Believing, on a jet plane

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A security staffer at Orlando International Airport has taken out her magic wand, the one they wave over the bodies of potential sneaks before they board the aircraft. When it reaches the neighborhood of my armpit, the thing starts squealing like a schoolgirl. My body has caused other things waved across it to register audible excitement, but never a security wand. And my face gave away the confusion ricocheting around behind it: Did I get breast implants, and if so, were they metal?

"It's your bra," the security agent said, with the bemused, bonsai-sized smile of someone who has to quietly tell you you've sat in gum. "It's the underwire."

The longer wait and military presence help a little, but there's nothing better than having your underwear set off an alarm to make your first post-Sept. 11 flight seem less frightening, and I was frightened. Normally there are few things I like better than seeing our little city, beloved as it might be, become littler and littler through one of those notebook-sized windows in an airplane. Travel, in my view, ties with sex for providing the good kind of adrenaline, but this time the old rush was gone and with every step toward the journey I felt like a cat must feel when it sees you approach with the pet carrier. Soothing words from dear friends didn't help, especially one who offered, "If you're that nervous, maybe you should make out a will." (I did. No one reading this is in it).

Seedy flavor

Another friend, Laura, said, "You can't let them (the terrorists) make you afraid. That's just what they want and we can't let them do that to us." Suddenly my getting on that plane felt like a matter of international importance. I was no longer flying to New York so Laura and I could drink beer and carve pumpkins together; I was sticking out my chin to every cave-dwelling, anthrax-mailing, fatwa-issuing psycho in the world and saying, in effect, "Fatwa you."

Beer and pumpkin seeds never tasted better.

But everything is better in New York in October. The city is caffeinated with cold air and impossible human energy, and there's nothing like passing stores with names like Funny Cry Happy Gifts; nothing like going to the Giacometti exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and then being in a shop and peering up to find Rick Ocasek, who looks like a Giacometti exhibit, smiling at you from between the rows of Halloween cookies. There's nothing like a 40-block walk to get honey wine and Ethiopian food and not having one step of it be boring. Some things about Manhattan never change.

Some things, though, have had to. You didn't used to notice National Guard arming the streets, or notice the police presence like now. You didn't see Grand Central Station papered with heartbreaking photos of the missing, mostly candid at-home happy snaps, and their personal data given with haiku simplicity followed by a heart-tugging plea for information. And then there is one more change: that huge chunk of Manhattan you can't even go to anymore.

Seeing Ground Zero was a priority of mine, like a bereaved family member who can't get closure without attending the viewing. But then I talked to someone who lost family in the attack, who watched the buildings go down knowing someone in them, whose life and nature would be forever altered, and I suddenly didn't need to go to Ground Zero. I was talking to Ground Zero. Plus, had I gone, I might not have had the courage to reboard my plane. And I wanted to go home, especially after talking to people who may not be able to do that for a long time, in any sense but physically.

Sweating it out

I did get on the plane home. I sat next to an older couple, the male half of which was the size of a church door. I'd have needed a pickaxe and a shirpa to climb over him, so I stayed parked and read his wife's book over her shoulder. She drained a sugary cocktail while reading one of those bodice-rippers disguised as a novel by being on the best-seller list. When I eavesdropped on her characters, the woman was finger-drawing on the man's naked pectoral muscles, like you might on a map if you were showing someone how to get from Nashville to Vegas and back. It took them less than a page to get around to doing more falling, aching and sweating than two opposing football teams. The reader put the book down, momentarily squeezed her mate's thigh as though checking it for ripeness and gazed at him with that wistful expression the saints wear in paintings when looking up at God. It was so blissfully normal that I'm not sure who was happier, me, to be back in the saddle (alias the window seat) or the big guy. But I think we both had a satisfying flight.

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