I was wearing my sky blue sweater, with an open weave like twine. It’s not actually what I’m wearing, but it’s what I should be wearing. Not out of any disgust with the sweater I have on now, which I know to be absolutely fine, but just because the sky blue feels like it has some obscure rightness. I’d always rather be wearing blue, something about it matching my eyes makes me feel like my existence is all of a sudden much more sincere and meaningful. Probably based on all that crap about eyes being windows to the soul.
There’s also the window seat and the window itself, which is unusually brimful of blue. Planes are usually so weather-less. I didn’t know it could be sunny on a plane, but it is. Sunny in the way it would be if we were sitting in a park. There are dust whorls blooming in what I assumed to be an artificially purified environ- ment, and I think what’s odd is that it’s not just bright, it’s dappled — where dappling comes from on a plane I don’t know, but the sun makes scattered triangles on the page and on my lap like cut up construction pa- per. I have to squint at the impossible whiteness of the page. Sunglasses would help except I’d look like a total asshole.
I lean my head against the window, which is warm from the sun, closing my eyes momentarily as if in deep concentration, because I feel his eyes on me. One of the few things in life that is cliché because it’s true. You can look at the back of anyone’s head and make them turn around as predictably as if you stroked your thumb across the nape of their neck.
A stewardess had walked him to his seat. Flight atten- dant, whatever. I noticed this treatment at first because I think people who can’t figure out the whole num- bered seats system — any numbered seats system, es- pecially in theaters and stadiums — are a special brand of idiot. But I only started to wonder if he would be gestured into the empty seat next to me when I saw his face because I realized that he was much younger than I had thought. I noted him, the way all people my age do, a nod in a wide world of other ages that don’t mind interacting with each other indiscriminately. Not actu- ally a nod but a sort of look with recognition. It was one of those things where as soon as I saw him, I knew he would have the aisle seat. A lot of times when you know something will happen it actually doesn’t, so when it did I couldn’t help feeling the reward of my own sense of premonition, like I had run my fingers along some invisible rudder underneath life and felt its angle.
I was pretty sure he had seen me looking though so I kept my glance down, looking away, or not away be- cause that would be too strong, but in a calculatedly oblique direction, for the inverse amount of time I had looked at him. Below the tray table I could see him shove a torso-sized backpack — his torso, not mine — into the wedge between the seats. He is wearing camou- flage fatigues, which he had tucked into the boots, and it was all just official enough for me to know he was in the army. Or the Marines or the Navy or whatever. The stewardess made her departing pleasantries, and he responded in a low voice, quiet with no trace of an ac- cent even though we’re headed south. He must be from there, I thought, going home from training. I thought there was training anyway but I don’t know how long it is because at home I don’t know the kinds of people who go into the army.
I felt him bend down to untie his laces next to me, sensed the concave emptiness created by his hunch and looked through to the people in the center aisle, to young mother wrestling with a stroller and the stow away shelf. It had probably been long enough — he looked sufficiently transformed. I could tell without knowing what he looked like before — whatever that was like he was now more clipped and tucked in. He unlatched what I imagined he called his civilian shoes from the back of his ridiculous bag with a smack of Vel- cro. I wondered if they made you wear the boots until you were all the way out of the camp and if the boys complained about it.
I can tell he’s trying to see what I’m reading without looking like he’s looking. I don’t chat on planes but I do that too, so I move my hand over onto the tray table. It’s Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” but Joyce would be better. He’s probably never read Joyce, let alone Kant, but I guess most people haven’t. I can’t remember if we read it in high school but even then. He probably thinks I’m a prep school cunt or something like that. I tuck my hair behind my ear and make a note in the margin. I probably am. I mean, I definitely am. But it still seems like someone has to think about whether we even should be or if it’s enough that we just are.
I could turn my head. Catch his eye I guess. I don’t do it though, and I wonder if now I’m too still. Some- times when you’re consciously thinking about things you overcompensate, like thinking about swinging your arms when you walk, and then all of a sudden you don’t know how to do it any more. I wonder how long it’s been since he’s been with a girl. He’s obviously the kind of guy who gets with girls. Or who did it often enough when they were still around, although there must be girls — women, whatever — in the army however few. God that’s the last place I would ever be. I can literally put the thumb and pinky of one hand around the wrist of the other. And I have this thing about my profile, so I can never wear my hair away from my face.
Even if I did smile or some shit, what — we’d end up entwined in the bathroom? Him pushing me up against the door, one hand on the cold plastic wall if you can call it that and the other gripping just under the skirt I’m not actually wearing. He breathes warmly into my neck and just the crown of my head grazes the wall. Or we’re giggly against the sounds of various passengers tapping the door and rattling it, and we take turns pressing our palms against the other’s mouth. No, that’s too intimate. He’s more serious. Fervent but hurried, doesn’t look at me, and after a stillness the length of an exhale we untangle and leave in minutely timed sequence.
I’m not that kind of girl though. Since I’m pretty much absolutely certain about it I’m fine with it. I don’t mean I wouldn’t do it. I definitely would. I can see my- self in the bathroom. I can even see all the steps laid out. Some other girl would put her hand on those cam- ouflage fatigues, on his inner thigh. He’s been looking, so why not? She’d whisper “follow me in two minutes,” and she’d know saying it makes it true. Their knees would touch as she brushed past him. I can’t decide if she’d face him or face away from him as she exited the row. They’d have to look at each other the whole time, and I don’t know if the line could last that long. Seems like somewhere between seats A and B it would start to sound hackneyed.
I gently rest my elbow on the corner of the arm rest and immediately realize how uncomfortable it is, but I can’t take it away because his arm is there too. I’m not sure if I’m afraid he’ll think I am avoiding him or afraid he’ll think I put it there on purpose to get closer to him. And then I realize how close we are. I mean re- ally realize that he is right there. It’s something about his skin — I would have said he was Mexican or Cuban or at least Asian, except it’s washed out, like I’m looking at his tan from behind frosted glass. But I can see every hair on his forearm, the way his freckles are darker on the outside and become translucent towards the middle. I could smell his soap. I don’t, but I could. I could flinch and our fingers would touch. The distance is the space of an impulse. And he would feel it, it would be real and somehow he would respond.
“Do you two want anything?”
You two? It’s a different stewardess, and I realize she thinks we’re together. He is smiling into his lap — he thinks she does too. I catch his eye so we’re both smil- ing and think about shrugging to say I get the joke, we both get the joke but it’s enough.
He asks for water and says please and thank you softly, like it’s grade school. She is overly gracious with him, her whole being effusive with gratitude for his ser- vice and pride in our great country etc. etc.
“Nothing for me.” I take the mini bag of pretzels though, it fits in my palm. I hate pretzels but in a min- ute, when she leaves, when is quiet again, I’ll ask if he wants them.
He puts his headphones back in though, closes his eyes and tilts his head back. I watch him tap his fingers lightly against his thigh and wonder if he ever played an instrument as a child. His fingernails are clean and round, and I look again at his straight nose, his cropped dark hair so unlike the straggly curls of most boys I know, or don’t know but see, and his crew cut white t-shirt, and I think maybe there is poetry in his simplic- ity. I think that I could always lean my whole cheek against his chest and maybe you can make a life on that when the time comes.
I’m still straining to hear the low bass of whatever music he’s listening to, trying to guess the song with- out looking at his lap. The plane lurches and his eyes fly open for a moment. I’m not startled but his whole body jerks like he stepped off a cliff in a dream and our hands touch. He’s gripping the arm rest and three of my fingers and he looks down before he shuts his eyes with relief and shifts his arm over.
He mutters he’s sorry, and the length of our forearms are still touching.
It’s ok, I say too quietly, and I don’t move mine. I look at him and he doesn’t meet my eye. His head is turned away too intently, and I leave my eyes where his bristled hair meets his neck.
The pilot makes some announcement about landing that I don’t listen to, but I cap my pen because I feel us descending. I’ll talk to him at baggage claim, if he doesn’t talk to me first. I’ll try to stay close behind him on the walk there, and we’ll notice where the other is standing. Maybe he’ll offer to help me with my bag. I hate asking for help, not just asking but implying by public demonstration of incompetence, but he’s the type that will insist. Or I’ll say yes just to talk to him — some people do that.
I shove my book and sweater into my bag with un- due focus, knowing he’s stalling, bending down next to me, except when I look up and brush the hair out of my eyes he is not there. He already has one foot in the aisle. I sit on the very edge of his seat, my backpack taking up most of it as I watch him stay the mother with the stroller and let her pass and then begin to fol- low her. I ask myself why he looks off, and I notice his leg without noticing, his fatigue curves outward in an unnatural arch, and still it takes me a moment to realize that it isn’t really a leg.
And he walks away without looking back on that fucking leg that isn’t a leg, coming home from God knows where and to God knows who.