(This was when I was never sure what I was doing. I had decided that the way for me to be happiest was to not think too hard about anything as long as it felt right. It was a time when I was a heathen and I was happy with how I had justified this.)
She was splayed out upon the pillows, her eyes fixed on the stained ceiling. There was a plane passing, and its engines dirtied the night air with their sound. I was laying with my head on her chest, she was breathing softly but sometimes she would sigh deeply and my head would rise up with her.
This was towards the end of it all. We had been lying this way for twenty minutes, and she wouldn’t even look at me. I was looking at her while she was looking at the ceiling and I felt uneasy. So I asked her:
“Nothing, nothing. It’s fine.”
“Are you sure? It doesn’t seem fine… you’ve been staring at the ceiling for like, twenty minutes.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve told you before, I don’t sleep easy, I have insomnia.”
“Ah, you’re right, I’m sorry. Well if there’s anything I can do to help let me know, we can make some tea or put on some music or something.”
She rolled away and my head fell and rested on the pillow. She didn’t say anything for a moment until the plane passed and then whispered:
“You can tell me a story if you know any good ones.”
I said: “What do you want it to be about?” and she said “I don’t really mind either way. Tell it or don’t, it probably won’t make much of a difference regardless.”
“Well I can make one up, but I don’t know if it’ll be much good.”
She rolled back to face me and told me to go ahead, so I thought for a second and began.
“This is a story about a man. He was an air traffic controller at the airport in my town. When he was younger he thought he wanted to be a pilot, but it never panned out for him. He spent years reading books and taking classes on how to fly planes, but when he finally got the chance to he panicked and decided it wasn’t for him. He realized when he entered the cockpit that he was now directly responsible for his own life, and the lives of everyone on the plane. But at that point he had invested too much time into aviation to look for something new, so he became an air traffic controller.
Even though it wasn’t what he had planned, he liked the job. He could sit in the control tower and play cards, and he made a living off of it. Most of the time he worked alone and played solitaire. It was such a small airport that it didn’t make sense to have more than one person in his position. His work was easy and he was paid well.
He felt like a God when he was sitting up there, alone in his tower. He controlled the lives of everyone in that airport. He controlled their comfort and who got to go where and whether they got to be on time or not. He controlled when families were reunited and whose business meeting had to be postponed.
But he was a blind God, and even though he could control the lives of travelers he could only do so indiscriminately. He couldn’t see their faces. And after a while he became bored of sitting alone in his tower and fixing and upending the lives of faceless people.
He decided he did not like being a God. He decided to go to Jamaica. Apparently Jamaica is a very beautiful country. He drove to the airport one day and instead of going to his place in the control tower he bought a ticket and went through TSA and waited for his flight. But the plane never took off. There was no one in the tower to tell the plane where to go and where to dock. He waited for hours at his gate before he realized that he was not going to Jamaica.
He went back to the tower, and he went back to work. That’s the end of the story.”
“That’s a sad story.”
“Yeah, it didn’t occur to me how it was going to end when I started it. Sorry about that.”
“Is it true?”
“Probably not. I don’t know much about how airports work but I’m sure that they probably need more than one person to control air traffic. Also I don’t know why the controller wouldn’t just tell his supervisors that he was going to Jamaica.”
“Well maybe you don’t know much about how people work either.”
This seemed harsh to me but I did not say so. Instead I just looked at her, and this time she looked back at me and laughed.
“I’m sorry… that was unnecessary.”
“I liked the story as it was. Will you tell me another one? Maybe try and make it less sad though.”
“When you drive South down Highway 101 you’ll pass through a town called Coos Bay. It’s a small town, just a couple hundred people live there. It’s full of lovely little mom-and-pop shops and bookstores that look like they’ve been built from wood that spent years in the ocean. The air there is salty and wet and refreshing and to be there feels healthy.
I used to vacation there with my family when I was a kid. My father’s friend has a house that he would let us use. It’s a half mile outside of the town but it overlooks the ocean.
None of this is important. What is important is that as you drive from the town to the house, you pass through two tunnels going under two cliffs. Between them, the highway cuts one of the ocean’s inlets in half. The water on the left side of the highway is green and stagnant and filled with muck, and the water on the right side is the Pacific. You always see fish jumping out of the water on the left side but never the right, and you see smashed crab shells on the road from when they tried to get back to the ocean but got hit by cars.
All of this is to say that when they built the highway through the inlet, they didn’t think to move any of the animals to the ocean, and they ended up trapping them.
But there is always something to be said for adaptation. It’s amazing actually, what bodies can do when they’re put under pressure. Flesh becomes fluid and bones bend and twist like elastic bands. It’s like mothers finding the hulk strength to lift fallen trees off of their children. Living bodies change based on what is required of them or based on what they need to do to survive.
You wouldn’t believe my surprise when I saw dozens of three-eyed, winged fish flying west over the highway. My eyes lit up as I watched them pass over me and dive into the waves.”
“Was that less sad? I was really trying to make it less sad… triumphant even.”
“There’s nothing more triumphant than mutant flying fish.”
“But did you like it?”
“Yeah, it was nice. Definitely ended in a happier way.”
(That was the end of the affair. It had ended just as soon as it had started. Years later I realized that I was wrong and not right, and that in not thinking and instead doing what made me happy I had died a hundred little deaths by the time I was old enough to know the difference.)
She turned back towards the ceiling and yawned.
“I wonder if I’ll ever tell my kids about you.”
“You don’t have to. That would probably just make things complicated or at the very least make it more complicated than it needs to be.”
She laughed, and said that she was going to steal my stories. I told her that in that case she had to give me credit, or we would be finished. It wasn’t long after this that we fell asleep, or at least I did. When I woke up there was an airplane flying overhead and she was gone, and I was left alone with myself and the dirty air.
This piece was illustrated by Halan Van. She attends Parsons School of Design in New York City. Halan and her work can be found on instagram @halanvan