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345 Feet (2018)

Claire breathed in slowly through her nose, closing her eyes, and counting slowly backwards from ten.

10. . .9. . .8

“Please stow all loose articles under the seat in front of you.”

7. . .6. . .5

“We should arrive at our destination around 5:30 pm. Thank you for flying with us.”

4. . .3. . .2. . .1

She felt herself sway with the slow, lumbering movement of the plane. Claire opened her eyes, her countdown about as useful as a single sock. As much as she loved traveling and as often as she flew, it was always a struggle to pry loose the cold hand of terror gripping her guts. She took another deep breath and leaned her head back against the seat. As was her habit, she turned her mind to numbers for comfort. 

At roughly 100,000  flights happening per day, that meant around 36,500,000 per year. Most accidents, she’d discovered, were in general aviation. These occurred at approximately 5 per day, meaning a less than 1% chance of a nonfatal crash. She often reminded herself of these numbers the night before a trip, then again on the way to the airport, and again still during take off. She worried at the Saint Christopher medal around her neck. Could catastrophe be contagious? The odds of dying in a plane crash were 1 in 11 million, but the odds of dying by falling off a ladder as her landlord had done were 1 in 2 million. The odds of being struck by lightning within one’s lifetime were 1 in 3,000, and her own father had been struck twice, a 1 in a million chance. Her fiance often got annoyed at her neurotic number-tracking, rolling his star-bright eyes. 

“You can’t track chaos,” he told her by way of reassurance. Not surprisingly, his approach turned out to be wholly ineffective. 

She wondered at times how well he truly knew her. He was a Midwesterner, and before meeting her had never seen the ocean. She suspected he harbored a secret disappointment in her similar to the one he experienced when it was revealed Florida was not all Disneyland and palm trees, a particular sort of resentment at being led astray by one’s own expectations. As it was he’d found the humidity unbearable, his fair skin flushing pink, clammy and appetizing to all the local parasites, her drunk cousin included. 

“It’s a miracle you survived,” he’d told her later, when they were safely 40,000 feet above the Sunshine State. She had laughed at the time yet privately felt the sting of defensiveness rise in her chest like a snake’s head. For reasons she could not quite articulate, an insult to Florida felt like an indictment of her own character, a subtle rebuke of her own neuroses and desires. 

Maybe that was what she and her classmates had all secretly feared and hated about Florida; it was too much like themselves, a green mirror. Maybe it was this brimming, fecund madness just waiting to spill over that scattered them all to various places after graduation: the steel and concrete refuge of Northeastern cities; the broad, anonymous expanses of Colorado and California. These places would exist as they always had for countless people, their identities fixed; one could die and be reborn there again and again. 

But Florida? Florida was a place that would wait you out. Whether it was the tickle of mold and mildew in the throat, salt air that turned structures to rot and rust, or the clicking palmetto bugs with their strange almond scent when crushed under a flip flop, Florida felt like a land of sentience. It renewed and consumed with equal vigor, over and over, a virulent green cycle keeping time to the whine of mosquitos and cicadas. Florida, Claire noted with a shudder, was a wilderness that looked back at you. 

The plane had now reached cruising altitude, and Claire saw the flight attendants pushing the cumbersome drink cart down the aisle. She found herself unable to drink without thinking about her father, one of the roughly 15 million alcoholics in America. The grief and vague sense of panic she experienced when she saw him was not assuaged by numbers or statistics; in his case, she didn’t need them. Her own eyes told her enough. Unlike her, he’d been born in Florida, and would almost certainly die there. As much as she loved him, the similarities between them numbered a few too many for her liking; the bridge of the nose, the shifting light in the eyes, the broad walking strides gulping down the ground, a tendency for extremely private melancholy. Claire could not help but speculate if late onset alcoholism would be the next piece in the genetic pattern. 

“How will I know if I like it too much?” She’d once asked her fiance in a fit of dread, paranoia pitching her voice unusually high. 

“Because I’ll be there, I’ll tell you,” he’d replied softly, folding her into his arms. 

Even after several years together, Claire experienced a warmth pooling in her belly at the thought of him. Now with a glass of mediocre white wine heating her blood, the sensation intensified. She had pondered if these feelings made her abnormal on more than one occasion. She and her fiance had good chemistry, things certainly weren’t one sided, but she knew herself well enough to note that she always seemed a bit hungrier, almost clingy. It felt, bigger, wilder than simply sex drive, like bright-burning phosphorus next to a birthday candle. She liked to wrap her arms around him and squeeze until he grunted, pushing their ribs against each other. When he was away for work she’d smell his clothes and wear his cologne in place of her perfume. These were private rituals, a highly personalized form of witchcraft performed to ensure his return, a prayer attempting to keep some ephemeral part of him with her at all times like a totem.     

Maybe she was more like Florida than she’d realized all those years ago when she left for New Mexico. Maybe, she mulled as she ordered a second plastic cup of wine, how she related to others was an inversion of how Florida related to her- a little too warm, a little too familiar, pressing in too close too quickly, a potent cocktail of horror and enchantment, all of it experienced in a leafy haze. She hiccupped, loud enough for the German businessman next to her to cast a sideways glance. Claire thought of the grandmother she would bury this weekend, a woman who also appreciated white wine, and one of her favorite dismissive phrases. 

“Rain on him,” she murmured to herself, giggling under her breath. 

Buoyed by wine and a short nap, Claire began the mental preparations for seeing her mother. Their relationship was healthy enough, but she knew her mother disliked her yet unborn grandchildren being so far away, and she was bound to remark on her fiance’s absence. Claire had already formulated a myriad of reasons in her mind: work, the animals needing care, respecting the family, and so on. In reality her fiance struggled to navigate the nuances of her southern family; his Midwestern sensibilities were confounded by the double-edged sword of manners and saucy bluntness. Her family aside, she knew he was uncomfortable with Florida, and by extension her closeness to it. 

As the plane made it’s rumbling descent a strange excitement rose in Claire’s throat. She unconsciously began tapping her foot, and she clasped her sweaty hands in front of her to keep from fidgeting. Once the plane touched down she found herself growing increasingly impatient, particularly with the German businessman who seemed set on rearranging all the overhead bags before retrieving his own. She smiled broadly at the attendants at the front of the plane, perhaps a bit manically. The small gap between the plane and boarding bridge was more than enough for the Florida air to work it’s way in. It was hot and damp, even in early October, pressing close to her like a lover’s breath. Her eyes prickled faintly.

“I missed you too,” she whispered. 

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