Free as a Bird

Rivkin’s current wife would never go up with him. She managed to fly on airlines, when she had to, by treating the big jets like department store elevators. The doors close on Children’s Playwear and when they open, you’re in Home Decor. No need to question the conveyance, the defiance of gravity. Flying in his small plane was all about lift, about the journey, about intimacy with the sky, sailing over towns and fields and wooded hills. Sally couldn’t have ignored the panorama his Bonanza afforded. Still, Rivkin used to think, who knows? Maybe, when the boys were out of the nest, Sally would brave it with him on a clear, calm day. Would she love it? Probably not, but at least she’d understand what he loved about it: the space and prospect of a hundred-mile vista; the weightless clouds, mere tricks of light where vapor reappears out of thin air; and the miracle of landing, how you make something as heavy as a truck float gracefully down, using feet and fingers to adjust for changing winds as you return to earth, to touch gently, there.

To give Sally her due, she had supported his passion for flying so long as he didn’t invite her along. She told everyone he was a safe pilot, trusted him when he took their boys up, never complained about his weekends at fly-in pilot seminars. Her only resistance came when he said things like “you don’t know what fun you’re missing” or “the clouds are beautiful up there at sunset.” She was quick to remind him, “I’m not interested.”

Then she discovered it was Rivkin himself she’d lost interest in. “You have too many ideas” was one of her complaints, which explained nothing—what was the right number of ideas to have? “You’re so pedantic” was another charge she leveled at him. “How are you using the word pedantic, exactly?” he had pressed her. She didn’t laugh. The marriage stalled and spun to earth.

He’d been through a divorce before, twenty-seven years earlier, which made this one seem even more of a failure. He should have been smarter, somehow; should have learned something the first time, to prevent a second. Even so, he supposed it was less devastating now. He just wanted it over with. Their younger boy, Adam, would start college downstate in a few months, and Rivkin planned to move out the day after Adam did.

A lifetime ago, the breakup with his first wife had been stormier, like the marriage itself. She wound up getting custody of their four-year-old. Nonetheless, things had turned out comparatively well. Separated by only a few miles in Chicago’s northern suburbs, Ellen had been good about visitations and communicating, and Rivkin stayed close to his son Joseph even after he and Sally started their own family.

Thus it came about that when Joseph earned a Ph.D. in neurobiology—at his parents’ alma mater, no less—in June of the summer when Rivkin was unwinding his life with Sally, he joined Ellen and Joseph in Boston to celebrate.

Ellen had arrived that morning. They picked him up at the small private airport near Lexington. Rivkin suddenly felt uneasy about the two days he was about to spend in her company. “Daniel,” she beamed, kissing him on the cheek. “We’ve just spent a wonderful morning walking all over the Square. Plus ça change.” He always forgot how high pitched her voice was. He hoped she wasn’t going to keep alluding like that to the Square, their college years, their courtship. She insisted on moving to the back seat so he could sit in front with Joseph.

She looked younger than Sally, though at fifty-five she was four years older. Her beige pants suit accentuated her tan, with a blue and gold printed silk scarf spread across her back. Despite that initial apprehension, he was glad to see her. He said, “I’ve been looking forward to this for months.” Their son’s achievement put the cap on a quarter century of managing. He and Ellen had managed to act like grownups when the boy was little. They’d managed as two single parents, and later through their remarriages, moves, and Joseph’s adolescent storms, always to collaborate regarding their son. The fact that all three of them could share this occasion together added a sweetness to the graduation that not even the failure of Rivkin’s second marriage could sour. They had come a long way from the night he moved out of the Hyde Park apartment, leaving Joseph behind, when he had to pull off on the shoulder of Lake Shore Drive, sobbing.

Ellen and Daniel Rivkin dined with their son at his favorite restaurant in the North End, family style, over a shared bowl of linguine with clam sauce, veal parmigiano, a caprese salad, and a bottle of red wine. The wine was a congratulatory gift from the kitchen, where Joseph’s girlfriend, Melissa, was assistant chef. The chef came out with Melissa to present it to them—“Riserva, ten years old, very special.” Rivkin had already downed a rare cocktail, a martini with Ellen at the bar while waiting for their table. He told the chef, “The last time the three of us sat down to a meal together, this kid was in a Sassy Seat.”

Joseph raised his glass and said, “To both of you, who separately gave me respect for learning, and who always maintained respect for each other so I wouldn’t lack for confidence in myself.” Their eyes moistened as he clinked his mother’s glass, then his father’s.

Their talk was all about Joseph’s world: his work, professors, news of his buddies from college and high school. Two glasses of the Chianti after a martini made Rivkin responsive to Ellen’s ebullience, though sleepy. He felt like toasting her and acknowledging Charlie’s, her husband’s, role as well, but he let the mother and son talk. Their relationship, how Joseph acknowledged her memories and how she glowed when he shared a new fact with her, were aspects of his son’s life that the divorced father had never had a chance to observe. If they had been a family for the past thirty years, would the three have arrived at more or less this same place?

Joseph mentioned that Melissa had graduated from a culinary school in Switzerland. Each time a waiter passed through the swinging door they could see the girlfriend at her post, perspiring and sexy in her sous-chef hat.

“It sounds like you and she are fairly serious,” Ellen said at last.

“Does it?” Joseph smiled. She made a button-my-lips gesture. Then she winked at Rivkin.

He and Ellen split the check. It felt like a reunion, and as they walked through the North End afterward, she was still bubbling. “Boston has gone upscale! It hasn’t really changed, though,” she chirped. “They’ve just cleaned it up.”

He didn’t give voice to the memories that came as Joseph drove them along Storrow Drive to their hotels. He kept his thoughts to himself the next morning, too, sitting with Ellen in the Yard. They must have traversed it a thousand times. Under one of those elms over there, they used to meet after his class in Emerson Hall (Abnormal Psychology, he recalled: “Nuts and Sluts”) and hers in the Fogg Museum (“Spots and Dots”). Looking at the hands holding her son’s commencement program, their veins and wrinkles and glossy manicured nails, he doubted whether she bore many traces of that girl of nineteen. Rivkin could barely recall their marriage, let alone their youth. Yet here they were, drawn close again by feeling the same rush of pride in Joseph. If Melissa were to become their daughter-in-law—neither of them had a daughter—they’d have that relationship in common, too.

That evening, their second one together, they drove out to Melissa’s parents’ house for dinner. Rivkin recognized the street, Coolidge Hill Road, where Ellen used to baby-sit until her employers came home early and found the two of them in their bed. They used to tell that story hilariously, but he now felt the mortification of the couple’s shock, not at the act but at the disrespect. He imagined them still living in the same house, visited by a passel of grandchildren.

The dinner party showcased Melissa’s two-year culinary training in Switzerland. Her mother, Karin, was Joseph’s dissertation chair. Apparently, his dating her daughter didn’t compromise the advisor-student relationship. Melissa’s father, a Ph.D. in economics who worked in the real world, a financier of some kind, congratulated Joseph on the postdoctoral fellowship he was about to embark on. Joseph explained that it was a great opportunity because Iowa Lakeside Lab was the center of research in his field: the effects of environmental factors on developmental malformations in frogs. “Unfortunately, it’s only a year, so I’ll have to start looking for a tenure track job.”

Karin nudged the talk from academic matters to more general interests: travel and cuisine. Ellen said Provence was like her second home; she and Charlie, her doctor husband, went practically every summer. The two women were reaching for common ground, Rivkin saw, as mothers who might soon find themselves related by their children’s marriage. He guessed that the professor would be delighted by that; he couldn’t tell what Ellen thought.

Melissa had made bouillabaisse. Rivkin leaned toward her and said, “tell me there are no misbegotten amphibians in this.”

“What if there are?”

“Even if there are.”

“There are no deformed frogs in my bouillabaisse,” she twinkled. “No well-formed ones either.”

He whispered, “Thank you.” Melissa looked as sleek and athletic as a Nike ad. Rivkin wondered if there was a small tattoo on her body somewhere. Or a pierce. This attractive girlfriend was to remain in Boston, notwithstanding her parents’ obvious affection for Joseph. He thought Joseph should marry her; at least take her with him. They seemed to be in love. Then his thoughts turned more pessimistic: He was no judge of love.

Ellen admired everything here: the food, the china, the salt and pepper set, the candles. He watched her laugh excessively, and wondered if it was the wine. Last night he’d drunk more than he meant to. He nursed a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, trying to picture Ellen and Charlie year after year in France.

While Rivkin wore an open collared sport shirt under a blazer, and the hosts were casually dressed as well, Ellen was a notch more formal, in a low-cut dress. With the candlelight glinting off her gold pendant and bracelets, she could have passed muster at a black-tie affair. The pendant, he noticed, was a crescent moon floating above the terrain of her uplifted breasts.

When Joseph and the professor, at the other end of the table, drifted back to their subject and referred to an article in the latest Journal, Melissa’s father said to Rivkin, “They never mean the Wall Street one. I hear you flew your own plane out from Chicago. What do you fly?”

“It’s a Bonanza,” Rivkin replied. “One prop, four seats.”

“How long will it take you to fly back?”

“In the air almost five hours because of the headwind. Including a stop for lunch near Buffalo, it’s about a six hour trip.”

“I was hoping he’d invite me to go with him,” Ellen said.

“Really? It’d be great to have your company. You want to throw your United ticket away and fly first class with me?”

“It would be an adventure,” she said. “I flew in a small plane once, in Costa Rica. I loved it.”

“You should do it, Mom,” Joseph said. “You aren’t kidding, are you?”

“No. Not kidding, but I don’t want to impose on your …”

“He loves to take people flying,” Joseph said.

“You don’t have a bathroom on that plane, do you?”

Rivkin shook his head.

“Hm. I’ll have to skip my morning coffee.”

He read surprise on their hosts’ faces. Let them wonder what was going on with this divorced couple. It would amaze him, too, if the wife he took flying were Ellen instead of Sally.

Later, as he sat beside Joseph in the car with Ellen chattering from the back seat, he was trying to recall why he left her. They’d fought all the time, about spending and child care and the most trivial matters. Once, shortly after they were married, he consumed the last of three egg rolls without asking if she wanted to split it. She was still citing the incident five years later, when the marriage ended. It was a turbulent journey they’d taken together. But there was passion, too, and a shared purpose. They produced this fine son.

He remembered Ellen calling him in tears, a few days after he left the apartment. She wasn’t asking him to come back, not right away; she just needed to know it wasn’t final, if … if what? If she learned to control her temper; something like that. So he promised: It would only be a separation. She’d continue to see the counselor on her own. There was hope. Maybe she’d come to appreciate him more, and he’d learn how to make her feel better about herself. He could be less critical and judgmental. She could grow up, become less defensive and selfish. They were soul mates, they loved Joseph—who could say they wouldn’t get back together?

Of course, they did divorce. He’d forgotten that panicky phone call, until now. What did she mean tonight, he wondered, when she said she’d been hoping he’d invite her to fly with him?

Ellen would spend the next day, Friday, with an old friend out in Wellesley. She was to call Rivkin in the evening to find out if the forecast promised a smooth flight on Saturday. If not, she still had that ticket on United.

Joseph asked his father to spend the afternoon helping him ship his things, some to Ellen’s house and some to the research institute in Iowa. It was an excuse to spend time together. Rivkin’s job was to tape the packed boxes.

“How’s business, Dad?”

“Never good enough. But truthfully, this economic downturn hasn’t hurt us at all.” His company manufactured windows. “The new home business is down, but remodeling’s up.”

“Do you think Peter and Adam will come in?”

“Peter, no. Adam’s talked about it, but I told both of them, if the time is right for me to sell it in the next five years, I will.”

Joseph made a wrinkled face. “What’ll you do?”

“Are you kidding? I’ll travel. I’ll be free as a bird.”

“You and Sally definitely getting divorced?”

“Yeah—not a big hurry, a separation first and then we’ll see.”

“You seem okay,” Joseph said.

“I am. It’s fairly civil.” Still, Rivkin reflected, divorce had to have been a disturbing event in the boy’s life. He would have liked to hear that it had no bearing on Joseph today. Was it the reason Joseph hesitated to make the commitment to Melissa?

All those years, he’d thought he had a good marriage to Sally—and then she decided it wasn’t. At least with Ellen there’d been reasons: They married too young, they were both stubborn. He flirted with fellow law students, she overreacted, then he slept with one of them. Nothing like that happened with Sally. She couldn’t or wouldn’t give him a reason. She’d just decided she didn’t need him enough to put up with him any more. Only she never explained what it was she supposedly put up with. She’d never had any major complaints. He lost his temper as rarely as she did, and when they occasionally fought, they made up. If she resented his flying, or his golf, she shouldn’t have pretended to be supportive. It was a trap.

When he asked her why, what went wrong, Sally said, “It’s not you, it’s me. I just shouldn’t have married anyone.” That enraged him most of all—as though coming to such a realization justified her destroying the family unit. What happened to we?

Abruptly, as if reading his father’s thoughts, Joseph said, “I know you and Mom were real young. But when you asked Sally to marry you, how sure did you feel that it was … that it would last?”

“I guess I just felt I’d try to make it last. And it did—for over twenty years. I don’t necessarily think it was a failure,” he lied.

“I mean, I don’t want to get divorced in five years or in twenty. How can you know?”

“I’m afraid I’m the wrong person to ask, son,” he said. But he’d got the answer, unfortunately, to his own question. His failure (and Ellen’s) to make their marriage work now haunted Joseph.

The Bedford airport sat on the edge of Lexington, just off the Minute Man Trail, a twenty minute drive from Cambridge. On the way, they stopped to see the monument where the Redcoats were turned back. Ellen asked, “Isn’t Walden Pond somewhere around here?”

“Absolutely,” Melissa said. “I brought Joseph out here last summer. Want to see it?”

“Oh, we’ve been there,” Ellen said, flashing a mischievous grin at Rivkin. He remembered three couples squeezed into someone’s Beetle, driving out to swim naked in Thoreau’s pond by cannabis-enhanced moonlight.

At Bedford General Aviation, final hugs were exchanged, a photo snapped beside the plane, weather checked, fuel bill paid and flight plan filed to Niagara Falls. When the kids were out of earshot Ellen said, “You’ve become tactful in middle age. No mention of skinny dipping in Walden Pond.” Was she flirting? he wondered; she had crossed a line, acting as though the trip back to Cambridge, celebrating with their son, had changed the rules of disengagement. It had taken them years to arrive at a cordial distance; why bring back the past? He said, “Not tactful, forgetful. I didn’t think of it.”

“Good. I would have been embarrassed.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“Well, Joseph might have been.”

Bright strands of cloud beckoned out of a blue sky. She had dressed in jeans over leather boots, a light pullover with a second one draped over her shoulders, a stylish pair of sunglasses. He showed her how to step up on the wing and climb in. She followed eagerly, after pausing at the door to wave at the kids and pose like Amelia Earhart for a last photo. He noticed how trim she still was, unlike Sally. She’d mentioned she played tennis twice a week. She lowered herself into the seat nimbly, then watched him do his checklist.

He gave her a headset to put on, and started the engine. “Can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear,” she said.

“Very good, you’ve got the lingo! For the next ten minutes or so, I need to listen carefully to the tower and Boston Departure. Your job is to hold these two charts for me. Once we’re en route, we can talk and I’ll tell you how it all works, if you’re interested.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll just enjoy the flight.” In a few minutes, they were climbing through a thin scattered layer of clouds. If anyone had predicted in 1974 that they’d one day fly from Boston to Chicago in his own airplane, sitting side by side, Ellen cheerfully trusting him with her life … Rivkin would have given himself better odds to win the Indy 500.

She said, “It was a wonderful visit, wasn’t it?”

“Did I say you could talk?” She popped her hand over her mouth. “Just kidding,” he said. “You can talk, but stop whenever you hear a controller’s voice. Yes, it was great. Especially since we missed our own Commencement.”

“You know, I always regretted that.”

“Skipping Commencement, or what we did instead?”

“Missing it. I don’t regret marrying you, Daniel. And now we’ve finally had our Commencement.”

“He looked good in his robe with the hood and his earring, didn’t he?”

She smiled. “He looks great! I like the earring. They were cute together.”

“You know what impressed me?” Rivkin said. “How relaxed he was about her meeting us.”

“Why shouldn’t he be?”

“I don’t know, both of us at the same time, he might find it awkward.”

Ellen shrugged, as though she didn’t see why that might have been a consideration.

“Did he tell you he called me last night?” he said. “He asked me again if the weather was going to be fine and he wasn’t risking the loss of both his parents.”

“And you told him …?”

“I told him there was no chance of losing us. The good thing about airplane crashes is the pilot rarely lives to be accountable to anybody afterward. So you can promise anything.”

“Oh, how reassuring, Daniel! For God’s sake.” She’d always had an expressive face, eyes and mouth exaggerating the import of her words. Early in his time with Sally, he’d noticed the difference and decided Ellen’s more stage-like expressiveness had been a kind of posing. Yet Sally turned out to be the one concealing her true self.

Boston Departure handed him off to the en route air traffic controller, who cleared him direct to Niagara Falls, where they would stop to refuel. He leveled the Bonanza at eight thousand feet and switched on the autopilot.

“I squeeze this red button on the back of my yoke when I want the controller to hear me. You have one too, see? Don’t touch it now, but if the pilot drops dead of a heart attack or something, just hold the button and tell the nice man you have an emergency situation. He’ll talk you through how to land at the nearest airport.”

“Fat chance. If you’re about to have a heart attack make sure you damn well land at the nearest airport first.”

They flew over the Berkshires. He pointed to the rolling hills, still surprisingly thick with woods after three hundred fifty years of Massachusans, and showed her their position on the chart. He felt she had been flirting with him, testing the waters, maybe. What he remembered of the two of them in bed, actually, was good—all those years ago. The chemistry was probably still there.

“Okay,” she said, “tell me what all the dials and gadgets do.”

He could see she was impressed as he explained the basic instruments—and then the fancy ones, his toys. He showed how he could pinpoint their position by three independent navigation systems. She was more attractive up here, vivacious in the sunlight. The other night, in the professor’s candlelit dining room with all those Ph.Ds, she’d been trying too hard. She was relaxing now, alone with him. And here, of course, she was seeing him in his element. “Are you ready to take the controls?”

“No way.”

“Go ahead. Nothing can happen,” he assured her.

She looked ambivalent, but said, “What do I do?”

He switched off the autopilot. “We can see the horizon, so don’t worry about the instrument panel. Just looking out there you can see what happens when I turn the yoke to the left—to the right—push it forward—pull it back. Now you just hold it so the horizon stays level, where it is right now across the windshield.”

She took hold of the yoke in front of her. He showed her how it only took small movements to raise or lower the nose, or roll to either side. “Don’t grip it so tightly. He tapped her fingers and she loosened them a little. It’s easy, like a car, right?”

“Cars don’t go up and down. I can’t do this.”

“Sure you can. Don’t overcorrect. Start easing off on the yoke before reaching the altitude you want. Look, this indicator shows you’re at eight thousand two hundred. We have to stay at eight thousand. This one shows how fast you’re descending. Just descend about five hundred feet per minute. Oops, now you’re too low. See, you need to …”

“All right, that was fun. Put the autopilot back on.” She was smiling, but her voice sounded a little nervous. He was sure she’d get the hang of it in a few minutes. Anyone could.

“Don’t you want to fly it awhile?”

“No. I can’t keep it from going up and down.”

“Sure you can. You’re just overcorrecting. You …”

“Daniel! You fly it!” When she took her hands off the yoke, the nose dropped suddenly fifteen degrees.

“Okay,” he said, correcting smoothly. “You have to give yourself a chance to …”

“It was fun, all right!? Thank you! Enough.”

After she calmed down, he tried to explain how the autopilot worked. But her responses were cursory uh huhs and okays. Her enthusiasm had evaporated in the thinner atmosphere. She mustered a little interest when he identified the lakes and towns they passed, and the Hudson as they crossed into New York. The hills below were barely visible in the haze, though above them was a gorgeous blue.

“Did you always want to do this?” she asked.

“I took it up for business as much as anything. I’ve got customers in six states. I didn’t realize it would be a passion.”

“You use this for family vacations?”

“The boys and I have gone on some trips. Sally doesn’t fly in small planes.”

“She doesn’t like it?”

“She can’t say if she likes it or not. Never been up.”

“Never? Does she know something I didn’t know?”

“No, it’s irrational. She’s okay in an airliner when she doesn’t have to look out.”

Ahead were the fluffy tops of a cumulostratus layer. “We’re going to pass through those tops, for just a minute or two at a time.” He warned her, “You might feel a little bump when we go through a cloud. That’s what clouds are: unstable air. It’s the air mass rippling across the Adirondacks.”

“You sound like the Discovery Channel.” She was teasing him, but she looked distressed. She hadn’t liked it when he tried to teach her to fly the plane. He wanted to reassure her that she’d been doing fine, but perhaps it was better to drop the subject.

New York Center handed him to a new frequency, and for a while they didn’t talk. They passed a train of puffy little clouds, close by. The leader was about a quarter mile across, trailed by a series of smaller copies of itself like a string of ducklings. Overtaking a cloud every few seconds made the plane’s speed apparent for the first time. “How fast are we going?” she asked.

“About a hundred and eighty miles an hour.”

“Wow.”

His friend Howard had a wife who loved to fly. She went to the Oshkosh air show with them every year, even attended “companion pilot” seminars. Soon Rivkin would have no wife at all. An old bachelor, married to his airplane: what a depressing thought. If he couldn’t get involved with a woman who’d fly with him, he thought, contrary to what he told Joseph, when he sold the business he should sell the airplane, too.

“Those are the Finger Lakes. See where they get their name?”

“Yep.”

They flew in silence, until he said, “What goes up must come down.” She looked at him, quizzically. “Every aircraft, every bird, every baseball is in the act of falling out of the sky. The only question is when and where. We’ll be on the ground in twenty minutes.”

“Ladies’ room,” she said, “and then lunch is on me.”

“So there is a free lunch after all.”

“For you, not for me.”

“This is the coolest part,” he said as he banked from the downwind leg through a 180º turn to final. It had taken him years to become proficient at landing smoothly and perfectly paced so as to run out of lift just at the moment of touchdown. He pulled off the runway and taxied toward the restaurant. “Not bad for a fifteen knot crosswind,” he said.

Ellen applauded. “Very professional.”

Ten minutes later, they were ushered to a booth by the window, light flooding the Formica table and benches. The hostess lowered the Venetian blinds, and Ellen took off her sunglasses to read the menu. He saw her then exactly as he remembered her: not as a young student but as if she had always been this tailored North Shore woman of a certain age. He didn’t desire her so much as envy her.

The waitress took their order for two Caesar salads and two iced teas.

“I thought Charlie would’ve come.”

“He had to miss this one,” Ellen said. “One of his partners had a heart attack last month, so they have to cover his rotations. And Sally?”

“Did Joseph tell you?”

“No, what?” Her voice instantly showed concern.

“I assumed he told you. We’re more or less at the end of our road, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, Daniel! No, he hasn’t said anything. Was it … is this something that’s been coming for a long time? Had you been struggling?”

“Yes and no, it’s a long story. She woke up about a year ago and decided being married to me was the source of all her unhappiness. I’m resigned to it, to tell you the truth. The boys are just about out of the nest, it’ll be good to go on with our lives. I’m kind of looking at the positive side, you know, we lasted longer than most.”

“So it was your decision then?” Friends whom he’d told had been sympathetic. Ellen seemed more interested in the history.

“Not at all. I thought we were happy enough. My only decision was not to argue we should stay together.”

“Did you try counseling?”

Like you and I did? he thought. Two sessions with a counselor had ignited their volatile relationship. He said, “Actually, she presented it as a done deal and I don’t know if she expected me to protest, but I haven’t.”

The waitress brought their cold drinks and they tore the paper wrapping off their straws. Ellen sipped her tea, then said, “I hear you’ve been a great Dad to those boys.”

“Did Joseph say that? Yeah, I’m an okay father. “

“You’ve got more Commencements ahead of you,” she said.

Rivkin felt what lay ahead for him was mostly a blank. Now that Ellen was expressing sympathy, in her way, he regretted telling her his problems and exposing himself as a two-time failure.

The Niagara Falls were on his side, but he banked the plane so she could see them. She took a photograph. When they reached cruise altitude, he offered, “Want to try again?” pointing to her yoke.

“No, thanks. Been there, done that.”

“You did fine, you know. Ten more minutes and you’d have got it.”

“I need a more patient teacher.”

“You needed to be more patient with yourself.”

She patted him on the leg. “Never mind. Listen, if there’s anything I can do, if you need to talk some time, or just come out to a movie with Charlie and me?” He couldn’t see that happening, but it was nice of her to say. “You know I got over whatever bad feelings I had a long, long time ago. I think of you as a good fr… what was that?”

“Nothing, just a little bump in the air.”

“It felt like we ran over something.”

“We’re just hitting some thermals from the sun warming the earth. Nothing to be concerned about.”

“You know what occurred to me when they were awarding the degrees from the graduate schools, the other day?” Her voice sounded even shriller than usual, over the background drone of the engine. “Did you ever think of going back and finishing law school?”

“Strange question.” He was thinking about the light chop they were going through, which he’d barely have noticed if he were alone. If it got bumpier, he might try a higher altitude for a while. He hoped she’d accepted his explanation and wouldn’t let it bother her. He hadn’t seen any turbulence in the forecast.

“I always thought you could’ve made something of yourself,” she said. “Something on your own, I mean. If we’d stayed together—God forbid!—but I always thought, if we’d stayed together you probably wouldn’t have gone into your Dad’s business.”

“Thank you very much. Here I thought I did make something of myself. It’s a five times bigger business since I’ve been there—most of that since Dad retired.”

“Now don’t be touchy, I didn’t mean you haven’t done very well. But when you were in law school you wanted to be a professor, didn’t you, or a judge?”

“What about yourself? You never used your Master’s degree.” He’d blurted it defensively, before thinking. He was glad enough to keep her talking so she wouldn’t notice the moderate chop, which might continue for some time—or get worse.

“Oh, excuse me. Is volunteer work less worthy of respect than paid work?” She was the chair of some organization, he recalled vaguely.

“I didn’t say that,” he said. “Are you trying to pick a fight with me?”

“I’m not the one picking a fight.”

“Now I remember why I left you,” he joked.

“You didn’t!” she squealed, the force of her reply surprising him. “I left you.” Not as he recollected it, but how odd that it mattered to her now.

Toronto Center had traffic for him. He pointed at the Lear jet climbing over them in the opposite direction. “I don’t like this turbulence,” she said.

“This isn’t turbulence. This is just light chop. Okay, light to moderate.”

“This is when they tell the flight attendants to stop serving and everybody go back to your seats.”

“No-o-o, it isn’t. Trust me, I’ve been in turbulence. Your head would be hitting the ceiling. But okay, stop serving drinks and tell the passengers to go back to their seats.” He grinned at her. She wasn’t amused. They flew for awhile in silence, the chop becoming no worse. Then she said, “I know you won’t try to punish Sally through the boys.”

“Punish her? What makes you say that?” He’d been about to tell her they could try a different altitude if the bumpiness bothered her.

“Well. There was a lot of bitterness, of course, we were different people and you’ve grown a lot. It’s not the same situation at all.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Come on. You know.”

“Actually, I don’t.”

“You know you pulled some stunts with Joseph after the divorce, changing visitations at the last minute and stuff. All water over the dam, forgotten really, but I’m just saying it’ll be easier for all of you if …”

“Ellen, what are you talking about? I never did anything like that.”

“Anyway, I’m sure you wouldn’t, today. If we hadn’t been so immature when we married, we wouldn’t have wound up being divorced.”

“Speak for yourself,” he said. “Only one of us was immature.”

“Hah!”

He was thinking of her temper and touchiness, how the wrong word out of his mouth could set her off. “Change of subject, okay? From here you can see parts of three Great Lakes. Look way back to your right, you can still see the corner of Lake Ontario. That’s Lake Huron up ahead on the right, and this is Lake Erie on my side.”

“I’m not looking anywhere but straight ahead. Do you have a barf bag?” He reached behind her seat and found the package he’d never had occasion to use before. She didn’t open it—no imminent crisis, apparently—but kept it in her lap. Several minutes passed, and the chop seemed to be diminishing, but he thought it best not to say so. Finally Ellen broke the silence: “Do you think they’re serious about each other?”

“They’d both be crazy not to be. She’s a sweetheart. But I guess she’s also more serious about being a chef than about following him to the middle of Iowa. If he gets a job next year in Boston, or New York or Chicago …”

“I just hope he dates other people this year,” she said. “If there’s anyone there but farm girls.”

“You sound a little snobbish, Mom.”

“I am snobbish. It’s taken me years to get comfortable with that fact. I was slumming when I fell for you.”

“Fuck you.”

“I’m teasing, Daniel.” She patted his leg again. “As a matter of fact, you’re the one who was always judging me. But look, it’s hardly a perfect match. She’s not even a college graduate …”

“I can’t believe you’re saying this. You’re jealous of Melissa, aren’t you? I mean her youth, and having her life ahead of her …”

“That’s preposterous, Dan. You think I’d trade places with her? I wouldn’t mind being twenty-six again with what I know now, but I wouldn’t want to be naïve and self-absorbed.”

“She’s neither naïve nor self-absorbed.”

“You wouldn’t see it.” Her voice suddenly sounded more upset than he’d realized, and glancing at her, he had a notion she might burst into tears. But she controlled herself, took a breath and said, “Wow. You sure do manage to bring out the bitch in me.”

“I’d forgotten how much there was to bring out.”

“Fuck you!” She whacked him with the folded charts.

“Hey!” Fending off her semi-serious blow, he accidentally hit the autopilot release button on his yoke. The plane began a slow roll to the right, descending. He could have ignored this until it accelerated into a steep spiral, just to scare her. But Toronto Center expected him to stay on course, so he abruptly jerked the ailerons over and pitched up more sharply than necessary. “Asshole!” he shrieked, “you trying to goddamn kill us?” .

“Ooh!” Her eyes widened in fear for a moment, then narrowed: “You’re the asshole.”

Silence, other than the engine’s drone. A radio call from Center would have been welcome.

The situation was ridiculous. He started to grin foolishly. He looked out the left window to hide his face. She was so defensive, if she thought he was laughing at her she might go ballistic. But his laughter wasn’t at her. It just suddenly seemed funny, trapped elbow to elbow in a space smaller than a car, smaller than a bed, with his ex-wife. Calling each other names again, after all these years.

The chemistry was still there, all right: the chemistry of conflagration. Spending three decades with other people hadn’t changed either of them much. Or—and this was the thought he’d been resisting—perhaps it was just himself. Ellen was happy enough in her life, apparently, with her doctor husband and her charitable organization—women’s and children’s shelters, he now recalled—and her summers in France. She knew well enough how to maintain relationships. He was the one looking ahead to emptiness.

It could make you depressed, he thought, if you were the type to feel sorry for yourself. He was fortunate, on the whole, with his three sons, his diverse group of friends and a couple of long-time employees. His life was far from empty; that glimpse of a bleak future was greatly exaggerated. This flight back in time had unsettled him. First all the nostalgia about a time when, in truth, he hadn’t been all that happy; now to find himself strapped in here beside this woman who knew him at his worst. What a turn of events. He and Ellen had one thing between them, their son, worthy of celebration. That either of them might have imagined they were capable of intimacy, even sitting this close for a few hours … and how funny, too, that she would try to counsel him about Sally, from her own flawed memory of their debacle.

When he turned to look at the panel and reached over to set the next navigation frequency, Ellen flinched as if he’d raised his arm to strike her. That was too much: He chuckled. Then, in his periphery, he saw her shaking. Was it rage, or crying? He looked at her face. She, too, was laughing. “Oh, God. No wonder Sally’s dumping you.” She shook her head in mock disgust.

“You bitch!” he said. “That’s it—get out of my airplane.” He pretended to reach across her for the door handle. Then he heard his aircraft’s identifier; the controller had a traffic call for him. He missed the distance and position, so would have to request a repeat, but he needed to stop laughing.

“Bonanza Niner Delta Romeo, did you copy?”

“Sorry sir,” he giggled. “Say again?” After hearing and confirming the information, he barely got his finger off the button before they broke into hysterics, both of them, pilot and passenger. His airplane had never known such hilarity. Wherever they’d gone off course—after Joseph was born, or maybe when they married in the first place—they were back now in the childlike silliness and freedom where they first came together in college. Rivkin laughed, “Look for the goddamn traffic, Ellen, will you?” The other plane was moving away from them, but she peered in the direction he pointed, lifting her sunglasses to wipe tears from her face.

“Take me back to my husband, you jerk.”

“The poor bastard,” he said, and their laughter echoed, over the roar of the engine, across the sky.


© 2007, Ken Kaye



1 comment:

Ted Vogel said...

I liked all your stories, but this is my favorite.