Jhoanna Calma Salazar >
the Plane Crashes
She is waiting at the Hawaiian Airlines
ticket counter at LAX when she first notices the young man. Filipino,
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
she continues to gaze at him with the hope of locking eyes with
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.
never been there before.”
“Why are you moving there, if you don’t
mind me asking.”
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.
shrugs. “Why not move
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
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
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.
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.
had pretended to be unconcerned, but that morning, after Bradford
her apartment, Malaya stood naked in front of her dresser mirror,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
there he is. The handsome young Filipino man. Entering the plane.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
the woman leaves, Malaya lifts the armrest and stretches her
out onto the vacated seat. Her joints creak. She looks over
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
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
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
No. I thought I had the row all to myself.” Malaya swings
her legs off his seat.
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?”
have an hour or two left? I was hoping to sleep away the whole
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
if he will get even better looking with age, or if time
will ravage his
“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
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
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.”
sit in silent uncomfort. They are flying somewhere over the Pacific
Ocean. Just about the whole flight
is over water.
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?”
looks at her quizzically. “Yeah.”
“If this plane crashes into the ocean will you help me survive? I can’t
laughs. “You’re being a bit morbid, but, yeah, I’ll
help you, of course.”
“Even if I hadn’t
now asked you?”
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.
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
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
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
she already knew, she
and he held her, though she did not want
be held, did
not know what she wanted. She smelled the
hospital on him, the
odor of medicine,
and sickness. He slid down to one knee, asking, Will you marry me, Malaya? I promise to take
care of you
through all this.
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
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
stop thinking about her mother, the months
of chemo and radiation, and her father,
hours at work in order to take care of
her, and after he called Malaya one evening
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
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
“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
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.”
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
A Filipino man, much younger than me...
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.
feels the plane descending. Out the window and through the dark
outside, Malaya sees that they are flying
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.
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.