The alarm clock, which seldom rings, shocks me a 4.00 a.m. I rise, shower, and dress. Fix tea, grab muffins made last night, and lug my packs to the truck. The airport in Spokane is an hour and a half away. The earliest edge of light rises at 4.45 a.m. as I drive over the hills outside of town.
In the fluorescent light of the airport, while I wait for my flight, I mull the work that I leave behind. There is this and that and that that I have not managed to finish in the past few very busy weeks. I make notes for one of those needs—later today I will call back to have an associate follow-through to complete (I hope) a project that has been consuming me for days.
My flight to Phoenix leaves nearly on time, and I lose myself in New Yorker articles for its duration. After we arrive, I make the calls about unfinished work at the University—I won’t think again about these work needs for the next week. Soon I will lose telephone and Internet contact, and my world of concerns will narrow considerably. At a restaurant on the concourse where I will catch my next flight, I have a southwestern salad with chicken for lunch. A woman at a table nearby walks away without paying for her lunch, and the waiter—dismayed and angry—marches back and forth—he exclaims loudly his dilemma to co-workers and then he goes running down the concourse—I assume in search of the woman, who now must be little more than a needle in this airport haystack.
After the cabin door is closed on the small aircraft we will take to Flagstaff, the pilot announces that we should expect turbulence throughout the flight. The flight attendant goes through the routine instructions on seat belts, oxygen masks, and seat cushions that serve as flotation devices. “As the pilot said,” she tells us, “this flight may be turbulent. Please do not vomit.” This gets our attention. I’ve never heard a flight attendant tell me not to vomit. “But it’s up to you,” she says, giving us a little leeway. For a fleet moment, I think about vomiting as a kind of personal commentary on the quality of contemporary air travel, but it’s not my kind of statement. “If you do vomit,” she says, “please use the small vomit bags located conveniently in the seat pockets in front of you.”
As we take off from the Phoenix airport, I continue to read the New Yorker, until the airplane approaches the Mogollan Rim, where we drop precipitously. My stomach goes to my throat. The plane bounces up and down and up and down. The plane sways. Right and left. Right and left and up and down. The New Yorker goes to my lap. With both of my sweaty hands, I hold tightly to the seat in front of me. My eyes are closed. I wish for equilibrium. I wish for solid ground. Despite the drone of the plane, I hear groans—there is no background chatter of conversation on this flight. It is a sickened silence. I look over my right shoulder, and the two women in the row behind me are both throwing-up in their blue vomit bags.
Late in the evening, I have dinner at a restaurant near my hotel. The middle-aged man and woman seated in the booth behind me are clearly on their first date. The man talks about his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend. He talks about his politics and his dietary restrictions. The woman is largely not talking until her cell phone rings, which she answers with interest. When she finishes the call, her date says, “I have a green peace sign tattooed on the bottom of my foot so I always have peace on Earth.” As they stand to leave, he says, “This was too much fun.”
[This essay is from 30 April 2011]