The Final Few Moments
Everyone on board knew the plane was going down. The woman sitting across the aisle from Robert with eyes as big as eggs knew it. The flight attendant strapped into her fold-down seat next to the exit door knew it. Her stricken, ashen face revealed their dire situation: whatever had gone wrong, whatever damage occurred when that metallic boom shuddered through the cabin, the pilots could no longer control the plane’s descent and their impending crash and certain deaths would soon be listed in the annals of aviation disasters.
Robert summoned all his effort into shutting out the wails and whimpers of the other passengers. His mind swirled, his thoughts randomly collided into each other. He tried to focus on his family: his wife, Sasha; his daughter, Erin. I love you I love you I love you, he kept repeating, aloud or inside his head he wasn’t sure.
He gripped his seat’s armrests as if he might be able to steer the plane himself by applying enough pressure, but the plane would not respond to his attempts. It bucked and wobbled and angled sharply toward the ground. Outside his window a fast boil of green fields, rooftops and trees bubbled up, offering no sign of the hoped-for runway.
At least it would be over in an instant. He probably wouldn’t feel a thing—as if that were any consolation. Blunt force trauma would be his cause of death. He might disintegrate in a fireball. He preferred cremation to burial, anyway, which meant his blazing destruction would save a step in his funeral.
Good one, Robert: even in your last moments, hat tip to the virtues of efficiency.
I love you I love you I love you . . .
Who can predict what will streak through your mind as the last seconds of your life tick down? What final thoughts will flicker among your synapses? He was remembering a family vacation he missed to St. John in April, the last trip they were assured of having together before Erin started college. Sasha had planned the trip months in advance and they were all looking forward to it, counting down the weeks, but as the date approached Robert got slammed at work—no surprise. It ended up an impossible time for him to get away, but he would, he promised he would find a way, he’d catch a flight in two days and meet his wife and daughter on the beach. So what if they got a head start on their tans? Not a big deal. But two days turned into four and their trip was scheduled for five, so there was no point in Robert flying down to meet them. Sasha and Erin vacationed without him, not for the first time. Afterward they returned home like two bronzed goddesses, cheerful, relaxed and rejuvenated, telling stories: about the eel that slid past Sasha while she was snorkeling, giving her pulse a fearful leap because she thought it was a water snake. About this amazing Caribbean restaurant where you selected your own fish from a tank and the chef cooked it in front of you over a grill. About the cottage they stayed in tucked along an emerald lagoon at the far end of the island. How they sipped pina coladas and danced at an outdoor club where a band dressed in native costumes—there must have been a dozen musicians—played traditional island music.
Sasha’s dark hair had slightly lightened from the sun, her cobalt blue eyes shined as if polished and buffed, her tan lines made Robert quiver. She insisted she had missed him and was disappointed Robert hadn’t been able to take time off, although she wasn’t angry or resentful; she understood the nature of his work and his financial responsibility to their family. Yet he wondered if she’d had a better time without him because there was one less person whose happiness she had to worry about. She told him something to that effect when he apologized for missing the trip. Is this how she thought of her husband—that he was a burden to please? That he was another responsibility on her checklist? Maybe she was only trying to alleviate his guilt for missing the trip, but her words had stung. He parried quickly, with affection: don’t think of me as another person you have to keep happy, think of me as the person who caters to your desires, who makes you happy.
But had he made her happy? Had he been around enough? Did he fall short of her expectations?
Those were the questions careening through his head as the crippled plane dropped closer and closer to the ground.
He loved his wife. He did. He tried to be a good husband. He adhered to the mantra for better or worse. Although lately, things had been leaning worse. Or if not worse, then slightly not as great. He sensed drifting between them. He felt their connection fraying, and at the worst possible time—with Erin preparing to leave for college, which would leave him and Sasha with only each other. He wasn’t sure who was at fault, or if anyone was at fault, or if he was just reading the tea leaves wrong. He’d noticed her becoming more remote, or perhaps just more independent, and he’d been aware of her not paying as much attention to him. Over the past weekend they hadn’t made love, which now made two weekends in row they hadn’t been intimate during the few days Robert spent home before flying back to Buffalo for the workweek.
Last weekend Sasha had complained of an unsettled stomach, which historically meant she was in a gray mood, just low enough to sap her. It happened sometimes. And this past weekend had been an exceptionally busy and emotional time for both of them. On Saturday, Erin left for the summer session at Skidmore, a sad occasion that did not conform to the way he envisioned sending their daughter off to college someday—how they would drive Erin to campus at the prestigious university of her choice and help her unpack and settle in her dorm room. Robert would assemble a bookcase and hang Erin’s framed photos of her family and friends; Sasha would organize the closet and make the bed with new sheets and Erin’s favorite pillow and comforter from home. They would meet Erin’s roommate. At the university’s organized social gathering, they would commiserate with other parents whose baby birds were flying the nest. Bid farewell to their daughter with a deep communal family hug. Last second check to see if Erin needed anything or had forgotten something important that her parents could run out to the store and get for her. There would be nothing forgotten (Erin was so like her father, Sasha often remarked—start early, have a plan, be prepared; she’d been packing for weeks). Another hug session. Then Robert and Sasha would slowly, reluctantly drive away. They’d spend the night at an inn near Hudson or Rhinebeck, halfway home, to be together and tender and to postpone for one day returning to the house their daughter no longer brightened with her presence.
But they had given Erin the Honda Civic for her graduation present, and now she could drive herself to Saratoga, which she said she preferred to do, although Robert suggested Sasha could drive with Erin, he would follow in his car, and they would caravan up the thruway.
“I’d rather just say goodbye here,” Erin said.
“But we want to come with you,” Sasha said. “We want to see your room and help you get settled.”
“That’s really nice of you.”
A diplomatic response from their daughter, but not the same as saying yes.
“I don’t need any help, though,” Erin said. “And there’s a welcome party I’m going to tonight so I can’t really hang out with you.”
Erin was one of those independent, spirited kids who couldn’t wait to get away to college, as if her parents were harsh and overbearing. They were not. Erin had as much freedom as any teen could ask for. She’d rarely shown a lack of good judgment, except for that one sexting incident (which she regretted and which Robert and Sasha had intervened to help resolve) and the occasional weed smoking (not such a crime these days), and she’d never given her parents a hard time, except for when they refused to let her get a tattoo last year (now that she was eighteen and could decide for herself, she seemed to have dropped the idea).
So after Robert solved the puzzle of rearranging the cargo area in the Civic to fit all of Erin’s belongings—“You can’t pack like this,” he told her, “You have to be able to see out the rearview mirror”—mother and father flooded daughter with affection, offered unnecessary reassurances and unsolicited final bits of advice, then stood together holding hands and waving as Erin backed out of the driveway, put her car in gear, and zipped down the street to begin life as a college student.
The plane continued its harrowing plunge, the ground looming large and close. Robert breathed in short, fast, futile gasps. A few seconds more—ten, maybe twenty—and it would be over. He hadn’t expected to die this way, or in any particular way.
He felt cold and was shivering, but also was sweating, his shirt damp and the fabric sticking to his skin. Across the aisle from him, the woman he’d chatted with earlier was staring straight ahead, unblinking, her jaw lowered and mouth slightly open. He almost reached out to her, but then saw she was gripping hands with the man sitting next to her. The man’s eyes were closed, his expression twisted into a painful grimace. At least those two had each other, even if they were strangers. Robert sat in the single seat. He had one to hold. No one to hold him. He would die alone.
He was still thinking of the weekend, how he and Sasha were too sad and preoccupied to focus on each other, especially Sasha, who had an exceptionally tight bond with Erin and, unlike Robert who traveled constantly for work, wasn’t used to separation from her. Sure, mom and daughter had their petty arguments—the morning Erin left there had been a disagreement over the ownership of several shirts—but when Erin was humiliated by a boy at the start of her sophomore year, she found comfort in her mother’s arms. When she wanted girl talk, she turned to her mother. They participated in a mother/daughter book club. They went to movies together. They took trips into the city for Broadway plays and shopping and to visit museums. Erin was practically a clone of Sasha. Same physical appearance. Same interests. Robert sometimes felt left out, or like a third wheel if he was tagging along, almost like he didn’t belong or even that he wasn’t wanted, but he kept those feelings to himself and Sasha reminded him that he too had a special relationship with Erin: washing cars in the driveway, riding roller coasters at fairs (Sasha got too nauseous), helping her with math homework, teaching her how to drive and how to use a hammer and screwdriver.
After Erin left and before he and Sasha sat down for dinner that night on the patio, just the two of them, Robert mixed gin and tonics. He raised his glass and made a crack about being “alone at last” in a misguided attempt to lighten the mood and set a positive tone for the next phase of their lives, whatever it might bring, but his words landed with a thud and embarrassed both of them into an uncomfortable silence.
Where was his wife who loved a cold cocktail and a lingering laugh?
Robert spoke first. “We haven’t lost her, she’s just away at college.”
“She might never live with us again.”
Silent tears pooled in Sasha’s eyes. He put his arms around her, but she didn’t melt into him for affection and support. And in truth, he felt the same way: Erin was gone, a new era was upon them.
“She’s only three hours away,” he pointed out. “We can visit her anytime we want.”
“Tomorrow?” Sasha sniffed, wiping at her cheeks with the back of her hand. Even in pain, she was lovely. The breathtaking sadness in her eyes, the fragile expression that could crumble at any moment—she exuded a compelling, haunting beauty that had captivated him the day he met her, and was still there today.
For the first time in a long time, Robert’s night-owl wife went to bed early. When Robert went upstairs to look for her she was asleep. He consoled himself with a second drink and he sat on the patio listening to the sharp chirp of crickets and the vibrating percussion of katydids.
The next day was Sunday. Robert woke alone and found Sasha in Erin’s room sitting on the neatly made bed. Erin’s pillow was missing. She’d taken it with her. Also her lava lamp with the blue and green waxy bubbles that had served as her nightlight since she was eight years old. The top of her desk held only a neat pile of unwanted papers and a lineup of half-empty bottles of nail polish arranged in color groups.
Robert sat beside his wife.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said.
“I know. It just isn’t yet.” She sounded so fatalistic, so down. At that moment he had a dark premonition of Sasha deteriorating, sinking into permanent despondency. Despite her generally upbeat demeanor, and her recent enthusiasm for returning to work, she’d suffered several minor bouts of melancholy over the years, nothing serious, but she was susceptible, and those had been some of the most difficult times for Robert, because although he made an effort to be sympathetic and encouraging, and he tried to be the supportive husband that his wife loved, he could work no magic to help revive Sasha during her down periods, and Robert wasn’t good at being helpless. He was good at solving problems, but he couldn’t solve Sasha’s black moods, and they seemed to becoming more frequent and lasting longer, and he feared they mostly had to do with him.
He took her hand in his and kissed her fingertips. “What do you say we go back to bed?”
Her mouth turned down and she sighed heavily, as if he’d annoyed her. “I can’t think about that right now.”
“No, you’re right. I mean—yeah, I know.” He bit down on his lip. “But let’s do something together.”
They ran in the park and afterwards Robert thought they might take a shower together and climb back into bed after all, but then the phone rang. Sasha was on for a long time with her mother in Wisconsin, and Robert, uncomfortable and sticky in his wet running clothes, grew impatient waiting for her and he showered by himself, and then he spent a couple of hours at his desk in the den answering emails and preparing for his meeting the next day, while Sasha tended to the garden and skimmed leaves and debris from the pool, and later still they got into one of those conversations that chipped away any desire she might have been holding in reserve for him.
Robert had no one to blame but himself for the discussion. He started it, because he wanted a resolution, but he had hoped for a different outcome.
“I think it’s going to be quiet and lonely for you around here tomorrow,” he said. “You should fly up to Buffalo with me.”
Sasha didn’t respond at first, which he took as a sign she was mulling over the idea and needed an extra nudge to tip her his way.
“We should be together this week. We need each other now, more than ever.”
“You’ll be busy with work, you won’t have time for me,” she said.
“There’s supposed to be interesting neighborhoods on the west side, full of galleries and restaurants, and old Victorian and Craftsmen housing. And the waterfront has been totally revived. If you start coming up during the week, I can get rid of the hotel suite and we can rent an apartment or a flat.”
He hadn’t the motivation to explore the city himself, even though he’d been commuting from Westchester to Buffalo for more than a year. He worked late most nights and stayed downtown at the Hotel Lafayette in a suite his company kept on reserve for him, which was a sterile living space he’d done zippo to personalize, but was functional and located within walking distance of the office. One of the best things about coming home on weekends was surrounding himself with Sasha’s design touches, the warm and welcoming environment she created with just the right selection of furniture, the perfect color in every room, the strategically placed plants and flowers and artwork, the one wall in the family room crammed with framed photos, the den with its overflowing bookcases. She’d performed her decorating magic everywhere they’ve lived, transforming each successive house into an inviting, intimate home. She could do it again in Buffalo if they moved into a temporary pied-a-terre; they’d still keep the house in Mount Kisco, of course, for when Robert transferred back to corporate headquarters, and for Erin to come home to during semester breaks and again after she graduated, if she hadn’t found a job, a likely scenario since she was considering a major not in Economics or Math as Robert suggested, but in Humanities, which would make her slightly more employable than a paroled felon.
More than missing the atmosphere of home, Robert was lonely during the week. First thing every morning in the hotel he performed his workout, a regimen of old-school calisthenics and high-intensity interval training intended not only to keep up his physical condition but to help control his blood pressure and lower the volume of the tinnitus he sometimes experienced from drinking too much coffee or bearing too much stress. Then there was the long, grueling, workday, which might be followed by dinner with colleagues, or drinks in a bar, or the occasional club tickets to a football or hockey game. But at night when he returned to the hotel and the room door closed behind him with a heavy metallic click, he felt trapped and isolated. He dreaded getting into that big king bed by himself. He stuck to one side of the mattress. Even though exhausted from the day, he had trouble falling asleep. Sometimes he would give up, get dressed again, and go out for long walks, wandering the quiet downtown streets, but that made him uneasy and at times he felt lost and fragmented. Other nights he stayed in bed and eventually fell asleep, but often woke after an hour or two and reached across for Sasha, the empty spot and cool sheets momentarily confusing him, and he began wondering what she was doing at that moment, and sometimes he called her right then, but not often because invariably what Sasha was doing at that hour was sleeping, and the idea of a call from her husband at two or three in the morning just so he could hear her voice had lost some of its romantic allure for her.
With Erin gone they definitely needed each other. That was important to Robert: that Sasha need him as much as he needed her. And since he couldn’t be at home right now, she would have to come to him.
“I kept my part of the bargain,” he reminded her.
“She’s only been gone one day,” Sasha said. “And it wasn’t a bargain. It was a choice we made for Erin’s sake.”
If you want to get technical about it. What they had decided was this: wherever they were living and whatever company Robert was working for when Erin started high school, they would not move again until she graduated. Their daughter deserved stability and structure. Robert had moved his family five times during Erin’s elementary and middle school years, requiring his daughter to find new friends and assimilate into a new school, which she’d handled about as smoothly as any kid could, yet there was always a tricky adjustment period when Erin was the outsider looking in, searching for an opening. But moving every few years couldn’t be helped. Executives in the tech industry were constantly changing companies and relocating. It was the only way to advance your career. Acquisitions, mergers, technological breakthroughs—they can happen anywhere at any time, and you had to follow opportunity, even if it meant leaving your old life behind.
Robert understood when he took the executive position at HealthTask the year Erin entered eighth grade that he was promising his family at least five years of stability. HealthTask developed and sold electronic medical records software to hospitals and large physician groups; demand for the company’s products had been accelerating and revenue growing. Then HealthTask acquired Medalytics and an executive with strong operational experience was needed to run the new division and to integrate its offerings into the HealthTask product portfolio, and that executive was Robert Besch and the place it had to happen was in Buffalo, where Medalytics was located.
“I’ve got another three to six months before I can move back to corporate,” Robert told Sasha. “I’d like to have you with me during the week, or at least some of the weeks.”
But there was no persuasive argument to get Sasha to come to Buffalo, other than Robert was there during the week and wanted the company of his wife. Guess that’s not a good enough reason. Robert had always encouraged Sasha’s independence and she had forged a stable life in Mount Kisco, one that didn’t revolve exclusively around Robert or their daughter. She was a more sociable person than he was and had gotten to know people and made friends. Other moms. Their neighbors. She had helped start a community musical theater, hosting fundraisers and producing its first two shows, Bye Bye Birdie and Rent. And in the past year she’d gone back to work part time, at Robert’s urging. But he didn’t think she had anything so pressing to do that she couldn’t accompany him to Buffalo for a few days a week.
“I can’t come, anyway,” Sasha said. “I’m filming that commercial in the city tomorrow.”
“You are? Did I know that?”
“It’s okay. You’ve got a lot going on.”
“The production schedule got moved up,” Sasha said. “They want the commercial to air during the U.S. Open.”
“It’s with the bank again?”
“It’s for Levitra—I’ve told you. Alan lined it up for me. And he’s been asking me about a trip to California—that’s another thing I’ve been thinking of doing.”
He frowned, which she’s reminded him not to do so often, because a vertical line was getting etched between his eyes. “Don’t tell me you have to get into a bathtub.”
“That’s Cialis,” she said. “Levitra is doing a new series that includes speaking lines, not just video montages and voice over. None of the other ED commercials have actors speaking to each other.”
“That’s because no one wants to be seen talking about it.”
There was something distasteful about his wife acting in a commercial for erectile dysfunction. Robert didn’t believe in ED because he didn’t suffer from it himself, although if he took his prescribed blood pressure meds and experienced some of the side effects (such as impotence or loss of sexual arousal) perhaps he’d understand. Robert believed that for most men the syndrome could be more accurately described as desire dysfunction. You’re circling fifty years old and your testosterone levels are dropping like the water table during a drought and you’ve been with the same woman for twenty or twenty-five years, and maybe she’s let herself go and you have too (not that those are the types appearing in ED commercials) and you don’t even want to look at each other let alone screw each other, and you’ve been arguing about money, or you’ve been working sixty or seventy hours a week and are exhausted, or you’ve lost your job and are depressed, or your partner’s bad habits are annoying the shit out of you, or you don’t know how to talk to each other anymore or whisper something sweet, and with all of this disincentive shredding your libido if you don’t get a boner you’re considered dysfunctional. Maybe some men wanted to fuck but can’t get it up, but that wasn’t Robert’s experience. He still found his wife beautiful, and he still desired her, and if right now she said let’s jump in bed he’d jump, and he wished she would. But she didn’t.
“Are you going to drive or take the train in?” he asked.
“We’re shooting in Central Park, so I thought I’d take the train to Grand Central,” Sasha said. “It’s more relaxing than driving, and I’m already nervous. With Erin leaving I didn’t have time to think about the commercial, but now that I do . . .” She hesitated.
That was his cue. “You’ll be awesome,” Robert said. “You wouldn’t have gotten the job if they didn’t think you were perfect for the part.”
“That’s true, but I think Alan called in a favor. He’s done a lot of work with the director.”
“Everyone believes in you. I’m sure you’ll shine.”
“No, I know. I can do it. It’s just that I’m always a little anxious beforehand.”
If anything, Sasha exuded a more natural and confident presence in front of the camera at age forty-four than she had at twenty-four, when she’d starred in her one and only feature film. It was as if she better understood who she was now, as well as who she wasn’t, which made it easier to slip into whatever role she was assigned to play—once she got past her initial jitters.
She stayed up well into the night. He heard her in the bathroom, talking to herself, practicing her deep breathing exercises. He imagined her experimenting in front of the mirror with different facial expressions and mannerisms she thought befitted a woman pleased that her partner had overcome his ED problem and could sexually perform for her. By the time she came to bed, Robert was long asleep; he had an important meeting in Buffalo the next day.
So they didn’t make love last night. And this morning, when Robert’s alarm went off at five o’clock, he edged closer to Sasha. She stirred just enough to emit a small moan. Robert tried to spoon her. He cupped one of her breasts and nestled his growing erection against the curve of her bottom. He buried his face in her hair bunched around the back of her neck and he breathed in her sleepiness and the herbal remnants of her hair conditioner. She made another sound. If they had been younger, Robert would have taken her hum as a sign of encouragement, and Sasha would have arched her back and opened her legs and been ready when he tried to slip inside her.
“Sash,” he whispered, close to her ear.
“Don’t,” she murmured. She inched away from him, was already slipping back into dreamland.
He sighed in frustration. Love, he wanted love. He wanted physical intimacy.
He had an urge to pin her down and push himself upon her.
What’s wrong with you? Sickened by this thought and his unrequited lust, it was his turn to moan. He rolled away from her and reluctantly rose from the warm sheets, his cock wilting in despair. She didn’t want him. She no longer found him desirable. She was having an affair. They were headed for divorce.
Oh, stop it, you freak. She’s just sleepy.
He showered and dressed, making no attempt to be quiet or considerate, although Sasha made not another twitch or tone, and he was ready by the door finishing his coffee when the car service pulled up. He had no luggage other than his laptop bag; he kept a closet of clothes in his hotel suite in Buffalo.
He shut the front door behind him and as he was getting into the backseat of the town car, their bedroom window opened on the second floor and Sasha called to him.
“Robert,” she said. “Have a good flight. I love you.”
His first thought was not a generous one: Now she loves me, but what about yesterday? Or twenty minutes ago when making love to my wife would help see me through another week alone? Where’s that part of the goddamn bargain?
He ducked into the waiting car, pretending he hadn’t heard her, then glanced up to their bedroom window as the driver pulled away. He could see her silhouetted behind the mesh of the screen.
Already he felt a pang of regret.
Traffic was light on the Saw Mill Parkway that morning and the driver knew to take the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge into Queens, which shaved several minutes off the trip and earned him a generous tip. Robert arrived at the airport in plenty of time, navigated quickly through the TSA Pre-Check security lane, and was one of the first passengers to board Flight 1467, departing LGA 7:00 a.m., arriving BUF 8:34 a.m.
It wasn’t a big jet. An Embraer 175, with capacity for 76 passengers, along with a crew of two pilots and two flight attendants. Robert took this flight every Monday morning, and a return flight to New York on Thursday or Friday afternoons. It was almost always full.
The door to the cockpit was open and the complex instrumentation panel visible. He had a boy’s fascination with gadgetry and if he were ever invited into the cockpit he’d sit in the co-pilot’s seat and ask about every button and dial. Over the years Robert had toyed with the idea of getting his pilot’s license, but he’d never had time for lessons. Given how much he enjoyed driving a car, he imagined a private plane would be that much better: faster and more thrilling, an enormous sense of freedom and range, a bird’s-eye view of the world. Someday he’d do it. He could see himself flying his own plane to visit Erin, wherever she ended up, or he and Sasha taking weekend trips to other cities, or to the Cape or Nantucket.
Robert caught the eye of one of the pilots who had turned to hang his jacket on a hook behind his seat. Robert recognized him; he often encountered the same flight crew on his weekly commutes. The pilot looked about Robert’s age. He had gray-flecked, freshly trimmed hair and a tanned, rugged face that exuded competence and confidence, like a former military officer. Fully awake. Running the checklist. Testing the controls. Exactly the type of person you want piloting your plane. Robert nodded a greeting and the pilot did the same in return, neither of them needing to exchange a word.
There were only three rows of first-class passenger seats in the Embraer 175, two seats on one side of the aisle and single seats on the other side. Robert had the single seat in the second row. He settled in and opened his laptop. While the other passengers boarded, the flight attendant served him coffee, about the only remaining first-class perk on regional flights.
“Just black, please,” Robert told her. He had not seen her before on one of his flights. Her nametag said ‘Christine.’ She was a tiny woman, five feet tall at best, thin as willow branches, with a perky stature and a square, plain face. She looked young enough to be a recent graduate from flight attendant training school, and when she poured his coffee her hands were unsteady.
He smiled, thanked her, and moved his laptop to one side to make room on his tray table for the cup, then turned his attention to work. The Medalytics division, which had taken a clever algorithm developed by the company’s founder and created an analytics business to help physicians make treatment decisions based on research and evidence about patient outcomes, was lagging in performance, although the potential for profit existed because sales were robust; the company had been a solid acquisition target for HealthTask. The biggest issue for Medalytics was bloat and operational inefficiency. After a year of trying to integrate the new employees into HealthTask, Robert had finally concluded there needed to be headcount reductions at corporate headquarters and in Buffalo, and afterwards Medalytics would move its operations to Westchester—and Robert could return home.
He reviewed his most recent spreadsheets that calculated three-year revenue projections and potential cost savings from moving Medalytics to HealthTask’s headquarters and cutting extraneous personnel—81 employees would lose their jobs, 20 percent of the combined company’s workforce, 51 from Medalytics and 30 at HealthTask. He was loathe to recommend the cuts, but he didn’t successfully complete this project and integrate Medalytics, he might be the one that gets sent packing. The way to ensure his own success was to sacrifice others. This was simply the way things shook out in a competitive economy, where every percentage point of profit was precious, where the fittest survived and the alphas thrived.
Although the layoffs weighed on him, he had a mission to accomplish for his company, but at the moment he was having trouble concentrating on the task at hand. He felt bad he hadn’t said a proper goodbye to Sasha this morning because he’d been miffed at her for not responding to his advances.
But the thing about a long marriage is that you always have tomorrow. If you don’t make love Friday, there’s Saturday, or Sunday, or next week. If you have an argument tonight, cooler heads can prevail in the morning. If you haven’t been out together in ages, there’s always another date night on the horizon. That sense of urgency, embracing the philosophy of carpe diem because tomorrow might not come—it didn’t exist after so many years together. Which was sad, if you let it be. If anyone had told him before he’d gotten married that he might at some point go weeks without having sex with his wife (not counting post-partum and after the miscarriage), Robert would have scoffed at the idea. But last night while waiting for Sasha to come to bed he’d made the mistake of counting the number of times they’d made love in the past month. He multiplied the number by twelve months, and then reduced it by twenty percent per year to account for aging and loss of potency over the 28 years he had remaining in the average male lifespan. He added the totals from all the years to project how many more times he’d have sex in his lifetime. It was a depressing number and he regretted calculating it.
It may be shallow and demeaning to reduce the layers of their long relationship to base sexual terms, but for Robert, a strong physical bond was the spring that fed all the emotional tributaries connecting him and Sasha. Without sex, love withers. He didn’t need to swallow a pill to make love to his wife, but who knows what might change in a few years, if that twenty percent yearly decline might become fifty percent, or worse. All the more reason to take advantage of virility while you have it. Not that he did over the weekend.
Still, he should have said goodbye to Sasha this morning. He would call as soon as the plane landed in Buffalo, to tell her how much he loved her and to wish her the best of luck on her commercial.
Christine was about to close the door when a last-minute passenger boarded, a woman tall enough she had to stoop to avoid hitting her head on the low portal as she stepped inside the cabin. Out of breath, she scanned left and right for her seat, her eyes harried and forehead tight.
Her seat had to be the one across the aisle from Robert; it was the only one unoccupied. He glanced at her and looked away in irritation. The seat was empty because Robert had reserved it for Sasha last week in an optimistic moment when he thought he could convince her to fly up to Buffalo with him this morning. It had been too late to cancel the reservation. At the gate he’d told the agent that his wife would be a no-show and they had proceeded to fill the seat from the standby list.
The woman dropped her handbag on the cushion, popped the overhead compartment and bullied her carry-on into the crowded bin. She had broad shoulders and healthy hips. Her ass swayed just inches from Robert’s face with the effort of stowing her bag, and he leaned toward the window to give himself breathing space.
She took her seat and immediately asked the attendant if she could get a drink before the flight got underway.
“A vodka and cranberry juice please.”
Robert had to wonder: if you start drinking this early, how does that impact the rest of your day? It couldn’t bode well for productivity—if productivity mattered to you, as it did for Robert. In the business world, you rarely met someone who ordered a cocktail at lunch anymore. All that drinking during office hours belonged to a different generation. If it happened now, it meant you had a problem. And the person—there was always one or two—on the flight who wanted a Screwdriver or Bloody Mary at seven a.m., often fit the description you’d expect to see: rheumy-eyed, red-nosed, pasty-skinned. Although not this woman. She looked healthy and attractive enough. She had a jaw that narrowed to a point and high, prominent cheekbones, which gave her face an inverted, triangular shape. She wore mascara and a stroke of brown shadow that appeared to weigh down her eyelids. Blond highlights streaked like comet tails through her hair.
Robert heard the man in the window seat next to her say, “Can I buy that drink for you?”
She spun away from him, an overweight person with slicked, thinning hair who said something else to her that Robert didn’t catch. She made a face and turned to Robert. “Save me,” she said, low enough so that only Robert could hear.
The flight attendant brought one of those mini liquor bottles and a glass filled halfway with cranberry juice.
“You better make it two,” she told the flight attendant.
“I’m sorry, our policy on flights shorter than five hundred miles is one alcoholic drink.”
“It’s airline policy,” Christine said.
“Oh, God. Whatever.” She opened the bottle and poured the vodka into her glass, then popped a pill she’d been palming and washed it down with half her drink.
“I’m so terrified of flying,” she told Robert.
He tried to keep his eyes on his laptop. Kind of a ditz, he decided. Plus he resented her for occupying the seat he’d reserved and paid for.
“At least it’s a short flight,” he said.
“Yes, but we still have to take off and land,” she said. “Wow, I’m shaking. Look at my hand.” She held out her palm. Her fingers tremored.
Robert slid his laptop into its bag by his feet. He signaled the flight attendant. “Excuse me? I hope it’s not too late. Could I please have one of those?” he asked, indicating the vodka and cranberry.
He noticed Christine’s face twitch, as if she were about to deny Robert’s request, but she said of course and a moment later delivered Robert a small bottle of vodka and a glass filled with ice and juice. Robert handed the glass and bottle across the aisle.
“Here you go,” he said. “I hope it helps.”
The woman looked grateful. “You can keep the juice, I’ll take the vodka. I’m Nadine, by the way.”
“You sure you don’t want this?”
“No, you go ahead.”
“Thank you, Robert,” Nadine said. “You’ve done your good deed for the day.”
“Does that mean I get to go home now?”
“Are you heading home?”
“No, traveling on business.”
“Same here. I’m on assignment to write about Niagara Falls as a unique travel destination. It’s a new marketing campaign for the state. You remember ‘I Love New York’ and that song? This one’s called ‘Unique New York.’ Say it five times fast. I bet you can’t. That’s the whole point—you remember it.”
She had the raspy, resonant voice that belonged to a smoker. A voice you wanted to lean closer to hear even though she was speaking at a perfectly audible level.
“Go ahead. I dare you to try and say it: Unique New York.”
“Unique New York, Unique New York, NewNique NewNork.” Robert stumbled on the third rendition.
“See what I mean? It’s clever. I didn’t come up with it, though. I just write about the places they’re trying to hype. The pay is criminal but I get free trips.”
She reached into her handbag and handed Robert a tri-fold brochure. It was titled ‘Unique New York’ in a bold blue font and underneath in script: Finger Lakes. There was an outline of the state filled in with a collage of photos and a highlighted area in the central part of the state where the Finger Lakes were located.
“For that one I got to stay in B-and-Bs, visit wineries, and ride the entire length of Seneca Lake on a replica steamship, which between you and me was kind of boring,” Nadine said. “I’m doing six of these brochures altogether.”
The plane backed away from the gate. The flight attendant asked for everyone’s attention. She began reviewing the emergency procedures, exaggerating her movements as she demonstrated the use of the oxygen mask: straps over her head, cup covering mouth and nose. Nadine let out a distressed breath and watched carefully, following along with the printed instructions from the card in her seat pocket.
Once finished with the safety spiel, Christine picked up their cups and glasses—Nadine had finished both vodka bottles—and soon they were in line for takeoff, and then airborne, the small jet loud and its engine thrust aggressive and pronounced, like a chippy dog trying to act bigger than it was. It was a perfect June morning, the sky blue and cloudless, the sun a shimmering gold coin low in the eastern sky.
Robert looked across the aisle. Nadine already appeared to be asleep, arms crossed, chin dipped toward her chest. Two drinks and whatever pill she’d swallowed had served their purpose.
The flight time to Buffalo was short—fifty-one minutes. Robert opened his laptop again. He became absorbed in his work and the next thing he knew the flight attendant came over the PA and announced they were beginning their initial descent. She asked passengers to turn off and stow all electronic devices and return tray tables and seats to their upright positions. Robert watched her as she spoke, her lips moving almost as if she were mouthing the corded receiver, which looked strangely antiquated, like something you’d see on an old-fashioned rotary phone. She finished her announcement and began to walk the aisle.
Robert saved his file and closed his laptop. He felt an adjustment to the momentum and pitch of the plane. Then just as he was moving his seat to the upright position there came a loud bang like a steel door slamming from somewhere in the back of the aircraft. It coincided exactly with Robert pressing his seat button, as if that innocent action had caused something much larger and more essential to malfunction. The aircraft shuddered, stern to bow, in a violent, vibrating wave that reminded Robert of earthquakes he experienced when he lived in California, that sense of the world slipping and sliding beneath you and all you can do is hang on, ride it out, and hope for the best.
A collective panicky gasp sounded inside the cabin. His heart paused for a beat and then resumed with a pounding hard enough to carve out a hollow space in his chest.
“What was that?” someone called. It was the man sitting next to Nadine. He was half out of his seat, straining his neck to look around. Nadine remained asleep through the commotion.
The sudden lurching had caused Robert’s laptop to fall from the tray table and strike the floor. He bent down to retrieve it. He opened the top. The screen was blank, with a crack like a lightning bolt running from the top corner to the lower middle. He tried the power button but nothing happened.
“Sir, you’ll have to put your computer away,” Christine said, moving through the aisle.
He was about to tell her that the turbulence caused his laptop to fall and break, but decided she had other things to deal with. Perhaps he did too. The boom seemed to echo through the cabin, in the continued murmurs of the passengers, in the slightly faster movements of the two flight attendants as they secured the galleys.
He detected an oily, greasy smell, like an auto repair bay, but the aircraft had stabilized and nothing else happened. Descent became steady and gradual again. There was no announcement about any problem. Robert looked out his window: unblemished sky and the flat green patchwork of the farm and forested land far below.
He let out a breath. The adrenaline slowly drained from his veins. He had flown tens of thousands of miles on commercial airliners, through clear skies and snowstorms and lightning flashes and gale force winds. Every one of those flights had reached its destination safely. Once he’d been on a flight out of Chicago that had to return to the airport immediately after takeoff because a bird strike shut down one of the engines—terrifying the passengers because they all remembered the Miracle on the Hudson landing when the pilot had successfully landed in the river after both engines failed from flying through a flock of birds. Another time he’d been on a flight that had to be diverted because a passenger was acting unruly and refused to take his seat; everyone immediately feared the man was a terrorist but it turned out he’d left his meds behind and was suffering an anxiety attack. Last summer he’d been sitting on a plane in line for takeoff when the pilot steered the opposite way and returned to the gate—one of the cargo doors was open and a pilot in another plane waiting to takeoff had noticed it. But not once in any of the hundreds of flights he’d been on had he ever heard a noise as loud as he’d just heard, the sound of steel striking steel, followed by an aftershock that rocked the entire aircraft. That had to mean something.
Yet the plane continued to fly without incident. There was only the usual minor rattling and rocking that accompanied controlled descent.
Okay, then. Settle down. It’s just another Monday.
The flight attendant passed through the aisle for a final check. The man seated next to Nadine asked, “Miss, what happened?”
Christine paused. “I’m sure everything is fine, sir.”
Robert heard the tension in her voice, as if each word hung by a frayed wire. What was she hiding from the passengers?
Nothing. She wasn’t hiding anything. Relax.
Then the plane dropped again, the kind of sudden fall that shoves your stomach into your throat, causing another round of gasps from the passengers and Christine to lose her balance. She stumbled and grabbed the back of Robert’s seat to keep from falling. He put a hand on her elbow to steady her. The overhead bin door above Robert popped open. A sweater fell out and dangled by one sleeve caught on something above. Christine regained her footing and packed the bin and closed the door again, both arms straining until the latch clicked.
“Are you all right?” Robert asked her.
She didn’t answer. She lunged toward the bulkhead and secured herself with a harness in her seat up front.
They were getting lower now, nearing the airport, the landscape gridded with fields and tracts of trees. They flew over a barn and its silo. Robert spotted clusters of houses and buildings where roads intersected. So far, so good. They didn’t shear the top off the silo, they didn’t plummet into a warehouse. They crossed over the thruway, where Robert could see individual cars and trucks moving in what appeared like slow motion. He had a moment of wishing he’d driven from Mount Kisco to Buffalo. If the drive had been four hours instead of seven, he might have traveled by car every week, but Robert was too busy and the extra time too precious.
The pilot executed a wide banking left turn, a pattern of approach Robert recognized from this weekly journey, but the arc was jagged and jerky, as if powerful gusts were buffeting the plane. They flew over a quarry filled with water, its surface rippled and dark blue, and Robert knew they would cross back over the thruway again just before the runway.
He felt a vibration in his seat. Then the nose of the plane rose and they began to climb, followed by an angling downward. Up again, then down, faster this time. Repeat. Repeat. The aircraft was bucking fore and aft, like a bull trying to throw its rider. Passengers screamed and yelled, a discordant chorus of terror. Robert tried to formulate a reasonable explanation for what was happening. There was none. The plane was damaged. They were going to crash. With each lurch of the aircraft, more voices joined in the shouting.
Bitter dread rose like bile in his throat. He tried to swallow, but his mouth had dried out. His pulse rate began to increase again and sweat ran from his forehead. His groin heated, while the rest of him was freezing. He was stricken with insurmountable fear.
The flight attendant was on the phone. She flipped a switch and told all passengers to be sure their seat belts were fastened, that the approach and landing were going to be bumpy.
Bumpy? Try ballistic.
“What’s wrong?” a woman called out from behind Robert in coach.
“We’re going to crash,” someone yelled.
“It’s probably just crosswinds,” another passenger replied.
It wasn’t the wind; it was mechanical failure. Robert understood that much. The banging sound they’d heard earlier, and the metallic rattling now, was the sound of the elevators or ailerons or landing gear failing. Or the rudder flopping. Or a wing section throwing rivets. They were descending too fast, then too slow. Too steeply. Then nosing up again. Robert was close to vomiting, the undulating motions of the aircraft making him nauseous, the coffee in his stomach sloshing and the pressure in his bladder increasing. He could really use the bathroom.
There wasn’t a word from the cockpit, and the cabin had become eerily quiet, the screamers having resorted to praying.
Robert pulled the safety card from the seat pocket and steadied himself long enough to study the picture instructing how to operate the forward door. It was less than ten feet away from his seat. The red emergency handle. The arrow pointing which way to lift the latch. The faceless figure with circles for hands pushing the door to the side.
The flight attendant reached for the phone again. She asked everyone to remain calm and stay in their seats, to make sure no loose items were around them. Robert was close enough to see how the handset quivered as she gripped it. Then she dropped the receiver while trying to replace it and left the handle dangling by the cord. Her mouth was narrow and tight, eyes flat and icy. Robert could see mounting panic battling her professional training for control.
Fuck. This was really happening.
He thought of Sasha again—did they love each other enough? Of Erin—was she settling in?—had she met new friends yet?—did she miss her parents? He hardly knew his own daughter anymore; he had seen so little of her this past year he’d been working in Buffalo. She’d grown up and moved away in the blink of an eye. Would she be okay on her own? He had worked so many hours and was out of town so often, but he could take pride in ensuring the security and comfort of his family. He had embraced his role as provider without question or compromise, and if he died now Sasha and Erin would be financially secure. He’d taken care of them. They had plenty of assets and he carried a generous life insurance policy.
But he didn’t want to die. Not yet. Not ever. If only he could get off this airplane and be back home. If only he could turn the clock back just a few hours. He would . . . He would . . . He would kiss Sasha goodbye before getting out of bed, even if she was mostly asleep and had rejected his overtures. When she called out from the window that she loved him, he would sing to her that he loved her too. Or he would be the first to say those words. He would say them loud. He would say them clear. Sasha, I love you! When she wished him a good flight he would wish her good luck on the commercial. He would leave with a contented heart.
Instead he pretended he didn’t hear her. What a self-centered prick he could be. What a bruised little boy. What an insecure scorekeeper of slights. And now, with his plane about to crash and Robert facing death, that minor slight would be his last interaction with the woman he fell in love with so many years ago, the woman whose heart he had won over, who had given him a lovely, intelligent daughter; the woman he’s built his life around: and he’d snubbed her simply because she’d nicked his pride.
You fucking asshole, Robert. You selfish piece of shit. Take it back, take it back, take it back. Except he couldn’t.
And now you’re going to die.
He bent his thumb under his palm and pressed against his wedding band, which had a hinge because he couldn’t fit a ring over his knobby second knuckle. He used his thumb to rotate the band, a habit started years ago and now so unconscious and frequent as to be a tic. The hinge popped open. He latched it back in place. I popped again.
The announcement came from the flight deck. “This is the captain. Brace for impact.”
Christine summoned the nerve to execute her duty. She grasped for the phone swinging from its cord. Her voice was a sharp staccato. “Place your feet flat on the floor, lean forward and put your head against the seatback in front of you. Feet on the floor! Head down against the seat in front of you! Keep down!”
Screaming and crying and praying filled the cabin. There was the smell of vomit. Then of shit. Robert looked out the window for his last view of the world. The ground was coming up. They passed over a wooded area, close enough he could see individual leaves on trees. The plane continued to pitch and dip. Where was the runway? Why couldn’t they land? Why didn’t the pilot gain altitude and circle around for another approach, a smoother, safer one?
Because he couldn’t. Robert had seen the pilot in the cockpit when he boarded, the competence emanating from him. He was doing the best he could right now to control the plane and it wasn’t going to be good enough.
The plane nosed down once more and Robert caught a glimpse of the markers leading up to the runway. They were going to be short. They were a second or two from impact. And here came the amazing thing about the moment of death: time doesn’t slow down—it ceases to exist. You can experience the shame and regret of not kissing your wife goodbye. You can remember a family trip to St. John you didn’t take because you were too busy and your presence may not have been that missed after all, which leads you to thinking you’ve missed out, you’ve barely lived, you’ve worked and worked and never strayed from your path, and now you fear you’ve wasted your life, you had your priorities all wrong, you haven’t loved enough, you haven’t experienced enough adventure whatever adventure might mean, you haven’t taken the road not taken because you’ve stayed on the road you were on, you haven’t taken risks because you’re not a risk taker, you haven’t explored because you’re not an explorer, you haven’t followed your dreams because you’re not a dreamer. You played your life safe. You didn’t get your pilot’s license or restore that Mustang parked in your garage or visit Thailand or father a second child. You lived a nomadic life in service of your career and you didn’t cultivate lifelong friendships. You didn’t perform volunteer work and help others—instead you planned to fire them from their jobs. You’re nothing and have been nothing all along, and you’ve blown your one and only chance to be alive and feel alive, to quench your existential thirst on the very essence of life. So you might as well die. You deserve to die. And then your mind snaps back and you remember how lucky you’ve been to have an amazing wife and a sensitive, compassionate daughter, and what more can any man ask for, what more makes for a rich and meaningful life. You can repeat a mantra of I love you I love you. You can see the people across the aisle from you clutching each other as they face annihilation, you can see a flight attendant grimace against the most extreme and unlikeliest of occupational hazards. All of this: thinking, feeling, seeing. Doubting your life; affirming your life. And yet no time at all has passed. Time does not exist. You’ve hardly gulped a breath. He had thought about his death before—who hasn’t? Not so much dwelling on how or when he was going to die, but how he would handle the moment when death arrived and the eternal unknown was upon him, and he had hoped and believed he would handle it well, face forward and head up like a man, with the pride and honor of a life well lived, with the courage and acceptance that must accompany all that is inevitable.
He is no longer buckled in his seat. He has risen above the aircraft and is separated from his body, suspended in the sky. He is totally at ease and peaceful, filled with a calm, cottony weightlessness, looking down at the plane, the silver fuselage and wings, the red painted tail fin. He can see the long stretch of runway that remains too far away, the grassy meridians on either side, and in the farther distance the airport control tower sticking up like a mushroom from the terminal. Warm—he is so warm and comfortable. He is wrapped in sunshine, cradled in comfort. It’s like being in a hot tub, jets on full, and lowering your head underwater and you hear the water rushing around you and through you, except instead of sinking he is soaring, all these sensations he can feel so distinctly and yet he has detached from his body and is floating above the imminent disaster below. He can see inside the cabin now: the fear, the terror, the sickness, the lips moving in prayer, the begging, the passengers braced and trembling, and he can see himself alone with his seat belt buckled, sitting up straight with his head turned to the side and staring out the window as if this were any other landing on a perfect summer morning under a cloudless sky, although he knows it won’t be any other landing, and that the plane is going to crash, and he is going to die.
He’s accepting of that now. He’s reached that moment of preparation. He’s not going to plead his way out of this, make promises to better himself and the lives of those around him in exchange for survival. He’s done the best he could with what he had. His wife is working again, his daughter becoming an adult. It’s okay if he leaves. They will be fine. He is ready to accept his fate.
Except he’s not. No! I don’t want to die! I want more life! Which plants him back in his seat at the instant the plane smacks the runway. He is engulfed in violent, thunderous mayhem. The plane lifts again, slams down a second time. There is a horrendous scraping sound. The impact hurls Robert toward the ceiling; his seatbelt holds. Another explosive boom. The rear of the aircraft swings forward and the plane begins skipping sideways along the runway. The walls of the cabin shake apart, windows blow out. Luggage explodes from the overhead compartments. Oxygen masks fling from the ceiling. The noise is overwhelming. A subway screeching on its rails. A tornado screaming through a trailer park. Robert looks up just in time to see something hit the flight attendant in her face. He watches her forehead bloom red and then he’s wrenched to the side and his head strikes the window with enough force to crack the glass.
The aircraft skitters off the runway and spins onto a grassy area and the tail section breaks off. One wing tips up steeply and seems to drift back to the ground, and the plane comes to a sudden, thudding standstill, pitched at an angle like a slanted room in a funhouse.