewardess paid them any heed. The stewardess clapped her hands on the headrests, worked down the aisle, and bent towards passengers; she asked them to buckle their seatbelts or close the ashtrays in the armrests. Men ground the tips of their cigarettes in the trays and grumbled at the stewardess's orders. But poised, the stewardess responded with a smile, a nod—rehearsed sincerity. Allyson watched her move down the aisle and waited for Marten to release her hand. She balled the handkerchief in her fist. The stewardess passed them with a nod, a silent reassurance that soon their plane would lift off from the tarmac in Philadelphia, cut through the clouds over the Atlantic, and then glide safely earthward, thereby thrusting them into Paris, where Marten could not speak a word of the language but Allyson could order their meals, haggle with shopkeepers, and name the landmarks—la Tour Eiffel, l'arc de Triomphe, le Musée du Louvre—with a practiced lilt.

Allyson's hand tingled, numb from Marten's vise-tight grip. The daub of his thumbprint painted the mounds of her knuckles red. He furrowed his brow, his eyes closed, and Allyson glanced at him as he chewed at his chapped lip. A fleck of blood blossomed bright, shining, against the white of his teeth. On the tide of that blood drop, the beating of her heart sailed her thoughts toward him, into the storm of his anxiety: his shadow black against the gray plastic of the cabin wall, the distant grumble of the plane's machinery, the somber lines seemingly engraved in his forehead, and to Allyson, her Marten was like something out of Rembrandt. Or, perhaps from one of her charcoals, lining the corridors of their home. She was certain: there must be some way for her to sketch in her mind the outline of his fears, something rudimentary, in quick strikes of graphite, a plotting not unlike the bundles of patterns Marten kept in the makeshift woodshop in their garage. These sheets of his, plans for soapbox derby cars for children they would never have, schematics for renovating their front deck, the dimensions of their dining room table, rested under a blanket of grease and tools, gadgets—wrenches, saws, hammers, screwdrivers, casters, and blown oil filters from their Ford's engine. Squeezing her hand, Marten shuddered and brushed his thumb over her knuckles again. His forehead creased, and little beads of perspiration pearled across the worry lines. Allyson watched his grimacing, the dark strokes of his twitching eyebrows, a live and awkward movement that she did not know how to draw. He shifted his legs, tapped his feet uncomfortably as he shimmied and fidgeted in his seat. His stomach gurgled. Perhaps she should have given him the aisle seat.

No, she had been far too deferential to him so far. Before leaving their house in Altoona, he stood in the garage shaking, his valise beside him on the cold floor. The black Ford, an inheritance from her late father, idled in the garage, its wooden door hoisted and its pull cord swaying like a vine caught in the breeze. Marten's complexion was wax, melting; he insisted that he could drive.

"I'm fine, really," he said. He bowed his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Looking at Allyson's feet, he muttered, "And couldn't you wear more appropriate shoes?"

"What's inappropriate about my shoes?" She glanced to her black flats and, as a feint, smoothed her dress with ungloved hands.

Marten took his valise from the garage floor. "Allyson, we'll be flying. It's no place for those childish shoes."

"They're a pair of flats, Marten. Black flats. They're comfortable. If that's inappropriate, then go to Paris without me." He clenched his fists, shrugged, and shivered. He slouched and sighed. "That's what I thought," Allyson said. "Let's see if you're actually up to driving."

"You're sure we're not leaving too late?"

"We're leaving plenty early, Marten. We'll be fine."

When Marten backed the Ford out of the garage and down the drive, he immediately began speculating as to the possibility of a late arrival. He worked the manual transmission, cursed as he fumbled with moving the stick from one gear to the next, and Allyson leaned her forehead against her window. Had the travel agent made the correct reservations? Would they find a long-term spot to park the Ford? Half-moons of perspiration darkened the armpits of his blazer, and his jerky motions swerved the car across both sides of the road. Forests passed in blurs, in opaque swaths of brown; Allyson prayed that one of the "Falling Rock" signs would prove accurate, just to stymie them, just to give them actual cause to worry.

Marten put a hand on his stomach, and Allyson frowned. "Pull over," she said.

"I'm—" He gulped, his Adam's apple bulged, and he stiffened his back. Panting, he said, "I'm fine."

"Pull over. Now."

Only thirty miles out of Altoona, Marten pulled the Ford as far onto the shoulder as he could and left Allyson to direct the occasional car around it. He scrambled down a gravel embankment and into a ditch, a flume of gray dust billowing behind him as he descended. Lurching forward, he held his necktie over his shoulder as if hanging himself and retched into a copse of frozen cattails. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then climbed from the gully, the frozen rushes to his back steaming as if boiling in their trench.

Allyson sat on the Ford's trunk, arms hugged over her chest and her skirt fanned around her. She extended her hand, palm up, towards him. "Keys," she said, abruptly, as her breath, ghosting white on the air, dissipated. Sighing, Marten dropped his key ring in her palm and scratched the nape of his neck.

She opened the driver's door and took her seat behind the wheel. She removed her black flats, those childish shoes, and turned the ignition as Marten situated himself. She leaned over to buckle his belt. He breathed into the cup of his hand to smell his own breath. He gagged.

"There are tissues in my purse. And mints," Allyson offered, but Marten pressed his forehead against the window and exhaled, clouding the glass. In her stocking feet, Allyson depressed the clutch and gas pedals, encouraged the car's many parts to move in tandem, settled the engine's grumbling, coaxed the clutch to the floor, and negotiated the stick from one gear to the next, encouraging the transmission onward.

"Doesn't sound like there's anything wrong with the Ford when you drive it."

"That's because there isn't anything wrong with the Ford, Marten." She stopped herself from saying that he couldn't drive worth a damn.

"But the clutch sticks, and—"

"It's fine, Marten."

"Just saying I should have a look at it when we get back."

"It's fine. Why don't you get some sleep. Rest. We'll be at the airport by the time you wake up."

Marten obeyed. Allyson listened to his snores and the radio, both static, like crinoline crumpled up in a fist.

*

Now, settling herself in her seat, she flexed her free hand around the damp handkerchief, her joints recalling the liberty of driving, of being limber enough to swipe charcoals elegantly across a canvas. She stared down the aisle, made a study of the backs of heads—the balding crowns of men's skulls and the graying roots of women's hair. Laying the handkerchief on her armrest—to dry, she told herself, like a dishrag—Allyson lowered her chin. Marten breathed steadily, shallowly, air whistling through his nostrils as he exhaled. She asked him if he was awake, still. He opened his eyes, regarded his watch, muttered a few words about the time, and asked Allyson, if she didn't mind, just to look around and see where the nearest lavatory was.

"One in front of us and one to the back," she replied. "As we were told by the stewardess when we boarded. When you had me ask her." She looked to the window, the strands of frost twining together, an icy web.

Tucking his chin to his clavicle, Marten asked, "Allyson, you're happy, aren't you?"

"We're going to Paris," she replied. She pinched her knees together, observed the way the fabric of her dress peaked over her thighs and puckered under her belt, the cabin's faint light glinting on a centimeters-long runner in her nylons, visible if she twisted her ankle just the wrong way. And she reddened, turned her head away from Marten.

Fortunately his eyes were closed, blind to her self-conscious blushing. She wondered how a man like him, so serious, saw her. This rare show of uneasiness, her cheeks going red in these little strawberry-shaped patches, her freckles looking like the seeds speckled across the skin of the fruit—had he ever seen her face this way, ever wondered what kind of girl it made her? How could she feel anything but frivolous with this man, how could she feel like anything more than a non-functional decoration, like a watch no longer ticking, worn only because of his attachment to her?

(Frivolous Allyson, wearing her childish shoes, the very ones she wore when she worked at her desk in the attic studio, the large bay windows her father installed allowing the light to effuse the air around her, the air gravid with dust motes golden as pollen. A vacant stool, shrouded in a sheet of plastic, sat in the corner. Where Marten sat, in the early days of their marriage, when he watched her at the canted table in her attic studio, watched her wipe her blackened hands on the hem of one of his old twill shirts. In the periphery of her vision, she had caught glimpses of his reflection wavering against the windows' glass, his head cocked to one side and eyes squinting toward her, shoulders crossed over his chest, his shirt half unbuttoned and revealing a few black curls of chest hair. He was like a man to her, then, and if she closed her eyes, she almost felt the impression of his hands against her hips, caressing her body, his palms hot against her. But he had not been in her studio for months, and if she turned too suddenly to the window, the memory of Marten, as if from a mirror looking into the past, glanced off the glass like some ghost, haunting her at her drawings, and she could not continue. She touched her hand to her cheek.)

In the airplane window, Allyson watched the hazy form of Marten's profile against the webbing of frost. She tugged her hand free from his and then steepled her fingers on her lap. The captain's voice crackled over the loudspeaker and droned the details of the flight, the consonants hammering a cadence of details in her ears—nine-and-a-half hours in the air, clear and cloudy, thirty-one degrees Fahrenheit, estimated arrival time 6:30 p.m. local time, L'aéroport de Paris—Le Bourget, c'est la destination.

The plane hummed, throaty vibrations resonating from its turbines and throughout the fuselage, passengers clicking seatbelt buckles, the wings growling as foils turned to enable flight, all of the aluminum-titanium alloy chanting in metallic mumble as the mechanical parts prepared to lift them skyward. Skyward, so they could descend into Paris, the plane arrowing downward through the clouds. All of France a patchwork quilt of farms and cities and lakes and forests with highways threading it together. Yes, they would be there. And then the lullaby of whispering stewardesses and deep, crooning engines would find itself cut off, and after that caesura, Marten and Allyson would walk off the plane and hail a cab (he had never hailed a cab, she thought, it would be his first) to their hotel in Paris, Allyson in her best French asking the driver, S'il vous plait, monsieur, to tell them about the best restaurants, the best places pour l'amour. And in bed that first night, tired and exhilarated, perhaps Marten might hold her, as if the drive and the flight and his fear had never happened.

Their plane rolled across the tarmac, and the engines crescendoed, the wings shaking as its foils levered and redirected the air, whistling over metal, to initiate liftoff. Marten took her hand. Taking off: they were leaving, finally.


About the Author

Patrick Thomas Henry holds an MA in English Literature from Bucknell University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University. Currently, he is pursuing his Ph.D. at the George Washington University. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Lowestoft Chronicle, The Siren, Green Briar Review, Revolution House, The Writing Disorder, The Writing Disorder Anthology, Northville Review, Sugar House Review, Modern Language Studies, and The Short Review. He also contributes to The Story Prize's blog. He lives in Alexandria, VA, with his girlfriend and their cat.