The Morning Plane to Oklahoma
At eleven, she headed to her new gate. She wanted to find a seat where she would not be bothered. She had no interest in making small talk about knitting or dogs or the weather. She just wanted silence.
At the gate, there was an open seat next to a teenager wearing headphones. He was deeply engrossed in his phone and didn’t even glance her way when she sunk into the chair next to him, but then, just as she brought out a magazine, he pushed back his headphones. “You were on the flight that got cancelled,” he said.
She smiled and nodded, moving her attention back to the magazine.
“Why are you going to Oklahoma City?” he asked.
The kid was seventeen, maybe eighteen, and greasy almost everywhere. An oily sheen coated his hair, forehead, nose, and chin. It could have been a hormonal thing or a not-showering thing. Hannah couldn’t tell.
“I’m visiting friends,” she said, which was mostly true. She would be staying with her college roommate, but really, the primary focus of her trip was to sleep with a boy she used to sleep with in college.
The sex was a revenge thing, which Hannah knew was stupid, but she didn’t care. She was going to do it anyway. It was a response. It was something she could do in a situation where she was otherwise powerless. After all, two months ago, Sam, Hannah’s boyfriend, had taken off with a large chunk of Hannah’s savings account. Also, her cousin Ginny. It seemed they went off the grid—they couldn’t be reached, and no one had a clue where they’d gone—until pictures surfaced on Instagram of the new couple cavorting through Beijing. There they were with bowls full of steaming noodles. There they were in a market, holding pickled pigs’ ears up to their own. There they were making kissy-faces at the Temple of Heaven. Hannah couldn’t bring herself to un-follow Sam’s account, even though it meant she started each morning looking at a picture that made her want to die.
Never been this happy! was the caption beneath a picture of Sam and Ginny at the Great Wall. When Hannah had seen that, her first response was to throw her phone across the room, where it potted itself in the soil of an unloved ficus. Her second response was to book a flight to Oklahoma.
Now, the boy sitting next to her was waiting. It was clear he wanted her to inquire why he was travelling, and she could find no way around it. It was too late to ignore him.
“Why are you going to Oklahoma?” she asked.
He kicked the duffel bag at his feet. Something inside clanked. “I enlisted,” he said.
“You enlisted?” she said.
He grinned, wearing his youth so flagrantly it was painful.
“What did your mother say?” Hannah asked.
His face fell. “My mother can’t really say anything,” he said. “I’m eighteen.”
“Eighteen,” Hannah said. “My God.” She stared at him: too-big clothes, clunky feet, dirty fingernails, a crease of worry on his forehead. “Is this your first time on a plane?” she asked. He nodded, and Hannah flattened a hand to her heart. “Jesus,” she said. “And when you land, they’re going to give you a gun.”
“Well, not as soon as I land,” he said. “I mean, there’s, like, some tests and stuff we do first.” He leaned on her armrest. “Are you some kind of crazy kumbaya gun control person?”
“Not exactly,” Hannah said. She’d grown up in the country, and her father and grandfather were avid hunters. She understood guns and why people might want them. But still, if taking guns away would do something good—like keep people from getting shot in the face while attending trigonometry or getting medical care at a Planned Parenthood—then, fine! Take them! Have them all! But that wasn’t a conversation she was interested in having with this boy.
“I’m just tired of people hurting people,” she said.
“Oh.” The boy made a face. “So you’re anti-war.”
The tender beginnings of a headache unfurled in Hannah’s temples. She bent to gather her carry-on. “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” she said. She turned to survey the waiting area. There were some empty seats by the window a few rows back. It would likely be freezing, but at least she could get away from all this. She started to rise.
The boy looked panicked. His hand shot out and grabbed her bag, forcing it back to the floor. “Hey,” he said, “I’m sorry. Really. I shouldn’t shoot my mouth off like that.”
Hannah pulled at her bag, but he had a good grip. “Let go,” she said. “Don’t make me get you in trouble.”
“Hang on.” His voice was suddenly very high, very young. He looked like he was on the verge of tears. “We got off on the wrong foot. I’m sorry. I just wanted to talk to someone.”
Hannah stared at him, trying to make her face stern, but he just gazed up at her, pitiful. She swore she could see the way his morning had gone: waking at three to make it to the city for his flight, his mother nervously fussing around his bags, begging him to reconsider showering. He swatted her away, but then, sick with grief, he buried his face in her shoulder, and she cried. Hannah lowered back into her seat.
“Fine,” she said.
“Start over?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, drawing the word out in a long, irritated syllable. She sighed, then held out
her hand. “Hannah,” she said.
“Brandon,” he said. “It’s really nice to meet you.”
Brandon, it turned out, was a talker. In the time it took for their plane to arrive, he told Hannah many pertinent details of his life. He was the oldest child in a family of three boys, and his younger brothers were talented. Seriously talented. One was a piano virtuoso, and the other was some basketball prodigy known for his elegant free throws.
“They call him the Gene Kelly of the Hardwood,” Brandon said. “You should see the kid play. It’s miraculous.”
Despite having very talented brothers, Brandon swore he was good at nothing. But, he said, this didn’t make him angry at or jealous of his brothers; instead, it just made him proud. He really loved those boys, and he loved his mother and his father, who’d fallen off a ladder a few years back and was from then on always a little off. In the end, his family was what made him enlist. He hated the idea of anyone being able to hurt one of the people he loved.
When he was done delivering this speech, he sat back and smiled. It was obvious he’d been rehearsing it for weeks.
“And they’re proud of you?” Hannah asked. The agent at the gate began the boarding, calling up the first class cabin.
“I would be scared,” Hannah said, “if I were your mother.”
He smiled. “You’re too young and beautiful to be my mother,” he said.
Hannah shook her head. “Stop that,” she said. The PA crackled as the agent called boarding for zone one. Hannah stood. “That’s me,” she said.
“Me too,” Brandon said. “Lucky.”
In line, he chatted about his best friend, a kid he affectionately referred to as Fatty. They’d met in Boy Scouts. They tied for the big soapbox derby prize and had to share a gift certificate to the video game store at the mall. He told the story as if it were a great hardship.
“What seat are you?” Brandon asked as they crossed into the plane. He winked at the stewardesses, which Hannah supposed might have been cute and charming coming from an attractive boy, but looked only lecherous coming from Brandon, whose bangs were strings across his moist forehead.
“11D,” Hannah said. She could see it up ahead. Finally, she could be quiet. She could order a drink and take a nap.
“I’m 10D,” Brandon said. He grinned. “Right in front of you.”
When Hannah’s seatmate arrived, Brandon bargained to switch seats before Hannah could even protest. Her seatmate took his carry-on and slipped into Brandon’s row while Brandon made himself comfortable next to Hannah.
“This is okay, right?” he whispered, as if they were carrying on with some great secret.
She closed her eyes and tried to summon some empathy. Since Sam left, she’d felt her stores of it depleting, emptying out in a slow, steady hiss. “Yes,” she said. “It’s okay.”
And actually, it was. Fifteen minutes after takeoff, Brandon fell asleep, and in his sleep, he listed against her, mouth gaping. Hannah knew this was a face his mother had seen many times and loved despite its great ugliness. She knew he was just a boy and that he might turn into something good or something bad. It all hinged on what happened next. And so, because his mother was not there to do it for him, she tucked a blanket around him, taking care to cover him tightly, and leaned her head against his while he slept peacefully, miles above the earth.
Brandon woke when they started their descent into Atlanta, and after eating a packet of cookies Hannah had saved for him, he resumed narrating his life. He talked about his grandparents and his dog and his dirt bike and his school.
“I’m not universally liked there,” he admitted.
They had debarked and were now wandering, part of a great swell of bodies, toward the nearest bank of departure screens.
“Well, that’s all right,” Hannah said. She felt lightheaded from the three mimosas she’d ordered while he slept. She wasn’t drunk, but things around her seemed different than they should, like slightly amplified versions of themselves. People’s voices boomed. Lights burned. The smell of coffee and BO hung thick as fog.
“I don’t know anyone who’s universally liked,” she said.
“Well,” he said, “I guess what I meant is I’m not really liked at all.”
Hannah looked at him. He was hauling both their carry-ons, having put up a minor fuss when Hannah stood to take hers out of the overhead bin. He looked ridiculous pinned beneath her flowered bag and his own khaki one, which had a distinct smell—moldy and wet. A gym bag smell.
What was there to say to this kid? She certainly couldn’t tell him the truth about what he’d just revealed—because really, she’d known the moment she laid eyes on him that this was a boy who was universally disliked. She settled for patting him awkwardly on his arm before they found themselves jostling for space in front of the departure screens.
There were hours before their next flight. Dread gathered in Hannah’s stomach because she knew there was no way to ditch him. Somewhere over the lower continental US, she’d gained custody. He stood next to her, patient, waiting to be told what to do next.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, and he nodded. “Let’s go find a place where we can sit down,” she said. “I need a waitress and a drink.”
They found a generic, uncrowded pub at the end of the concourse, and once they were seated, Brandon opened his wallet and nervously touched his money.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hannah said. She reached over and closed his wallet. “I’ve got it.”
He looked relieved. “That’s really nice,” he said.
“Don’t mention it.” She fanned open her menu and tried not to think about her own money, part of which was being spent oceans away by her ex
-boyfriend and cousin, while she paid for an eighteen-year-old’s sandwich in Atlanta.
On the plane, Hannah had seen Sam’s latest Instagram, which showed him and Ginny in a rickshaw, gliding past storefronts that glowed warmly in twilight. Below it, Ginny had commented: This was amazing! The whole thing made Hannah want to puke.
The waitress came by and took their orders and returned shortly with their drinks: a 7-Up for Brandon and a martini for Hannah.
“I don’t know how you can drink that stuff,” Brandon said.
Hannah plucked an olive from the martini. “What do you drink?” she said.
“Sometimes, I steal my dad’s beer,” Brandon said. “And Fatty and I tried Boone’s Farm at a party once.”
“Jesus,” Hannah said. “I hope that taught you a lesson.”
She glanced down to check her phone. She had a message from Lena, her college roommate, saying she’d be there to pick up Hannah at her new arrival time. There was another message from Hank, the person Hannah was really going to see, the one she’d had a beautiful, uncomplicated, year-long fling with during college. His message said he was counting the minutes until he saw her, which was lovely and kind, but still it made Hannah nauseous—which, it seemed, was her baseline now. Nausea never left her. It clanked around all day long. She tried everything: mints, gum, ginger ale, herbal teas, digestifs—cognac, sherry, or Sambuca that she’d take to work in a travel mug and sip at periodically during the day—but nothing worked. She was always sick to her stomach.
She’d thought maybe this trip would help her with that—give her something to look forward to, to be cheerful about. She’d organized it thinking how fun it could be, but the possible fun was just a cover for the real reason: she’d organized the trip in an effort to enrage Sam. She’d been downright giddy at the thought of a picture of her and Hank surfacing in Sam’s Instagram feed because—and this was the thing, the absolutely perfect thing about Hank—Sam hated him. He loathed him. Though Hannah and Hank had never fallen in love despite enjoying each other’s company—both in and out of bed—for their entire senior year, Sam was still unsettled by Hank’s presence in Hannah’s life. It bothered him that there was someone out there Hannah used to fuck but did not care to be in a relationship with. Hannah tried to convince Sam that his inability to accept that a woman could have consensual sex outside commitment made him a misogynistic pig, but Sam wouldn’t hear about it.
“I’m not a misogynist,” Sam insisted. “It’s just gross.”
Were there women Sam had done the same thing with? Of course. And did Hannah hold quietly-simmering grudges because of their mere existence? No. But this meant nothing to Sam, who thought the whole Hank-and-Hannah-thing was perverse. He got testy on the rare occasion—Hannah’s birthday, Christmas—that Hank called to say hello.
“Was he calling to see if you were available for a liaison?” Sam would say.
A liaison. Who did he think he was kidding? All that time he’d been lecturing Hannah about her impropriety, he’d been secretly falling in love with and planning an escape with Ginny.
“Are you okay?” Brandon asked, and Hannah looked up, startled, to find him studying her. He finished his 7-Up, loudly slurping.
“Of course,” she said. She slid her phone back into her purse.
“What were you reading?” he asked.
“Just a message.”
“A boy I’m going to see,” Hannah said. She lifted the martini to her lips, but stopped when she saw the look on Brandon’s face. He was crestfallen.
“I thought you were visiting friends,” he said.
“No, like friend-friends.”
Hannah sipped her martini. “What does it matter what I’m doing?” she said.
Brandon fiddled with his straw, stabbing it into ice cubes at the bottom of his glass. “I don’t know,” he said. “I thought we were having a nice time.”
The skin on Hannah’s arms prickled. The air above their booth had suddenly turned cold. She could see, finally, what he was up to.
“Brandon,” she said, “I am ten years older than you. You are on your way to basic training. What did you think was going on here?”
He frowned. “I thought…” he began, but then he knocked over his glass, spilling ice cubes and watered-down soda across the table.
Hannah moved away from the spill and put her hand in the air, summoning the waitress.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” Brandon said.
“Fine,” Hannah said. She motioned to the waitress for extra napkins, and Brandon headed toward the back of the pub.
Hannah and the waitress pushed the sticky mess around the table with a half-dirty washcloth and a handful of napkins until it was an approximation of clean. When the waitress asked if Hannah wanted another drink, Hannah said what she really wanted was three.
“Let’s start with one,” the waitress said brightly.
“Yes,” Hannah said. “Let’s.”
Brandon was still not back from the bathroom when the waitress brought the next round. Hannah took a drink, and then studied his side of the table. Wadded napkins. Shredded straw wrapper. Missing luggage.
Hannah ducked her head under the table to make sure, but it was true: somehow, he’d absconded with his luggage while Hannah was cleaning up the mess.
The waitress swung out of the kitchen with their food—a steak sandwich for Hannah, a grilled cheese for Brandon—but Hannah rose before she could arrive.
“Is there a problem?” the waitress asked.
bsp; “Did you see the kid I’m with back there?” Hannah asked. “He went to the bathroom.” The waitress shook her head. “Well, then he’s gone,” Hannah said.
“There’s an exit back there,” the waitress said. “Another way into the concourse. It’s back by the registers.”
Hannah pushed through the restaurant, knocking into tables and chairs, and stepped into the concourse, looking left, looking right, but she did not see Brandon.
Back at the table, the food was waiting. The grilled cheese looked thin and inedible. Hannah suddenly filled with anger. Who ordered a grilled cheese at a bar? Who bolted out a back door to avoid confrontation? A child, that’s who.
But then, as quickly as it arrived, her anger dissipated. Hannah wilted back into the booth and took a bite of her steak sandwich. It was disgusting, and no amount of martini could help it go down pleasantly, so she pushed her plate away and dragged Brandon’s grilled cheese across the table. She ate it, every last bite, even the burned edges, and it was—of course—absolutely delicious.
After she paid the bill, Hannah went on a search for Brandon. She didn’t think it would be particularly hard. She knew what he was doing: throwing a fit. He wanted to be found.
Hannah walked to the neighboring concourse and spotted Brandon sitting alone in the gate waiting area. He cradled his head in his hands. His shoulders shuddered. He was crying. People walking by stopped short, surprised, but then hurried on their way.
Hannah ducked into a Hudson News, looking for something to buoy his spirits, but everything there seemed terribly adult: travel-sized hemorrhoid creams, issues of Wired, tiny bottles of antacid.
Brandon was still crying when she left the store and walked over to him. He looked up, revealing a face wet with tears and snot.
“So,” he said, “you found me.”
She hadn’t thought to buy tissues, so she tore off the corner of the Hudson News bag and passed it over. “Wipe your nose,” she said.
He did, making it even redder. “I’m sorry I left like that,” he said.
“Don’t be.” She sat and twisted the cap off the Coke she’d bought. “Your sandwich was better than mine.”
A small smile appeared, disconcerting on the general ruin of his face.
Hannah reached back into the Hudson News bag, revealing a smorgasbord of candy: M&Ms, Skittles, Junior Mints, Gummy Worms. She opened each container, emptying them into the bag.
“You need to eat something,” she said, tilting it toward him, “even if it’s junk.”
Brandon sat very still and obedient, eating one piece of candy at a time. He seemed to favor the Skittles, which he ate with devotion. He held each tightly between his lips for five seconds, savoring, before crunching into it.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it,” he said finally. “I’m not brave enough.”
“There are lots of different ways to be brave,” Julie said. She tore off another corner of the bag and blotted his remaining tears. He looked better now, less unhinged.
“What if I can’t do it?” Brandon asked. “What if I get there, and I just can’t do it?”
“You’ll be able to,” she said, “if it’s something you really want.”
He finished the candy and cru