Fear Of Flying
Douglas Adams once wrote that the main ingredient in flying is to hurl yourself at the ground and miss.
I had always thought that was a clever thing to say. In its pure simplicity it alleges that flying might prove to be a bit difficult. For instance, if, say, a million people were to hurl themselves at the ground, all in unison, odds are really good that – not nearly, not virtually, but – absolutely all of them would hit it, and hit it hard enough to make them think twice before trying again. Pain talks, believe me: it’s only common sense.
That’s my weakness, by the way - common sense. You see, I haven’t any, but to continue on…
Of course Mr. Adams’ theory is also a metaphor, meaning that the greater the risk, the greater the reward, because let’s face it, flying would be really cool, but the risks attenuated might be considered egregiously dire, although by some, worth taking. In fact, flying is the most awesomely cool thing that can be imagined, and therefore the greatest reward that there is, making winning the lottery pretty boring by comparison. That, combined with my appalling lack of common sense, goes a long way toward explaining why I had fallen so madly in love with Jenny.
Jenny Anderson has that Girl-Next-Door look, if you know what I mean. There wasn’t anything about her that wasn’t untypically pretty, and I loved her desperately. She, on the other hand, was way out of reach, and despised the ground I walked on…or pretended to anyway…
“We should hang out.” I said it lightly - light as a feather, actually - like I had just had this brilliantly amazing idea, only modesty kept me from shouting it from the rooftops, so light and easy was the only way to go. I made it sound like it was no big deal if she hung out with me or not. I mean, amazing as that idea was, I made it sound like it was no biggy, one way or the other. I came across as though amazing ideas were merely commonplace with me. She could buy into this one if she so chose, but it didn’t really matter; there would soon be other opportunities. My next amazing idea was bound to be just around the corner.
I thought that it sounded good, but she didn’t bite. Maybe because this had been the same amazing idea I’d been having for weeks, and it didn’t seem likely to improve any time soon.
“Thanks,” she said, with a distinct lack of interest, “but no thanks,” and after a pause, found the energy to explain, “I’m washing my hair.”
“It’ll need washing again.” She gestured casually around the street, her untypically pretty nose wrinkling with disapproval at the passing, exhaust-ridden traffic, then over to where a city crew were patching potholes in the pavement - the heavy aroma of hot asphalt clinging to the sweltering air - and finally to the fast-food establishment we were walking past just then, ripe with the rancid smell of old cooking grease. Her very posture displayed utter helplessness in the face of a polluted world. It protested that it wasn’t her fault that her hair required such an effort. Pity, but there it was.
I had to admit that it was an eloquent gesture, but then it was one she could afford to make with comparative ease, I mean, seeing as how I was carrying her books and all. When not gesturing eloquently, her arms were free to sway casually at her side, or fold protectively across her breasts, while my own were wrapped around what seemed like every textbook that had ever been printed, my biceps trembling from the strain…although I made every effort to appear casually content, in a disinterested sort of way.
“What about later?” I asked, determined not to sound determined.
Her arm barely paused from encompassing the world before a flick of her wrist indicated the freight I was carrying. “I have to study.”
“We could study together.”
“I’m a Psych major,” she pointed out, more bored than ever, “ and you’re…” She left it at that, like she couldn’t bother trying to remember what my major was, as if it was beneath her interest or something.
“Right.” It was the same tone she used when she said, ‘Whatever’.
“So what’s the big deal? You could study Psych, and I could catch up on my Fielding. We could just hang out.” I resisted the urge to add, ‘C’mon, it’ll be fun’. I didn’t want to sound like I was desperate or anything.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Although I was careful to remain outwardly impassive, my heart gave a flip that probably registered on a Richter scale somewhere out on the west coast. Maybe it was nothing more than another case of my natural avoidance to all things logical but, at that moment, it struck me that she might be entertaining suspicions about my intent. If so, then the idea of the two of us alone, with the possibility of my making advances, had appeared at the forefront of her thoughts, and therefore been given life. You know what they say - wherever there’s life there’s hope.
I couldn’t let the moment pass.
“We could order take-out.” Take-out wasn’t a date – not an actual date – but it was close.
Yet, whatever inner turmoil I was causing, outwardly Jenny was fielding my assault on her willpower with casual – if not jaded – ease.
That’s when I decided, and took a very deep breath, before slowly letting it out again. My options had now dwindled to one. The moment had finally arrived, and I was nervous as hell. But it all came down to whether I could continue with the status quo, or discover if there was any chance that it could lead to something more. The problem was that what little I did have with her would be lost forever if I failed, and that seemed all too likely. Still, if there was a chance of our going further, both of us would have to see something in me other than what was currently being displayed. So, girded with thoughts of how God hates a coward, I took the plunge and opted for Plan B:
“We could go out.”
I had just metaphorically hurled myself at the ground, even though I could already see how it lay: hard as flint, and unforgiving as sin. No two ways about it, this was gonna hurt like hell.
To be sure, Jenny sighed, long and loud; then her eyes did this dramatic roll, like this was something that had been expected all along, but was totally unwelcome.
“Look Kevin, I don’t…”
She stopped in mid-sentence.
Ottavio’s wasn’t trendy like what the university crowd was used to, but it was posh and romantic, with a maitre d’, and the whole nine yards. It was also expensive…which would be why I’d be working double shifts at Giuseppe’s for the next six months, on the one-in-a-million chance she said yes.
In fact, she didn’t say anything. My mentioning Ottavio’s had got her thinking, like she realized that I was offering her the impossible, like the Taj Mahal or something. I was surprised by her hesitation, but I wouldn’t say I was delighted – I didn’t dare.
Then she laughed. I thought that her laughter was untypically pretty, too.
“You’re pulling my leg! We couldn’t possibly get a table on such short notice!”
I found myself speaking around this huge lump in my throat, vaguely aware that it must be my heart.
“Say yes,” I told her (completely disinterested, you understand), “and it’s as good as done.”
Jenny wasn’t just kidding about how difficult it was getting into Ottavio’s; she was speaking from experience. Untypically pretty girls attracted untypically rich guys like ants to honey – the type that liked to impress. That didn’t always work with Jenny, though…or with Ottavio’s either, for that matter. In addition to being posh, romantic and expensive, it was also pretty exclusive, requiring reservations being made weeks – if not months - in advance. To just walk in off of the street and not be turned away was so unlikely, it seemed like madness even to try.
It was my boss who first put me onto the idea.
Giuseppe could be difficult to work for. Sometimes he could be a real pain in the butt. He was one of your swarthy, sharp-tempered Italians who ran his pizzeria like a fiefdom. But he had a heart behind that teakwood exterior…and he had an Italian’s passion for amore.
Just the other day he’d cornered me in the kitchen, and said, “Listen-a to me, boy,” in a deep basso-baritone, the thumbs and middle fingers of both hands forming perfect ‘O’s. He held them to the sides of his face and shook them at me, the way he always did when he…well, the way he always did. “It’s-a seemple! You like-a this-a girl? Then you must-a feed her!” He continued, with his face twisting in ecstasy. “Food! She’s-a the heart of-a life! But wine! Wine she’s-a the soul!” and brought the lecture to an end by tapping a sagacious finger against my chest, “A woman, she knows-a theese!”
By omission he was admitting that Giuseppe’s wasn’t the right fit for what was required. If I was serious about Jenny, I would have to set my sites altogether higher, and in our town, that meant Ottavio’s.
Meanwhile, Jenny continued without speaking, and I could almost feel the wind in my face as the earth rushed up to greet me. We’d just reached Twenty-fourth and Park; the apartment she shared with three other girls was another block over, so I slowed to a crawl, forcing her to follow suit. I had to admit that it didn’t look good, but one way or another, I wanted an answer before we reached her front door.
Finally, still mesmerized by something on the sidewalk, she said, “I really do have to study.”
“Sure thing.” I tried for light and breezy, but the weight on my chest was pulling me down to my destiny. No surprise there.
“So, even if by some sort of miracle you did manage to get a table, I wouldn’t be able to stay very long.”
At first I didn’t understand. Inside, I was already curling into a protective ball, bracing for the inevitable collision with the ground. So when her meaning finally filtered through, I had to do some radical uncoiling. She was actually considering saying yes! I might not be flying – the earth was still coming up pretty fast, but it hadn’t reached me yet. This was an updraft under fledgling wings: not strong enough to keep me aloft, but sufficient so that the words ‘hurtling downward’ no longer applied. For someone who bore too many bruises from too many encounters with the downside of life, this was a very big deal.
“No one’s asking you to.”
Then she did look at me: her untypically pretty eyes were cold, and the ground lurched dangerously close. “There’s something else we’d better get straight.”
“This wouldn’t be a date, understand?”
It took a super-human effort, but I forced a smile, and lied. “Nothing was further from my mind.” This was love after all. Everything was fair.
She continued to study me, like she was seeing me for the first time, or maybe she was searching for the lie. If so, I had it buried deep beneath the thermals, and never let on.
Then something curious happened. Whatever she saw in me must have prompted her to try for a little honesty herself, maybe for no better reason than to give us both a chance to back out, considering that an evening together was bound to be a waste of her time and my money. She cared that much, at least, and I felt the updraft again, and thought that maybe this time it was a little stronger.
She said, “I don’t like you, Kevin,” but the ground didn’t come any closer.
“I know, I was hoping to change that.”
“You’re just so…so…”
She gave me a glare…that gradually softened into a sad smile. My heart gave a turn when I realized just how untypically sweet it was.
“Everyday you’re around me like some sort of lost puppy, pestering away until I end up letting you carry my books.” Her mouth twisted into a bitter smile, but I didn’t think that the bitterness was directed at me, “and I always allow it.”
“Because you find me useful?”
“Because I find you useable, Kevin, there’s a difference.”
“That doesn’t reflect very well on me, does it?”
Every instinct I had urged me to say whatever was necessary to sooth her conscience, but then the cosmos took yet another quirky turn, and I found myself deviating from the script at the most crucial moment of my life.
I said, “It doesn’t reflect well on either of us.”
The smile grew sadder, and she nodded slowly to herself.
“I don’t have time for a boyfriend. My course load’s pretty heavy.”
“I’m not your boyfriend,” I told her. In the span of a millisecond, the idea had become juvenile. “I’m Kevin.”
Suddenly she laughed, and I could have sworn that there wasn’t anything bitter or angry this time. I also could have sworn that there was something playfully coquettish in the way she slapped my shoulder, and I was sure that the ground receded a few inches.
She took a breath – paused - then reached a decision.
“Okay, hot shot, you’re on.” She produced a pen and wrote her number on the back of my hand. “If you can arrange it, give me a call.” In the brief moment that followed, her smile became quizzical, like maybe she was wondering if I was a magician – maybe even hoping I was.
That’s when the ground fell away altogether.
After she disappeared inside her apartment, I was left with a sense of all parts of myself flying off in every conceivable direction. Compared to the miracle that had just happened, getting into Ottavio’s would be simple - in fact nothing could be easier.
Giuseppe was always willing to help when it came to matters of the heart.
“Boy, you get-a that girl to go out with you, just-a say the word to Giuseppe,” he’d shrugged with his shoulders hunched up around his ears, “an’ she’s a done-a-deal! After all,” he’d continued, with his eyes a-twinkle, and a wicked grin lurking deep beneath the heavy brush of his moustache, “Ottavio, he’s a smart-a boy! He knows-a better than-a to say no to his papa!”
I turned for home, soaring high above the clouds…and flipped open my cell.