I don't tell many people that I am afraid to fly. I get on planes whenever I have to, but I like to keep really busy when I'm on them so I don't think about falling out of the air.
The last few years, I've gotten in the habit of carrying a little spiral-bound notebook with me. I pick a person I've seen, on the plane or in the airport, and I make up a story about her.
When I am flying is the only time I write fiction. Otherwise, I'm working on nonfiction articles and books, or spending time with my son Nicholas and husband Daniel.
I am a good writer, but I have never been very happy with my fiction. It often seems to me to be a bit too dry and academic, to lack spontaneity and life.
The pieces I write on planes are personal--they are just for me. Most of them are fragments or anecdotes rather than full-fledged stories. Still, I am fascinated by the exercise of looking at a human being about whom you know nothing else and imagining her life. Today, I saw a girl on the subway holding her head in her arms. If I can keep this image fresh in my mind, perhaps I will write something about her next time I am on a plane.
I read somewhere that Cuvier could deduce the appearance of an animal from a single bone. The archaeologist of the palace of Knossos--what was his name?--reconstructed entire friezes from a few fragments. I saw the girl on the subway, and I said, "Who hurt you that way?" And I began to think, "Your brother Arthur.... AIDS.... boyfriend who doesn't understand..." And I had a story.
I wrote the following piece while flying back from Houston after visiting my friend Deirdre Tanaka. The plane was relatively empty and I had a row of three seats to myself. Across the aisle, in a two seat row, sat a thin man with receding dark hair and a mustache. Dressed in a suit, he took off the tie, crumpled it into his jacket pocket, and pushed the jacket carelessly into the overhead compartment, along with his laptop case and a black garment bag. He kept two books, one the latest Bruce Sterling novel, and the other a copy of Hawking's Brief History of Time, which I own but have not yet read. He had a spiral notebook much like mine. He put the Sterling book and the notebook in the seat pocket and began to read Hawking, feverishly underlining with a ball point pen, until I became convinced that the whole book would be one continuous underline from beginning to end.
His dark hair, pale complexion and serious, nervous manner reminded me somewhat of my husband, Daniel Torrent, though the man opposite me was not handsome. While we sat on the tarmac waiting for take-off, I became increasingly anxious, and since I find that conversation helps me to calm myself, I asked him if the Hawking book was understandable.
"Its very hard," he said, with a shy, pained smile. We spoke for a few minutes after that, I don't remember about what, but I sensed he was eager to get back to the book and his work, so I left him alone. He put his head back and fell asleep right before we took off, while I wrote the following about him.
In 1982, Jonathan Wallace was two years out of law school, and struggling to build his solo practice. Much of the time money was very tight; in August of that year, he billed and collected only $75. When he was waiting for a client to pay him or a check to clear, the money would often come close to running out. He frequently ate pizza for dinner-- a slice and a small Coke was $1.25. He was very poor and often hungry, but it wasn't real poverty, because his parents lived only a few blocks away, so when things got really bad he could go over to their Brooklyn Heights brownstone and raid their refrigerator. He could have borrowed money, too, but he didn't want to, as a matter of pride.
He couldn't afford an office, so he practiced law from his studio apartment. He had three clients: a group of software developers from Holland, whom he knew through a girl he had met the previous summer in a cafe opposite Lincoln Center; a Manhattan lighting designer; and a young California couple living on Mercer Street, who produced and distributed instructional videotapes. The latter couple, the Ringels, took Jonathan under their wing, and most weekends he saw them once if not twice, for dinner and a movie at their expense. They knew he had no money. He felt ashamed of the charity but glad of the company.
They introduced him to a crowd of people that the wife, Debbie, knew from Princeton. At a party at Paul Kratz's house, a few blocks from his studio in downtown Brooklyn, Jonathan met Janet Gann, a woman four or five years older than himself. She was a smart, wholesome-looking blonde woman who had grown up in Southern California, and now ran a small medical publishing house in New York, subsidiary of a British company. He put Janet down at first as the kind of woman who could never be interested in him; she was pretty and extremely at ease in social surroundings, and, since she was professionally friendly, he found it very hard to tell if she liked him or not.
Still, they spent much of the evening talking, which emboldened him to call her a week or two later. A cousin of his, who was an older, successful personal injury lawyer, gave Jonathan two passes to a preview of a proposed Broadway musical based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame which was hoping to attract funding. He felt this was something to which he could invite Janet without feeling ashamed, but his spirits sank when they discovered it was a concert performance and that the book and score were truly terrible. Although Janet seemed to take everything in stride, Jonathan was so distressed by the failure of the evening that he did not call her again.
He ran into her at another of Paul's parties a year later, and immediately realized that she regretted not hearing from him. They got together again and within a few weeks, they became such good friends that he was seeing Janet every weekend. If he had not called her by Wednesday night, she would call him and they would arrange to spend one evening of the weekend together, usually for dinner and a movie. By now, he was doing a little better, and could afford an inexpensive evening out.
He was much more relaxed about Janet; her manner, which he had feared was phony, was really very natural, and she seemed to like him very much while expecting little from him. Splitting the check was not a problem; she made a good salary and knew how little money he had, and sometimes she picked up the whole check in an unforced way.
Jonathan had had two love affairs, one in college and law school and the other in 1981, which had ended very badly, and he was tired and afraid of being hurt again. It was nice to spend time with someone who liked him and sought him out, who demanded nothing and with whom there were no theatrics. Naturally, because Janet was beautiful and smart, he conceived a little bit of a crush on her over time, but he wasn't in a hurry to do anything about it because he liked having her as a friend and was afraid of spoiling everything.
He never really knew why women liked him when they did. He didn't know much about her or understand her, and consequently she remained a bit mysterious. For one thing, he did not know why such a charming woman had never married, and if she had ever had a serious relationship, she did not mention it. They talked about her work and his, and made fun of the haughty nature of some of their mutual friends. Her favorite movie was Lawrence of Arabia, which she had seen many times, but she was not particular and they saw any kind of movie which came out, from cerebral foreign films to the most superficial Hollywood comedies.
They would go back to her apartment, which was a few blocks from his, and would sit and talk until after midnight. He had had two or three experiences in his life when he had gone up to a woman's apartment and been too uncertain to do anything; in retrospect he knew that there were women he could have made love to, who had wanted him, but whom he had let slip because a strange quiet came over him at the crucial moment. He was not certain if he had not wanted to, or had wanted them but for some reason not dared. Perhaps love and intimacy changed things too much; at times he thought he would rather sleep. He did not rank his visits to Janet's apartment among these experiences, though. There was something about the way she conducted herself that suggested to him that no seduction was invited or intended. If he sat on her couch, she would not sit next to him, but in a chair across the room, and he came to regard the chair as an impregnable fortress. He thought he could probably love her but wasn't sure if he could love anyone; he thought in those days that once you had loved once or twice badly, you had used yourself up and should not begin again. Still, one night, sitting on the couch opposite Janet in the fortress chair, he told her he was very attracted to her but that the chair came between them. She was not angry but was not interested either; she smiled, and didn't answer, but changed the subject without for a moment faltering or losing her usual frank and direct manner.
One of the last evenings they spent together was near Christmastime. They went to see a completely forgettable movie called American Dreamer, and afterward they walked down Fifth Avenue looking at the cheerful displays in the shop windows. Janet took his arm, as she often did when they were walking together; he knew by now it didn't mean anything carnal, but it was nice to feel her warmth next to him on the frosty evening, both their breaths visible in the air and intermingling as they talked. It was one of the few evenings in life when you are perfectly happy, and he remembered it always.
Janet moved to Boston in 1984 and soon met someone she married within a few months after. Jonathan lost touch with her. At some point he had acquired her former boss, the British medical publisher, as a client; there wasn't that much legal work, and Mary, the woman who had replaced Janet at the company, would call him every year or eighteen months to do a contract. Jonathan now had more than one hundred small clients, and sublet a comfortable office in the Wall Street area from a recruiting firm specializing in software developers. Mary came by with her boss, Philip, who was in from London, for a quick visit at Christmas 1989. After talking business, Philip left and Mary lingered behind for a moment to tell him that Janet, married and living in Mountainview, California, was terminally ill with ovarian cancer, which had first been diagnosed just a few months after her marriage. Her husband, starting just a short time after the honeymoon, had spent five years nursing the woman he married.
Mary gave him Janet's phone number, but warned him that she might not feel like talking, as she was very ill. Jonathan realized he missed Janet, was very sorry he had let her slip away, and wanted to call her to tell her. He thought he might give her some comfort; she might like to hear from him. For a week or two, he thought about it, planning what he would say to her; but then Mary called to say that Janet had died, at age 39.
Jonathan knew he had dreamed instead of acting, and this brought him back to the night she sat in the fortress chair while he sat on the couch. He and Janet were separated by a triple gulf; first the rug, then the years, and now her death. He wondered if he had loved her, or if he would have loved her if he had come out of his shell just a little more. He had told an attractive woman across the room that he desired her. What I should have done, he said to himself, was walked across the rug, knelt by her and taken her hands.