The trip began so smoothly that I don't remember many details. I drove home from the office during the mid-afternoon, packed and my assistant drove me to the airport. She gave me a steady stream of information; people to call when I arrived in Chicago, meeting details and appointments, reservations and deadlines. All of this was downloaded to my PDA, and none of it would really require any active intervention on my part. Jenna, that's my assistant, knew I liked to hear it. The minutia of the trip was reassuring; nothing could go wrong on the flight because I had too much to do on the other end.
I hated flying but refused to surrender to the fear. That would be weak and I was not weak. Flying had changed my life but it would not control it. Besides, that was a different flight on a different airline at a different time. Marla's time. Her number came up and nothing could change that; Marla's number and that of the one hundred and thirty-seven other souls whose lives were snuffed out at the same instant as my wife's when the Boeing 737 they were riding pancaked into a cornfield in western Pennsylvania. She was 43, we both were; that was almost two years ago.
The aftermath was horrible. Horrible to share my grief with so many other families and for it to be so public; the images on the television news and plastered all over the newspapers. And then there was the guilt. Guilt because despite everything I said to family and friends and the platitudes I mouthed at the funeral, my marriage had been over for a long time when that jet imploded. The intimacy had been lost for long enough that I couldn't remember when it happened. I knew that in Marla's last seconds I probably didn't cross her mind.
I remembered clearing security on my trip of course. There was no forgetting getting half undressed and collecting your shoes and suit jacket and assorted metal objects from a plastic tub and wondering how in God's name any of this made us one iota safer.
I remember getting on the plane when they called the first class passengers. The last thing I wanted to do was board the plane early but I was in first class so that meant I got on first. Not boarding would be silly. So I walked down the ramp and settled into my seat and told the stewardess that I most definitely wanted a drink before takeoff; bourbon and what the hell, bring me three of those little bottles.
Then the coach passengers started to get on and that was a distraction. I could focus on them and hold off the terror that would grip me soon enough. Look at the faces. A strange, exotic array of faces, young and old, lovely and grotesque. There were beautiful teenage girls with their tanned bodies and hair in tiny braids with beads, fresh from the beaches of the Florida gulf coast. There were parents with children, wearing and carrying trophies from the amusement parks. There were businessmen and women hauling way too much luggage on board to avoid the wait on the other end.
Then came a face that was vaguely familiar, and the challenge to place it. Blonde hair, young enough not to be the spouse of a friend, cute in a serious-looking way; dressed in old jeans, worn sneakers and a huge, shapeless down coat. Probably not a social contact. A face that looked at me with a sudden flash of recognition and fear and then turned away praying not to be noticed. An employee, then.
"Excuse me. Do you work at TransDyna?" I asked. The girl stopped and faced me, looking trapped.
"Yes, sir... I mean Mr. Garrett. I'm Danielle Reston; I work in HR," she said. With this information my mind clicked, pulling up the necessary details.
"Right, you work for Bill Bardison. You helped with his presentation to the board of directors," I said. The woman blushed.
"Yes sir. I didn't help much though." She looked very pleased that I remembered her. By now there were a bunch of annoyed passengers piling up behind Danielle. I motioned for her to go ahead.
"We're holding things up. Good seeing you, Danielle," I said. She moved down the aisle and into the coach section, dragging a big maroon suitcase on wheels.
It had been good to see her. I felt calmer; the exchange forced me to perform, to slip into a familiar role. I was the CEO of a major corporation; I couldn't panic, there were too many people who depended on me.
Then the stewardess brought my bourbon and I drank all three shots. That helped too. I closed my eyes and tried to use the meditation techniques my psychiatrist taught me.
When the jet was in the air, I counted slowly to thirty. I read somewhere that 90% of all plane crashes happened within thirty seconds of takeoff. Marla's did. When I got to thirty I opened my eyes. I would survive this flight.
Thanks to the bourbon and the hectic schedule I'd been on for weeks, I fell asleep before the stewardess could serve the snack. When I woke up the plane was bouncing around pretty impressively and the guy in the seat next to me was grumbling. When the cobwebs cleared and I remembered where I was, I motioned to the first class stewardess.
"What's going on; where are we?" I looked at my watch; it was after seven in the evening. We should have been on the ground.
"There's a major storm around Chicago, sir. We've been diverted to Cleveland," she said, smiling pleasantly as though this was good news.
"Cleveland? What the hell are we going to do in Cleveland?"
"Wait for the storm to clear. I'm sure it won't be too long."
They held us on the plane for an hour in Cleveland, then the pilot told us we could get off and stretch our legs if we wanted to. Not a good sign. When I got into the terminal, the flight board showed 'CANCELLED' next to every flight heading west. We weren't going anywhere.
I called my assistant to update her. She was at home, but was used to being bothered there.
"Jenna. I'm in Cleveland. Looks like I'll be here for a while. There's a Marriott near the airport I think. Get me a room and start checking with the airlines on flight status. Oh, and start thinking about backup plans for tomorrow's meeting just in case. We should be okay, it's not until two."
The airport had little kiosk offices you could rent by the hour. Just a desk with a phone and a high speed Internet connection, plus access to a fax and copier. I got one and worked on my presentation for the next day's meeting. It was a critical one; pitching our case for a line of credit to cover a big acquisition we had in the works. The company we were buying was also based in Chicago, and the bankers were interested mainly because of their relationship to the target company.
At nine-thirty I finished and called Jenna again. She told me that she got me in at the Marriott. The bad news was that O'Hare was expected to remain closed until mid-morning, and that the storm that was clobbering Chicago was moving to the east, and was expected to reach Cleveland by dawn.
I went back to the gate to check on my luggage and was told that it had to stay on the plane. Some kind of FAA rule.
The gate area was still crowded. Passengers were reading and playing cards, and some were stretched out on the floor trying to sleep. Everyone looked bored except a young couple sitting in an otherwise empty row of seats. The guy was leaning over this little brunette who looked like she was maybe eighteen, cupping the back of her head with one hand while he tried to remove her tonsils with his tongue. She had an impressive rack, and judging from the way her nipples were pressing against her tee shirt she wasn't wearing a bra. The guy's other hand was shoved down the front of the girl's jeans. Her knees were spread wide and the pants were so tight that you could see the outline of his hand as it groped her crotch. All except the middle finger and I was pretty sure where it was.
This was such an impressive distraction that I nearly walked into the next row of seats, all occupied. I apologized to the woman whose foot I stepped on, then realized that it was Danielle Reston, the TransDyna employee who worked in HR.
She was trying to hide a smirk; she'd seen me staring at the impromptu tonsillectomy/cervical exam.
"Ms. Reston. I didn't see you there," I said, feeling very flustered. "I should have been paying more attention to where I was going."
"That's okay, it's hard not to stare," she said, then shifted nervously in her chair. She was wearing an oversized University of Florida sweatshirt. I nodded, trying not to glance at the young couple again.
"Why are you still here?" I asked. "There won't be any more flights tonight."
"I know, but there aren't any hotel rooms; I called all over," she said.
"Nonsense. I got a room at the Marriott an hour ago. You can't stay here all night."
"I didn't call there... but that's why everyone's still here. We've all been checking," Danielle said. "It's okay, really. This is fine." Instead of relaxing as we spoke, she seemed to be getting even more nervous.
"Get your things, Danielle. You can go to the Marriott with me; I'll get you a room," I said. She blinked a couple of times and then jumped up, obeying the order. She stuffed a novel back into her suitcase and struggled into the big down coat.
.... There is more of this story ...