Born in the backwoods of the Empire State and sentenced to a lifetime of walking into furniture, Hilary Gan moved to Arizona in 2003 and enjoyed ten years of cowboyism. Currently, she is in the process of throwing the Sonoran Desert’s clothes out her front door in favor of Los Angeles. She likes dirty blues music, fluffy kittens, and egomaniacs.
At the corner of Sixth and Campbell, the car radio likes to tell me stories about happiness in the key of A, while streetlights drip monsoons and asphalt pools water against the rest of the desert year.
I’m afraid of flying because the planes like to tell me horror stories.
The wrangler puts me on the tallest horse—the one named Tex—and we climb the mountain one sway-step at a time, until even the Colorado-sized sky is no match for my grin and the girl in stilettos on the Appaloosa only makes me laugh. I’ve found a man who wants me because of my sunscreen and sneakers and saddle hips, and not in spite of them; you, you on Pistol behind Tex in the sunshine.
On a puddle-jumper flight out of Tucson to Denver, the plane tells me about the time a pilot tried to fly it into Tucson at 4,000 feet, even though there are known peaks higher than that, and only the autopilot function saved it from Titanic-ing right into the side of a fucking mountain.
Four years ago I sat in the back of a red pickup at a drive-in, watching a bad Nicholas Cage movie. In the end the kids got rescued by aliens and brought their pet bunnies to a new planet before a solar flare completely obliterated the earth, and Nicholas Cage hugged his estranged father as they were incinerated. After the movie, my friend who had invited us rolled his eyes and said, “Sorry, guys,” but I was too busy having a panic attack at the visual of our kindly yellow sun causing humanity’s demise to respond in a cinematically appropriate manner.
I’m afraid of many things: midair collisions, dysfunctional landing gears, drunk pilots, suicidal pilots, geese in the turbines, malfunctions during takeoff, lightning strikes, air vortices, fires in the engine, general mechanical failures, pilot errors—but mostly I am afraid of the two minutes when I know I am going to die and everyone is screaming and there is nothing I can do.
Because of all these things I am afraid of, I find it difficult, on occasion, simply to turn to a girl next to me on an airplane and ask her if she has a pen so I can do Sudoku.
After we met by calculated chance at a Las Vegas casino, I wouldn’t let you come visit me for two months. But when you finally did the only thing that went wrong was that your flight was delayed for five hours.
Just after a bout of turbulence that felt like a battering ram and left the wings flapping, the summertime flight from LA to Chicago tells me about the time this very pilot pulled another plane out of a downward spiral at 1,000 feet after a wing extension mechanism malfunctioned and wouldn’t retract.
I have a photo of you at Black’s Beach in San Diego from a rainy weekend in April and your eyes are the same color as the water behind you. We had a whole forty-five minute span when there was no one else around, not even the usual nut-brown men in cock harnesses, but I was too afraid of getting caught to take my clothes off. I am sorry for that.
On my first transatlantic flight out of Toronto into Paris I lucked out. The plane only spoke French. We followed the sunrise for three hours, and I watched a slowly widening rainbow streak along the horizon of the ocean.
I prefer the planes with winglets because these prevent wake turbulence, like what caused the crash out of JFK that my plane from Newark to Buffalo saw back in 2001.
Planes won’t ever say the t-word.
One thing I find terrifying about flying, besides the awful scenarios of death and destruction relayed to me by the planes, is that the inside of the metal tube hurtling through the air at 38,000 feet and 400 miles per hour attached to a couple of jet engines is so fucking normal.
I would give up my firstborn child for a window seat.
I refuse to quit flying because I am in love with you and your sunshine eyes, all of which resides far away in St. Louis, the hub, the gateway to the west, the city under the arch. Also, I’m stubborn and won’t back down in the face of unpleasantness. But you are very kind and do most of the flying in this relationship because the planes don’t talk to you about anything at all, and in some ways this kindness is harder for me to brave than any adventures in aviation.
I have been too proud to tell you or anyone that I always touch the side of the plane both as I’m boarding and as I’m deplaning. I try to make it look casual, but it’s a superstition.
The story I told myself before I met you starred me as a cowboy always riding off into the sunset in search of the next trail to blaze, and I could not be tethered to the promise of a homestead. I knew this was just a story.
Usually during a flight, I am white-knuckling the seat handles and sweating through the palms of my hands and my armpits, even though I am freezing, and I stare directly out the window for the entire flight. On good days I can do the crossword or read a book. I can’t listen to music or sleep because the planes always interrupt me.
When I was a little girl staying over at my grandmother’s house, this is how she used to sing me to sleep:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
you make me happy when skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
Once, when I was older, I asked to stay in the big queen-sized bed in the nearly empty west bedroom and that night she sang me the second verse for the first and only time:
The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms.
But when I woke, dear, I was mistaken,
so I held my head and cried.
Years later, my mother told me that my grandmother used to share that bedroom with my grandfather until he died of a heart attack at the age of 53 while they were making love.
When you are in that state between light and dark, you will sometimes raise your head and tell me that you love me and then put your head back on the pillow. On the flight to New York to meet my parents you did this three times in five minutes, and my lap was the pillow.
One night, after a flight from St. Louis to Tucson via Detroit, my brain tells me a story in which our sun flickers and goes dark, and I drop to my knees to the sound of the wordless cries of people around me and wait to be extinguished, too. The sun’s continuing fusion is an assumption we all count on. Because of the time it takes for light to traverse the distance between our planet and its star, we, humanity, would be allowed eight minutes more than the sun, and we wouldn’t know it.
I try not to get drunk in-flight because then I get sloppy and sad and tell long stories about my mother to my seatmates, which is not good. Once, I got a prescription for Xanax and decided to test it pre-flight and I wound up in the corner of your apartment sobbing because the stars were so big and I was so small. I’m pretty sure this is not how Xanax is supposed to work, so now I try to get enough sleep and have a strong cup of coffee and just stay sober.
Once, on a flight from Raleigh to Charleston, my plane got struck by lightning, which was kind of nice because it finally shut up about all of the incidences of whole panels ripping off the hulls during takeoff that year.
I’m too proud to tell you how often I’m lonely without you. I seem to have traded in my spurs for forty acres of bedsheets.
My favorite flight ever was from Reno to Phoenix. There was a harvest moon that was big and red and pulsing, and the plane told me that the rivets that hold everything together are the safest part of the whole machine, with an acceptable failure rate of about one in three billion. That plane also told me stories of things it had seen: ball lightning, the Grand Canyon at sunrise, sun dogs, the Northern Lights, fire rainbows, noctilucent clouds, and once some fish caught up in a raincloud (the technical term is non-aqueous precipitation) splatted against the front window. “You’ve got an orange moon tonight because of atmospheric conditions,” it told me importantly, and I smiled. I’ve been looking for that plane ever since, but haven’t run into it again.
The oldest story I know about the sun is the one in which Helios’s son, Phaethon, drives the sun chariot across the sky and can’t control the mighty horses that pull it. He drives too high and nearly freezes the world, then drives too low and kills the crops and turns Africa to desert, and a grieving Helios watches Zeus strike down his beloved son with a thunderbolt.
On my second transatlantic flight, into Amsterdam, the plane unfortunately spoke perfectly good English and told me one story over and over for 12 hours: about the EgyptAir flight that the NTSB concluded had crashed into the Atlantic near Nantucket when the co-pilot decided that he didn’t want to live anymore and probably neither did anyone else on the plane. Each time through this narrative, however, the plane reminded me that Egypt denies this version of events. Eventually, I did manage to fall asleep. The repetition was soothing.
The black box is actually orange.
Once, I successfully shut up a plane that tried to tell me again about Flight 191 out of O’Hare in 1979—whose port engine detached during takeoff—by yawning. “I’ve already heard this one a million times,” I told it.
“Oh,” it said. “And you’re still okay to fly?”
“Yes,” I said. “Besides, they rebuilt that model and it had a nice, long commercial career and now it’s in shipping.”
“Well then,” said the plane. “Welcome aboard.”
I tried that same move on the next flight but, upon hearing that its punchline had been ruined, the plane decided to give me a rundown of all the private plane incidents since 1923.
When I got to stay at my grandmother’s house for the weekend, sometimes I would beg to watch an animated film, called The Day the Sun Danced, about the Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima that happened in Portugal in 1917, when three small children predicted the appearance of the Virgin Mary. As many as 100,000 witnesses reported seeing the sun veer in a zig-zag pattern toward the Earth at the predicted time. The most often suggested explanation for this occurrence is that staring at the sun too long can produce these types of visual effects, but the focus of the crowd had actually been on a tree and not the sun. I loved the story because the idea of the sun dancing was so cheerful, and because nobody believed the children and they were put in jail until the miracle occurred, and afterwards they were heroes. But my mother didn’t like me watching such heavily religious material and finally, when I asked to watch it at the age of eight, my grandmother told me no.
You’ve told me that you will allow our not-yet-conceived daughters to date only after they have achieved their black belt in jiu jitsu, and that you will also require this of our boys for gender equality purposes. In my opinion, you would have made an excellent pilot.
On the flight from Denver to St. Louis, I find the plane is relatively young. “Did you know it’s more likely we’ll have a terrorist on board than a deadly mechanical malfunction?”
“Don’t say the t-word,” I hiss.
“Oh, come on. Terrorist terrorist terrorist terrorist,” it sings. “I find it comforting that in the struggle between human evil and human invention, invention wins.”
“If it’s more likely that someone on board is evil than that the mechanics fail, isn’t that evil winning?” I wonder.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” says the plane. “Oh, Orville and Wilbur.”
“Hush,” I say. “What is this, your first flight?”
“In a passenger-carrying capacity, it’s my fifth.”
“You’ll be fine,” I say. “It’s more likely that I’ll die of a heart attack on board than that you’ll crash.” I marvel at how reassuring I sound when my palms are leaving handprint-shaped sweat marks on my jeans. My heart appears to be doing fine.
Not only is our existence momentous in space, but also in time. Science tells us that even though the sun will lose about thirty percent of its mass by the time it becomes a red giant, and thus extend the length of the orbital leashes of the planets, it will also increase in size and temperature, and all of the water on Earth will boil away, rendering life impossible.
On my way to the library I am waiting for the light at the corner of Sixth and Campbell and an Infiniti Coupe turns the corner, skids, corrects badly, and then accelerates over a small Palo Verde sapling and into a street sign ten feet from my toes. When I tell you about it you say, “No dying!” as if this is the military and I am a new recruit and death is as simple as growing your hair long.
On the first leg of a flight from Tucson to St. Louis my curiosity gets the better of me and I ask the plane why they are always so worried all the time. “Well, of course it’s distressing to think that people will suffer simply because your navigation system fails,” it tells me. “Or any small part.” I think that this is reasonable, and say so.
On the second leg of that same flight, the plane points out that my heart rate is higher when the plane is flying smoothly than when there is actually turbulence. I chew my ice.
I had been on an airplane before I had any memories, but the first time I was on one and knew it I was nine and flew American Airlines to Florida, the Sunshine State, with my grandmother and her friend. My grandmother told the flight attendants I had never been on a plane before, and they gave me pins shaped like wings and extra peanuts and a coloring book with brand-new crayons, and the pilot took me onto the flight deck and let me sit in the pilot’s seat and showed me how to fly a plane. On the way home I was sad to find that there is a limit to how many times you can have a first time on an airplane, and that no one is impressed by your second time.
Apparently, the actual first time I was on an airplane I fell asleep and had a night terror, and I screamed incessantly for half an hour because my mother couldn’t wake me up from the story my brain was telling me.
When you were in college you had the hiccups for two years straight, which you say is how you learned who your real friends were. The doctors said you might have a lung tumor, but you didn’t and so I got to meet you. Sometimes now, when we are in the same city, I will hear you randomly hiccup and feel a surge of gratitude that you are here, hiccuping and mine.
When I go to visit you for the summer I bring my little orange cat in a bright yellow carrier. After takeoff he curls up and sleeps for the entire flight. It occurs to me then that a story is not a story if it has no listener.
According to the book that my father used to read to me before I went to sleep, what made the Wright brothers successful in moving from gliding to flying was the development of three-axis control: pitch, roll, and yaw. In other words, without the inclusion of a pilot, we would never have been able to fly at all.