FROM UP H E R E, a half mile above the Earth, everything
looks perfect to me.I am in my nifty little Skyhawk, banking her back into the sun,
having nearly completed my usual fair-weather loop. Below is the
eastern end of Long Island, and I’m flying just now over that part
of the land where the two gnarly forks shoot out into the Atlantic.
The town directly ahead, which is nothing special when you’re on
foot, looks pretty magnificent now, the late-summer sun casting
upon the macadam of the streets a soft, ebonized sheen, its orangey
light reflecting back at me, matching my direction and
speed in the windows and bumpers of the parked cars and swimming
pools of the simple, square houses set snugly in rows. There
is a mysterious, runelike cipher to the newer, larger homes wagoning
in their cul-de-sac hoops, and then, too, in the flat roofs of the
shopping mall buildings, with their shiny metal circuitry of
HVAC housings and tubes.
From up here, all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged,
as if fretted over by a persnickety florist god, even the ones (no
doubt volunteers) clumped along the fencing of the big scrap
metal lot, their spindly, leggy uprush not just a pleasing garnish to
the variegated piles of old hubcaps and washing machines, but
then, for a stock guy like me, mere heartbeats shy of sixty (hard to
even say that), the life signs of a positively priapic yearning. Just
to the south, on the baseball diamond—our people’s pattern
supreme—the local Little League game is entering the late innings,
the baby-blue-shirted players positioned straightaway and
shallow, in the bleachers their parents only appearing to sit churchquiet
and still, the sole perceivable movement a bounding goldenhaired
dog tracking down a Frisbee in deep, deep centerfield.
Go, boy, go.
And as I point my ship—Donnie is her name—to track alongside
the broad arterial lanes of Route 495, the great and awful
Long Island Expressway, and see the already-accrued jams of the
Sunday Hamptons traffic inching back to the city, the grinding
columns of which, from my seat, appear to constitute an orderly
long march, I feel as if I’m going at a heady light speed, certainly
moving too fast in relation to the rest, an imparity that should by
any account invigorate but somehow unsettles all the same, and I
veer a couple of degrees northwest to head over the remaining
patchworks of farmland and scrubby forest and then soon enough
the immense, uninterrupted stretch of older, densely built townships
like mine, where beneath the obscuring canopy men like me
are going about the last details of their weekend business, sweeping
their front walks and dragging trash cans to the street and
washing their cars just as they have since boyhood and youth,
soaping from top to bottom and brushing the wheels of sooty
brake dust, one spoke at a time.
confetti of a million cigarette butts, the ever-creeping sidewalk
mosses and weeds; I can’t see the tumbling faded newspaper circular
page, or the dead, gassy possum beached at the foot of the curb,
the why of its tight, yellow-toothed grin.
All of which, for the moment, is more than okay with me.
Is that okay?
I bought this plane not for work or travel or the pure wondrous
thrill of flight, which can and has, indeed, been scarily, transcendentally
life-affirming and so on, but for the no doubt seriously unexamined
reason of my just having to get out of the house.
That’s certainly what my longtime (and recently ex-) girlfriend,
Rita Reyes, was thinking about several years ago, when she
gave me a flying lesson out at Islip for my birthday. Really, of
course, she meant it as a diversionary excursion, just a hands-on
plane ride, never intending it to lead to anything else.
At the time she was deeply worried about me, as I was a year
into having early-retired from the family landscaping business
and was by all indications mired in a black hole of a rut, basically
moping around the house and snacking too much. On weekdays,
after Rita left for her job as a home-care nurse (she now works the
ER), I’d do my usual skim of the paper in front of the TV and then
maybe watch a ladies’ morning talk show and soon enough I’d feel
this sharp nudge of ennui and I’d head to the nearby Walt Whitman
Mall (the poet was born in a modest house right across the
street, which is now something they call an “interpretive center”
and is open for tours) for what I would always hope was the easeful
company of like-minded people but would end up instead, depending
on the selling season, to be frantic clawing hordes or else
a ghost town of seniors sitting by the islands of potted ficus, depressing
and diminishing instances both.
When Rita came back home, the breakfast dishes would still be
clogging the table, and I’d be on the back patio nursing a third
bottle of light beer or else napping in the den after leafing
through my tattered Baedeker’s Italy for the umpteenth time.
She’d try to be helpful and patient but it was hard, as that’s what
she’d done all day long. More often than not we’d end up in a
shouting match because she’d toss aside my guidebook a bit too
casually and I’d say something loose and mean about her mother,
and she’d retreat to the bedroom while I went to the car and
revved the engine inside for a long minute before clicking open
the garage door. I’d find myself at a run-down Chinese place on
Jericho, chasing a too-sweet Mai Tai with wonton soup for dinner
and then phoning Rita, to see if she wanted her usual pupu platter
appetizer and shrimp with black beans, which she would, and
which I’d bring back and duly serve to her, as the saying goes, with
love and squalor.
Excerpted from Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.