The breasts of the lady next to me bounce and I stare extra hard at the list of available inflight entertainment.
“Seatbelts fastened?” The stewardess is eye level with the handles on the overhead bins. She doesn’t bend down to serve us like her twin in the welcome video. Instead, her elbows stick up like macaroni from her hand resting on my seatback. (Why do all American Airlines stewardesses have French manicures?) Everything about her is angular. Especially the cheekbones. I’m surprised they allowed such a sharp object onboard.
Every time I hear a rush of air or a whir, I straighten up, hoping the craft will glide out of the gate and slip into the sky. The fasten seatbelts emblem glows in front of me, repeated above every other row. Beneath the signs, as far as I can see, are little tufts of hair pushing up like carrot tops. Side parts, flyaways, bald spots. It’s simpler to judge people when all you can see of them is their hair.
The only person talking is a fellow teenager up front. She might belong to a messy bun in row 14, but it’s hard to be sure. Her voice pushes through the sterile air, sound but not words. The sentence begins low, and she works it up her vocal register. At its highest point, she pauses—the whole cabin leans forward, hoping maybe she’ll stop and everyone can stop listening and retreat back into the safety of their own two armrests. Then again, maybe she’s just searching for a word.
Sure enough, she’s managed to straighten out the rest of her sentence and she tumbles through it, falling back down the pitches she just climbed. In her hurry she drops a distinct staccato: the misplaced “like” that confirms her age category.
There go the macaroni elbows again.
When do we eat?
I hope they serve pizza on this flight. I’ve come to like those steaming slices, sprinkled with heat-exhausted vegetables and served in soggy American Airlines cardboard. Not that they smell like anything. I think they just taste good because they’re hot.
I can only see a small oval of the outside world, like someone drew the inside of this cabin on hole-punched paper and I happen to be sitting next to the hole punch. The oval is filled with rainy New York tarmac.
I like how inside, the gates all looked the same. Blue and white, blue and white. But out here, they’re all different, with a different-colored plane stamped with a different logo parked in front of each one. Like different species of dog leashed to parking meters outside the deli.
I’m pretty sure Kolbie is some sort of terrier. I don’t want to look too close. She’s lima bean-colored and shaped. She’s also a bottomless font of slobber.
Jessie sits cross-legged on her bed, absently rolling a crayon stub in her oval palm. Her tongue is poking out of the corner of her mouth—the sign that means she won’t hear me even if I call her name. She hasn’t noticed the crushed Flamingo Pink crayon under her right foot.
I would never let a Flamingo Pink be crushed. Everyone knows those are the most valuable. At least back home they do. But maybe in this cousin-world, this Michigan so far removed from home, Flamingo Pink is just a color. A color you don’t need to draw dogs.
My stomach rumbles and I push Jessie’s plastic jewelry box away from me. I’ve tried on all her bracelets and they all fall off because they know I’m too little.
“What are you drawing?”
I know there’s leftover pizza in the kitchen but I’m not sure I’ll be able to reach it without her help.
Her tongue retracts and her eyes blink blankly at me. The sole of her right foot is bright pink.
“What are you drawing?”
Blink, blink. “Kolbie.”
I wish I could be wise enough to understand the Importance of Kolbie. I wish I could hop down the stairs and reach for the greasy leftover slice in the kitchen, trailing Flamingo Pink footprints.
My ears pop and the runway drops away from us like a used hotel bathrobe.
This moment when the plane’s nose is angled sharply up and the stubby wheels are just retracting is, I think, the only time when everyone has good posture. When every head and pair of shoulder blades is flattened against the seat back, and books close on fingers and Sudokus fall on laps.
Flying is like running your fingers over the surface of the earth. Reading the Braille of houses and trees.
I close my eyes and feel the suburbs bumping the bottom of the plane.
Uncle Carl drives us to the public pool for diving lessons. He doesn’t look at Jessie through the rearview mirror. Maybe he doesn’t see her. Maybe he doesn’t want to take his eyes off the road. All the mirror shows are the wavy lines above his eyebrows. Like the pool after a sloppy dive—a dive that you thought better of but your foot had already slipped and splash! now there are waves everywhere, including in your nose, and you don’t think the water will ever be calm again. That’s the way I feel about Uncle Carl’s forehead. Something dove in there and now the waves are there forever.
I’m also convinced the rearview mirror isn’t a real shape. It sure isn’t any of the ones I learned at school. But Michigan itself is such a funny shape that you can’t expect the people in it to know about right angles and straight lines. Instead, they hold up their hand and say, “I live here,” and point to the fold of skin at the base of their thumb. Or, “Here’s Lansing,” and point to the pit of the palm, the capital of their hand-home.
Jessie stands at the edge of the deep end with blue lapping at her toes, looking down at her quivering reflection.
I don’t like diving, but I like feeling the water close over my head.
Turquoise silence. There’s no up, no down, no lifeguard and no sunscreen. The whole world pulses with the sound of my own heartbeat. My knees curl up into my chest and I am as small and self-contained as possible. The walls of the pool are warm like a turquoise uterus.
Time slows. I spend months underwater.
Her toes break the surface and penetrate my consciousness. My head breaks the surface and penetrates hers.
We look at each other, each with one body part in the other’s universe.
Water leaks into my eye. I blink and through the sting of chlorine I see my cousin blur and burst and hemorrhage across the sky. I rub my eyes and Jessie’s body reassembles itself. She suddenly looks small, standing on the edge of the water, unable to dive in.
My legs are tired from fighting to stay on the surface. I give in and let the water close over my head again. By the time I open my eyes, her toes are gone.
In the car on the way back, our bathing suit bottoms leave wet heart-shapes on the seats. Uncle Carl won’t be happy.
Their house was on a triangular block—are they even called blocks in the suburbs?—and there was a white clapboard fence marching around the tip of the block. In the yard Uncle Carl built a giant chess set which we never played with. First we were only as big as the pieces, then we were too old. Then there were spiders and ants and the set would fall apart if we played.
I told Jessie someday I would beat her. I was on the school chess team and won a keychain at a tournament, I said. Someday we’ll play and I’ll win. Someday.
A plane shoots below ours, trailing a streak of debris. Make a wish.
But a shooting plane isn’t like a shooting star. After several minutes, the streak of debris goes slack, then crooked, and then the sky forgets it.
I wonder where that plane is going. I wonder what the weather’s like there. Maybe the plane is filled with people in sweaters and mittens, and suitcases packed with Hawaiian shirts. Cameras. Maybe it’s a plane of people migrating south for winter break.
That’s it. Jessie migrated. Just took flight.
I know the press and the posters and the Facebook group say “missing child.” And I know that if someone held up their hand and pointed and said, “Here’s Lansing,” and “Here’s Detroit,” I couldn’t point back and say, “Here’s Jessie.”
But I know Jessie. And Michigan can be cold. The waves on Uncle Carl’s forehead froze solid long ago. The pool closed. Or they covered it for renovation. I can’t remember.
I can imagine her, walking Kolbie in the cold-December-wet-German-shepherd smell. Suddenly realizing she could just keep walking. Walk past those suburban houses and trees. Never wanting to see that white picket fence and that sad, sagging chess set again.
She might be walking right under me, between the Braille bumps. I just can’t see her.
Maybe she’s stopped for a second, in the long shadow of a not-yet-lit streetlight on a peaceful square of sidewalk somewhere. She’s bent down to pet Kolbie. Her hands snag on a knot or twig in Kolbie’s lima bean-colored hair. Jessie’s tongue pokes out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrates on getting it out. Even if I called her name now, she wouldn’t hear me.
Another pat for Kolbie, then she stands and wipes the slobber on her jeans.
And she keeps walking south, and even if I called her name now, she wouldn’t hear me.
The plane is heading west and the sun has finally, after prolonged pomp and drama, dipped beneath the cloudscape. Traces of violet and fuschia still stain the sky like a paper napkin after a particularly greasy wedge of pizza.
The sun disappears behind the horizon. For just a moment, the world flashes Flamingo Pink.
Age 17, Grade 11