“Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.”
The whine of the engines increased, a rumble building from the wheels, rising up through the interior of the cabin. Will barely registered the noise, just as he had barely registered the pre-flight show, the review of emergency procedures he had long since memorized. Flight held no novelty for him anymore.
Over the top of his newspaper he saw, two rows ahead, a man and woman reach across the aisle to hold hands. He glanced to his immediate right, where a couple sat in the seats opposite. They had taken hands as well. When they flew together, his wife always reached for his hand during take-off. They could be mid-sentence in argument yet her hand would reach, either out of genuine fear or blind superstition, those fingers never failing to seek his when the plane began its trajectory down the runway. Traveling solo, however, he never gave this a thought: his hand didn’t itch for a companion, nor did he ever feel anxious that without the ritual of physical connection he was tempting fate. On these early morning flights especially, he was either engrossed in reading or asleep well before the plane was aloft.
But he wasn’t traveling alone today. He glanced to his left at Katherine. It was the first time she was coming with him. In fact, it was the first time they had gone anywhere together, professionally or personally. Considering she was an unseasoned business traveler, she had been impressively competent so far. This shouldn’t have surprised him, yet he’d felt a low buzz of pride when he’d stepped from his cab to see her waiting on the sidewalk. A singular island of calm in the swirling crowd, tall and neat in her charcoal grey suit, her computer bag on one shoulder. She had kept pace with him through the terminal, striding easily in her heels, ID and tickets at the ready, kicking off her shoes at security and deftly placing her things by his on the conveyer belt of the x-ray machines. She didn’t chatter at him or make inane small talk: mornings were not her thing.
Now she sat next to him, slender and silent and unobtrusive, only a hint of her perfume nudging him every now and then. She was looking out the window, her printout of the day’s presentation clutched in one hand, her reading glasses tucked under her thumb. Her other hand lay on her skirt, the fingers clenching and unclenching, stretching out and contracting, then balling into a fist and tapping her leg. Will looked at her composed face, then back at those writhing fingers. He let go the newspaper and gently laid his hand out, palm up, in the space between them. Her head turned. She looked at him, her face dissolving into an embarrassed shade of pink. She closed her eyes with a small laugh. Her hand lifted, hovered for a moment, then she laid it in his with another helpless chuckle. “So silly,” she murmured.
“No, it’s fine,” he said, squeezing her fingers lightly.
“I’m all right with landing, it’s just the take-off,” she said.
“It’s fine,” he assured her, but he was suddenly very conscious of her scent and her hair and her skin, and conscious of the etiquette of holding hands with a woman he wasn’t intimate with. Not that Katherine was a stranger to him, but they rarely touched. This was odd, trying to hold hands in an unloving way. It was an actual effort not to run his thumb over her knuckles or twine his fingers with hers, but keep his grip steady and, above all, neutral.
The plane lurched, heaved and rose into the air. Through a moment’s weightlessness, the sideways tilt and the pull of the seatbelt, she kept her hand in his. Her grasp clenched just once, when the plane dipped and the floor and seat cushions seemed to melt away, then the bottom returned and she relaxed. In another minute she let go. “Thanks,” she said, donning her glasses and picking up her papers again. He went back to his reading. It took a long time for his palm to forget the feel of her.
That evening, on the flight home, they had seats across the aisle from one another. This time when the plane taxied to the runway and the engines began to rev, he held his hand out to her, and unapologetically, she took it. And when her thumb moved gently, across his knuckles, just once back and forth, he closed his eyes, breathed in her scent, and let the bottom of the plane melt away beneath him.