On July 6th, 2013, George Lewis languished in the window seat of a Boeing 777 bound for Mexico from San Francisco. It was a quarter hour after departure time and the captain had just announced that there would be a delay. He delivered the innocuous-sounding news–“waiting for a flight plan”–in a bored voice. George Lewis felt the same way, despite this being the first day of a long-awaited vacation. Seated next to him was his wife, Jean, who greeted the captain’s words with a disgusted sigh and then reached down for a fashion magazine that she’d brought for the journey. It seemed a preemptive action, designed to counter George’s subtle nod in her direction, his supplicant overture. No chance, she was saying. Ok, we booked this thing and it’s too late to get our money back, and we’re on the plane and on our way. But don’t get any ideas. We’re not going there. Not now. In the seats ahead there were some teens gazing out the window and then pointing outward, behind their seats and over George’s head. Annoying, he thought. One teen, a disheveled skateboarder-type about two years younger than George and Jean’s now college-ensconsed only son, let out a shrill, excitable noise. Jolted and glum, George looked up past the youth’s hairy, undeoderized armpit, and stared down the doltish-looking, unsupervised child.
“Sorry,” said the boy, suddenly without expression.
George softly grunted, bit down upon perfunctory forgiveness and turned back to the window by his side. Clouds. Or smoke. That’s what was behind them. He couldn’t tell, but the teens in front could. One kid was from Burlingame and was guessing there was a fire near his old school. “That’s my home, fool,” he started repeating, certain of himself but undisturbed. The other boy was from San Bruno. He reminisced about a fire in his home town from two years earlier–a national story at the time, George recalled. It was “crazy”, the boy recalled; his excitability back in force. Jean didn’t react. Her head was in her magazine, a half-fashion rag, half-gossip journal, featuring women, fully clothed, many bearing sizable bulges, each looking hopeful and happy. Glowing: that’s the expression, George noted. The cover was of the British princess whose name George couldn’t remember–a likeable, girl-next-door type who had stolen the Prince’s heart, earned her fairly tale wedding, and was now waiting on her next big day, ready to give the King-in-waiting an heir. The empowered and not-so-empowered everywomen of the world were waiting with her, living vicariously this princess dream. Meanwhile, George Lewis flashed through his mind thoughts of the skin of semi-clothed women. In Costa Rica, their ultimate destination, there would be plenty of skin, mostly of the exotic, caramel kind and not the ashen complexion of his anglo wife, or the anglo princess whom she so admired.
George caught himself. He closed his eyes and winced, and then tried the action that his new therapist had taught him the previous week; this 3-second rule that members of Sex Addicts Anonymous swore by. Give yourself three seconds–that was the rule. Give yourself three seconds, acknowledge the trigger, then watch those thoughts and feelings drift by, mindful of their power, but make a choice. “George, you have choices,” his therapist exhorted. George returned a sad, defeatist look, but nodded agreeably. Now he tried to put the rule into effect. Think of the consequences. That was the next part; the next “tool” to use. The problem was guilt. Consequences? Too late, the consequences are already here, he answered sourly. Ever since Jean had caught him with his pants down, with a white towel over his ass, lying face down on that padded couch in that sordid office, sipping that honey tea supplied by…that woman; that sexy yet unglowing woman whose happiness was actually not important to George. The fleeting visions of supple skin, conjured smells of delicious oils, and hardest of all to summon, the tactile sensations of friction, were now coupled with stinging self-rebukes…George’s self loathing. Somehow, back in the therapist’s office, listening to sage, asexual counsel, he’d forgotten to ask the most important question: what do I do with the guilt? What he asked instead was a question about Jean. As George glanced tentatively in her direction, he thought of the urgent question that dominated the previous session: how do I get her trust back? he’d asked, to which the therapist was non-committal and borderline dismissive, insisting that such things were impossible to predict and that trust wounds, in his experience, were always mutual, or something like that.
George’s eyes fixed upon an overhead compartment several seats down which seemed loosened from its catch. As an attendant walked by George thought to flag the man down, alert him to the problem, the prospect of luggage tumbling out and possibly hurting someone. He’d strike an earnest tone in his voice, make sure to emphasize the threat to passenger safety; make sure that everyone–especially Jean–knew that he cared. But the moment passed. The attendant skipped by as though distracted, his impassive expression glancing over the heads of passengers all around him; past the eyes of George Lewis and out the window next to his seat. The loose compartment made an insistent clicking sound and its cover tilted outwards by an inch. It’s leaking, thought George, transferring more terms from recent therapeutic pedantry. That compartment: they think they have it locked. They think it’s airtight and that everything’s safe and tucked away, but it’s not. George knew that now. Why hadn’t he known it all along? After all, it wasn’t as though he’d not dreamed of the worst happening. In fact, he’d felt it in his gut, the foreboding. If only he’d trusted his…
He glanced at Jean, still determined not to speak to him; perhaps determined to never speak to him again. He felt a chill and stood up tall, looking over the tops of seats, over the heads of noisy teens, and into the distance. An attendant at the end of the aisle was half on a phone near the cockpit, half pleading with an agitated male passenger to return to his seat. Around them there were murmurings, and within earshot, barely, there were emerging fears rippling through the cabin, and more numerous observations of drifting, grey plumes of smoke from an area just beyond the airport control tower. Not clouds. News was filtering through the plane of something big. Someone was on the internet, disobeying the captain’s orders, which had asked for all electronic devices to be cut-off in anticipation of a take-off that was imminent a half hour earlier but now delayed indefinitely. George Lewis started to become suspicious. Reflecting on his therapist’s words, he realized he was not feeling the trust.
“Sit down, George,” Jean said irritably, though unlike him, she seemed unperturbed by the growing unrest around her. Denial. Good, George thought: she’s still speaking to me, at least.
“Sorry,” he replied to her.
At that moment, the captain’s voice sounded out over the intercom, his voice now sounding more tired, not bored. The flight to Mexico City with connection to San Jose, Costa Rica, was regrettably cancelled, he announced–the result, he declared, of an airport closure in Mexico City. He followed up with some rote instructions about how to redeem ticket purchases at the airline desk in the terminal. George was half listening, and now peering out the window by his seat, just like the boys in the seats in front of him. Like a frightened child, he pressed his face against the window, straining to look through the thick double plastic to the sights behind him. He knew now that something unusual had happened. Something horrible: something the captain, and perhaps many others would not talk about for a long time.
* this short story is not based on real events, or real people. If you like this story, perhaps you might read the synopsis of my psychological fiction, entitled Crystal From The Hills.