Swan Dive

published in Spirits Spring/Summer 2011

It isn’t their first flight together. They have taken off in their small twin-engined plane on numerous occasions. They have looked out the windows onto the long strip of freshly mowed grass through all sorts of weather, through morning fog when the runway glistened with fresh dew, through rain and snow, even in the evening hours when the setting sun’s glow smacked on their faces. They took off in daylight times on leisurely spring afternoons and they took off in winters when the ice was too thick and the wind was too cold, and neither of them could say if the occasion would warrant something yet to be experienced. The trips became familiar, but neither lost hope in the sense of flight.

“I don’t know where we are going this time,” Paul says. He is the co-pilot and navigator and always gets to hold the map. “I didn’t expect to be here this morning. I don’t have a flight plan.” There is a sense of urgency in his voice. It might echo the tremor of a not-well-hidden terror.

Katie doesn’t answer. She is the pilot and her job is to maneuver the plane, make adjustments according to the wind and altitude, get them to where they want to go. It is a job of delicate precision and intuition, or so she would say if asked.

“How much of flying is guided by intuition?”

“About 95%, I would say,” she would say.

Paul disagrees and charts courses with intricate maps designating both landmarks and the placement of stars should they still be in the air once the sun goes down. He takes it upon himself to be prepared for the most infinite of situations. His maps are delicate detailings of topography, wind patterns, and ocean currents; they are directions that could sail a ship lost among a myriad of whirlpools, or they could lead a nomad through the desert just to find himself knocking on Paul’s door.

“I found these directions to your home,” the nomad would say.

But Paul would have already noticed they were missing. “I was just about to work on another replacement copy,” and Katie would roll her eyes, but they both know that if everything were left up to her, they would some day crash into a Brazilian jungle tree where they would feud with carnivorous, and possibly cannibalistic, monkeys over any indigenous nuts or fruit, while hoping they would not need to resort to carnivorous-monkey-eating, or worse—be hunted by those yakking monkeys who jump across jungle trees, limb to limb, running and swinging through branches, with tails ready to tie themselves around Paul’s throat and teeth ready to chew down to Katie’s bone.

“You can make sling shots…just in case…,” Katie says. She wants him to be pleased.

But they don’t have any slingshots and they hadn’t practiced their skills in self-defense, so Paul made better and better maps. These new maps could determine the course for a small aircraft that finds itself at the farthest reaches of the atmosphere, ready to dive into the cosmos, and based on the position of Orion’s belt or any of the other Greeks still clinging up in the heavens above Olympia, those in command of the plane could decide if they would rather return to their place of dirt on the Earth, or if they would rather trek out, just a bit farther, relying on the position of the stars to maintain their sense of place in the universe.
But today there is no plan and no map.

“We were just going to get coffee this morning,” Paul says. He had hesitated before getting into the aircraft, but Katie was already busy with the propellers, setting everything into quite the spin.

She starts the engines.

“Just go,” he says. He can remember the details again. He can get them home from anywhere.

But Katie sets the plane down the runway, and today, she says that she doesn’t want to go home. She wants to find that new spot that overlooks the landscape that she hasn’t seen before. And she wants to linger…linger until the gas tank is empty and the propellers stop and the plane just drops from the sky into some place new and lush.

The plane rises into the air and the wings twirl the plane in and out of a loop before she brings the small craft into a series of three barrel rolls. Their vision blurs and all they can see is the openness of sky and not a single part of their bodies can feel the gravity and tell them which way leads up into the openness of space and which goes down to the land beneath them.

When they come out of the roll, Paul looks at her as if to ask what she is doing.

“Why do you always have to make this difficult?”

The last evening they had spent together before this morning’s coffee, they were cooking dinner together. Paul always did the chopping because he preferred his smaller cuts to her larger pieces. He usually skinned the vegetables; she left the skins on, and to him, his method was the better of the two. On the other hand, she didn’t really care how the vegetables were cut, which he always thought was evident from her lack of care and cutting precision.

Katie’s job was to determine the menu, stir the sauces, and set the table.

In the kitchen area, Paul was cutting red and green bell peppers into the thinnest of slivers when he told Katie that his friend James broke off his engagement to a girl named Lori.

Katie was stirring a sauce. “I think we should put the fish in the oven soon. The sauce won’t take very long to cook….”

“He realized he didn’t want to be with her,” Paul said. He finished chopping and added everything to the salad bowl. He looked to Katie to see her acknowledgement. She was still stirring the sauce and knew it would be finished soon. Why wasn’t the fish in the oven yet? “The sauce is almost done.”

Paul put the salad on the table. “The sauce will be fine.” He had the timing in the kitchen down, whereas Katie was always burning something.

Katie moved the salad to the center of the table and began to set two plates and flatware on the table, and then she just stood there for a moment.

“People really shouldn’t get to do that.” Katie turned on the stereo. “What do you want to listen to?”

“Play whatever you like.”

In the room, the light from the setting sun stretched through the western windows all across the room to the opposite wall and the end of the loft space. The hardwood floor alternated with areas of light so bright that the grain of the wood could not be determined followed by areas of shadow, and Katie noticed that the effects were the same. The details in the planks were always unclear.

She carefully set the utensils in their proper places.

The timer for the fish was buzzing and the other vegetables were cooked and the sauce was hot. Paul took the fish from the oven and did not look at Katie. Instead he concentrated on filleting the fish, careful to keep the bones separate from the meat.

Katie was looking to the floor. It was a large open space that always made her want to dance. She wanted to ask Paul if he would dance with her across the floor, maybe in a waltz, in and out of the light and shadows, because that seemed terribly romantic and beautiful and it felt like it should be a metaphor of sorts, though she was never really sure what moving in and out of the light meant. Is it like falling in and out of love and if so, is love light or darkness? Or maybe love is the tango in-between and lies somewhere in the frenzy and fluidity of the dance itself.

She climbs the plane higher, trying to reach the smaller lower clouds, attempting to dart into one misty gray space and then back out into the sunshiny part of day. But the clouds are too high for such a small plane and they can’t quite reach them, but Katie does not give up. The plane jumps and jumps with its nose pointed upward like tiny little fingers that want terribly to grab hold of the doorknob, and twist and open, and sometimes they feel the slick cool roundness, but only for moments. They can never hold tight.

“You make me dizzy,” Paul says.

After loops and rolls, after the low buzzing of the motor hovering slightly over the ground as the plane follows the incline of the mountain range, scales sharply over the cragged rock, both Paul and Katie agree that the flight is dizzifying. Katie feels exhilarated and her face is pink and flushed. Paul feels nauseous and his face is white and, yet, somehow flushed. The effect is a moment of déjà vu.

“You insist on spiraling out of control every single time,” Paul says.

“Then why did you decide to come with me?” Katie asks. “You know how it goes.”

“I’m never sure,” says Paul, and Katie thinks for a moment that she is also unsure. What could have caused her to wake up this morning thinking she needed more than caffeine? Maybe she just wants to feel that larger adrenaline rush that comes from hovering miles over rocks and cliffs, but no, no, that isn’t the case. She reminds herself: this trip has already been taken. Even the rush has become mundane.

But together in the plane, they inhabit a moment somewhere between the endless expanse of the atmosphere and the comfort of the enclosed cockpit. In the air, they are opposites, Paul narrowing down the world into a microcosm that can be just his and hers, a space that belongs to no one but them, while Katie reaches out, glides those plane wings into the space that is infinite and belongs to all of the stars of the galaxy. They are the Gemini Twins reaching out into opposing directions, but tied always to each other. They move between the tiniest confines to the openness of endless possibilities, and they recognize that perhaps their love is the acknowledgement that all dancers need someone to be the inverse, unless, of course, they wish to dance alone.

Late in fall, after a few months of their togetherness, they went to a nightclub buzzing with the beat of high heels clicking against a floor in a four-step meringue. It was Katie’s idea to go to a new bar, and Paul agreed as usual, not knowing she planned on putting him in the middle of an unfamiliar floor while asking him to move in unfamiliar ways. But she was bored. She felt they had spent too many nights drinking Jack and Cokes in small bars with bad jukeboxes. She thought that if they had found themselves drinking cocktails in places where the band played a salsa or a mambo—dances where the main structure of steps were simple and basic and the dances were as complicated as the dancers chose to make them, perhaps Paul would follow her lead, and if he didn’t, Katie would dance in front of him, pretending that he followed along with her, pretending that he led her into movements she had never made before, twirls and jumps that she could not make on her own.

She met him at his office wearing a black dress of heavy cotton. The dress was lovely, and Paul thought that Katie was lovely wearing the dress. Together, they walked down the street toward the club and she took hold of his arm. Her feet were jittery as she stepped playfully into a skip or a hop or something that could have been argued to have been musical. “Step along,” she silently demanded of him. “Follow what I’m doing,” she thought, but his stride was steady and even and contrasted her gait significantly; though, if he had known they were dancing, he would have suggested that he was the rhythm to her melody.

After several measures and half a block, she matched her stride to his and turned her gaze to the couples paired hand-in-hand on the other side of the street and did not feel Paul looking over to her, wishing someone he knew, maybe his friend James, would see him with her that night.

In their seats near the dance floor, Katie’s dress draped itself over her legs while her arm draped itself over Paul’s thigh. He reached over and touched the thick fabric on her arm.

In the cockpit, there is no draping dress. In the pilot’s seat, Katie wears a brown leather-flying cap. She is Amelia Earhart and threatens to fly off into the abyss, into the black hole beyond the stars and constellations where Castor and Pollux wait in the infinity of time for the two crusaders to whip by into the vastness of space, lured by matter that is both dark and compelling.

The plane tilts and a left wing points upward toward the heavens. Paul looks out of the right side window, beyond the strut and wing that yearns to reach the land below. His compass points north and it is enough for him to feel grounded for the time.

When they first met, Katie was drinking martinis in a bar not usually suited for martinis. They were not fancy cosmopolitans or appletinis, but gibsons: straight-up gin and onion. Paul was drinking a beer and sketching a new map.

“You know, there are three North Poles,” he said.

“Really?” Katie responded, though not in the tone one would expect from a girl who is acknowledging an attractive man. She did not twirl her hair around her finger or lean in and coyly ask his name. She did not tell him that he sounded smart or touch his arm when she spoke. Instead, she pulled out the bar stool next to him, sat down, and said, “Explain.”

“Well, the first point is where all of the longitudinal lines meet.” He drew a globe with both longitudinal and latitudinal lines, being sure to mark the equator. “The second point marks the tip of the axis on which the Earth spins, which isn’t exactly centered, and the third is the magnetic point. The three points don’t line up.”

Katie drank her gibson and smiled. “I like that we’re naturally unbalanced.”

“I find it unsettling,” Paul said.

But magnetism is a curious thing, and attraction turned slightly around becomes unhinged, and planes cannot stay forever suspended between the heavens and the earth. All heroes who fly too closely to the sun will either fall or simply disappear. It is inevitable.

And Katie and Paul know this as the engine begins to rattle and choke. They’ve been here before. The plane swirls and twirls but may just yet trip over its own shoelace. It hops and skips over invisible boulders and Paul and Katie have felt this rocky terrain before. If the plane should not remember to catch its breath and keep its eyes looking straight ahead, it will no doubt stumble sooner or later. But this time, the earth is not solid beneath them. There is no grassy meadow for Katie to glide the plane down into as if the plane itself were a gentle hand ready to reach down and caress the softness beneath. Instead, there is a flat blue and green mottled sheet, speckled with shadow from the clouds lying beneath them and over the firm bedding of the sea. Maybe it is the Pacific, maybe the same vision Amelia Earhart saw on her endless trek around the world, and maybe now, she is still there in the atmosphere, orbiting the planet, one round after the other. But this does not appear to be the immediate fate for Paul and Katie. And that is because first, they must go down. The sun has set and their plane is going down toward the flat evenness of blue and green, of shadow and the moon’s reflecting white light, down as if no other place could ever really matter. And Paul and Katie look at each other and know they have felt this all before.

And in the last moments before the plane kisses the water, Katie will let go and the plane will jerk through the winds in a chaotic swan dive because to her, this is what it feels like to be alive. The plane will spasm and choke until Paul reaches over to the controls in front of her and he will point the plane into a straight line and it will spin as if it were a ballerina landing a perfect pirouette. The plane will go down, but through the window, Paul and Katie will look up one last time to the night sky where the Greeks lie before them, reminding them that patterns of life and love are cyclical and endless and in some form, friends like James and Lori meet up again because no one wants to believe that love can ever be mortal. And low on the horizon, perhaps they will see the blur of an older aircraft, and hear the buzz of a whirling propeller as Amelia Earhart circles and circles in endless arcs. And when the water floods the cockpit and the weight of the ocean pushes the plane farther and farther down, Katie and Paul will crush and drown with none of their maps, unsure if the doors of possibility have just been closed, or opened.

Categories: Writing