I didn’t recognize her, though. That’s my excuse for staring. It was the second week of my freshman year in high school, and my history class was small. Maybe twenty other students, and I had never seen this girl before.
If my history teacher would have quizzed me on the Boston tea party that day, I probably would have told him I wasn’t invited.
Her straight brown hair rested on her shoulders, bangs parted to the left. It looked like her hair had never been touched. And to me, it was a mystery how it stayed so still. Even her one sneeze, which was almost inaudible, did no damage. The hair just flowed with her head bob. Which reminded me of this thing she kept doing. She would tilt her head forward, just enough that her bangs would lift off her forehead, and then she would push the bangs back. The way she ran her fingers through her hair denied my suspicions. Her hair had been touched, just with gentleness.
When history class ended, my plane doodle hadn’t changed. I just drew circles and squares in the margins. I figured each circle or square denoted a time in class when I thought she was about to look at me. So I’d shove my head into my notebook and draw things.
Chair legs squeaked on the tile and voices filled the classroom as students began to shuffle toward third period. But one voice stood out. It came from next to me. “Hey.” A girl’s voice.
“Uh, hi. How are you?” I sounded like I had never conversed with another human before.
She giggled. “I’m okay… how are you?”
A giggle. This was too much.
“I’m okay?” Wait, I just asked her a question.
“Yeah, that’s what–”
I cut her off. “Yeah, that’s what you said. I meant I’m okay, too.”
All right, my backpack was on and I was headed to third period. Before I left class, I felt for the lapel pin clipped to my backpack strap. It was the gold plane lapel pin my dad gave me. The one he wore as a pilot.
I burst into the crowded hallway. Freshman, just like me, held their class schedules like roadmaps, still unsure where to go. But I had no time for such worries. I couldn’t handle another smile.
“What were you drawing in class?” She was behind me. She wasn’t shouting, but I heard her over the noise of slamming lockers and afternoon announcements.
How do you have a conversation with someone who’s behind you? “Planes, and stuff,” I said over my shoulder, hoping my pubescent voice wouldn’t reach her ears.
“Oh, like these?”
I turned around to see her holding loose leaf pages of my plane doodles. I checked my backpack. Unzipped.
“Those are mine.” I lunged for the Cessnas, Boeings, and Lockheeds.
She pulled away, and held the drawings behind her. “I like them.”
At first, I thought she was going to make a scene in the hallway. Just what I needed the second week of freshman year. But she didn’t. She handed them back and smiled.
“Thanks,” I said. “But you shouldn’t snoop like that.” That was all I could muster before I zipped my backpack and, for the second time, headed toward third period.
“That’s it? Thanks?”
“What?” I spun around again.
“When was the last time a girl complimented your plane drawing?”
The answer was never. “I don’t know.”
“Exactly,” she said. “What are you doing after school?”
“What I was doing all summer.”
“Which is?” Her voice trailed in anticipation.
“Oh, sorry. Um…” I realized what I had been doing all summer was pretty lame. “Plane watching. At the airfield.”
I still wonder how I didn’t pass out when she responded.
“Can I come?”
I didn’t have this girl’s number, and I didn’t know her name. So after last period, I just waited outside by the main entrance. I didn’t mind, the August air was warm. And the sky was clear blue—perfect for plane watching.
This would be the first time I watched planes with someone else. Well, if she actually showed. There were plenty of girls who liked to mess with me in grade school. But I was always so quiet; no one ever knew if it bothered me.
I still couldn’t understand why this girl from history class wanted to come. Or how she even noticed me. I didn’t stand out, that’s for sure. Just a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans, with some shaggy hair and peach fuzz.
“Hey.” There she was.
“Are you ready? I don’t want to miss the 4:30 landings.”
“Yeah, sure. Is what I’m wearing okay?”
I studied her turquoise Converse shoes and dark blue pants. “As long as you’re okay with some grass stains.” I started toward the fields. “Oh, I don’t know your name.”
“I know yours,” she said. “Andrew, right?”
“How’d you know that?”
“I saw it on the side of one of your planes. On one of your drawings.”
I forgot I put my stupid name on the side of some stupid airplane drawing. I never thought someone would actually look at those. “Yeah. Andrew. What’s yours?”
The landing strips were in walking distance of the high school. We made our way through the woods, weeds, and flat stretches of grass that led to the airfield. We hardly spoke on the way there. I wish we would have, though. That probably would have prepared me better.
The best spot for plane watching was a half mile from the airfield, directly behind the runway. I could see all the landings, looking right up at the belly of each aircraft and watching as the pilots eased toward the earth.
That primetime viewing area was on the outskirts of a small cornfield, so the grass was kept cut. I would have gotten closer to the runway, but the grass was too tall. To plane watch, you have to lie down. There’s no better way to appreciate the moment.
We arrived at the edge of the cornfield in about thirty minutes. To my surprise, Taylor hadn’t complained about the trek. Mud, dirt, insects, and some broken glass. But as I led the way, I would look back and catch her smiling. At one point, she was even jousting with gnats, shoving her fake wooden spear through the air like some warrior woman. As you could guess, I acted oblivious. I was just facilitating this impromptu and sufficiently awkward excursion between two strangers.
“Wow, this is pretty cool,” Taylor said, jabbing her wooden warrior stick into the damp ground.
“Yeah, it’s my favorite spot to watch.” I was already unpacking the small blanket and lunchbox I had squeezed into my backpack that morning.
As I looked at Taylor, she was staring at me, one hand on her hip. “I was being sarcastic, Andy. This just looks like a cornfield to me.”
“Oh, well, I can explain.”
“No need to explain. Time will tell.” Taylor turned and walked toward the corn, running her fingers against the stalks. “Do you have an extra blanket? Or?...”
I looked at the single person spread, lone apple, and bag of chips. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
“That’s okay,” Taylor said. “I don’t mind the grass.”
I could hear a plane overhead. Lying on my blanket, I looked over at Taylor. She was still playing with the corn.
“So, why do you come out here? Why do you like planes so much?” Taylor asked.
“Well, my dad flies planes. They were always interesting to me. It was fate, I guess.” I gave her the shortest possible answer, hoping she would hurry over and see the first landing of the day.
“Do you wanna know why I like them?” I wanted to take a guess, at least. But before I could answer, she did. “If you fly alone, you’re just falling. Like you have no destination, because the journey isn’t shared. Like a theater without an audience.”
When she said this, I didn’t know how to respond. And the plane was coming in. I didn’t want to miss it.
Taylor finally sat down, just as the plane made its way over the cornfield. I never turned around and watched. I liked to let the plane pass in front of me. The anticipation in hearing the engine get closer, the nose coming into view, and then seeing the fuselage.
As the plane was above us, I glanced over. I expected to see that beaming smile. But she was staring into the sky, like she expected something else.
Once the plane had passed over, I exhaled. “Nothing is better than watching a landing like that.”
“Why do you like the landings so much?” Taylor asked. I could feel her looking at me. “Are you waiting for someone?” There was that giggle, again.
Should I have offered her the blanket? Should I have offered to share the blanket? What about the food? What if she was hungry?
Those were unanswered questions. The first time we watched planes together, I took my blanket, ate my apple, and hoped she would come back with me the next day.
Taylor came with me each day for the next couple weeks. Only weekdays though, because Mom knew I didn’t have “robotics club” on Saturday or Sunday. If she knew where I was—watching planes—Mom would have given me another lecture about my “dead-end obsessions.” That’s why I had to tell her I was hanging out with Alex down the street while she was at work Monday through Friday in the summer. Robotics club was an acceptable obsession because it was a potential career path. I could only dream about getting paid to watch planes.
But I wasn’t worried about my mom finding out that I was hanging out with a girl. A beautiful girl, at that. And it seemed like Taylor enjoyed watching the planes. She was the only person who knew anything about my passion.
We had gotten to know each other well. Favorite movies, dream cars, ideal vacations, what we wanted to be when we grew up. For that last one, Taylor never did give me a definite answer. She just kept saying “I’ll find my way to somewhere.”
I told Taylor I wanted to be a pilot. Just like my dad.
I was waiting to wake up from a dream, and realize I was still at my desk in history class. Imagining the amazing smile that I had never noticed before. Imagining my mom wouldn’t be upset about my obsession. Imagining I was having the most blissful time of my life.
Taylor and I had just arrived at our spot near the cornfield. We were sharing a blanket, and I packed two apples. I had been telling my mom one apple wasn’t enough.
As the first plane passed over, Taylor looked at me. “I hate those.”
“Hate what?” I asked.
She pointed at the plane above us. “Those big commercial airliners.”
“Yeah, I don’t like those things, either. The smaller planes are more fun to watch. Quicker, more vintage looking, I guess.”
“My dad flies those massive things,” she said. “Every time I see one, I think of him.”
I thought I saw tears gather in Taylor’s eyelids. But even her tears gathered with a gentleness.
“Your dad flies planes?” I asked, my heart skipping a beat as I sat up.
“He’s been a pilot all my life. And since the divorce, it’s just been us. My dad and I.”
Taylor told me she was a sophomore being held back because she ran away from home her freshman year.
“It wasn’t like it made a difference if I was at home,” Taylor said. “I was just so lonely. He was always flying, calling me to tell me he would be back soon.” She was sniffling, looking away. “Then he would call and tell me about a flight he had to take.”
After running away, Taylor wasn’t sure if she was eligible to come back to school. That’s why she came into my freshman history class during the second week.
I was lightheaded. But I tried to listen.
“Do you ever get that feeling?” She asked. “Well, I guess you don’t. Your Mom is there. But do you ever miss your dad like that?”
More than she knew.
“I mean, yeah,” I said. “It’s definitely hard sometimes.”
No way was I going to cry in front of her.
“What kind of planes does your dad fly?” Taylor asked, her tears beginning to dry.
Reality began pouring over me. The story I had woven for myself was rooted so deep. All the small details like his lapel pin, and the big ones like his career as a pilot. But Taylor’s truth had caused my work of fiction to surface. Her complete and trusting honesty tore my story’s roots from its soil, openly displaying its flaws. She saw it, and for the first time since I imagined the whole fabrication, I did, too.
“Your dad?” Her face dropped. For a moment, I was unsure of whether it was anger or another bout of sadness. Depression surfacing from a reminder of lies and false promises. “He isn’t a pilot?”
No one had asked about my dad since fifth grade career day. My mom showed up and talked about cleaning houses for a maid service. A maid up against police officers, engineers, and bankers.
“You lied to me,” Taylor said, brushing hair from her face and wiping a tear all at once.
I couldn’t respond. My throat felt like it was closing up, but my eyes were wide open. I figured my tears looked like hers, just not so gentle.
I looked down at my backpack resting between us, the plane lapel pin woven through the strap. I wished those gold wings could have flown me away and taken me to wherever my dad was. Just so I could have an answer for Taylor.
And I probably would have asked my dad if he was a pilot. Or maybe he built planes. Or maybe he was a banker. Or maybe he was a deadbeat. But that box I found in my mom’s attic was all I had. The box with the old tape and sharpie marker: “Andrew Benz II.” The box filled with plane memorabilia, aircraft blueprints, and that gold plane lapel pin.
A breeze picked up as the smell of grass wisped through my nose.
Taylor was looking at me, I could feel those piercing green eyes. “You can tell me anything, Andrew.” She pulled my backpack behind her, moving the plane lapel pin out of sight. “Just don’t do that again.”
We were holding hands. I was looking at another clear blue sky, same as the others. And I knew she was looking, too. But this sky didn’t feel the same. It was empty. There were no planes to be seen or heard.
I felt like I was falling through the sky. Falling into some emptiness. Somewhere no one had ever been. Picking up speed, but for what? Where was I going?
But then I felt her hand. I grasped a little tighter.
I wasn’t alone. I was flying.