Spring/Summer 1993, Volume 10.2
Paul Michel Baepler
Paul Michel Baepler (B.A., Carleton College) is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota. He has won the Loft Mentor Series, a National Society for Arts and Letters fiction contest, and several local fiction awards. His work has appeared in City Pages, Great River Review, Exquisite Corpse, and Negative Capability (forthcoming). He is also in post-production on a documentary about the African American poet and biographer Quincy Troupe (twice winner of the American Book Award). His video documentary on Afro-Caribbean drumming is currently showing in Valencia, Venezuela.
See other work by Paul Michel Baepler published in Weber Studies: Vol. 13.2.
A long plastic jumbo jet floats at the end of three almost invisible threads in one of the large gallery windows at the Travel Bureau where I work. People rarely notice the glassine threads. They see the white jet soaring in the sky, wings tilted gracefully, landing gear in mid-retraction. Little boys walking along Michigan Avenue stop to watch the landing beacons blink on and off and to leave their oily finger, palm and nose prints on the glass. I love that model too. Sometimes, when I have nothing to do at night, I stay late at the office and look more closely at the jumbo jet. I peer in the cabin windows and search for the tiny stewardess as she bumps the tiny cocktail cart down the aisle with her hip. I see her calming smile as she passes out stethoscopic earphones, halfpillows and small shiny packages of almonds. I can even see the ultra-tiny subliminal women in the iced-drink advertisements on the back of the magazines my beautiful stewardess hands to me.
My lover is a stewardess for PanAm. She flies in jumbo jets and brings me miniature bottles of Tanqueray Gin. She brings me cellophaned croissant sandwiches for my lunch and leaves packets of scented towellettes in my car. She's always trying to please me.
After long flights, I massage her cramped feet and the tiny face muscles which ache from being expressive and sincere all day. I feed her a dinner of heavily garlicked spaghetti and cheap beer which she devours lustfully. In the evenings, I slip Bob Marley into the tape deck and we limbo and lose ourselves.
When we are together, the time flies. And when we're apart, we're never really apart. Our love is perfect.
For as long as I've worked at the Travel Bureau, which is nearly three years now, that magnificent airliner has flown in the window. I never tire of watching her figure gleam. 1 work alone in Promotions and she inspires me.
When I was commissioned to design the new corporate logo, I knew exactly where to turn. I drew a stylized jet in blue with a long jet stream rule for flare and "Travel Bureau" lettered in twelve point Gothic. Now it's on every piece of letterhead, every envelope and everything official that leaves this office. Sometimes I look at the PanAm routing map with all the red arcs leaping from the point marked Chicago to places like Paris and Jakarta, and I think of all my little airplanes, sealed in airplane envelopes and air-mailed all over the world.
My lover envies me; she thinks my work is very important. Without Promotions, she says, people might never leave their homes and that would be tragic. She says travel brings the world closer, and she calls me a peaceworker and a man of vision. I can only smile at her adoringly because these are her convictions and they come to her naturally.
My lover is a fantastic stewardess. She finished first in flight training. She is always well groomed and poised, her drink orders are never misguided, and she's saved the lives of two passengers with the Heimlich maneuver. Even the pilots tell me her sense of humor is a relief to the flight crew. When she was named hostess of the month, the in-flight magazine called her a highly trained professional and "everything a stewardess ought to be." She loves her job and recognizes just how rare that is. Unlike so many people, she's always known what she wanted to be. She laughs when she says it, but she's serious; she was born to be a stewardess.
Sometimes when I'm staring at my CRT, the red button on my phone flashes and I know it's my stewardess. She calls me from the credit card phone aboard the jet just to say she's thinking about me. She's at 40,000, no turbulence, and the sky is always an unbelievable azure.
We read each other's minds like that-almost telepathically, so I know how lonely she can be. She's always leaving me, but from her view, she says, I'm always traveling away from her, and I admit she is at least half right. We dream of a place together, but I tell her it will always be a dream, somewhere in midair. I call her my aero-mermaid because she must always return to the sky. This is unsettling to her because she knows it's true. She's terrified that she doesn't have a life, but like many women her age, she refuses to forfeit her career only to be earth-bound. My stewardess wants it all.
Often when I return to my desk after lunch I find powder blue note squares adhering to my CRT. Usually the Art Director has called with the silvers for a brochure I'm designing, or Audiovisual needs script copy for a promotional campaign. I never expect to find personal notes.
My lover was going to have a baby but she didn't. The note said she had seen the doctor and it was all over. This was the first news I had of any baby.
Before I saw her again, I met up with my lover's brother who is an Hydraulic Systems Engineer and also works for PanAm. He said everyone thought she was going to have a baby. She had told her mother and sister and father and fill, the stewardess she overnights with in London. It troubles me that I didn't sense what was going on. I should have been the first to know. She had even told her boss and her boss grounded her until after the baby was due.
But the baby never came. The doctor said she had never been pregnant. My lover cried because she believed she had been. The baby had slipped away in the night, she said, like a lost thought.
I held her tightly in my arms, tightly to let her know I was with her.
Now my lover wants me to make a new baby with her.
I love being a stewardess, but recently I've begun to wonder. Since the miscarriage I've questioned everything. But my friend fill says it's more than just the baby. Jill's been so good to me. Sometimes I think she knows me better than I know myself. My lover knows me, but in a different way than Jill. fill says she's seen other girls go through changes like this. It always starts with a lie, she says, some warp in the mirror-you don't see yourself in the same way. I could tell she was a little scared to tell me this. Maybe a little envious too. She made it sound so revolutionary and frightening-I think maybe it's what she secretively wants for herself. But I honestly think it's the baby that upsets me.
Who really knows what they are getting into when they decide to create a baby? Everything happened so quickly, I don't think my lover ever believed it was possible. You should have seen his face when I tried to tell him. For an instant he was shocked. And almost as quickly I could tell he didn't believe me, like it was only a wish that had gone out of control-a rogue desire. But I would never lie to him, at least I haven't so far, and I don't understand why he reacted this way. It's all so confusing. I feel anxious all the time and uncertain of everything. At least when I'm flying, I have a lot of time to think about these questions.
I think babies are called into this world almost as an act of imagination. I mean we never actually see the sperm invading the individual egg We rely on scientists to tell us how procreation works. And we believe them because they make logical sense, because logic has a value, drives business, fills planes with the thousands and thousands of business people who fly to places like Bangkok and Jakarta. So many of these people fly weekly, even daily and their ride is like logical sex. But for the children, flight is still a mystery and you can see it in their faces pressed so hard against the tiny oval windows, leaving their individual finger, palm and nose prints.
It's difficult for me to be like those children when I fly. I fly every day, and even though it's still miraculous, there's nothing like the first time. But it's not routine, like it is for so many. I see some who don't lift their eyes from the reports they're reading during takeoff, others who only pause momentarily from their dictation to endure the momentary annoyance of turbulence. Their confidence is an unshakeable form of arrogance, their belief in air tables, crash statistics, the FAA, the strength of Boeing stock, the fluctuating price of OPEC air fuel, the reliability of Air Force flight training, and the great myth that man has tamed nature. But to me, flight is still a miracle, and one trip is not like the other. Flight is a form, like drama-the rise the spectacle, and the fall-and each flight has its own life with innumerable variations. Whether I was born with this belief or developed it myself, this is my faith.
My lover works for the Travel Bureau and he only begins to understand the importance of flight in my life. In many ways, I think I am his creation. I am the inheritor of his vision, just as he is created by others and by forces he has yet to recognize. I see this, and yet I don't feel superior. I don't have the power to escape the gravity of generations.
My stewardess pays an exorbitant rent to live in a high-rise, she says, for the view. Often when she's home she'll climb the stairs to the roof to visit the peregrine falcons that the Department of Natural Resources is trying to reintroduce into the wild. She loves the thought of rare birds in a nesting box on top of her building. If they're successful, the newly hatched chicks will fly off and return to the high-rise next year to lay their eggs. She likes to think that one day the entire roof top will be feathered with young falcons. She sees them riding invisible air currents all over the world, wheeling and swooping, flaunting their freedom until the nesting instinct radios them back to the high-rise and they lock in a return flight pattern for home.
My lover doesn't keep pets because she's seldom at home, but her overnight bag has a leash and it follows her obediently on hidden wheels that squeak. The high-rise doesn't allow animals, and besides, her apartment is very small. But my stewardess is a model of efficiency and used to tight quarters. Her kitchen is packed with time and space savers, and she's the first to admit that she's overly reliant on Lean Cuisine to keep her weight at the optimum level set by the airline. Except for a Chagal print of a freefloating man, her living room walls are bare (she likes the dimensionless feel of the color white). When we sleep at her apartment I slide open the door to her closet and find her blue uniforms. She keeps six, all clean and pressed and hanging next to each other like in a dispenser. On her dresser, in the jewel box she picked up from the duty free shop at the Hong Kong airport, she keeps three pair of little pin-on golden wings and her enamel name tags. And suspended in her window is a scaled down model of the Concorde, which is her dream machine.
Blue and red airplanes soar and dive on my lover's see-through shower curtain. When we let the bathroom fog up with steam, the planes are lost in a cloud bank. In the morning, without our contacts, my lover and I can barely see in the shower. With the dwarfed soap bars she takes from the jumbo jets, we feel for each other and soap each other's backs. The small soaps nest perfectly in my palm, slowly dissolving against my lover's skin until they disappear in the water and gray steam like lost babies.
On special evenings, nights when she has been delayed in Singapore, I meet my lover at the airport and we have drinks at the Seven Continents Lounge on the Blue Concourse. The cocktail waitress serves our Manhattans with plastic airplane swizzle sticks speared through our cherries. And we watch the taxiway as jumbo jets slowly nose past each other like steel geese.
On these nights, I drive my lover to her apartment and lead her to the bedroom. Her blue uniform falls freely to her waist. Since she has had no time to change, she is still wearing her flight underwear. Quarter-sized black dots are painted on the tips of each white bra cup like the nose cones of twin Boeings. She steps closer and the blue uniform lands gently on the ground. My stewardess wears V-cut panties that are shaped like the wings of a jumbo jet. We embrace and we fly.
Later, when all is still, we float on her water bed and listen for the falcons above. Glow from the moon slowly uncovers us and the muted sounds of night pass through the glass window. I don't have to see tears to know my lover is crying.
She can never have a baby with me. I think she knows this, but she doesn't know why. Always she looks at me to find the answer but never asks. There's nothing I could tell her, and instead our bodies meet and the waves beneath us roll.
He is silent, my lover, and he believes his silence conveys meaning. I respect silence too, but not as an explanation.
All day I am silent at my job. It's part of being an air hostess. When a well meaning passenger asks me how I am, I can't confide to her. I can't say how much I crave a child by my darling lover; a child both perfect and flawed in spectacular ways, whom I will teach and by whom I will be taught the meaning of love and creation. No. I am a model of professionalism and I maintain a certain artificial distance at all times. I provide hospitality, the illusion that I am happy to please everyone, that I will bestow miniature tokens of my affection-Tanqueray Gin, almonds, half-pillows-selflessly. Of course, I am not happy, but like a convincing actress, I have learned to lie to myself. And only when the truth is flung at me in a loud rubbery screech at the end of the day am I filled with diving despair.
But I love my sweet travel man. I love his red tie with the small jet clip, his suit his fanciful nature, his tiny insecurities, even that misextension of his love which believes he has some power over what he has created. I love his physical being, how he fills his suit, the press of his warmbody, the pulse of blood that traffics through his neck. I love that his beard grows even when we sleep, that wrinkles slowly erode his face, even that he will eventually die. And yet, at times, he seems imaginary. His world, his expectations, his endearing fetishes are unreal to me. Perhaps, now that I think about it, it's this foreign quality which attracts me.
And I hesitate to mention this, but there are times when he is purely imaginary. When we make love, well, when I make love ... I mean it helps that he looks a little like Patrick Swayze. And then it just goes on from there. He reads as featureless movie star or construction worker or Cameron, the gay steward I work with. Sometimes he's even a woman. It's limitless, really, and I don't mean that to be crass. I love him, and I don't want anyone else, but sometimes I like to indulge. I know I'd be terrified if I woke up with Patrick Swayze or an astronaut or some crazy exotic someone, so I transform my travel man. It's odd to think he must do the same with me.
Sometimes I wonder how my first class passengers see me. Their world seems far more unreal than my dear travel man's. I watch as they sip champagne while steerage passengers cattle by. I suppose it's their deluxe illusion, what they call success. And although it's my job to cater to their fantasies, and I have done this seemingly all my life, I still don't understand the supreme orgiastic pleasure of endless indulgence. It's a little like using oral sex as birth control, wonderfully satisfying to a point, but what does it have to do with the real business of life? What does it have to do with making babies?
My lover is always the last off every plane. She tells the other flight attendants to leave while she stays to straighten up the galley or tally up the cash receipts from the mini-bar. Everyone realizes how much she loves traveling-the anticipation, the speed, the excitement-and they give her these few moments to be all alone in the jumbo jet. Though they work with her every day, nobody suspects my lover's terror each time the plane descends, terminating her flight. My lover's joy is the buoyancy of flight. For her, the darkest moment of each trip is that sinking feeling when the wheels touch down. The screech of rubber against the runway is a cry of pain. She lives with it each day, and at night, the cry of a dying child invades her dreams.
There are moments as I'm flying when I'm overcome with sadness. We fly in machines, great mechanical tubes, and it only reminds me that I can't escape the ground; that I'm fooling myself as much as I'm fooling gravity. And it makes me wonder about my desire to have a child. Is it only some blood drive to push beyond myself, to escape mortality? There must be something more. I like to think the illusions and the stories we tell ourselves are more important than we admit. I believe in the designed beauty of the airplane-the balance of aerodynamics and aeroaesthetics is the delight which comprises life. Have you noticed how the wing of an aircraft curves just slightly causing a discrepancy in airspeed between the underside and top? This unevenness creates tension. Love between two people, I think, is similar. One moves and acts and feels with a different intensity than the other. The result is lift, the experience of flight.
On her layover days, my lover likes to picnic in the park. We unfurl the tightly wrapped PanAm blankets and patch them together on the grass. Sometimes when it's overcast we lie on our backs and lose our thoughts in the clouds. On brilliant days, when the sky is clear and jet streams crosshatch the sky, my lover tries to read the vapor trails like the Head, Heart and Life lines on my palm. She says no two patterns are alike and they mean something to her that I'll never understand. There is mystery and also great trust between us.
Outside in the clean air, everyone imaginable pushes babies. On our blankets in the middle of the park, we watch as parents fill their babies' lungs with fresh oxygen. Dr. Spock suggests wheeling newborns for three hours daily and the older, plumper ones for an additional hour. I like the eight-wheel, all terrain moon buggies, but my lover prefers the collapsible umbrella-handle type because they travel easily, even on an airplane. These movable babies go everywhere; they criss-cross the nation. And there are more babies and more buggies waiting to fill the streets. I tell my stewardess I love her and she knows this. I lie and tell her she will have my baby. She smiles peacefully, unsurprised. We sip from the same half liter of complimentary Chablis and watch the baby traffic. Every six seconds another baby is born and my stewardess waits calmly for her late arrival.
I love my Travel Man, but I'm capable of so much more than he imagines. I am pregnant with his child.
I haven't told him yet, I haven't thought he was ready for it. But maybe that's a lie. We tell each other lies out of kindness. We think the truth has the power to crush and I suppose we see each other's weakness as a form of adoration. But how did we make each other so dependent? Isn't that the real lie? I know he'll love the baby. Tom's such a tender man. Once he recognizes how things are he'll adjust. He'll be the model father of a model baby girl.
Tom will want to call her Ariel or Angelica, an airy name, but I won't have it. She'll be Ruth or Lucy or Sara, and she'll play in the dirt and swim at the ocean. She'll want a toy six shooter for Christmas and nothing else, or an old iron typewriter to take apart with a screwdriver and pliers. She'll fall out of trees and fight with the boys; I'll yell at her to come down off the roof, and she'll listen to the same Edith Piaf song over and over again until it becomes a Zen-like child's anthem. She'll forget where she buried things in the yard, and my gold pin-on wings will go missing, as will the gerbil when she sets him free. There will be knee scrapes and stitches and small uncontained fires in the woods. And until she's five, she'll point to every plane in the sky and say, "Mama, Mama."
And Tom will love her dearly, all his preconceived ideas of her rushed away in her cyclonic activity and perpetual shifts and changes. How we'll both try to capture her over and over again as she eludes our grasping attempts. And without knowing it some day, Tom and I will blunder into each other, tripping over our own astonishment for little Ruthy, and realize suddenly, oh quite by accident, where we have been and just how far we have traveled.