You are reminded of the hot wheel-well cover on the school busses you rode as a kid. Those black, suitcase sized, vaguely grill-cover shaped, oily things, with big silver bolts secured by years of children’s hair. When you were small, you were lucky if you got a seat with “the wheel”. In the winter, it meant you could take off your mittens and heat them up by setting them out neatly on there. Thumbs together. In the spring, it meant you took turns touching it with your pointer finger and pulling it away real quick because you weren’t stupid but it was fun to feel that little thrill of danger.
Now you’re on a plane. Still headed to school. And you have no idea what city is glowing under the clouds you’ve so hubristically overtaken. You realize you don’t even know what state you might be looking down on. You have no idea how fast a plane passes over land. No earthly notion of how far you’re actually seeing right now. How far down and how far out. The horizon you’re used to has certainly been surpassed a thousand times in the last few minutes. You never see this far on the ground and yet you have no idea what you’re looking at.
And then it all goes black and oily and you think you must have passed into a dark cloud. But then you glimpse a spider web of lights on the ground just up ahead (or maybe a hundred miles away), and you realize that, once again, you’ve created a reality that never existed. You’ve assumed something. Because you’ve lived and seen and thought for long enough now that your brain thinks without your permission sometimes. Because it’s been too long since you sat on a narrow, green, fake leather school bus seat and prodded at hot metal just to see what it felt like.
And now when the engine, or the jets, or the million other possible plane parts you don’t know the name of (and probably never will) rumble at a pitch that sounds like a warning siren, you immediately start planning out what you would say to your mother if the plane was going down. The call would be to your mother. She’d need it most. And at the same time, you have the luxury of being just enough removed from this panic that you wonder if all the people taking their cell phones out of airplane mode to call their mothers as the plane goes down could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Maybe the plane would have had some hope of extracting itself from its lethal downward spiral if only the passengers could have adhered to the rules to the very end. If only they’d been able to see the bigger picture, to think of the common good, to hold off on calling their mother as the plane went down. Maybe it would’ve saved them.
And you hit a clear patch of air and see that you’re closer to the stars than usual. And that feels poetic and you wonder if you think more clearly up here. And then there are clouds again. Clouds that are farther below you and more one dimensional than clouds should ever be. But the flight attendant is coming around with snacks and you don’t want her to think that you don’t want a snack so you sit yourself up and look in her direction and as she passes you the little bag of pretzels you see the slightest glimmer of a laugh in her eyes and you’re sure it’s because you looked so eager to get that bag from her that you almost reached out as she was handing one to the man in the seat next to you.
And you wonder how old she thinks you are. And you wonder how many other people on this plane are going back to school. You saw a few boys at the gate wearing purple jackets. At least three. Maybe more. And you’re all here together, and you’ve exchanged just a few words with the one you know from class, but you don’t sit together because that would be weird? Clingy? You can’t keep track. You wish there were a hot wheel cover you could all take turns poking. Maybe one of the boys would see how long he could keep his palm there. You’d tell him he was an idiot for doing it but you’d start to develop a crush on him for his daring stupidity.
Your brother’s friends and your friend’s brothers have all started getting engaged. You wonder if it will work out for them. You hope that it will. But you found that picture a while back of your mom and your dad in the snow looking like they’d loved each other forever and could love each other forever. And now you’ve seen your brother’s friends’ engagement posts and they look exactly the same.
They look like their mother’s have known each other for years.
They look like they had the same seventh grade history teacher.
They look like they sat on those little green seats together and raced to get the seat with the wheel.
Ella Gatlin is a first year theatre major at Northwestern hoping to pursue a minor in creative writing. She is thrilled (and mildly terrified) to be sharing her work with the world and hopes that a few of her words strike a chord with you. Ella is happiest when eating ice cream and watching TV with her brother.