The lights burned through the glass like small, low-lingering stars. They lit up the tips of the wings, the extreme edge of the tail. Inside the nose of the plane, a soft glow illuminated the figures on the flight deck. Beyond the window of the terminal, a utopia: another world synchronized in twenty-four-hour time, defined by runway lights and way points. Every two minutes, another plane angled its nose to the sky and lifted itself from the runway—weightless for a moment. The last glimpse of each diminishing plane, a small flashing light at the apex of a wing. She considered how, on a clear night, it might have been easy to mistake them for stars.
A procession of take-offs, repeating. With each departure the glimmer of the tail lights bounced of the wall of glass and reflected against the bubble of the departures lounge. They hovered amidst the stark glare of fluorescent signage that kept passengers awake. It was late, almost 11 pm. When she blinked, the lights disappeared, as if they were only stray particles of radiant dust flickering upon the retina.
Distractingly, the departures board flashed and rotated: London replaced Madrid, which in turn became Los Angeles, then Paris, then Milan. From where she stood, it only took twenty-four hours to reach the other side of the globe. The world was small, even in its enormity.
Standing at the departure gate, she heard the faint roar of engines on the runway, their low clamour muted by thick glass and the dull, elusive noises of the terminal. She imagined that equivocal moment when the plane would lift itself from the ground—the hint of weight that makes any pursuit of the sky seem impossible—before disregarding its heaviness and soaring, airborne and free. The runway and the airport would then begin to fall away, receding into tiny flecks of light and dark.
That idea of weightlessness absorbed her, made her feel strangely light-headed. She sensed how transient it was, how precariously she hung upon her departure—she might have strayed but she hadn’t yet gone. The ground was still concrete under her feet. Yet it was weightlessness she had felt as she closed the apartment door behind her, hailed a taxi on the street corner, and watched as the neon city passed her by from the car window. She wondered, once she was airborne, if she might recognise any of the city—the Central ferry piers, the Shun Tak building, the Tsing Yi bridge—but she knew their definitions would be lost to distance, reduced to abstract patterns of vein and cartilage, all of it glittering red and orange. No, once she was airborne she would be presented with a different view.
Beyond the porthole of the plane, clouds would appear, indifferent and impervious to the seven million lives existing below, and to her own departure. She rejected slumber, preferring to gaze through the thin layer of haze that brushed against the windowpane. Drifting cumulus hovered like a layer of fleecy skin: she envied their ability to float, to change shape, to evade captivity. She imagined light seeping through their translucency and sweeping away her dissatisfaction; that unbearable feeling of ambivalence from which she seemed unable to escape.
Occasionally, those clouds might become dense, beguilingly solid, as if momentarily burdened by her displeasure. They would thicken briefly, like the weave of a heavy blanket, before becoming threadbare once more. As their opacity returned, she wondered if she might see the blink of a wing light, like a distant decoration hanging in the sky, or the glimmer of another city far below, betraying the obscurity of the night sky and compelling the clouds to once again coalesce, to hide the world she had chosen, in her own moment of weightlessness, to leave behind.
She hadn’t said goodbye to him. It had felt too soon to cut him loose. She had simply abandoned their apartment—their life, the cheap Garry Winogrand print hanging on the living room wall, their cat, Buster— surrendering her house keys to the coffee table, her phone to the night stand.
Standing askance in the arrivals hall at the airport, she thought about calling him, and suddenly regretted leaving her phone behind. She hadn’t expected to feel so lost, so weightless. It felt as if the distance of her impending journey—the days to pass, the miles to traverse—were now too much for her to endure alone. She wanted to hear his voice, to feel its comfort and reassurance, but she knew it was too late now, she had already had her goodbyes, had already cut him loose with the cruelness of her mute exit.
Years ago, he had shown her a photograph of the sky; a coral sunset, somewhere far south, between Invercargill and Antarctica, the sun sinking in peachy, lucid tones between frail clouds. She had imagined it descending, soon displaced by stars hanging in an obsidian sky.
Later, she wondered how he had come to possess it, from which airport he might have departed, and what distant land he was flying to. She wondered, if she were to make the same journey, might she come upon a similar sunset: golden, lucid and ready to sink.
Then she understood: there was no southern sunset, no photograph of a sky bathed in coral light. It had all been a lie.
They had been apart once before, her in New York, him in Hong Kong. She remembered their phone calls, how he had sounded distant (he was) and unsure of his words (he might have been). But his voice was heartening, a familiar vibration at the other end of the line.
In a quiet corner of the terminal, she lifted the receiver, a coin between her fingers. She listened uncomfortably to the faint hum of the dial tone. She then placed the receiver back on the hook, put the coins in her pocket, and walked away.
On the day before MH17 was shot down, she had met a pilot in a coffee shop in Red Hook. He said he was in New York on a layover and was bound for Heathrow the following day. She mentioned she had crossed the Brooklyn Bridge that morning, and how clear the sky had been. During their brief conversation—interrupted occasionally by the whir of coffee beans grinding and the frothing of milk—he shared his view from the flight deck: the company of clouds, the distant shimmer of stars; the earth’s gentle rotation; the sky’s shifting gradation, the peach and cerulean layered sunrise, the vibrant blue twilights splintered pink and flaming orange. She empathised with his fatigue, the claustrophobia of the crew’s bunks. She smiled, amused by his description of the shallow ditch on the south west runway at Toronto airport that seemed to boost the plane into the air just as the nose angled skyward, accentuating its weightlessness. Immediately, she recognised that sense of lightness.
Now, as she stood peering through the window of the terminal, she could make out the outline of a pilot aboard a dimly lit flight deck of a Boeing 747, and wondered if it might have been the same pilot from the coffee shop.
She recalled how he often spoke of the mundane, the listlessness from so many time zones crossed. But it was his discussion of the phenomenal she remembered with the most wonder: the emerald lucidity of aurora borealis, northern lights that floated like sheets on the wind; the blue-violet plasma of St Elmo’s Fire, discharged across the canopy like veins, the clouds aglow with electrical current. The shimmer of unknown satellites. The enigmatic pattern of tiny lights that delineated LAX miles below. She had related to the other-worldliness of his vistas, the absence in his journeys, his distance from the sundry fragments of the earth.
It was 11:30 pm, 23:30 hours, a pilot would have said. The eve of another day. Sitting at the departure gate, sipping tea from a paper cup, she wondered what Chek Lap Kok would look like from the sky. Then she remembered, with a rush of wakefulness, that in an hour’s time, after she had boarded the plane and was distracted by in-flight entertainment, and the orderly tray of reheated food, she could simply look and see for herself.
Of all the flights they had shared, there was one in particular she remembered. They were on a small regional plane flying between San Francisco and Monterey. It was winter, the sky crystal clear, the clouds briskly white. As the plane began its descent, it encountered severe turbulence. Abruptly, her body jolted from her seat; she gripped his hand, and attempted to distract herself with the calmness of the clouds.
She recalled nothing of landing at the airport, nor the biting wind that greeted them as they walked across the tarmac. But she did remember, during their long drive through a forest of towering Californian redwoods, gazing out the window at the peaks of those majestic trees, and catching glimpses of the translucent blue sky above them.
Stopping at a roadside diner for coffee, she noticed a plane flying overhead. Together, they had watched it glide by, discussed the possibility of following it for a few miles, driving in its shadow along the unfurling highway. But before they had even got back in the car, the plane was swallowed by the sky.
Later, as the sky turned indigo, the redwoods became an imposing shadow beyond the windscreen. She wondered where that plane might be now: perhaps it had landed in Seattle? or was soaring somewhere over the Pacific? Until—the wheels of their rented Peugeot still spinning—the world speeding by stole the thought away. Gone, just like the plane.
Through a small crowd of people shopping for duty free alcohol, she glimpsed the golden epaulets of a pilot, hat in hand, wings on his sleeve. In the distance she thought she recognised his tall, lean frame, that errant wave of blond hair. She gently elbowed her way past the other passengers, each step rehearsing her confession: how desperately she longed for absence.
I envy you the sky and its contradictions. Your relationship with gravity. With rain. And snowfall. The clouds, with their easy composure.
She wanted to tell him of all those times she had stopped in the middle of the footpath, or by the harbour front, to watch a plane fly overhead, only to lose sight of it as it disappeared into the ethereal vastness of the sky, flying toward some unknown destination, and leaving her, a tiny dot on the surface below, to remain.
Standing only a few metres from him, catching his eye as he glanced at his watch, she realised he was a stranger, not the pilot she knew after all.
The sounds of the terminal had been drowned out by boredom and idleness. Passengers sat uncomfortably. Children lay asleep, sprawled across vinyl seats, exhausted from too many hours of expectation. She had wandered aimlessly for hours, waiting for the departure gate to open. It was after midnight.
Suddenly, infringing her lethargy, the ground crew began preparations for boarding, making announcements and moving bollards to create a path for the dozens of people who had already began to line up.
She waited in the periphery looking at her boarding pass, with its codes and seat designation and time of departure.
A sign flashed: NOW BOARDING.
In the distance, in the blackness, there were more planes flying toward other destinations—Berlin, Dubai, Montreal, Chicago—their wing lights flashing hello and goodbye, their tails winking in complicity.
Then they disappeared. Stolen by the earth’s rotation. Again, we are alone, she thought. Me, the pilots, the cabin crew, the two hundred and fifty-nine passengers, five tonnes of cargo. All of us, alone together.
She kinked her legs up onto the seat, her knees pressed against the curve of wall below the porthole, and, pulling the limp blanket over herself, embraced the solitude.
The earth never deviates from its rotation. It just keeps spinning. All its banalities playing out against a few faint chords, suddenly transformed into pearls.
Westbound over Russia the clouds thinned. Cities began to appear, like small bonfires burning, or iridescent coral glowing on the seafloor. She fell asleep and dreamt of the sea.
When she awoke, she had been flying for nine hours. They were somewhere above Finland. A thin, pale, sliver of light seeped through the cabin. She lifted the window shade. The view made her feel as if she were floating in a sea of translucent blue, like flying underwater.
She wondered if anyone could see the plane from the ground. If, standing by a river, or on top of a mountain, some lonely soul might gaze skyward and catch a glimpse of the blinking lights, ponder where the plane had come from, where it was going. Perhaps the plane was too high, she thought.
Back in Hong Kong, the day would have begun already.
He might have woken—if he had slept—disquieted by his loneliness, disoriented by her absence. He might have sat, drinking a cup of coffee, looking for clues in the house keys she’d abandoned, or for a note, hidden somewhere ridiculous, like under the kitchen sink, with a detailed explanation of her movements, her whereabouts. He might have asked Buster, but the cat would only purr apathetically and slink away into the laundry cupboard.
In the distance, the sky began to burn orange and peach—the sun was rising.
She had never seen many planes down there, not that far south. Sometimes, one would float past, weave between cumulus and nimbus, soar over cirrus uncinus, those sweeping, curly-hooked clouds, brushing across the lucid expanse of blue. A pilot might have called them mare’s tails. So, instead of seeking out planes, she had simply followed the solitary drift of the clouds.
At night they used to watch the sky. Sunsets were late there, the light not disappearing until past ten o’clock. They would sit on the front porch with the remnants of a bottle of red wine or a pot of herbal tea and watch the sun until it had sunk below the crest of hills opposite the lake. They were especially breathless the moment only a fragment of the sun remained—like a thin artery of light hovering between horizon and sky—making no promises to return.
Afterwards, the sky would be soberingly clear and the moon so bright it painted shadows upon the walls and the faces of rocks. She often mistook the flicker of stars for the blink of a tail light. For a moment she was certain it was a plane.
Then she would look again, and realise it was just a star.