First flights since the pandemic. I used to do this every year, the flight across North America, from New York to California. In 2021, I don’t take it for granted. Thunderheads out the window. I am awestruck at their terrifying depth, their physical measure of the audacity of airplanes.
Heading back to California, I put on Enya’s “Exile,” which I normally avoid because it is Big Mood music. “This far distant shore.” I start crying on the flight, for the first time in years.
* * *
The first time I flew on my own was to cross the country. I was going to the University of Virginia for a summer workshop, on the cusp of seventeen. I was terrified of flying; or rather, of plummeting.
To soothe myself, I stuck my new, bargain-binned-for-one-dollar cassette of an orchestral composition by David Byrne in my yellow plastic tape player. My chest tightened in panic as the plane pressed me into my seat; tears forced their way into my eyes. I began to pant in fear. But as the horns and haunting, open, wordless vocals of The Forest washed over me, it occurred to me: there was nobody there to receive my tears. No mother, no grandmother. What was the point, then? I was going to need to be self-reliant from here on in. I stopped crying. I let the music take care of me.
The third song in the cycle runs on a wheezy little accordion, and among the sweeping movements of the rest of the album, is the only one with comprehensible lyrics, the only one that feels human-scale. It is my favorite.
Two men are sitting, talking, drinking at the bar
One says I’d like to see where all the angels are, singing
Into the night as I wander home
What will our mothers say?
The stove will burn our hands
Will we go to hell?
I was never unreasonably afraid of flying again, but for years and years after, I would cry on cross-country flights, not out of fear but out of grief. Almost always, there was someone important I was leaving behind.
* * *
To some extent I went away for college because my grandmother felt strongly about it; also because I had spent so many years wishing for Maine, for snow, for someplace greener than the dry chaparral biome of Southern California. I went to the same area my parents had gone to college—Amherst, Massachusetts—with some latent hope that I would make sense of my own history, and theirs; that some key in the area would unlock the mystery of their relationship and its end.