He is trying to sit with good posture, waiting and waiting still for takeoff. His hands are terribly dry from the isopropyl wipes. He looks at his hands and folds them in his lap.
The captain lets up on the brakes and the jet foots forward, Isaac Emerson sitting there beside the captain. Isaac is silent, staring out at his son Henry in the brightness of O’Hare at night.
Does he wonder about me? Does he hate me when I’m gone? In and out of his life I go, I go, I go, praying for the day I can stay.
Isaac thinks, We stumble into adulthood uncoordinated and flailing, tripping over rocks of opportunity. We stumble and then we tumble, and for what?
What are we all tumbling towards? Death, Isaac. Death, Mr. Emerson. Careening out of control out of the concise chaos of childhood, that jagged ballet of stubbed toes and burned fingers and broken bones, and we get pretty good at not hurting ourselves physically, and we get wonderful at wounding ourselves emotionally. Then we are just swerving drunkards, reckless and out of control of the vessels of our lives.
Isaac Emerson reaches up to his cravat and yanks it loose.
Not like you knew any better. Would be nice to have been warned. Rumbling rocks rolling after me. A constant crushing by what could have been. Now go about this job. Robbed! Robbed! Mobbed by the rocks on top of me!
The jet creaks forward, in the background the incessant chatter of ground control: “Taxi runway … Hold short of taxiway … Monitor tower on …” and on and on and on, and the little green lights in the ground leading the way, the little blurry balls of guidance. The jet trembles as the heavy jet ahead increases thrust, and the captain says, “If we’re gonna be behind this Seven-Sixty-Seven, we better go normal thrust.”
“Roger,” says Isaac Emerson, the first officer, changing the target takeoff thrust setting, adjusting the takeoff speeds. His right upper thigh twitches, begins to ache. He squeezes it.
He asks himself, How long now? A long time. But not all the time. Only now and then. You are fine. Everything is fine. Nothing outrageous is happening. You are not dying. You do not have cancer in your leg. Do not be ridiculous. Nothing like that is going to happen to you. It is all in your head.
Now they are fourth or fifth in line for takeoff, the field aglow in blue and red and green and yellow and white, and the thunder of a fully loaded 747 at full thrust does not distract him. Nor is he distracted by the cold air of the vents brushing over his arms, nor the tapping of the captain’s pen against the yoke, nor the smell of cold coffee. Isaac Emerson thinks, When you were a child and first learned about war, you hoped there would be one in which you could fight. Now you have your war, though not of arms, and how do you like it, you pacifist? You were brave in childhood. What happened? When you first learned about hunger, you hoped you would hunger. It’s true. And now you are hungry, though not starving, and how do you like it? How much have you eaten the past three days? Enough. Right, enough. It is good to skip meals. You are fasting right now. Oh, stop it. Focus on the task. So you are poor in spirit and desperate for peace in your heart and fullness in your life. Who does not long for these things? Focus, Isaac.
The captain positions the airplane on the runway. “Your controls,” she tells First Officer Isaac Emerson.
“My controls.” He brings up the power. The airplane trembles and shifts down the runway. They climb into the darkness. The nose-lights press into the coming cloud like against a stone wall. Then at cruise the new wait begins. He thinks it is all just the build-up to the takeoff and then the landing.
“I’m tired,” Captain Debra Young says, smiling over at her copilot.
“I’m hungry and restless,” Isaac Emerson answers. Like a child he says, “I want to go home.”
They chuckle. Glaring at the instruments, their eyes strain and bulge.
“Me too,” she says some time later.
“Want to hear a joke?” he asks her.
“How do flight attendants like their eggs in the morning?”
She plays along, “How?”
“That’s bad, Isaac. That’s really bad. Nice one. Got any more?”
She taps her pen on the thrust levers. “Figures.”
“Got any gum, captain?” he asks.
She reaches for her little bag of supplies. She holds down a grin. Before handing the gum to him, she warns, “It’s arsenic flavored.”
He reaches out for it, “Perfect. That’s my favorite flavor.”
The cockpit is loud with laughter. But soon it is quiet. Captain Young says, “Only two more days and two more nights. We’re almost halfway there. I think we’ll make it.”
“Of course we will,” Isaac Emerson says. “When have we not?”
“Never.” She props her foot up on the rubber pad beneath the instrument screens and interlocks her fingers around her knee.
The lights in the cockpit are turned down, and it is nearly as dark in the airplane as it is outside. The plane is going five hundred thirty miles per hour, but it feels like they are in a semi-truck storming down a country road. They sit in darkness. They wait for something to happen. The turbulence stops. They are floating in the sea. The drone of the engines is a drug for sleep of which the pilots are used to overcoming. Turned away from the captain, Isaac Emerson peers out at fists of stars.