the short story project


Roxana Robinson | from:English



They’re married, but not to each other. 

Nat unlocks the door and then steps back, to let Ella go in first. The  hotel room is high-ceilinged and square, and a double bed takes up most of it.  On the bed is a cream-colored quilted spread.  Pale heavy curtains frame the window; thinner, translucent ones obscure the view. The carpet is thick and cocoa-colored. There is an ornate bureau, imitation French, and a gilt-framed mirror.  The room is close and  airless. They have no luggage.

Ella moves ahead of him, stopping near the bed. She’s in her late twenties, and thin, with long chestnut-colored hair. She turns, so that she won’t see herself in the mirror.  She stands facing away from him, looking down. She has never done this before. She hardly knows this man, and this is a terrible mistake. She has made a terrible mistake, coming to this airless room with someone who, it turns out, is a stranger. She stands motionless, awaiting perdition. 

Nat follows her into the room.

He has never done exactly this before, either, never done anything quite so bold and crude as to rent a hotel room  at lunchtime. What he did was always out of town, with women he never intended to see again. It was mostly in Los Angeles, a place full of beautiful, complaisant girls, happy to be taken out for dinner and then back to his hotel. Those encounters had been brief and distant. But this, now, is in his own city, only blocks from his own apartment, with a woman he does want to see again, and he’s afraid he’s starting something large and irreversible. What he’s afraid it means is the end of his marriage. He had known, somewhere in his mind, that his marriage had become tenuous, (his feelings for his wife have become ritualised and impersonal, mostly obligation, an absence of emotion) but he had not realised until now that it would end. He won’t be able to go on like this; he’s going too far.  This is reckless, indefensible, and he’s doing it in the name of lust,  which is, right now, notably absent. He understands that coming here was a mistake; he believes he loves this woman.     

He wonders if today can be salvaged. Perhaps it’s the room – should he have gotten a bigger one? But no: it’s the silence, the immobility of the room that’s the problem, the implacably fixed furniture, the hushing carpet, the heavy curtains, the whole place awaiting human animation.

He likes looking at her. He can’t take his eyes from her. She’s small and slight, with a polished curtain of hair spilling down her back. Her head is bent.  

Ella is looking down at the bedspread, waiting for the worst. It is shameful, it is excruciating, that she’s become part of this. What if she’s seen by someone she knows, in this corridor of bedrooms, with this man who is not her husband? What is she doing here at lunchtime, with a man she hardly knows? She can’t look at him. She can feel his presence – large, solid, he’s much taller and stronger than she is – standing behind her. She’s now obligated to go through with this, since she agreed to come. It feels like an execution. She dreads his touch.

She thinks of her husband. He’s downtown right now, in his office, in his shirtsleeves and suspenders. He’s on the phone, or making a point  to someone – he loves making points, stabbing his finger in the air – or having another cup of coffee. He’s doing something completely ordinary. He’s not betraying her utterly, betraying her to the bone, though he has.  But he’s not doing it right now, and she is. She could call him,  there’s an ivory phone on the table by the bed. He’d answer at his desk, his voice familiar. “Hello?”

It was a mistake, but she has to go through with it. She is obligated: of course she knew what it meant, meeting at The Plaza for lunch. Now she will have to have sex with him in this strange airless room. She will have to offer him her naked body. She would rather die.

Nat steps closer to her.

It was a mistake, that’s all.

He turns her body to him and glimpses her grieving face. He puts his arms around her and stands still, holding her close without moving. He can feel her, rigid and fearful. He says nothing, embracing her quietly. It’s a mistake, that’s all. What he wants is for her not to be miserable. What he wants is to expand around her, to become the ocean in which she is suspended.  He holds her until he feels her quiet, until she understands that she is safe, and that all he wants from her is this close holding, this understanding.

     *                         *                        *    


They’re married, and now to each other.

The divorces were tumultuous and unhappy,  but Nat and Ella persevered. They weathered the storms, they made their way determinedly through the torment towards each other.  

Now they have been married for nine years, and they love each other. They’re knitted deeply into one another and they warm themselves at each others’ hearts. They long for each other, and their bodies teach each other pleasure, but they fight terribly. They say unforgiveable things to each other. Once, Nat took Ella violently by the  Ella’s shoulders. “You make me so angry,” he said. “Some day I’m going to kill you.”

Ella, beside herself with rage, was pleased. “Fine,” she told him, satisfaction in her voice. It seemed a vindication, proof of something.

 When they are not fighting they are happy, they are drunk on each other. But when they fight Ella fears they will split apart, and if they split apart, she fears it will be the end of her.  She can’t imagine herself, if this marriage fails. She can’t imagine her life if  Nat were to leave her. She can’t imagine her existence without him; it would be black and meaningless, the void. It is terrifying to her, this prospect, like falling into deep space.

She knows, in one part of her mind, when she is calm, that this is absurd. She has her own life, with friends, and a career – she is a literary publicist, and she has founded her own small agency. Her life won’t really be over if she and Nate split up. Still, there are times, when they are fighting, when rationality is not available.  She has trouble breathing, and she thinks of the blackness of deep space, which seems to be waiting for her.

Right now they are driving from Florence to Siena, along a narrow, crowded motorway. The cars around them are lunatic: on the left, Maseratis and Mercedes pass at a hundred miles an hour, on the right, huge trucks sway dangerously,  taking up more than one lane. Behind them headlights flare constantly, signalling them to move over. For half an hour they have been driving in hostile silence.

Nat breaks it.  “I just don’t know why you couldn’t have gone on to the market yourself.” 

“I just don’t know why you couldn’t have waited for me, with the car. Or given me the car,” Ella says. “I don’t know why you have to decide what we do and when we do it.”

Nat makes an exasperated sound. “I see,” he says, “ I decide everything. Is that what you think?”

“Do you think I decide anything?”

“Do you think you don’t decide anything?”

They get into these maddening, circular series of questions, each  challenging the other, losing the point, going off on tangents, becoming increasingly angry, furiously incredulous at the other’s point of view.

Nat is exasperated by Ella’s lack of awareness: how can she not know that everything he does is with her in mind? What he wants is for her to be happy.  This entire trip – Florence and Siena, the churches, the old hotels, the views – was for her. The impassive faces of the holy martyrs, the mysterious half-smiles of madonnas. It’s early spring, and wildflowers star the long pale grasses in the fields;  they are in Italy.  All this was meant to make her happy, and why does it not?

“I decide nothing!” Ella says, furious. “Nothing at all! You decide where we go, where we’ll have dinner, what time we’ll leave in the morning, what we’re going to see, everything. You even keep my passport! I don’t even carry my own passport!”

“I keep your passport with mine, and with our tickets,” says Nate, reprovingly. His  face has darkened, and his mouth tightened. She has broadened her attack, flailing about, as always. “It’s just so I’ll  know where everythng is. If you want your passport, Ella, of course I’ll give it to you.”

“I don’t care if I have my passport or not,” Ella says wildly. She feels trapped by him, helpless: he seems both reasonable and unjust. She knows it’s practical for him to keep the passports. Yet why should he have hers?  

“What is it that you want to decide? Did you not want to come to Italy?” Nate turns his head and looks at her, dangerously, in the midst of the manic speed of the motorway. The car swerves slightly, then swerves back, in and out of the terrifying stream of cars.

Ella hopes they will crash.

Of course I wanted to come to Italy!” She is distraught. “But you don’t ask me what I want! You decide everything yourself, and then you tell me what we’re going to do, and then you’re furious if I have a tiny, remote, minutely differing suggestion! I have to do everything you say, always! It’s as though I don’t exist!”

What she’d wanted, that morning, was for him to come with her to the flea-market in Florence, she wanted to wander through the stalls with him. It was a junky market, only odds and ends, but it  was Florence. The people offering the broken clocks and plastic dolls were Florentine. Their faces – surprisingly fair, ruddy, blue-eyed, with red-brown hair – echoed the faces in the frescoes, in the churches, the monasteries.  Ella loved all of it. She thought the living scene was, always, as interesting as those in the museum.  

Nat thought it was all dreary and trashy: broken clocks and plastic dolls. “Why should I want to look at a flea-market full of junk?” he had asked.  “I have to move the car. I’ll take it back to the hotel, and you come back whenever you want.” It was all entirely rational, there was no situation. He had no interest in seeing this stuff, and they should each do what they wanted. What was so upsetting about that?   

But Ella sees his frown of distaste and feels crushed by the weight of his disapproval, by his thought that she was someone who wanted to look at junk, someone he disdained. All of it makes her feel  panicky and abandoned: she speaks no Italian, and has no sense of direction. She knows she’d get  lost, trying to find her way back up to the hotel. She is afraid of being lost, and afraid of asking questions of strangers. She loves him. She hates being at odds with him. The flea market was a bad idea, she should never have suggested it. He disapproved of it,  and of her. And now she has made him angry again; he may leave her. At any time he may leave her.  He is easily angered at her.  She starts to weep from despair. She is always doing things wrong. They have been married nine years; she has not managed to give him a child; he may leave her. They are always fighting. She will die if he leaves her. She knows this is irrational; knowing it does not help.  

Nat keeps on driving, the corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval. She is so extreme, Ella, so wildly intemperate, so utterly unfair. Her complaints are wounding and unfounded: he feels that his entire life is given over to making her happy,  that all their decisions are made on her behalf. He’d thought she’d like the trip to Italy, and she had seemed to. This is the way she acts: at first she says nothing,  then later she explodes, complaining bitterly, about something entirely unexpected. It’s completely unfair.  He loves her. He is easily wounded by her, he is outraged by her when they fight. She erupts, unpredictably, she will say anything. Besides, she is irrational, messy, late. She maddens him. He is completely absorbed by her. He loves the look of her, taut and spare, with the spill of silky hair. He looks forward each night to seeing her, seeing her turn her head, to listen. He waits to hear what she will say, he is endlessly interested by what she will say. The way she looks at the world complements his own, she sees things in ways that never  occur to him. She makes him laugh, and also his body needs hers. They are joined, somehow, which makes all this so excruciating: she levels these wild charges at him, as though she were dismissing their connection, denying it utterly. How can she? How can she  take such a drastic and extreme position over something as trivial as the flea market? These trips seem to be more pain than pleasure. How can she act so brutal and reckless? He never thinks of leaving her; she’s at the center of his life.

At the end of their fights everything is somehow righted. A great calm happiness floods through them both, like a neap tide rising and moving through the fields, smoothing out the rutted landscape like liquid silk. This is hard for them to remember, when they’re fighting; it’s hard to believe it’s a possibility.

Nat swerves  further now, across the traffic, into the slower lane, then he   swerves again,  cutting out of that lane too. He pulls off the highway altogether,   onto a tiny semi-circular pull-out, edged haphazardly by faintly whitewashed stones.  A rocky hillside rises steeply above it; just ahead, on the road, is one of the low stone tunnels that perforate Italian mountains. The tunnels are pitch-black inside, narrow and claustrophobic, and the cars race through them at supersonic speeds. Their car was just about to enter this one, and the traffic beside them continues to  slide smoothly and hypnotically into the small black mouth,  which is like that of a monster.  But just before they are sucked into the dark maw Nat pulls completely off the road and jerks the car to a stop  in the turn-out, the corners of his own mouth turned down.

Ella sees his disapproving mouth, his lowered brows, his fierce eyes, and she turns fearfully away from him, toward the window. A sob swells her chest: whatever he is about to do will be terrible. She is afraid he will hit her, though he has never done this, or  even threatened to. She is afraid he will reach across her and open the door, and tell her to get out, to clamber onto the steep rocky hillside rising above them. Then he will pull the door shut and drive on, vanishing into the black tunnel and leaving her there forever.   

Nat puts the car into neutral, yanks on the hand brake and turns off the engine. He turns to Ella, his brows still dark with concentration. He leans toward her, across the tiny car, across the gear shift, and puts his arms around her. He pulls her as close as he can, the upright gear shift between them. He holds her against him and strokes her head, her soft hair.

They’ve gotten themselves into this terrible trough of unhappiness, and this is all he can think of to get them back to the other place, where they remember each other. He holds her tightly inside the circle of himself, pressing his cheek against her head. He feels her collarbones against his chest, her  shoulder blades beneath his hands. Her hair is shorter now, but still silky.

Ella feels his arms close around her, she breathes in the familiar smell of his skin and she closes her eyes in relief. She feels her whole body yield, give way. This is more than she had hoped for. It is everything.

     *                         *                        *


They have been married for nearly a quarter of a century, and they have stopped fighting. Something between them has steadied, and they are no longer threatened by each other. Instead, they trust each other. She is less intemperate, and when he becomes annoyed she finds his exasperation amusing. She waits it out, smiling, and smooths his hair. He finds her exaggerations funny; she no longer infuriates him.  They each understand now that they are allies.  

They look different now, of course. She is still small, nearly childlike, but her waist has thickened, and her face bears a mask of fine lines. She is no longer beautiful, but pleasant-looking. Her hair is now short and iron-grey, thin and straight, with bangs, like a felt helmet.  One knee gives her trouble, and sometimes she limps slightly.  This morning, standing in line at the airport, waiting at the ticket counter,  Nat saw her lean over to rub her knee. The sight made him feel tender, and he thought of her moving, with him, toward age, and toward the dark curtain beyond. He takes comfort in knowing that they will approach this, whatever it is, together.   

His own body has thickened as well, and his hair has receded. His  forehead is rising slowly, like a cliff from the sea. This disappoints him: his father had all his hair until he died, at eighty-one. Nat’s hair had once been thick and springy, it was his secret vanity.

Ella doesn’t mind his baldness, and no longer notices it.  She is so used to his face – the deep lines from nose to mouth, the dense eyebrows, the neat pouches beneath his thoughtful eyes – that  it might as well be her own. She barely sees herself in the mirror now, her eyes fading, her lips blurring. They have been living together for decades now, and they belong to each other. They have forgiven each other the dreadful acts, and they appreciate the generous ones. They admire and enjoy each other. They have grown together into this marriage, adding year after year to the trunk of it, each line encompassing the one before. The years in which they fought are now enclosed, entirely and forever by these later ones, in which they do not. These are years in which they simply love each other, years in which trust is dominant. 

Today they’re on a flight from Newark to San Francisco, where Nat has a business meeting. After that they’ll go on to Los Angeles, to see his daughter Beth, who is a screenwriter. As far as they can tell, she is not a really successful one, but who can read the cryptic signs of Hollywood? Beth is funny and bright, and  always full of optimistic talk about meetings and development. She had been angry about the divorce, years ago, when she was younger, but seems  now to be over it.  All three of them have lived it down, settling into enjoyment of each others’ company. Her boyfriend – though is boyfriend the right word? It’s hard to keep track of the correct word now – anyway, the person who is around more than anyone else, is a poet/studio musician named Ralph. He, too, is bright and funny.  Nat and Ella like him, but wish both of them lived in the East, where they would have regular salaries and health benefits, instead of this hand-to-mouth existence.  Or maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they are both simply outside the world of regular salaries and health benefits, and so it’s a good thing they’ve found each other in West Hollywood.

Ralph and Beth have promised to take them to their  favorite sushi restaurant. Ella doesn’t like sushi – why are people still eating raw flesh, five hundred thousand years after the discovery of fire? – but she eats it with Beth. She loves Beth, and in some ways she gets along better with her than Nat does. Nat becomes frustrated by Beth at times; he wants her and Ralph to leave the bohemian life and find some security.  Ella finds this endearing. She thinks of it now and reaches out and smoothes his shoulder. He is the beloved. She feels grateful for his solicitude, the way he wants to take care of them all, herding them all toward shelter like an anxious sheepdog.  At her touch, Nat looks up from his book and smiles at her.

They’re in Business Class. Nat works for a large management consulting firm, and he’s flown hundreds of thousands of miles.  They both benefit from all the times he’s been weathered in at O’Hare, fogged out of Portland, delayed at Dallas/Fort Worth. Now, when they fly together, they enjoy these wide comfortable seats, the kindly attentions of the stewardess, the little compote of warm nuts after takeoff.

They haven’t taken off yet, though, they’ve just taxied out onto the runway, and are waiting in line.  It shouldn’t be for long: the skies are clear, and it’s after Labor Day, the summer traveling peak is over. Their stewardess has taken away their jackets.  She’s in her fifties, stocky, with a wide, pleasant, animated face, slightly pockmarked. Her short hair is dense black, maybe dyed.

During the safety video she put on a life jacket and stood in front of the cabin. She made smooth ritualised gestures, setting the oxygen mask neatly over her nose, pointing out the emergency exits.  No-one watched her, and Ella wondered if this was because everyone had already heard these instructions, or if it were a subliminal superstition: the fear of naming dangers,  the idea that it’s bad luck to allow the idea of peril into your mind. By doing so you call danger into being; the less you think about safety measures, the less likely you are to need them.

Maybe deliberately to counteract that superstition, Ella pulls out the plastic safety instruction card from the pocket in front of her. She studies the picture of people, tidily life-jacketed, who are sliding down the chute in an orderly line. Their faces seem lively and intent, not frightened or unhappy.  It’s broad daylight, and the chute rests safely on flat ground. If this really happened, Ella thinks, there would be clouds of black smoke and bursts of orange flame. Or maybe they would be sliding into the ocean, at night, in blinding rain and huge swells. Disasters take place in perilous conditions, in storms and darkness, not on clear days under blue skies. In any case, it wouldn’t be like this – orderly and pleasant. Ella, feeling that she has somehow triumphed over the card, slides it back into the pocket.

All the stewardess have disappeared now. They’re up front somewhere, perched on their tiny provisional fold-out seats.  The sky is blindingly bright and cloudless. They are in a line of planes, all huge and motionless.  Heat waves shimmer up from the tarmac, and the planes seem to tremble slightly.  The pilot’s voice comes over  the intercom.

They’re number four, he tells them, and it won’t be long now.  He speaks  with a slight southern accent, and his voice is reassuring. The reason that so many pilots are southern is that so many southerners go into the military, and many pilots are ex-Vietnam war veterans. This comforts Ella – these men are seasoned by dangerous exploits, which they have come through unscathed. Their experience is held like a bright shield over their passengers. They have always made the right decisions.

The plane taxis slowly to the end of the runway, turns ponderously, revs its engines, and then begins slowly to rumble down the long concrete strip.  As they gain speed, the engine noise mounts and mounts, and when the cabin falls silent with the universal respect  given to takeoff,  Ella is gripped briefly by nerves. She reaches for Nat’s hand, and he clasps hers firmly and reassuringly, without looking at her. He is not a nervous flier, he flies too often for nerves.

The rumbling, hurtling plane nears the end of the runway, racing toward the moment of breathless suspension, the moment in which the arcs of speed and lift and burden all intersect, precisely and miraculously, and the wheels leave the ground, and they suddenly rise up, without pause, smoothly and astonishingly into the clear blue air. The landing gear folds up noisily into the belly and the plane banks hard, tipping over the rows of dark buildings of Newark, now so tidy and precise. They have done it, they have made the transition from earthbound to airborne, and there is something great and self-congratulatory about this moment. They have – all of them, the pilot, the crew and all the trusting passengers – succeeeded in this death-defying venture.

When the stewardess reappears with the lunch menu, Ella is no longer  holding Nat’s hand.  She had once been a very anxious flier, but that has changed, too. She feels now remoter from the danger of flying. Once, without Nat, she flew  through a thunderstorm like the end of the world, lightning bolts sizzling off the wings, the fuselage jolting horridly with each shock. Her heart had thudded in her throat, but she had suddenly thought, though she is not religious, “You are in the hand of God.” At that her panic ceased.

Since then she no longer becomes so frightened during flight. Fatalism, or some sort of calm, has entered her. She is in her fifties, and she has certainly  lived over half her life.  She feels less responsible now for the care of the world. If she vanishes from it, the world will rumble along without her.

Right now she is absorbed in her book, and they are climbing smoothly toward thirty thousand feet, heading slightly northwest,  toward San Francisco. The stewardess smiles professionally and offers her a menu. Ella takes it,  smiling back. She wonders how long the  stewardess will go on working. It’s a brutal life, they say, especially if you have a family. You’re away so much, and you get bloat, and your cycle is disturbed. Plus you’re on your feet all the time: Ella thinks of her knee, which will at some point, her doctor says, need replacement, though she’s putting it off. She wouldn’t be able do this job, stewardessing, but these women  must like it well enough.  

Ella’s reading Anthony Trollope, and Nat a book about Thomas Jefferson. She lies the symmetry they create, likes feeling that, together, they are responsibly covering the field of letters. She is addressing Fiction, nineteenth-century, English; he, Politics, eighteenth-century, American. What more can you expect of a marriage?

At first she hardly notices the disturbance, since the noise level on airplanes is already so high – the loud drone of the engines, the staccato voices of video ear-phones, the conversations around them. But finally it becomes intrusive, and she looks up to see a dark-skinned young man in a white t-shirt, with a red bandanna tied around his head, coming down the aisle from first class. He has something in his raised hand, and he is shouting at them angrily.   It’s the anger that is most apparent, and confusing. It’s directed at them, the passengers, for some reason. What is he shouting? Behind him there seems to be a cloud of black smoke: is something on fire? Is the plane on fire? He is shouting at all of them, though the words are too big, right now, to understand, it’s hard to sort through the information – the smoke, the rage, the t-shirt and bandanna, who is he? – but his anger is very clear, and his insistence. He is motioning at them urgently, gesturing at the back of the plane. He’s angry at them all, he’s beside himself with rage. His rage, the chaotic energy of it, is confusing and frightening. The front of the plane is where the pilots are, and where the stewardesses busy themselves. The front of the plane is the seat of authority, but no-one in uniform appears from there – where is the captain, with his reassuring southern voice, his heroic war record? Can it be that this dark-skinned man now represents authority?  That’s where he’s coming from, the cockpit, and the black smoke is billowing behind him. He’s shouting.

“Get in the back!”

Some people stand up, bewildered, some still sit in their seats, confused. “What’s going on?” People are asking him questions, but the man is not answering; instead, the questions turn his face darker, thunderous. He has large liquid black eyes, brilliant.

“Get in the back,” he says ferociously. He has some kind of accent. “There’s been an accident.”

“What kind of accident?” Some people stand, alarmed, wanting to know, wanting to help.

Behind the man their stewardess suddenly appears, the stocky black-haired one. Her pockmarked face is contorted with purpose. “Help!” she shouts. Her voice is high-pitched, frantic. “Hijackers!”

The man swivels instantly, and his arm shoots out and he seizes her by the throat, his arm snaking around her neck. They are directly in front of Ella, and Ella can see the woman’s hand shaking, held up helplessly, fanned across her chest. The hijacker’s elbow  is raised high in the air, and he holds her chin up. “Don’t move,” he hisses. The stewardess wears a navy cardigan over a white long-sleeved shirt. There is a gold bangle on her wrist, and her hand is shaking. Ella can hear her breathing: slow and strained.

The hijacker looks around. He is in his thirties, with high cheek bones and a broad, slightly crooked nose. His teeth are very white, and his shiny black hair falls over his forehead. No-one moves. Behind him, the doorway to First Class is full of smoke. The stewardess swallows convulsively. Her chin is pulled up high by the hijacker’s arm, and Ella can see the shifting of her throat muscles beneath the skin.  The hijacker tightens his grip, and her eyes roll upward, then they close.  She swallows again, with difficuty, and her hand goes up, reflexively, to his arm. Ella remembers the smooth ritual gestures she made during the safety video.  The highjacker hisses at her again, and then pulls her chin up higher, exposing her throat.

What he has in his other hand is a small straight blade, Ella sees its brightness, and he sweeps the blade across her throat.  The pale skin parts horribly easily. The smell of blood is very strong, and the rush of it overwhelming, disorienting. It floods out, dark, and in pulses, down her white blouse, which is now crimson, each wave of fresh blood darkening the blouse, the sweater. The stewardess is trying to scream, though her voice no longer works; she makes shuddering noises, the sounds of breath and moist tissue. Her arms are all right, and her legs. She grabs at him, and  kicks, but her movements are perfunctory, jerky and spasmodic, and she is not really, now, kicking at the highjacker. She is kicking the way the body prepares itself for death, the way it jerks itself loose of its earthly connections. She kicks and struggles fitfully, and the hijacker, with each jerk, holds her more closely, clasping her to himself like a demon lover, the blood pumping out of the terrible dark place on her neck. He holds her closer and closer to his own breast, which is now covered with streams of her dark blood. The blood is on their arms, it is on the carpet, it is everywhere, and the air reeks. The hijacker’s eyes are black and brilliant, and he stares at the passengers without blinking. The stewardess is still plucking with her hands and struggling, and her throat  makes terrible attempts at speech.  Shudders of air  move through places where air was not meant to go. There are moist sounds of tissue smacking and flapping, heaves and gasps, a kind of sob.

“Get in the back,” the hijacker says. His eyes are hypnotic with intensity.

It seems that they have no will, now. It seems there is nothing for their weakened bodies to do, now, but stand and move heavily, without a will, down the aisle and back into the tourist section. There they can see rows of faces looking up at them, confused, alarmed. Alarm is spreading, deepening, across the faces. There are cries and questions, some screams. The hijacker is behind them, he is still holding his dreadful burden, the heavy body of the stewardess. The smell of the blood – thick and ferrous – makes Ella feel faint. It’s a smell she did not know she knew, but she does. She knows it. The body knows it.

Nat is ahead of her, and she reaches down low, for his hand. There is nothing now but fear. Just behind them, in first class, there is smoke and chaos. Beyond that, up in the cockpit, is beyond contemplation. The mind dare not go there. It is too dangerous to call it into being.

“Nobody move,” the hijacker shouts at them. He is beside himself. “Nobody to move.”

The rows of faces stare up at them, stunned.

The plane is doing something, moving less smoothly. Its flight path seems disturbed. They are turning, now, the rows of tidy Newark houses are reappearing, approaching. They seem to be descending. The engines seem louder now – are they going faster?

Ella and Nat are standing helplessly in the aisle, there is nowhere for them to go. Behind them is the hijacker, with his mad eyes. Ella is right ahead of him, facing the rear of the plane, and she presses forward, against Nat. She doesn’t want to touch the hijacker, or the body of the stewardess, whom he holds in front of himself like a shield. The stewardess seems to have stopped moving. The smell of the blood is rich and sickening. Ella moves her feet to one side, she doesn’t want the blood on her shoes.

They can all feel the plane shifting now.  The smoke in first class is  drifting into this cabin: acrid, dense, alarming. Ella’s eyes sting, and she closes them. She leans against Nat’s back, pressing herself against his spine. She knows his back  intimately, and she pictures its beautiful slope as she leans against it. She knows where the scar is, on the left side, where he fell in a baseball game as a teenager, long before she knew him. The blueish mark, where a beebee went in, when he was a child.  She knows exactly the texture of the skin, beneath his grey suit, his blue shirt. She puts her nose against his suit and breathes in: she  knows exactly the smell of his skin, rich and comforting. She leans her cheek against his shoulder blade, leaning on her good knee.

The plane is definitely descending, now, they’re still over the dense urban landscape, streets and buildings in a bewildering pattern. Don’t hijackers want to go somewhere else? Don’t they want to be taken to Cuba? Palestine? Why are they headed back toward Newark? Ella feels her body tighten, she is panting, and her stomach is clenched. The roar of the engines seems deafening – is it really louder, or is it fear that makes it seem so? She thinks of the plastic card, the orderly evacuation down the spotless chute. Behind her, the hijacker is still holding the slack body of the stewardess, and when he moves Ella can feel something – his elbow, or her lifeless wrist – against her back, and she cringes, trying to move away from the contact.

Now the hijacker is shouting again, but not in English. It’s in another language, guttural, unknown, and there’s another hijacker, she now sees, across the aisle, with a red bandanna around his head, shouting too. What they say is  incomprehensible, but it’s the force of it, the loudness and intensity of what they say, that cows the passengers, defeats them. They are wild-eyed, they are in some kind of insane, triumphal trance, the hijackers, and one of them holds the dead bleeding body of the stewardess, the woman who was supposed to care for them, to minister to their needs. She has been murdered, and the hijackers are screaming at all of them, and the tourist cabin, too, is now filling up with smoke.

The plane is going insanely fast, they can feel it, dizzying, hurtling low, just above the city buildings. Ella cannot see where they are but it is still somewhere in New York, no longer a tidy cityscape seen dreamily from above  but a nightmare landscape seen too close and too fast, and her whole body is going too fast, her heart, her lungs, her pulse are going as fast as the plane. Nat, in front of her, begins to turn.

It’s over, Nat can see that. Everything is over. It’s strange how, as the plane speeds up, his mind slows down. It’s oddly calming. Everything is over, everything falls away, now, all the intentions and crises of life, the small things, his report for the meeting, the complications of dealing with the new CEO, the conversation with Beth about health insurance, all of these things no longer matter, and the large things – what were the large things?

He had just been with  Thomas Jefferson, who moved through the eighteenth century with such brio and intelligence, declaring his theories of government. “If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then,” he had written, “or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase.”

A little blood, of course: it was always the way.  These dark men in their red bandannas are making some kind of political demand, at the expense of a little blood.  Their cause is a mystery to Nat, and he will not learn the answer. He knows this from the rising whine of the engines, the lethal speed at which they are traveling. There was Jefferson, guiding the emergence of the young country with such confidence, as though he knew beforehand how things would go, and that he would succeed, though Nat now realises that he did not, that nothing is known beforehand.

He thinks of that life spinning out to its completion two hundred years earlier, set beside his own, spinning here, about to end. He can’t usefully relate the two, but none of those things matter, now. There are no useful comparisons, right now.  It’s all moving faster and faster, and here they are, all of them, trapped together, the doomed faces staring ahead, stunned and weeping, caught in  this thundering, rumbling, accelerating plane, and he thinks, his mind slow and calm, that this is, really, what they all faced every day, hurtling through space together on the spinning planet, rushing, unaware, toward their final moments. And the planet has been spinning like this for all time, sweeping through the endless black of space on its long elegant loop. It will go on spinning beautifully through space, though for him, for them, for everyone on the plane,  it’s all over, whatever happens. There is time now to do only one thing, the last thing; he’s grateful that there’s time and he’s conscious.  Gratitude floods through him for this. 

Nat shifts position carefully, keeping his head low, avoiding the wrathful gaze of the hijacker, who is shouting something over and over at the top of his lungs, some fanatical and impenetrable chant, the other hijacker is shouting it too. They seem, mystifyingly, to be flying through the buildings of Manhattan, and the engines are whining unbearably, their pitch is rising higher and higher toward some unthinkable climax, but before they reach it, just before the plane opens the black maw of its own tunnel, Nat is able to turn himself all the way around, and he takes Ella in his arms.


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