Like Flying

by John Minichillo

With Larry gone, the atmosphere in the office was lighter, and all the girls were like best friends.  They were done working for the day and hung around just for the hours.  June sat on her desk, her feet rocking her swivel chair, and she admitted cheating on a boyfriend in college.  She said if he knew, even now, it would devastate him.  The point, for June, was her surprise that she didn't care; she had felt no guilt.  This was more than mashing, it was sex with someone else.  Her boyfriend was handsome, and kind, and good—but she wanted to anyway.   Liz's desk was adjacent, and she would have sat on it like June, except her work space was covered with ceramic owls, The Oxford Desk Dictionary, AP Style Guide, and framed pictures of her beloved late Welsh Corgi, Mr. Phillips.   Liz fingered the frills of her blouse sleeve that jutted out from under her sweater, and she felt a blush rise to her cheeks as if she'd been drinking.  Liz couldn't imagine behaving like that, because it had been so long, and she sometimes felt the other girls said these things just to throw it in her face.  Liz wasn't surprised by June's confession.  Liz knew June had it in her, even if June didn't.  Sex was very important to June.  Mostly she didn't say it, but she also didn't have to.

            Tania leaned all the way back with her feet on her desk, and she confessed that when her father died, she didn't cry.  At first she thought something was wrong with her, but then her brother said she was shocked and too busy with all the arrangements, and in time the sorrow would sink in.  Her brother told her to spend time alone and she'd be crying like a spigot.  Which is what she'd said to everyone in her family, that her brother had been right, just like a spigot.  And Liz couldn't look Tania in the eye as she said all this.  As she listened, she scanned her ceramic owl collection, arranged from small to large, and she thought about her own father, who would also die one day, and then she tried to remember the last time she had cried.  Crying because of a movie didn't count—which she did remember—that Diana movie on Lifetime, and, of course, that one with the dog.  She had to think back years, but then she remembered a patch where she cried a lot.  Looking back it just seemed she was feeling sorry for herself:  she wasn't pretty, she didn't keep friends for very long, she was lonely, she was unhappy with the world, she couldn't even put into words what this life was for.  She couldn't deny that she had felt all that, though she didn't anymore.  She had given up moping, or maybe she outgrew it, or maybe this was just another phase, a lukewarm phase, because she was terrified that painful time could come back.

            So Liz was in a kind of daze while Sarah and Tania argued about whether Tania cried. 

            Sarah said, “You cried eventually.”

            Tania said, “I never did.”

            “Were you glad?  I mean, was it a relief?”

            “I loved him.  He was my father.”

            Liz heard the words of her coworkers, but something bubbled up that she wanted to say.  Out of the blue, she said, “I've always wanted to skydive,” and it was the most shocking revelation of all. 

            June hopped off her desk, “You would jump out of an airplane?  No, wait.  You would pay to jump out of an airplane?”

            “I think I would,” Liz said, and she believed it.  She was sure she'd said it to them before.  Or she knew she had said it to someone.  But she'd worked in the office for eleven years, so who else would she have said it to?

            “I think it would be fun,” Liz said.  “Like flying.”

            “Like falling,” June said. 

            “You would really really want to do it?” Sarah said.

            “That's more balls than I got,” Tania said. 

            When they left the office together, everyone said, “See you Monday!” and there was something changed between them.  Liz couldn't place it, and so she forgot what she'd blurted out.  She climbed into her Dodge Neon and drove in the right-hand lane of the 504 as it arced around the city.  She merged cautiously, and she coasted the rest of the way to her exit at Bay Bridge Road, where there was no bay and no bridge, at least not anywhere near Liz's end.  She parked in her space, walked up the steps to the backside of her apartment, and entered through the back door into her kitchen.  She heated up a leftover meatball casserole and drank iced tea at the kitchen table as she wondered if she and the girls at the office might become friends.  When the timer on the oven beeped, she took her dinner into the living room and watched Friday night shows, which weren't as good as the other nights' shows, so she ordered a movie off On-Demand, the one she had wanted to see based on that book everyone was talking about.  She'd even bought the book, but never got around to reading it, and now she'd know what the hoopla was.  And the movie had some good scenes, so she was glad she'd thought of it. 

In bed that night, she dreamed of falling.  She fell and fell but woke up the instant she hit the pavement.  She stared up at the ceiling in the dark, and she became angry with herself for lying to the girls about skydiving.  She would never jump out of an airplane.  But she felt she had to say something, and she'd also said it to them before. 




Monday at the office things were back to the way they'd always been.  With conversations centered on the surveys.  Larry was back from his conference and he was the only one who wanted to talk.  Did we know Las Vegas wasn't just for gambling but there was an art museum and the place had history, had cemented itself in American history?  Liz liked the idea of winning a big jackpot but couldn't see herself saving up to go somewhere like that.  She would want to go to Wales.  Or to Cape Cod.  Someplace where you could just say it and people would be envious.  Or Niagara Falls.  Sarah tried to suppress a smile all day and Liz saw the other girls whispering.  She thought Tania was staring at her.  She felt she was being watched though she hadn't done anything wrong.  Generally, she was glad to be at work, but that night she was glad to be back home, and alone.  She looked over her shelves for a book to read.  There were several she'd bought with anticipation years back, but then the mood had passed.  And there were a few she'd loved when she was younger, Pride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights.  Despite her memory of the events in these books being hazy, she sometimes still spoke of them as if she'd just read them.  But then she settled on the one she'd watched the movie of the other night, in case she lost interest, because then she'd still know how it ended. 

She had to admit the first page was pretty good.  It called to mind the actor from the film, and she remembered him in that first scene, how the film seemed captured by the language, and then she had to remind herself it was the other way around.  But after a while, as her eyes continued to scan the sentences, her thoughts wandered, and her attention bounced around her life and the things in her apartment.  There was no precious object, nothing she was passionate about, no one to miss her, nothing.  Not even going to Wales—nothing she really wanted to do.  At first she was depressed by this, and she sulked on the couch, where moments ago she was proud of herself for choosing not to watch TV—though the Monday night shows were some pretty good shows.  But then she was angry with herself for buying in to the notion that she had to like something.  She was OK just as she was.  She didn't have to like the things other people liked.  She was happy being who she was, even if it seemed boring.  Or, she knew she wasn't really happy, but the word was close enough, and she was the one who got to decide, so she settled on happy and told herself, yes, she was happy. 




On her birthday she wore a new sweater to work.  The style was the same as the others, but a pattern no one had seen, so she felt good.  And she knew Larry would fuss over her.  He would mention to her several times that it was her day, he would send her home early, and the girls would buy her lunch.  But this year was different.  As soon as she walked in the door, there was tension.  No one mentioned anything about the sweater, and while at first she thought they were putting on an act to surprise her, as the day wore on, as lunch went by, she thought maybe they really had forgotten, as inconceivable as that might be.  And so Liz was feeling low.  She really was boring and plain.  She was getting older and wasn't happy at all.  And what was worst of all, no one she knew seemed to care about her, not even enough to say “Happy Birthday.”

            When the girls brought out the cake, Larry was laughing.  She had been on an emotional roller coaster, and so she was happy and angry all at once.  She was OK with herself again, and while she insisted on only eating one piece of cake, Tania beamed with excitement as she handed Liz the envelope.

            “Open it!  Open it!”  June said.

   Sarah said, “It's from all of us.  We all chipped in.”
Since there was nothing she really wanted, and therefore nothing they could really give her that justified all the hubbub, Liz was nonchalant as she tore open the card.  A check, she thought, or a gift certificate to one of those fancy spas, with a massage and some nice wine.  But she couldn't understand all the fuss, and even when she saw the name of the business on the card, Sky Adventure, it still didn't register.

            “It's for skydiving,” June said.

            “You said you always wanted to go,” Tania said.

            “We got it for you,” Sarah said.  “Your dream come true.”

            “This is wonderful,” Liz said.  “I said always?”

            “I think you did,” Tania said.

            “I bought the cake,” Larry said.

            “Larry bought the cake,” Sarah said.

            “I think I will have another piece of cake,” Liz said.




At home, Liz set the Sky Adventure gift certificate on the mantel, and, with the TV off, she stared at it.  On the front of the gift certificate was a smiling helmeted man with his arms and legs outstretched, photographed from below right after he leapt from the airplane.  Liz had the notion to just throw it away, but she was afraid that might take more courage than actually going through with the jump.

            A week later, in the copy room, Liz watched June make copies and she knew, though June was happily married, that somewhere inside was that same spontaneous college girl, and given the opportunity, June would guiltlessly cheat again.  Liz was conscious her face was stuck in a scowl and she realized she couldn't straighten it into a smile, so when June quickly turned around and saw her, June misunderstood, and said, “I'm almost done.”

            “Take your time,” Liz said.  “No hurry.”

            “Have you made your reservation to jump?” June said.

            “I've wanted to,” Liz said.  “I've just been crazy busy.”

            June knew there was nothing going on in Liz's life, and normally she would let it drop, but this wasn't the first time she'd asked, so she said, “Busy with what?”

            Liz hadn't expected this, and she became flustered and said the first thing that popped into her head, “Oh, you know.  My dad has been in town.”

            Liz had made it clear on many occasions that her dad never went anywhere.  She had once declared that she wasn't going to go see him anymore, and June and the other girls applauded her for standing up to him. 

            “So it worked?”

            “What worked?”

            “Your refusing to go see him.”

            “Oh yes, it has been working.  But he's just.  You know, he's been keeping me busy.”

            “You really should book a jump,” June said.  “Maybe you and your dad could go together.”

            “My dad would never.  I mean, he's not spontaneous like that.”

            “Maybe he'll surprise you,” June said.

            “I already asked,” Liz said.  “He said, no thank you.”

            “We spent a lot of money,” June said.  “You should go.”

            “I intend to use it,” Liz said.  “It is my intention.  But one shouldn't just rush into these kinds of things.”

            “I don't know who you thought you were impressing,” June said as she collected her photocopies.  And then she added, “It's safer than driving on the 504.”

            “I doubt that,” Liz said, but June was already gone.  “Not as safe as I drive.”




At home that night, Liz thought about June and it really got to her.  Did that woman have any idea how lucky she was?  To be pretty and smart, with friends, and with money to spend on expensive gift certificates.  There was nothing Liz wanted to watch and nothing she wanted to read.  She should have been honest and said what she really wanted, which was to go to Wales.  Reminded of Wales, she missed her Welsh Corgi, Mr. Phillips.  She sat on the couch and cried and cried.  Out of habit she looked up at the blank TV, where she saw a reflection of herself, on the couch alone, and so small.  She had returned to that place where nothing made her happy, and why did Mr. Phillips have to die?    

The next morning Liz couldn't find a single sweater she hadn't worn a million times.  She put on a blouse that was OK by itself and she unbuttoned the top two buttons.  It was a look she'd seen the other girls pull off many times, and she felt slightly more desirable with her cleavage exposed, but she would draw too much attention, and so, unsure of what to do, she stood in the mirror until the very last minute when she knew if she didn't head out on the 504 she was sure to be late.  So she dialed Larry's number and left a message on the automated Telex that she was feeling ill and would not be in, not today and possibly not tomorrow.

            She was relieved she didn't have to go in and face them, and while she was unsure what her next move might be, she had bought some time.  She didn't have to make a decision yet.  But by lunch, she'd grown tired of fidgeting about in the apartment and she had to get out of there.  She took her soft-frame suitcase out of the closet and the hard-frame one as well.  She filled the bags with toiletries, enough clothes to last a few days, and she finally settled on her birthday sweater, since it might get cold.  While her sweaters weren't much to look at, they were at least practical.  She searched for something else to bring, some essential object she could shove into the trunk of her car.  She selected a feather pillow and the down comforter, and when she left her apartment she didn't bother to lock the door. 

            At the bank she waited in the drive-thru lane, at the end of a lunch-hour line of cars.  But the line moved, and before long she was speaking to the teller, a woman who seemed as reserved as herself.  Liz wondered if maybe she'd like a job like that, where she would look out the drive-thru window and greet new people all day long.

            “I want to close out my account,” Liz said.

            “You have to come inside for that.”

            “You can give me a check or something?”

            “You can make a withdrawal, I just can't close it out.”

   “Give me all of it.  In a cashier's check.”

            “Would you like an envelope?”

            “Please, yes, put it in an envelope.”

            Then Liz remembered she had the Sky Adventure gift certificate in its envelope, so she didn't need another one, but the teller had walked off, and the vacuum tube reappeared with a check in an envelope that represented all she was worth.  She peeked in the envelope to be sure the check had the right number of zeros, and she slipped it into the side pocket of her purse with the Sky Adventure gift certificate.

            “You can come back and close it out another day,” the teller said, but Liz knew she wouldn't be back.

            On Bay Bridge Road, the traffic had thinned and she nearly merged onto the 504, but instead she kept going.  She drove with the windows down and she had a vague notion of a bay bridge somewhere at the end of this road.  Before she left for good, she decided to drive out and see it.

            Past the 504, Bay Bridge Road was familiar to her, though she seldom had reason to go out that way.  There was the barbeque joint where she sometimes got take-out chicken, the garden center, the automall, and then the view opened up.  A cloud of birds moved across the bright sky, darting in quick angles, unsure of who to follow.  The road became a two-lane highway and Liz saw where it snaked up a hill at the horizon, which was as far as she'd ever gone. 

            Over the top of that hill was another, and another, and after nearly two hours of driving, when she must have gone eighty miles, she sensed the salt of the sea in the air.  She couldn't see the bay, but Liz knew she was close.  There was another stretch of businesses.  An older gas station and a much larger newer gas station right across the intersection with a fast food sandwich shop inside.  Liz was hungry for one of those, and she decided she would stop on her way back, or she would if she came back this way.

            The bridge stretched over a chasm, with the many fingers of cable reaching out to where they held firm in the rock, the wide plane of black water far below.  The wind picked up as she drove out and Liz felt unsettled, the car rocked by the force of the sea air.  She rolled up her windows, which was disappointing because she imagined she would toss the gift certificate out the window from the middle of the bridge as she sped across.  She drove in the right-hand lane and there was sparse traffic in either direction.  She wondered what it would be like to live out here.  How far the people would have to drive to get to work, or to anywhere.  When she'd reached the middle of the bridge, she signaled, pulled over, and parked on the shoulder.  The signs made it clear stopping was for emergency purposes only, but no one was going to say anything and Liz was going to do this thing.

            With her car door open, and the hazard lights flashing, she stepped up to the cold steel railing at the edge of the bridge.  If she wanted, she could have flung herself over, and she was sure, by the view, that someone had.  The height was dizzying and she closed her eyes and gripped the gift certificate tight.  Then in a grand dramatic gesture, she freed herself from the cause of her recent grief and she pushed the gift certificate out into the wild air.  She opened her eyes and leaned over the rail to watch as the envelope fluttered and fell.  When the tiny white rectangle finally rested on a wave, she knew there was no turning back.  The girls at work would keep asking and might even check to see if she'd used it.  She'd put in eleven years with Larry and now she was done. 

            Back in her car, she buckled up, signaled, and pulled out into the right-hand lane.  As she drove, she assessed each new town as a place she might want to live.  She had the money to start over somewhere, or she at least thought she did.  She would discover her mistake two days later in a town she'd never heard of, with a quaint downtown square and the statue of a man rearing on a horse.  She surmised from the local paper that apartments were cheap and she might rent a house.  And they were hiring, lots of places were hiring.  But when she took out the envelope at the teller window, excited by the feeling this new town inspired, with the hope that this would become her bank and that soon she would belong, she saw that the envelope had her name written on it.  At first, she thought the teller at her old bank had done it, though writing her name on the envelope would be an odd thing for her to do.  But then she recognized Tania's handwriting and the color of the envelope, and she was horrified. 

            “Is there something wrong, ma'am?”

            She opened the envelope to discover the gift certificate from Sky Adventure inside.  She had thought she'd rid herself of this burden, but there was that same stupid helmeted man in his bright red jumpsuit, smiling as he dropped from the heavens.