I’ve always been very competitive, but about small unimportant matters. For instance, I ran track in junior high, and as I’d break out of the starting blocks for the 80-yard dash, I could feel my legs giving up within the first 20 yards because I already sensed I was losing the race — a move that guaranteed I would lose the race. But put me against another car as a two-lane highway is about to turn into one, I will run the other car off the road rather than let them get ahead of me in the merge. If I’m walking toward the door of a restaurant and I see a party of four walking toward the door as well, I speed up to make sure I get to the hostess first.
So when we decided to go to Nantucket for a long weekend, I wanted to leave at 4 a.m. to beat the traffic out to the Cape. And when we got our boarding passes at Hyannis airport and were first in line to board the plane, I sped up when I saw the man behind us trying to get to the door of the airplane first.
“Would you like to sit up front?” asked the man from the airlines who escorted us across the tarmac.
“Sure,” I said.
“Take the seat next to the pilot,” he said.
It’s not that I don’t like flying. I just have a tenuous grasp of what makes the plane stay up in the air, particularly a small 10-seater like the one I was about to get on. But if I was going to be flying, I wanted a good view. I didn’t necessarily need to be sitting in the cockpit, though. My seat actually had its own steering wheel.
I fastened my seat belt and grasped tightly onto a piece of the armrest.
I looked at the window next to me. There was a little handle with which I could open it, but it said in neat little block letters, “Do Not Open.” What if I have to throw up? I thought. I get queasy in turbulence. But if I open the window, the plane might go down. I usually make sure I have a bag in my seat pocket in front of me. But this time, I didn’t have a seat pocket in front of me. There was only a dashboard filled with complicated dials and gauges. I kept thinking, “JFK Jr. crashed because he didn’t know how to fly the plane by instruments.” I didn’t know either.
“You don’t actually need me to do anything, do you?” I asked the pilot.
“No, I got it covered,” he said.
“How long is the flight,” I said. I could feel myself beginning to perspire.
“Fifteen minutes. It’s short,” he said.
“Fifteen minutes,” I said. It sounded like a long time.
He turned on the engine and first one propeller went on. Then the other. He began to taxi down the runway, and just when I thought we weren’t going fast enough to be airborne, the plane began to rise, and we were aloft. I squeezed the armrest tighter.
As we rose up above the ground, I thought I can do this. I’m not afraid. That much. We continued to rise up in the air, high above Hyannis. I could see the strip mall and rotary we’d passed earlier, and the water tower in Barnstable. I looked around for the little beckoning finger that is the end of the Cape, where Provincetown is located, but I didn’t see it. I wanted to ask the pilot where it was, but I didn’t dare distract him. He was busy will all the controls and gauges, flipping levers and buttons up and down, and slowly steering the plane to the left. As he turned his steering wheel, the steering wheel in front of me turned as well
Suddenly, the plane hit a small air pocket and dipped. My stomach dropped, and I began to breathe in and out. In and out. I squeezed the armrest tighter. I looked over at the pilot. He had a little scratch on his forearm. I wondered if the previous passenger who was sitting in my seat had clawed him in a fit of fear as the plane plummeted toward the ground, just before he was able to right the situation and get the plane back on course.
As we flew over the edge of the land and then over the ocean, the plane seemed to steady itself and the ride was smooth. I’m flying, I thought. And it’s nice. As I looked out the front of the plane, I imagined the baby was tied to my front, looking out the window as I was, like he was in a papoose. Me and my baby are flying. Baby Eddie’s first flight. We’d decided to name the baby Eddie after my father, who died 10 years ago. His name was Edwin. If the baby is a girl, she will be Edwina or Edie. In either case, it will be called Eddie, which is how my father was known.
As Eddie and I looked down at the blue sea below, I thought about how my father, who was in the air force, had wanted to be a pilot, but they wouldn’t let him because he was color blind. So he worked in an office. He’s flying now, I thought, as I watched the steering wheel in front of me turn a little to the left and then straighten itself.
Nice as it was, I kept looking over at his watch and calculating how much time we had left. We took off at 11.46 a.m., and it was now 11.55 a.m. We’re almost there. Sure enough, I could see a large island below, which I assumed was Martha’s Vineyard. I knew Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were near each other but that Nantucket was a bit farther out. As we were just above the island, I looked around for Nantucket but there were no other islands out there. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the island below is Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard is somewhere off to the left where I can’t see it? But once we cleared the island below, the pilot kept flying. Where was he going? There was not another land mass in sight. Just the wide open sea. I looked at his watch. 11.57 a.m. Where’s this fucking island? I thought. As my sense of panic began to slowly rise, the plane glided to the left, and we began to travel along the southern edge of the island we’d just passed. I was beginning to see what looked like a runway – a very tiny one, but a runway nonetheless. Just then, an alarm began to sound from one of the dials. My heart sank. Here we go, I thought. We’re going down. It always happens when you’re this close. The pilot flicked a lever and adjusted one of the gauges, and the alarm stopped.
The plane took a left and eased down on the runway, like a goose pulling in its wings and gently landing on the surface of the water. I released my grip on the armrest.
“That was fun. Let’s do it again,” I said to the pilot.
We got off the plane and walked into the luggage area to wait for our luggage. As the baggage carrier wheeled in the cart full of bags, I walked over to the rack and plucked out my suitcase, making sure I got there before the man who’d tried to cut us in line.