Archive for April, 2013

People on Planes

By Kaitlyn Knudson

            The three sit next to each other absorbed in some conversation mixed between what you might hear longtime friends or strangers exchanging; and though none would care too much for the other outside the plane, they care for each other very much in it. Words exchanged are like hands held during takeoff, chairs that turn into floating devices in case of water evacuation, oxygen masks that fall from the ceiling (“please put yours on first before you help someone else”—that always bothers the man sitting in the middle seat).

The man in the aisle seat begins to talk about death. He doesn’t mean to bring it up. Though he has flown so many times in his private jet that he’s temporarily wore it out, his palms still sweat and his heartbeat still picks up before, during, and after takeoff. But he had nearly dodged death while driving down the 85 that morning, and he finds himself talking about the helpless cars that had piled up on it, one body after the other like a sinister Rube Goldberg. The row of seats shakes a little when he says helpless but he can’t tell if it’s from the wind or his nerves. The shake doesn’t seem to bother the woman near the window as much as it bothers the men.

“It’s just a little shakiness from being in the clouds. That can happen on the colder days, due to ice more easily forming on the wings. But don’t worry, the pilot is equipped to handle it,” she informs them before she officially closes the book that she was hoping to read, sliding it into her stately Oxford bag.

Shiny, rich-looking cars the man in the aisle makes a point of saying, shiny, rich cars all scrunched up. Damn shame, he says. Eight cars crunched; one Aston Martin and a Porsche. Maybe four people killed.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here with us,” the man in the middle says with his typical warm smile. His shoulders are broad, but he folds them up into his arms to make space for the others, which makes him look smaller than he is.

The man in the aisle looks over to the lady at the window, who’s looking out of it. She feels his eyes on her neck, and adds, “Yes, that’s such a horrifying situation. I can’t imagine.”

“I can,” the man in the middle says. “I’ve never been in a wreck in my life”—he gently taps the serving tray that’s folded up in front of him with his knuckles—“but some good friends of mine have, and their stories give me chills. I imagine it’s difficult to recover after so much loss, and man, all those images seared into your mind. Do you know if it was officially four? I wonder if anyone else was seriously injured?”

“I think just four,” the man in the aisle says, his eyes on the young attendant who’s come to take their drink orders. “Amaretto, little miss,” he says, grinning. The flight attendant smiles at him; it’s forced. But he’s immune to forced smiles now; he can’t tell the difference between them and the real ones, nor does he care to.

The man in the middle wants nothing. He instead says to the attendant that her accent is warm, and she must be from Texas, to which she smiles (a real one) and nods.

“Water, please,” says the girl by the window, because water is healthiest for you. Scritch-scratch, it’s written down and the lady trots away in her heels. The man in the aisle turns and watches her walk. He stretches his arms out, and another lady asks him if he needs anything. He shakes his head. He likes being in the aisle because he has room and because he can grab the attention more easily when he wants an extra bag of peanuts, or something.

“I guess we get lucky sometimes,” he says. He wishes he were in first class seating, and he was cursing when they told him they were sorry about the mistake. But after seeing how pretty the girl was (he loved a girl in glasses; it was always a fantasy of his to marry a bookish type, together they might be unstoppable)—he willingly sat down next to them and was glad to hear the two weren’t together. The crew had thanked him exactly eleven times for his willingness to sit in a more uncomfortable spot than he was used to.

“So where are you headed?” the man in the aisle says, straining his neck to look at the lady by the window.

“Back home. I was at a conference,” she says. Her voice finally shifts for the first time, into a higher tone.

The man in the middle interrupts: “So am I! I mean, I’m going to a convention, not home. What sort of convention were you at?”

“I’ve just gotten back from a TED Talks conference, on the paradigms of education. It was quite brilliant.”

“I’ve heard that’s a real hit, I’ll bet you had a great time.

“I did. And you’re headed…?”

“Oh, me, I’m headed to a charity ball, to represent a company. My company, I guess. I’ll spend my weekend begging for money, you know, that sort-of thing,” he says, still smiling. His smiles seem to never stop, which some people find quite annoying. But they are always genuine, pulled from that something within (maybe a soul, chakra, “good” genes), and they make him more interesting than he would be had he not smiled all the time.

“How about you?” the man in the middle turns toward the man in the aisle.

“For pleasure,” he grins.

“To take a break would be nice,” the man in the middle admits. The woman also nods.

“After we stop in good ‘ol N.Y., I’m headed to London,” the man in the aisle says, and just loud enough so a few more rows will know. He doesn’t really belong on a regular-class plane, you know.

“I’ve always wanted to travel,” the lady by the window admits.

But teachers have a tendency to get stuck in one spot, unless they are headed to a conference, or they are not working another job over summer break to afford keeping the cable. In fact, they are usually thinking about letting the cable go—too much TV is rotten for your brain, and even the History channel is trying too hard to be entertaining rather than accurate these days.

“I’ve never been out of the country, but I’ve always liked the idea of going to Africa,” the man in the middle admits.

“You guys should go,” the man in the aisle says, waving his hand as the attendant strides toward him. “Seeing other parts of the world is something everyone should do, no excuses. Sorry, where are our drinks? Alright. Just making sure you didn’t forget there, missy!”

The man in the middle adds: “I agree; we have a real sense of entitlement in this country and it’s really important to go see that there are other people out there. I mean, there’s other ways of living that are far less selfish than this viewpoint we have in America.” He taps his fingers and feet against the aircraft’s insides.

“I would love to be in London for the history,” the woman by the window says, as she turns to look out it again. “Imagine stepping where so many great poets, scientists, philosophers studied. I do believe I would be star-struck over dead people.”

The man in the middle grins at her, but she doesn’t see. Then they both look helplessly down at their palms as if they could read them, to find out whether or not they would ever travel.

The man in the aisle leans back best as he can in his chair, his face turned upward toward the ceiling where the heat is tunneling out. He yawns and closes his eyes, wishing he could already be on Kensington High, smoking a cigar and searching for his second home. He didn’t care how much it cost him; he wanted a house with real character. He hadn’t owned a house with real character before, one shaped and crafted in such an original manner—one in various cream colors, warm browns, and little nooks that people would refer to as “charming”. He never managed to find a house with “character” in his home city, but he figured he could find one in Kensington. He enjoyed London and he heard Kensington was a wealthier part.

The woman by the window sighs (but it’s only heard by the man in the middle. He has good ears that hear the faintest of sighs). He sends her a smile but she doesn’t see it. So, he reaches for his New York Times in the pouch in front of him and quickly asks, “Either of you any good at crosswords?”

The man in the aisle’s eyes open, and the woman looks away from the window.

“I was just trying to complete this one before we made our stop. But I can’t for the life of me figure out four down,” he says.

The man in the aisle peeks over at the paper. It’s another language, this scrap of paper. He pushes away the little heater on the ceiling from him. He recalls the last time he rode his jet, when he was trying to solve one of these. His girlfriend was sitting by him, that Journalism undergrad he briefly dated, and she was watching him watch those boxes, and he was begging them to reveal themselves. What she had really been doing was reading a book next to him, but he thought she was secretly watching him, always watching him. Maybe that’s why she left him; he could never fill in those empty big cream boxes with characters. It’s just a damn piece of paper, he had laughed after forty-five minutes of staring at three across.

Yes, that’s all it is. Just a piece of paper.

The woman in the window reaches into her Oxford bag and pulls out a red pen. She snatches the paper from the man in the middle, her left hand scratches over it aggressively.

“The title is ‘Mark my Words’,” she points out, stabbing her finger into the top of the paper. “You see here?” She asks but does not wait for a response, and the men’s eyes sprint to find her fast fingers. “You’ve got this one right, and seventy-two down is easy, I’m surprised you didn’t get it. Early 20th century in British history, that’s of course the Edwardian Period. But it doesn’t fit, right? It gets a little tricky right here, so I can understand where you might be stuck. This is where you have to pay attention to the title, see? They give you hints if you pay attention.”

She scribbles “Edwardian” into the box, with one blank box left underneath it.

“See, it doesn’t fit—”

“Hold on now, pay attention to the title, remember? ‘Mark my Words’. It’s a hint, see?”

She takes the red pen, pokes the center of the box with it, and pulls the paper back and laughs, a giddy, high-pitched giggle.

The men stare at the paper for a while, and she pulls it back onto her lap. Finally they understand when she fills in, right underneath it, the answer for one-ten across: Co-founder of Death Row Records, which is of course, she says, Dr. Dre. The rest of the missing bits of the crossword are revived with connectors like commas and slashes and periods.

“It’s a miracle, hallelujah!” the man in the middle jokes, causing the woman to blush. The man in the aisle sees that the man in the middle makes her blush, and he cannot keep himself from exclaiming, again, that “it’s just a piece of paper”.

“Oh but she has to have set some sort of record,” the man in the middle says, still smiling at the woman. The woman by the window studies the man in the middle as he talks to the man in the aisle. She sees for the first time how his smile is real and his hair is a nice, warm brown and quite long. She has an unexpected urge to stroke it, hide her fast fingers in its nooks. They hold eye contact.

The man in the aisle strains his neck toward the two, leans forward onto his stomach and lets his safety belt cut into him for the sake of remaining in the conversation.

The woman by the window forgets that the man in the aisle is still watching her. She has never made eye contact with anyone as long as she has made it now with this man in the middle.

“Hey, you’re brilliant,” he tells her, in the softest voice he’s used all evening.

“You’re too kind,” she smiles, a genuine smile of hers she’s been saving.

The man in the aisle fakes a laugh, as if he was still a part of the conversation, and irritated, at that.

“What was your name?” the woman by the window says.

There is a twitching, a buzzing in every passenger’s nerves as seats begin to shake. The plane lets out a horrible groaning sound, as if it were just now aware of its own exhaustion. Traveling thousands of miles every day, being stepped on, and carrying everyone’s baggage can take its toll.

Then, over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentleman, please stay in your seats as we turn on the fasten seatbelt sign. It looks like we are going to be running into some unexpected turbulence before we get ready to make our final descent. Again, please stay in your seats.”

This time it’s not fear, it is the wind that’s shaking them, the man in the aisle thinks. What was that thing that the lady had said? Ice on the wing? The pilots are equipped for it, she had said.

All three faces are pressed forward; the crowd grows noisier with filler words, nervous laughs, and angry woahs.

The plane gives another weary dip, stomachs are lurched downward, and a baby starts to scream. The woman by the window shuts its cover over it, and finds that her other hand has grabbed onto the hand of the man in the middle. The man in the aisle has also grabbed onto the man in the middle’s other hand, but before he’s embarrassed enough to pull away, the plane trembles again, the man in the middle lets out an upset woah and shuts his eyes, and the two next to him clench harder.

We’re almost there, just a little more turbulence to get through, the man in the aisle thinks. The pilots are equipped for it.


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By Kaitlyn Knudson

            We all avoid that desk, the one by the beaten-up poster hanging by one of its corners that says “Develop a passion for learning: If you do, you will never cease to grow.” That desk that he always claimed in the back of the classroom, that’s cleaner than our desks and now looking quite naked without its usual stack of books to dress it. Our desks are in the front of the classroom, closer to the door. They’re dressed with penciled penises on their tops and globs of gum hanging from their bottoms, and we like our desks that way. But not Reed, Reed never put a pencil to anything but paper. Reed. Reed. We say his name with disgust. We still have to skillfully avoid him now, like we did back then, every time we see that desk.

Truth is we figured one day he would do something crazy, and we were glad that he did it to himself rather than to us. There were days when we half-expected him to walk into our classroom and start burying our bodies in bullets like some crazy kids do, even though none of us would admit we thought that way. It’s because we would see him mumble to himself and stare out the window, stare into one of his books for hours…and look at us with those eyes that burned us like ants behind square spectacles every time he caught us spitting in our own book’s pages, or putting them under our feet like we often did to make him upset.

He once asked you to a dance. You should remember that day; you were sitting there with us, smacking your gum in your mouth and stifling your laugh with the palms of your hands. We all watched as he walked in with a vase full of red roses and his hair slicked over, his glasses gone. But we weren’t fooled, and thankfully neither were you. We had heard rumors all week that he was going to ask you, and we could just picture him quoting something from one of those books on his desk, Shakespeare or something, no matter. Shakespeare’s dead so it didn’t matter to us. You are too good for him we said, when we heard the rumors that he was going to ask you. Don’t be modest; you know how badly the guys wanted to go with you, to get with you, to be in the same class as you so they could stare at you. We knew Reed didn’t have a shot in hell. But we were also afraid that maybe you would say yes by some sort of tragic accident, like maybe you would think he asked you if you wanted to throw out the plants, and you would look at the dying plants by Mr. Z’s computer and say sure, and Reed would get his way. We didn’t want Reed to get his way, because Reed was so different.

Yes, we sometimes thought it was funny the way he would comment on everything in class, like he was the boss and not Mr. Z, the man with the PowerPoint and necktie. But we also thought it was rude, the way he’d continue to question Mr. Z when Mr. Z answered his questions with “it is what it is” and “because I said so”,  because we liked Mr. Z. He gave us bonus points for showing up to class every morning and told us all the questions that would be on the tests, which we thought was the best way to prepare. Not that we prepared outside of the classroom; we had better things to do, like talk about each other’s lives and watch TV. That was where the real stories were, anyway.

But Reed. What a freak. We could tell that he liked doing the work. Those days when Mr. Z would get sidetracked and talk about his favorite TV show or the game rather than droning on about Hamlet were the best; he would stand there staring at the ceiling, like his eyeballs were searching his head for something profound to say as he went on and on about this character he hated from this TV show. We all would make faces at each other from across the room; see how many times we could get away with pointing our middle finger at Mr. Z when his eyes rolled back in thought. You were winning at one point, we kept count. But Reed just sat in the back, staring at the pages of Hamlet like the words on them were about to vanish invisible-ink style, and all that would be left were the ones he saved in his memory.

He asked why and how all the time, and sometimes that made us late getting out of class, because Mr. Z had to Google his questions. He never seemed happy with the answers from Google either, like he was “”above Google. He would always mutter that he wanted to hear Mr. Z’s opinion, what Mr. Z had to say about the book, the question he was asking. Mr. Z would get annoyed with him, too, telling him that this is what he had to say about the book, about the question. What was right here on Google, well, that was his answer. Oh, and I know you remember the way Reed would get upset when Mr. Z gave us all A’s for turning our assignments in! One time he even tore his essay in two, holding it in the air like it was a symbol of his sanity and in this loud, dramatic gesture, ripping the paper. We didn’t understand him; we thought it was fair, us getting all A’s. Because there is no right or wrong answer in life, and we thought we shouldn’t be forced to write about something we didn’t care about. So, we turned in essays about our favorite TV show and what we had planned for our future Pinterest boards and talked about what we had read on Facebook. I heard that one time you even turned in a story with only the words “Essays are boring” in it, rearranged three different ways and repeating itself, and got away with it. Mr. Z didn’t care, nobody in the school cared, nobody in the world cared what our essays had to say, and we sure as hell didn’t care, either.

But Reed cared, and we were afraid he’d start getting other people to care. You know what that feeling was like, when you saw that the words on his paper were about the book in his hands, his own thoughts, and his own opinion on what we were supposed to have opinions on not long ago. We were afraid he would spark something in Mr. Z, that Mr. Z would start teaching again instead of just talking, that people would take the time to read our essays.

What’s crazy is that when he first came here we thought he would fit in, believe it or not. We had heard stories that his family was rich, and Mr. Z had told us that he was moving here from another state. We talked about the other states with giddy, hopeful voices. Thought about their online classes and online teachers, how we could re-do an assignment over and over until we aced it, how we could use Google and SparkNotes and Wikipedia until we filled up the required pages. We thought about how unfair it was that we were trapped inside walls with whiteboards and desks and the smell of old paper. We thought of Reed as a sort-of superhero, one that would come into the school with authority and tell our principal that we, too, deserve to do our schoolwork from the comfort of our homes, so we can do better on our papers. We actually don’t care about our papers, though, we just want to sleep in, we admit to each other in the cafeteria. We find that doing work is much more difficult on our own; we can squeeze decent sentences and interesting analyses out when we’re doing activities in class, or pulling information from the Internet that somebody else wrote, but on our own… well, the most we write is a text message or a sentence of 140 characters or less, or a status update about being sick of school. We show up with the hope that one of us has the answer to the questions that might be asked in the classroom (which used to always be Reed), and it’s good enough for us.

We think about Reed a lot, a lot more than we’d like to think about him. His clean desk triggers a thought within us; a scenario of him pointing the gun at his freckled face, right between his two eyes, just above his nose. We picture him pulling it, tearing his face in two just like he tore up his essay that day, all the words of Hamlet and 1984 and To Kill A Mockingbird, all our assigned readings and more, spraying out of his skull and getting lost in his blood.

We wondered what he looked like when he was found, if he kept his glasses on or not. We were half-hoping they would show us his body at the funeral, but we were also relieved when they didn’t.

We saw his parents there, at the funeral, with the same freckled faces and small eyes as him. They wore sad faces, so sad. Their tears ran between their fingers, down their arms, plummeted to the floor kamikaze-style. They cried to us, looked at us with confusion, and behind their own spectacles we thought we saw the eyes of Reed, glinting, burning us like ants. We didn’t like to see them cry, it made us all fidget and stare at our shoes. We didn’t do it, we wanted to tell them. We didn’t do it to him, it was all him, it was his choice. He could have joined us, he could have “friended” us if he wanted to. We’re actually very friendly once you join us. But Reed didn’t want to be friends with us. He wanted to be there, in the classroom, surrounded by those books and a 3D teacher and the stinky scent of White Erase markers and paper quizzes.

We still think about their faces, his parents’ faces, although we don’t ever talk about them. We didn’t want to say anything to them at the funeral; we decided that it would be better if we didn’t, because it wasn’t our fault that Reed was gone. But now there is a rumor going around that you said something to them, and we want to know if it’s true? That you told them “I’m sorry”. And we’re wondering, why did you do that? Because it wasn’t your fault, you know. We want you to know that it wasn’t your fault. He did it to himself.

We’ve noticed that you have stopped coming to as many parties as you used to, that you haven’t been online as much as usual, that you don’t play the middle-finger game with us anymore. We miss you. Just the other day we heard rumors that you didn’t want our classes to go online anymore, and that you were seen at that old person’s bookstore, buying books; you did this rather than come to the parties with us, rather than talk to us on online.

We hear rumors that you spend your lunch breaks with your nose between the pages of Hamlet now; that your essays consist of more than three words, even though Mr. Z isn’t reading them. We hate to say this, but if you keep it up, you might be on your own. And we don’t want that to happen to you.

We think you feel bad about Reed because you talked to him, once. We’ve narrowed it down to that conversation you had the first day of school, when he was lost and looking for his lit class, Mr. Z’s class. We were all watching when you two started to talk, we were all staring at Reed, wondering if he was going to be who we thought he would be.

“We have class together,” we remember you telling him, after he asked you where to find the classroom.

“But don’t worry about this class, we don’t do anything, just like the rest of them,” you added, and we all laughed.

Reed’s face twisted. The corners of his lips drooped, his head cocked to the side, his eyes were filled with a pain and a passion we labeled as pathetic.

“But I want to learn” he said.

That’s when we knew he would be different. We didn’t think much of it, but that’s when we should have started worrying about you, too. Because, thinking back on it, we saw an unmistakable twist in your face, too. Your head cocked to the side and for a moment we thought we could picture the mechanics in your mind moving, that you were considering what you hadn’t before. But we shrugged it off, because it happened so fast, and because we thought you shrugged it off when you laughed at Reed with us.

We heard that some maintenance men were going to move that desk, finally. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they came and took it, took Reed out of the classroom once and for all. The day is going great and there’s even a rumor that by next year, everything will be online, and we won’t even have to force our bodies over here every morning. Mr. Z walks into class and says he doesn’t feel like being here today, so we’re just going to watch a movie. We’re all cheering, all but one of us….you. You’re over there sitting next to a now-empty corner and you’re staring at it. We understand that maybe you don’t feel the warmth of a human body  next to you anymore, and that Reed isn’t there to block the sunshine coming out of the window for you anymore…but you’re acting strange today, the way you’re sitting there bending back the sides of a clean book. It’s making us uncomfortable. So, we’re asking you to stop. We’re asking because we care about you. Stop staring at the corner, because he’s gone, and you can’t do anything about it. You don’t have to read every book in the library to know anything about the world, okay? And we also want you to know that it’s not your fault, so why do we think that you feel bad about what happened? Because truthfully—we don’t want to say it out loud, but we’re all thinking it—it’s just easier now that we don’t have to walk around that desk.

You turn the first page of the book over and we hear it; the movie hasn’t started and that noise of you turning the page is so loud right now. It’s crinkling and creasing and drives us crazy. It makes us think of Reed and we don’t like it.

And you, you’re starting to worry us. Are you really going to start caring about Reed now, now that it’s too late?

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