Into the Frying Pan
As the working crew crams bags into overhead bins, I nestle into an extra-wide first-class leather seat. I may only make twenty grand a year, but, space permitting, I can travel in style to anywhere United flies. Tonight, after a day off, I’m trying to get back to my base at San Francisco International Airport before I go on call at midnight.
Predeparture Dom Perignon flows freely to the rich and powerful passengers seated around me, but being on call, I have to turn it down. I close my eyes and try to block out the fluorescent lights and the angry coach passengers who shuffle down the aisle and grumble about delays and a possible cancellation. If we don’t make it to SFO tonight, no one will be more screwed than me.
As a new flight attendant, one slipup will get you fired. We live in constant fear of termination, but it’s not about the money. If you can relocate anywhere they tell you to, then spend twenty nights a month in twenty different hotels, you’re not just earning a paycheck, you’re running away.
A pilot steps into my row, stooping so he doesn’t hit his head on the overhead bins. He holds his hat in one hand and loosens his blue-and-gold United tie with the other. His light brown hair is brushed forward, perhaps attempting to hide the inch or two of slippage that is just starting to shine through. I’d guess he’s about ten years older than I am, probably somewhere in his early thirties.
He looks down at me and smiles. I sit up a little straighter.
“Hi, I’m Rick,” he says and lets his hand linger as he shakes mine.
“I’m Emily,” I say without smiling back. If I’ve learned anything in my first few weeks on the job, it’s that flight attendants don’t flirt with pilots. Like crossing a picket line, it’s just not done. There’s a joke that demonstrates the party-line position on cockpit crew:
How many pilots does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
He holds it up in the air and the world revolves around him.
“Emily what?” asks Pilot Rick.
I hesitate and then reluctantly say, “Cavenaugh.” The name has been attached to me for two years, but I’d like to step under a power washer and blast it off.
Rick pulls a small stack of clothes from his bag before stowing it in the overhead. “I’m gonna slip into something more comfortable.” He laughs at his own attempt at humor and tells me he’s commuting home.
As he heads for the lav, I reach up and twist shut the vent that has been whistling above me, dislodging wisps of hair from my otherwise perfect French twist. I smooth the flyaways back down to comply with company appearance regulations. In training too many wisps would get you a tap on the shoulder and a private grooming consultation. When you work for an airline, seniority is everything. You have to earn the right to get fat and disheveled.
When Rick emerges, he’s tucking the last corner of a blue golf shirt into a pair of khakis. Golf is a surprise. His swagger suggests he’s more the motorcycle type. Still, the shirt is an improvement over the polyester uniform jacket that had been hiding his well-toned arms, deeply tanned, probably from layovers in Maui and Miami. I make sure to look away before he catches me staring.
The lead flight attendant, or purser, comes up behind him with a pen and pad that both say MARRIOTT. Blond wisps are escaping from her ponytail in every direction, so clearly she has finished her first six months of probationary employment and has union protection.
She follows procedure and starts with me, the window seat. “What would you like for dinner this evening, Ms. Cavenaugh? The chicken Parmesan or the salmon with lemon and capers?”
It’s my first time riding up front and I’m psyched, but still I say, “I’ll have whatever’s left over.”
She winks at me in appreciation. I won’t be the kind of flight attendant who morphs into a self-important corporate type when I’m sitting in first class for free.
Rick shakes his head and says he already ate. When she reaches the last row and I hear what must be the tenth request for chicken, I know I’m having salmon.
“So where are you based?” asks Pilot Rick.
“Ah, I’m based at LAX,” he says, “but I commute to Denver. At least for the moment. Tonight I have to connect through SFO. You like San Francisco?”
I nod and don’t tell him that although I have a bunk in a crashpad by SFO where I stay between trips, I’ve been using my flight benefits to commute home to a husband and condo in Bakersfield, the odiferous central California cow town where I grew up. I’m not sure it matters now, anyway.
We’re interrupted when the purser leans over to offer me a hot towel and turns to face Rick, placing her cleavage squarely in his face.
I feel the chocks release and the plane eases away from the jet bridge. Finally, I’m going somewhere.
After the purser carefully blows into the tubes of the demonstration life vest, she sets her hand on Rick’s shoulder and asks him to put his seat in the upright position. She once again leans across him, this time to pick up his predeparture mimosa. She must be what they call a cockpit queen.
The plane creeps along the taxiway, repeatedly turning and rhythmically smacking the same pothole every few minutes.
“Recognize this box pattern?” asks Rick.
I shake my head.
“We’re going to be here awhile. When the ground controllers don’t have room for another jet in the takeoff line, they keep us moving. They have a motto.” He pauses for effect. “A moving airplane is a happy airplane.”
I laugh and shift in my seat. I look up at him. When he laughs, the lines around his eyes seem to smile, too.
“So how long have you been flying?” he asks me.
“Six and a half weeks.”
He looks me up and down, nodding. “I thought so. You’re so regulation.”
I widen my eyes. “What do you mean by that?”
He leans across the armrest and says into my ear, “Maybe someday we can get you to let your hair down.”
I suspect he may be flirting, but I’m not certain enough to play along. “If it’s below our chin we have to have it pinned up.” I touch my tightly formed French twist. Then I smile just in case.
I hear my cell phone ring from inside my purse. Carl again. This is the eighth time he’s called tonight, each message increasingly angry. I turn the phone off and stuff my purse back under the seat in front of me.
Rick’s arm bumps against mine on the double-wide first-class armrest between us. I can feel its warmth, and I’m caught off guard by how soothing I find it. I have an urge to press my arm fully against his. Immediately, I want to pull it away, but that, too, would seem awkwardly deliberate. I sit straight forward, frozen in position, staring at the graying leather seat in front of me, its texture rubbed smooth from wear. I slide my eyes to the left to see my hand next to his, my ring finger ringless for the first time in two years. I slipped my wedding ring into my purse this afternoon as I walked away from Carl outside the therapist’s office. It’s just an experiment to see what my hand feels like without its weight.
I turn to look back into Rick’s eyes, pale glass-like blue eyes that appear open for anything. I wonder what he’s thinking about before I notice that he’s watching the purser, who is standing in the galley repeatedly plunging a bag of tea into a Styrofoam cup.
Eventually the box pattern becomes a straight line.
“Finally,” says Rick.
A voice over the PA says, “Flight attendants prepare for takeoff.” As if I were on the jumpseat, I shift into brace position for takeoff, legs together in front of the seat, hands tucked at my sides, head facing forward. We hold short at the end of the runway, and when I hear the engines spool up, I begin my silent review. No matter how routine this job gets, we still rehearse for an evacuation with every takeoff and landing.
We race down the runway, gathering speed. Rick pulls the Hemispheres magazine out of his seat pocket as I mentally review throwing open doors and rushing people down slides. The plane hums louder and louder as we get ready to slingshot into the air. We’re about to lift off and bang! The noise is so loud it’s as if we fired a missile from our right wing. I’m thrown forward, pressing into my seat belt. The brakes scream and the whole plane slides from side to side.
“Holy shit!” says Rick. “Our gear collapsed.”
The forward force is so powerful I have to press against the armrests to hold myself back in the seat.
Rick looks at me and then, so loudly that the passengers in front of us turn around, he says, “We’re full of fuel. We’ll catch on fire.”
He has the entire first-class cabin’s attention. A man across the aisle unbuckles his seat belt and the woman next to him screams at him to put it back on.
We continue to whip from left to right as we screech down the runway. I’m thrown back against my seat when we finally slam to a halt.
Just as I’m about to shout my first command, “Release your seat belts and get out,” a voice booms over the PA, slow and clear.
“Ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. There’s nothing to be alarmed about. We just experienced what we call a compressor stall. We’ll pull off the runway for a few minutes so maintenance can inspect our engine.”
In time with the passengers seated around me, I whip my head around to look at Rick.
“I guess it wasn’t our gear,” he whispers.
Thank God he wasn’t in uniform or 163 passengers would have been rushing the doors and scrambling out window exits.
“What was it?” I ask, still pressing into my seat.
“Just an engine failure.”
I look at him with concern.
“There are two kinds of pilots,” he says. “Those who have had an engine failure on takeoff. And those who will.”
I give a sarcastic half laugh.
“I’m hoping that was my one and only,” he says.
I hope so, too. I wouldn’t have wanted Mr. Cool Under Pressure in the cockpit for that one.
As if reading my mind, he says, “Sorry about that. I’m kind of on edge right now.” He shrugs his shoulders and says, “Personal stuff.”
I offer an “Ah,” intended to let him off the hook without an explanation.
“My wife wants a divorce,” he says, shaking his head. “Fuck.”
I search for an appropriate response, something better than the “Why are you telling me this?” that springs to mind. The best I can offer is a blank stare, which, I realize, is even worse. I thought jumpseat therapy was just for flight attendants.
He snaps his fingers and points his index finger out like a gun meant to say gotcha. “Too much information. I know. I’ll shut up.”
“Is it because of the job?” Before I accepted the job, someone told me that it would either make my relationship stronger or end it faster than I could imagine. I promised Carl it would make us rock solid, but now I wonder if I was hoping for the alternative.
Rick shrugs his shoulders.
I feel bad for him. He seems so nice, but people would probably say that about Carl, too. He’s always the one to laugh extra hard at your joke, even if he doesn’t get it. Especially if he doesn’t get it.
I wonder what might actually lie behind Rick’s agreeable appearance. I can’t imagine he would kick his wife out of the car and leave her on the side of the road late at night just for reminding him to turn on his headlights. I highly doubt that his wife flew into town to meet with a marriage counselor today only to watch his frustration build until he said, straight to her face, that he did nothing wrong, that getting physical is “sometimes what it takes.”
Rick says, “Let’s change the subject. How about you? Do you commute?”
I shake my head.
“Must be nice being young and single with no responsibilities.”
“Yeah.” I laugh.
“How old are you?”
“Ah, the good old days.”
He reminisces about pilot training in the Navy, spending his days studying and his nights partying at Pensacola Beach bars with groupie chicks who were looking for Maverick from Top Gun. He misses getting hammered and stopping for pizza at 2 A.M. on his walk home.
I nod along as if he’s describing my life. In reality I’m so straightlaced that the first time I ever caught a buzz was at my college graduation. I was proud to have summa cum laude stamped on my diploma, even if it was just Cal State Bakersfield. Only it wasn’t joy that led me to drink. It was terror. I had no idea what to do next. Would I say goodbye to my high school sweetheart and move to New York to make worldly new girlfriends and work a fast-paced job in a skyscraper?
No. Only weeks later, I stepped onto the white aisle runner covering the lawn at the local rec center. Carl squinted into the sun as I swept one foot toward the other, staring down at the hideous stargazer lilies that capped each row of seats. I suddenly hated the stargazer lilies. I had chosen them because they were the cheapest option and I was tired of making decisions.
Rick envies my youth. “You must be living it up,” he says. “Flexing the flight benefits, flirting with passengers, flitting around the world all carefree. Drinking cosmos in Manhattan and absinthe in Prague with men who are wrong in all the right ways.”
I haven’t actually been called up for an international yet, but my training flight to London two months ago was enough to show me that if something in my life had to go, it wouldn’t be the job. We hadn’t even landed yet and I knew. About five hours after we left Chicago, the captain called me up to the cockpit.
“I want to show you something,” he said as he sprayed two pumps of Binaca in his mouth and turned off the lights. Then he told me to kneel and look outside. Thirty-seven thousand feet over Greenland, I pressed my face against the 777 cockpit windows and watched the northern lights shoot miles above and below us, rising and falling, bursting and disappearing as abruptly as the equalizer bars on a stereo. It was several minutes before a radio call from Reykjavik Air Traffic Control broke the silence and I was sent back into the cabin to refill gin and tonics.
No matter how early in the morning or late at night, whenever I put on my uniform, I feel that moment’s exhilaration. I see the rest of the world every time I glance at a departure board. I taste my freedom every time I glide, rollaboard in tow, through the neon tunnel at our O’Hare hub while hidden speakers play “Rhapsody in Blue,” United’s theme song, the new soundtrack to my life.
Rick turns and looks straight at me and says, “Don’t ever get married.”
He says his wife, a pharmaceuticals rep, is screwing one of the doctors she sells to. I don’t know what to say, so I turn away, lean against the glass and look back toward the tail of the plane. I can see a truck parked out there but no mechanic. We were on the runway, for God’s sake, we better not cancel now. If I’m late to work, I’ll be sacked for sure.
I can understand the hard line the company takes when it comes to tardiness. A late crewmember can start the proverbial snowball rolling—one delayed flight turns into another and another at each subsequent destination, and in the end, it could mean hundreds or even thousands of missed connections, all of those passengers needing to be slotted into already overbooked flights. The final cost could be more than my annual salary.
Rick apologizes again for unloading all of this on me. I know it’s really a request to continue, so I ask him if he suspected anything.
He did. But he hoped it would pass, until he opened the door to his crashpad this morning and a process server threw a manila folder at him and ran down the stairs.
“You know what they say we carry in these, right,” he says, kicking the black boxy flight bag stowed under the seat. It’s topped with a sticker that says, I LOVE THE SMELL OF JET FUEL IN THE MORNING.
“Your divorce papers.” I laugh, proud of myself for knowing the joke. Then I catch the rudeness of this response. “I’m sorry.”
“An anonymous process server? What did she think? That I was going to hurt her or force her to stay with me or pull out a gun and shoot her and then myself?”
“What do you mean by ‘maybe’?”
“Nothing.” I wave my hand as if to brush the comment away. But it is good to know she didn’t have to confront him with a divorce herself. I imagine her putting on a kick-ass pair of shoes, confidently walking out of their home, and never looking back.
Rick starts flipping through the Hemispheres magazine on his lap. He doesn’t stop on any page long enough to read more than the title.
I wonder if he had a big wedding, if hundreds of family members came out to support his vows, promising to help them stay together for better or worse. His wife probably doesn’t care what other people think. I wish I didn’t.
I turn toward him. His eyes are so gentle. They look safe. I’m tempted to tell him everything.
He looks up, perhaps feeling my stare. “So. On to a happier subject,” he says. “Are you seeing anyone?”
I shake my head. Seeing anyone? I married my first boyfriend. Since then I have worn the turtlenecks and baggy sweaters he prefers, and true to form, they have vigilantly kept other men from checking me out.
At first I was devoted to Carl, and later I was even more devoted to avoiding a blowout. But I could never get that right.
A few weeks ago, I was running late and forgot to call. When I got home, Carl was in the kitchen slamming cabinets.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He grabbed a Calphalon frying pan and held it over his head.
“Who the fuck,” he said as he slammed the pan into the top of the stove, “do you think you are?”
I saw an inch-deep dent on the edge of the stove and the frying pan was no longer round; he had completely flattened one side. I started to back away, but he ran past me and stood in the doorway with his arms out, blocking the exit from the kitchen.
I tried to squeeze by but he grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me up against the pantry door. He pulled back his right fist. I closed my eyes and turned my head as if I had always known this day would arrive, the day he would move from hitting walls to hitting me. But his knuckles flew past me and slammed halfway through the hollow door.
I squirmed out from under his left hand, but he grabbed me again, his hands pressing into my shoulders and shaking me. I looked right into his eyes, surprised at my nerve. He could kill me, I thought. But it was as if I was on Valium. I couldn’t get that near-death rush. I realized that I wasn’t afraid to die because I was already dead.
He pushed with all his strength. I flew back and crashed into the floor and cabinets. The physical pain hit immediately—my head throbbed, my elbow burned, my wrists ached. I lay on the floor looking up at him.
He stared down at me, both of us expressionless.
Before I could react, he dropped to his knees, shaking, sobbing.
I didn’t move. I lay crumpled against the cabinet and felt the last ounce of respect I had been reserving for him drain away. It was so after-school special that I could almost see the camera on him as he ran through his lines.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated.
I said, “It’s okay.” And what I meant was that I would be okay. By escalating to physical violence, he had given me a gift. I could hardly suppress a smile.
For years, I’d been afraid to leave a water ring on the coffee table or a speck of toothpaste on the mirror, afraid to buy the wrong brand of shredded wheat or wash a shirt on the wrong temperature setting.
All of that evaporated. I was filled instead with an enormous sense of freedom.
I had to go to work that night, but I promised I’d fly home to see a counselor, which he had offered to do. Before I left for San Francisco, I furtively packed the few photos and mementos that mattered to me. At the last minute, when he wasn’t there to see, I took the frying pan too.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your captain here again. Maintenance has given us the all clear, and we’re going to try again.”
“Try?” I say to Rick.
He smiles and winks.
I feel the parking brake release, and once again we are moving.
We turn toward the runway. Outside the window, I see a blinking trail of commercial jets from twenty-seat props to the double-decker 747s. We take our place in line and inch our way forward.
I look around at the silent cabin. We could probably hear each other breathe if it wasn’t for the hum of the air-conditioning. I’ve heard that when a flight suddenly becomes “eventful,” you won’t see the chaos of a scene from Airplane! You’ll see quiet passengers squeezing their armrests and facing forward as if turned to stone. Well, unless you’re seated next to Pilot Rick.
“Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.”
I hold my breath and grip my armrests, surprised at the nervous energy jolting through my body. I’m afraid, I’m afraid to die, and the feeling makes me want to sing with joy.
The airplane trembles as it builds up power, a windup toy about to be released, and we’re screaming down the runway again.
No bang, no brakes, we lift off into smooth, quiet air.
Copyright © 2013 by Tiffany Hawk