Jhoanna Calma Salazar >

If the Plane Crashes

 

She is waiting at the Hawaiian Airlines ticket counter at LAX when she first notices the young man. Filipino, like herself, but younger, much younger, in his early twenties, perhaps, or maybe even in his late teens, and tall for a Filipino, too, almost six feet tall, standing in the e-ticket line with a guitar case strapped over his shoulder, fists shoved into the front pockets of his worn blue jeans. He is handsome, Malaya thinks, in an angry rock star kind of way, and then she laughs quietly, silently scolding herself: I’m old enough to be his mother.

Yet, she continues to gaze at him with the hope of locking eyes with him for a moment, just for a moment, to give and maybe get some recognition, some admiration, from this young man, this stranger. It is something Malaya often does, consciously or unconsciously—her life filled with moments of brief, nonverbal exchanges with strangers, exchanges that ultimately mean nothing, but if Malaya detects some kind of admiration, or approval—say, a lingering stare, or a sly smile from a stranger—these moments would make Malaya feel young, fresh—sometimes, even beautiful—for the rest of the day.

“One way to Maui,” the ticket agent behind the counter says. “Is Maui your final destination?” The question strikes Malaya in an odd way, the words “final” and “destination.” She shifts her eyes away from the handsome young man and looks blankly at the ticket agent.

“Ma’am?” the agent asks, waiting for a response from Malaya. “Is Maui your final destination?”

“I guess so,” Malaya says. She reads the agent’s nametag: Desiree. A likely name for a pretty young girl.

Desiree’s long, pale fingers type Malaya’s information into the computer. “Maui’s beautiful, a great place to settle down.” Desiree says.

“I’ve never been there before.”

“Why are you moving there, if you don’t mind me asking.”

Malaya tries to think of a good-sounding reason, instead of her real reasons—that it seemed dramatic for her to live out the rest of your life in a paradise, and that Hawai’i was as far as she could get from the mainland and everyone she knew without needing a passport.

Malaya shrugs. “Why not move there?”

Desiree smiles in reluctant agreement. Handing the ticket back to Malaya, Desiree says, “Gate 35C. It should be boarding right now. Have a nice flight.”

Malaya tucks her ticket inside her purse and heads for the gate. She passes by the young Filipino man but he is at the ticket counter now so his back is to her. At the gate, getting in line to board the plane, Malaya looks out at the darkening L.A. sky, remembering the phone call with her father in Chicago two weeks ago. Come home, he had said after Malaya told him about the lump in her breast. I don’t know where that is, she said. She felt lost, scared, lying alone on her bed in her L.A. apartment, the phone tucked between her ear and the pillow, the space beside her made empty just minutes before by her lover, Bradford, after she told him she didn’t want to be with him anymore.

Bradford. It was he who had discovered the lump. Bradford, good doctor that he is, even his post-coital caresses were always alert to the possibilities of a lover’s bodily malfunctions. In the darkness of her bedroom, Malaya had been drifting into sleep when Bradford’s fingers ceased caressing her breasts, and instead began prodding, poking the outer side of her left breast. He whispered her name hastily in her ear to wake her. Have you ever noticed this lump, Malaya? he asked, gently nudging Malaya’s flesh. When’s the last time you’ve done a self-exam?

She never performed self exams, though she knew she should, knew that her chances of getting cancer were high because her mother had had cancer, lost her breast to it, died of it.

I don’t know, she told Bradford groggily, feigning lack of concern.

You need to get it checked out. Make an appointment tomorrow? Malaya, promise? He waited until she said “yes,” and then he tenderly pressed his lips to that spot on her breast before resting his head on the pillow to sleep.

She had pretended to be unconcerned, but that morning, after Bradford left her apartment, Malaya stood naked in front of her dresser mirror, studying her reflection. The sunlight forced itself through the thin curtains, harshly highlighting the peaks and valleys of Malaya’s 40-year-old body. Her breasts were still firm, though she noticed how their weight tugged at the skin below her collarbone, right above her breastplate, and how they now bottomed out ever lower on her ribcage. She raised her left arm up above her head, and with her right hand pressed her fingers against the outer side of her left breast, trying to find the deformity that Bradford had found the night before.

There. A small lump, like a marble and almost as hard. She let her fingers linger over the lump for a moment, just for a moment, then cupped her hand over her breast, trying to cover it entirely, trying to imagine it not being there, her body without one breast. A memory of her mother flashed through her mind, her mother’s face, a resemblance of Malaya’s, and then the memory faded away. At that moment Malaya knew. She didn’t need any medical tests to tell her. Cancer had gotten her mother, why wouldn’t it get Malaya, too?

 

<>

 

On the plane, Malaya takes out her pen and notebook while the rest of the passengers board the plane. She opens it to a blank page. But she doesn’t write, hasn’t written in years now. Years of travelling around, wandering from city to city, living a somewhat bohemian lifestyle, ending up in L.A., landing a manager position at a restaurant that catered to the rich and famous, she just about gave up writing, but the desire to write—fiction, and poetry —had always been there, and now, she has time to write, but the blank page, that white empty space glaring back at her, threatening to maintain its emptiness, to keep Malaya’s stories unwritten—this evokes a tremendous amount of fear in Malaya, as much or even more than the possibility of cancer.

Malaya drops the point of her rollerball pen onto her notebook. The red ink bleeds out, staining the paper. She looks up and watches last-minute passengers trickle onto the plane and work their way down the narrow aisle. Malaya wonders what their stories are. Are they leaving home, or going home? Young blond lady, she scribbles into her notebook, in hopes of jumpstarting her writing. Skin tight T-shirt, large breasts. Many heads turn to look at her, of course. An older man behind her. Her father? Her lover? Pausing, she looks back at him. He smiles at her, as if reassuring her. She moves forward, down the aisle, as if that’s all she needed, a smile, some assurance, in order to go on. Silently reading her sentences over, Malaya grimaces at her writing, so awkward, her words, her red letters, jagged, her phrases choppy, unflowing. She vigorously crosses the paragraph out, and looks back up to do more observing.

And, there he is. The handsome young Filipino man. Entering the plane. This plane. Malaya’s plane. The seat beside her is empty. This only happens in the movies, she thinks to herself, and laughs nervously at the possibility that the empty seat beside hers might be his.

But it’s the blond woman with the big breasts who pauses at Malaya’s row. The woman checks the ticket stub in her hand, then checks the seat number posted by the overhead storage. The woman takes the seat next to Malaya’s and they exchange polite smiles. The older man points toward the back of the plane, tells his young female companion that his seat is a few rows behind hers. The young woman nods, stretches her arm out to squeeze the man’s hand as he walks past. The Filipino man walks past, too. He glances over in Malaya’s direction, quickly, and then away. He doesn’t seem to notice her at all.

Disappointed, Malaya looks away, out the window. It’s dark outside now so the window reflects Malaya’s image back at her. A vague reflection, generous in hiding the tiny lines that have formed around Malaya’s eyes over the last few years. She feels silly, always feels silly when she lets something little like this—the non-attention from a total stranger—affect her mood. Stuffing her notebook and pen into the seat pocket in front of her, she closes her eyes. She is surprised that she is tired, already drifting off to sleep, which is what she wants, in order not to think about the cancer, or Bradford, or her father, or her life.

Though she sleeps for hours, she doesn’t dream, hasn’t dreamed in a while, or at least she doesn’t remember her dreams anymore. She awakes when her arm is bumped off the armrest.

“Oh, excuse me,” the blond woman says, getting up from her seat. In a high, soft voice, like a child’s, she explains to Malaya, “I’m going to change seats so I can sit with my husband. I hope you don’t mind.”

Malaya shakes her head “no.” She can’t help but notice the woman’s breasts again, the T-shirt hugging them, holding them close to her core like precious babies.

When the woman leaves, Malaya lifts the armrest and stretches her legs out onto the vacated seat. Her joints creak. She looks over the back of her seat. The young Filipino man is coming up the aisle. He sees Malaya looking at him, and when he smiles at her, Malaya politely smiles back but quickly looks away, to hide the big grin that she can’t stop from forming on her face, a grin caused by the small pleasure of having this stranger smile at her.

“You look comfy.” He is standing in the aisle, his hand on the backrest of the vacated seat. Malaya looks up, the big grin still on her face.

“Comfy and happy,” he laughs. “Hey, I traded seats with the lady sitting here ‘cuz she wanted to sit with her man. She didn’t tell you?”

“ No. I thought I had the row all to myself.” Malaya swings her legs off his seat.

He sits down, lowers his voice and explains, “She kept going back and forth, standing in the aisle and crowding me in my seat, blocking everyone’s way to the bathroom and the stewardesses with their food carts. So, even though we only got, like, an hour or two left on the plane, she might as well just take my seat, you know?”

“ We have an hour or two left? I was hoping to sleep away the whole time.”

" Sleep away the time? You should be stealing time, getting more of it, not sleeping it away.”

Up close, under his stubble, Malaya sees tiny pockmarks on his brown cheeks, cheeks not yet chiseled by the passing years. She wonders if he will get even better looking with age, or if time will ravage his looks.

“That’s easy for you to say,” she tells him. “You’re still young, still full of life.”

“And you’re an old bag?” He looks her up and down. She notices his eyes pause at her chest, and she suddenly feels the weight of her breasts, their presence, the attention they command, and a sadness comes over her, knowing she will miss this, the male gaze, however crude, on her femaleness. “You can’t be more than thirty, and you probably have tons of guys falling at your feet. You should be overflowing with life.”

His enthusiasm is too much for her. “I’m forty, and I’m sick,” she says, hearing the self-pity in her voice.

“I’m sorry.” He stares at his hands on his lap. “I mean, not that you’re forty, which you don’t look at all, but I’m sorry that you’re sick.”

They sit in silent uncomfort. They are flying somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Just about the whole flight is over water. Malaya thinks about plane failure, the plane crashing into the ocean. Would this stranger save her? She herself doesn’t know how to swim. She asks him, “Do you know how to swim?”

He looks at her quizzically. “Yeah.”

“If this plane crashes into the ocean will you help me survive? I can’t swim.”

He laughs. “You’re being a bit morbid, but, yeah, I’ll help you, of course.”

“Even if I hadn’t now asked you?”

"Yes.”

She feels an absurd closeness to him, knowing that he will save her, save her for the sake of saving someone, not because he has ties to her, or feels obligated to her in some way.

“My name’s Sol.” He extends his hand out for her to shake. She does.

“Soul?”

“Yeah. Sol. Like Puerto del Sol. Or casa del sol.”

“That’s pretty.” She doesn’t offer her name. Leaning her head back against the seat, she thinks to herself that if she had had a son when she was twenty years old, she’d want him to have grown up like Sol. On the little t.v. monitor attached to the ceiling some movie is playing that Malaya doesn’t recognize. Sol’s scent drifts toward her, a mixture of sweat and sweet cologne.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks quietly.

She shakes her head “no,” but when he pats her hand, when his hand lingers on hers in a moment of stranger-comfort, she begins telling him about Bradford. How she had been seeing him for only six months but he wanted to marry her, he was ready for it, having turned forty-five, secure in his career, he wanted kids, a dog, a house. And she thought maybe she was ready, too. She had started getting weary of her long cycle of loving lovers passionately, only to leave them after a few months. And that ticking. She had started feeling it, somewhere deep inside, the passing of the years pulsing through her veins, hardening– forty years old, how many more years until she couldn’t have babies anymore?

Yes, she had thought about marriage, and to Bradford, but that night, after the biopsy confirmed what she already knew, she told Bradford the results, and he held her, though she did not want to be held, did not know what she wanted. She smelled the hospital on him, the odor of medicine, and disinfectant, and sickness. He slid down to one knee, asking, Will you marry me, Malaya? I promise to take care of you through all this. Marry me.

She didn’t say anything. Instead, she backed away, onto her bed, lay down on her side. Bradford went to her, lay behind her. He stroked her hair, being gentle, as he always was. Without looking at him, Malaya told him he had to leave. I don’t want you to take care of me, she added. He protested, but he finally consented, and in his absence she called Chicago to speak to her father, the only other person that she felt close to. Come home, he told her. But when she hung up the phone, she couldn’t stop thinking about her mother, the months of chemo and radiation, and her father, cutting his hours at work in order to take care of her, and after he called Malaya one evening to tell her to hurry to the hospital, that it’s time, Malaya found him sitting on a chair outside her mother’s hospital room. Wearing a wrinkled T-shirt, with his head leaning back against the wall, he wept silently. His shoulders and chest heaved as if somebody was shaking him from behind. Malaya went to him, kneeled next to him, held his hand. It’s finally over, he sobbed. Oh God, it’s finally over.

 

<>

 

“I still don’t understand why you’re moving to Maui,” Sol says, “instead of Chicago, or staying in L.A. I don’t think Maui has the best cancer treatment in the world.”

“Of course you don’t understand. You’re half my age, with your whole life ahead of you. How could you understand?”

Sol reaches for Malaya’s hand and squeezes it in his. “I don’t mean to be mean or anything, but the way I see it, you’re just running away, and you’re just full of self-pity. That’ll surely kill you before anything else.”

Malaya snatches her hand away like a pouting child. She digs in the seat pocket in front of her for her notebook and pen, places them on her lap. The overhead reading light shines on the empty half of the paper. “I’ve always dreamed of being a writer. I never went for it,” she mutters. The pity, yes, she feels it oozing out of her, but she doesn’t seem to be able to stop it.

“Write about me,” Sol says, grabbing the pen off Malaya’s notebook and placing it between her fingers. She holds the pen tight, poised above the paper. “Write about me. I’ve always wanted some hot woman to write something about me.”

Malaya loosens her grip on the pen, presses the point on the paper. I saw him standing in line at the Hawaiian Airlines ticket counter at LAX. A Filipino man, much younger than me...

The stewardess’ voice sounds over the speaker system, warning that they will be landing shortly in Kahului, please put all tray tables up and your seats in the upright position. Malaya stops writing, shows Sol what she’s written before stuffing her notebook in her purse. He smiles like a little boy. The stewardess announces that the local time is 9:30 p.m., seventy degrees, light trade winds. Malaya knows nothing about Maui, hadn’t even made a hotel reservation. It seemed unimportant at the time she bought her ticket—all she wanted to do was get away—and it was how she used to travel when she was younger—picking up and leaving on a whim, no plans, just winging it. But now she is a little nervous. What if there are no vacancies? Once upon a time in her life, she would have just slept on the beach. But that was a long time ago, and now the thought of the hard sand, no bed, no pillow, no roof over her head—she realizes that she doesn’t need to add that kind of difficulty in her life now, that what she wants now is comfort, and to be comforted.

She feels the plane descending. Out the window and through the dark air outside, Malaya sees that they are flying over land now, over the tiny lights of a city or town. It doesn’t matter now that she doesn’t know how to swim. If the plane crashes, they will all most likely die. She turns to Sol.

She starts to ask him, “If the plane does a nosedive onto the runway—”

But he looks at her and shakes his head.

“We’re not going to crash,” Sol tells her, and all she can do at this moment is believe it.