The Freest Bird

So here it finally is: my short story. 99% factual. Hope you like it!

“Air Canada flight 194 with service to London, Heathrow, now boarding all seats, all zones.” I slap my laptop shut and shove it quickly into my canvas backpack. Ticket. Passport. Check. Check. I get in line behind a large talkative German man. “Please don’t let him be sitting next to me,” I pray silently. My flight from Atlanta to Toronto was perfect, because the seat next to me was empty. I know I won’t get that lucky this time around.

My ticket is scanned and I walk down the long tunnel and onto the plane. I walk through business class, world traveler plus, economy plus, and into economy. There’s my seat, 28A. I put my extra things into the overhead bin and then sit and wait to see who I’m going to have to spend the next eight hours with. My cheek rests against the small round window. It’s raining in Toronto just like it was in Atlanta, and I suspect it will be in London. There are men in bright orange vests bustling around outside with suitcases. A mother behind me is desperately trying to stop her child from crying. A Muslim family occupies the 5-seat row across the aisle from me. A flight attendant in a blue uniform and high heals is busy helping an Asian man trying to stuff his oversized suitcase into the overhead compartment. There is no way that it will fit. I poke my head up over the seats and look behind me. I spot the German man three rows back, talking the ears off some young blonde girl. I feel bad for her, but I’m glad it’s not me.

Suddenly, without warning my fate arrives with a “Hi ya!” It’s a boy. He sits down and smoothes out his grey trousers. “I nearly missed the flight,” he says in a perfect British accent. I smile at him, but I can’t find a thing to say because my brain has just melted, and any logical thought has oozed out my ears. The boy has a mop of wavy brown hair, green eyes and a crooked smile with a dimple in his left cheek. He can’t be much older than me. I look down at my hands and begin picking off the pale pink nail polish and silently reprimanding myself for being so awkward. My mind plays out a scenario of the next eight hours. I spill all my dinner on my lap. I accidentally fall asleep on his shoulder and drool on him. I die of embarrassment. That sounds pretty accurate. Pulling myself back to reality, I remind myself to be normal. It’s just eight hours, but what if these eight hours determine the fate of the rest of my life? What if this nameless British boy is the ever-allusive “one”? I suddenly see myself wearing a white dress, gliding down an aisle in a big church with stained glass windows.

I pull my iPod out of my pocket in an attempt to hide my awkwardness. I immerse myself in shooting little birds at green pigs. I just need to keep looking down. I know if I look at him, he will instantly know every thought that just went through my head. I wind my long brown hair around my fingers as the plane begins to move. The flight attendants start explaining what to do in the event of a crash landing. Why do they never give relevant information, like what to do in the event of being seated next to a cute boy? That would be helpful. I cannot believe myself. I’ve only been away from home for six hours, and I’m already in over my head. It was just a few days ago that I told Ben that I needed to be on my own right now, that I was leaving for England and didn’t have time for a relationship. Now here I was, envisioning my marriage to a total stranger. It’s not surprising though. I’m constantly on the look out for a new ear to talk into. When I find one, I’m convinced that this ear will be the one that will listen forever. Two months later it’s always gone. It’s almost become a hobby of mine, this ear collecting.

The British boy takes out a book and starts reading. I glance at the cover. I don’t recognize the title. He sees me looking and uses the opportunity.

“So what are you going to England for?” He asks as he shuts his book and stuffs it in the seat back in front of him.

“To study,” I say, louder than I mean to.

“Really? What are you studying?”

“Theology. I’m going to a Bible School.” I make sure to correctly pronounce the word Bible. It’s the one word I say that lets everyone know that I’m from Georgia.

Suddenly the captain overhead, “Flight attendants prepare for take-off.”

I glance out the window and silently say goodbye to North America. My heart flutters. I’m not scared to go. I am ready. Day after day working at a children’s clothing store gets old, and so does weekend after weekend smoking cigars on my friend’s back porch. As the plane starts ascending into the grey sky, I make up my mind to stop smoking and to end the marathon of meaningless relationships. My next relationship will last, I do solemnly swear. Raindrops accumulate on the window as we pass through cloud after sad, grey cloud. The plane shakes as we go higher. The clouds get thinner and whiter, and finally, the airplane breaks through, and it’s like everything pauses. It feels like the plane is resting on the top of the clouds. Orange and yellow and red sunlight streams through the windows turning all the people in the airplane into shadows on the walls and floor. I watch the sunlight through closed eyes. It looks fuzzy and red. It feels warm in the cold airplane. With a sigh I pull myself away from the peace of a perfectly clear sky. I look down at my right arm and notice that it’s about one centimeter from the British boy’s arm.

“So Bible School?” He says, now that the plane has quieted a bit.

“Yes. Bible School. I’m very excited.” The more I say it, the more it becomes true.

“That sounds lovely,” He says. I can feel myself melting into a puddle.

A flight attendant walks by and gives me a coy, knowing smile. It’s the kind of smile my mother would give me if she were here right now. That knowing look that is fully aware that with every accented word this boy says, the more trouble I am in.

“Have you been to London before?” He asks.

“Just once, when I was fifteen. This is my first time here on my own.”

“Well you have to make sure you go to Notting Hill and the Camden markets…”

His eyes become bright and animated as he tells me of the lesser-known places around London. He talks about parks he used to play in as a child. He tells me about a little second hand shop just off of Portobello road that no one but the locals ever goes to. There is a café by his aunt’s home in Chelsea that has the best cupcakes in the entire world. We bond over our mutual affection for the Chelsea team. He is surprised that an American girl knows anything at all about club soccer. Then right on cue the flight attendant pulls the dinner cart up to our row of seats. He takes chicken. I take pasta, and ginger ale, always ginger ale. I say a silent prayer thanking God for the airplane food and for sitting me next to this boy, and will He please, oh please, let me get his number? Amen.

I take a careful bite of lasagna as the boy starts talking about the work he does in an orphanage in Seattle. I proceed to do my best of impressing him with my long list of church activities, mission trips, volunteer work. I tell him how I tutor refugee children in my spare time. I go into long detail about the work I did in Africa last summer teaching English to street kids. He seems impressed. The last time I tried to impress a boy it was Ben. I told him I liked motorcycles, which I don’t. Luckily the conversation was over text message so when he asked me what my favorite type was, I was able to quickly look something up. At least the things I’m telling this boy are true. For the next four hours I learn everything about the boy. He tells me about his mother who died when he was young. He tells me about his time in college, the girls he’s dated, and his plans for the future. I insert a few of my own comments on my college experience and my family, reciting these facts about myself like someone would recite lines of play. I’m so afraid of saying the wrong thing. I notice how slowly time seems to pass. It’s like I can feel each heavy second, being added to my age, little by little, bit by bit.

“Time always seems to freeze when you’re on a long over night flight, doesn’t it?” I ask, surprising myself by detouring from the script.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, when you’re in the air, you lose a sense of time. My body is telling me that it’s 1:45 in the morning, because that’s what time it is back at home; but it’s 5:45 in the morning in the place I am going to land. But up here in the air it’s not really either of those times. There is no real time. Each second feels longer and more important, but at the same time each second doesn’t really matter at all.”

I hear myself rambling and wish to take the words back. I never have been good at expressing the way I feel. The boy smiles at me and studies my face for what seems like an hour, but was probably no more than five seconds.

“My name is Charlie, by the way,” he says, sticking out his hand, but still watching my face.

My mouth twitches into a smile. “Nice to meet you Charlie. I’m Elizabeth.” I fit my small hand into his larger one and match his gaze. His handshake is firm. My hand probably feels cold and clammy to him. As he lets go, a chill runs through me, and I hug my sweater tighter. I yawn and rest my head against the cold plastic window again. He leans his seat back, reading my mind.

“Goodnight Elizabeth.”

It feels good to close my eyes. The next thing I know there is sunlight piercing through my eyelids, and a flight attendant is coming up the aisle with a coffee cart. I look over and Charlie is still asleep. The captain comes on overhead to tell us that there are thirty minutes till we land. I stuff any stray belongings into my backpack. When the flight attendant comes, I get coffee, two creams, and one sugar. I go through the mental checklist of what I will need when I land: immigration card and passport. I need to get the directions to the hostel out of my suitcase. Home feels like a lifetime ago. I look out of the window and notice the soggy, grey clouds enveloping the airplane, as we get closer to the ground. The turbulence from the descent wakes Charlie up. He leans towards me, staring out at the empty grey. For a moment we are united in silent anticipation. The landing gear activates with a grinding and a grumble. Green fields and groves of trees start to appear through breaks in the clouds. We are about to touch down. I count in my head: 3…2…1… Right on time. We pull up to the gate and everyone shoots to their feet. Charlie follows behind me in silence as we walk out of the plane, through the long tunnel, and into the airport. Weary eyed and groggy, we wander with about two hundred other people into customs. I turn to Charlie to comment on the length of the lines, but he’s been replaced by the large German man. I look around and spot him in the line for British citizens. He is scanning the crowd, but doesn’t see me. Perhaps I will see him in baggage claim. However, after forty minutes in customs I find my bag, but Charlie is gone.

I drag my big suitcase out of the airport and onto a train. Rain pelts the windows. Buildings whirl by. Hyde Park corner is my stop. I drag my suitcase down Oxford street and finally up the steps of Caledonian Backpackers Lodge. The receptionist has a nose ring and long tangled dread locks. She helps me store my luggage and gives me my room key. Once I’m settled, I sling my tan bag over my shoulder and head out into the cold air. Pulling my hood over my head to block the slight drizzle, I walk towards Hyde Park. I wander through the trees, past the Peter Pan statue, and along the edge of the lake. I find a secluded grove of trees and collapse my tired body onto the grass. My purse acts as a make shift pillow. As I lie beneath the trees I wonder where in the city Charlie is. I wonder what he is doing. I let my arms stretch out across the grass like two bird wings. I pretend I’m flying over London. I can see the London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the Thames River. I fly through this city where no one knows me. I’m just a nameless face among thousands of others. Here on the ground in the grass, I’m the freest bird there ever was. I won’t waste a second, I do solemnly swear.

3 thoughts on “The Freest Bird

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