EMBRACE by Roxana Robinson
They’re married, but not to each other.
Nat unlocks the door and then steps back, to let Ella go in first.
The hotel room is high-ceilinged and square, and a double bed takes
up most of it. On the bed is a cream-colored quilted spread. Pale
heavy curtains frame the window; thinner, translucent ones obscure
the view. The carpet is thick and cocoa-colored. There is an ornate
bureau, imitation French, and a gilt-framed mirror. The room is
close and airless. They have no luggage.
Ella moves ahead of him, stopping near the bed. She’s in her late
twenties, and thin, with long chestnut-colored hair. She turns, so that
she won’t see herself in the mirror. She stands facing away from him,
looking down. She has never done this before. She hardly knows this
man, and this is a terrible mistake. She has made a terrible mistake,
coming to this airless room with someone who, it turns out, is a
stranger. She stands motionless, awaiting perdition.
Nat follows her into the room.
He has never done exactly this before, either, never done anything
quite so bold and crude as to rent a hotel room at lunchtime.
What he did was always out of town, with women he never intended
to see again. It was mostly in Los Angeles, a place full of beautiful,
willing girls, happy to be taken out for dinner and then back to his
hotel. Those encounters had been brief and distant. But this, now, is
in his own city, only blocks from his own apartment, with a woman
he does want to see again, and he’s afraid he’s starting something
large and irreversible. What it means is the end of his marriage. He
won’t be able to go on like this; he’s going too far. This is reckless, indefensible,
and he’s doing it in the name of lust, which is, right now,
notably absent. He understands that coming here was a mistake,
though he believes he loves this woman.
He wonders if today can be salvaged. Perhaps it’s the room—
should he have gotten a bigger one? But no: it’s the silence, the
immobility of the room that’s the problem, the implacably fixed furniture,
the hushing carpet, the heavy curtains, the whole place awaiting
He likes looking at her. She’s small and slight, with a polished
curtain of hair spilling down her back. Her head is bent.
Ella is looking down at the bedspread, waiting for the worst. It is
shameful, it is excruciating, that she’s become part of this. What if
she’s seen by someone she knows, in this corridor of bedrooms, with
this man who is not her husband? What is she doing here at
lunchtime, with a man she hardly knows? She can’t look at him. She
can feel his presence—large, solid, he’s much taller and stronger
than she is—as he stands behind her. She’s now obligated to go
through with this, since she agreed to come. It feels like an execution.
She dreads his touch.
She thinks of her husband. He’s downtown right now, in his office,
in his shirtsleeves and suspenders. He’s on the phone, or making
a point to someone—he loves making points—or having another cup
of coffee. He’s doing something completely ordinary. He’s not betraying
her utterly, betraying her to the bone, though he has. But he’s not
doing it right now, and she is. She could call him, there’s an ivory
phone on the table by the bed. He’d answer at his desk, his voice familiar.
It was a mistake, but she has to go through with it. She is obligated:
of course she knew what it meant, meeting at the Plaza for
lunch. Now she will have to have sex with him in this strange airless
room. She will have to offer him her naked body. She would
Nat steps closer to her.
It was a mistake, that’s all.
He turns her body to him and glimpses her grieving face. He puts
his arms around her and stands still, holding her close without moving.
He can feel her, rigid and fearful. He says nothing, embracing
her quietly. It’s a mistake, that’s all. What he wants is for her not to be
miserable. He holds her until he feels her quiet, until she understands
that she is safe; that all he wants from her is this close holding,
They’re married, and now to each other.
The divorces were tumultuous and unhappy, but Nat and Ella
persevered. They weathered the storms, they made their way determinedly
through the torment toward each other.
Now they have been married for nine years, and they love each
other. They’re knitted deeply into each other, and they warm themselves
at each other’s hearts. They long for each other, and their
bodies teach each other pleasure, but they fight terribly. They say unforgivable
things to each other. Once, Nat took Ella violently by her
shoulders. “You make me so angry,” he said. “Someday I’m going to
Ella, beside herself with rage, was pleased. “Fine,” she told him,
satisfaction in her voice. It seemed a vindication, proof of something.
When they are not fighting they are happy, drunk on each other,
but when they fight, Ella fears they will split apart, and if they split
apart, she fears it will be the end of her. She can’t imagine herself, if
this marriage fails. She can’t imagine her life if Nat were to leave her.
She can’t imagine her existence without him; it would be black and
meaningless, the void. It is terrifying to her, this prospect, like falling
into deep space.
She knows, in one part of her mind, when she is calm, that this is
absurd. She has her own life, with friends and a career—she is a literary
publicist, and has founded her own agency. Her life won’t really
be over if she and Nat split up. Still, there are times, when they
are fighting, when rationality is not available. She has trouble breathing,
and she thinks of the blackness of deep space, which seems to be
waiting for her.
Now they are driving from Florence to Siena, along a narrow,
crowded motorway. The cars around them are lunatic: on the left,
Maseratis and Mercedeses pass at a hundred miles an hour; on the
right, huge trucks sway dangerously, taking up one and a half lanes.
Behind them headlights flare constantly, signaling them to move
over. For half an hour they have been driving in hostile silence.
Nat breaks it. “I just don’t know why you couldn’t have gone on
to the market yourself.”
“I just don’t know why you couldn’t have waited for me, with the
car. Or given me the car,” Ella says. “I don’t know why you have to
decide what we do and when we do it.”
Nat makes an exasperated sound. “I see,” he says, “ I decide everything.
Is that what you think?”
“Do you think I decide anything?”
“Do you think you don’t decide anything?”
They get into these maddening, circular series of questions, each
challenging the other, losing the point, going off on tangents, becoming
Nat is exasperated by Ella’s self-centeredness. How can she not
know that everything he does is with her in mind? What he wants is
for her to be happy. This entire trip—Florence and Siena, the
churches, the old hotels, the views—was for her. The impassive faces
of the holy martyrs, the mysterious half-smiles of Madonnas. It’s early
spring, and wildflowers star the long pale grasses in the fields. This
was all meant to make her happy, and why does it not?
“I decide nothing!” Ella says, furious. “Nothing at all! You decide
where we go, where we’ll have dinner, what time we’ll leave in the
morning, what we’re going to see, everything. You even keep my passport!
I don’t even carry my own passport!”
“I keep your passport with mine, and with our tickets,” says Nat,
reprovingly. His face has darkened, his mouth tightened. She has
broadened her attack, flailing wildly about, as always. “It’s just so I’ll
know where everything is. If you want your passport, Ella, of course
I’ll give it to you.”
“I don’t care if I have my passport or not,” Ella says wildly. She
feels trapped by him, helpless; he seems both reasonable and unjust.
She knows it’s practical for him to keep the passports. Yet why should
he have hers?
“Did you not want to come to Italy?” Nat turns his head and
looks at her, dangerously, in the midst of the manic speed of the motorway.
The car swerves slightly, then swerves back, in and out of the
terrifying stream of cars.
Ella hopes they will crash.
“Of course I wanted to come to Italy!” She is distraught. “But you
don’t ask me what I want! You decide everything yourself, and then
you tell me what we’re going to do, and then you’re furious if I have
a tiny, remote, minutely differing suggestion! I have to do everything
you say, always! It’s as though I don’t exist!”
What she’d wanted was for him to come with her to the flea market
in Florence, wander through the stalls with him. It was a junky
market, only odds and ends, but it was Florence. The people offering
the broken clocks and plastic dolls were Florentine. Their faces—
surprisingly fair, ruddy, blue-eyed, with red-brown hair—echoed
those in the old frescoes. Ella loved all of it; she always thought the
living scene was as interesting as the museum.
Nat thought it was dreary and trashy. “Why should I want to look
at a flea market, full of junk?” he had asked. “I have to move the car.
I’ll take it back to the hotel, and you come back whenever you want.”
But Ella feels crushed by the weight of his disapproval, by the
thought that she was someone who wanted to look at junk, someone
he disdained. All of it makes her feel panicky and abandoned: she
speaks no Italian and has no sense of direction. She knows she’d get
lost, trying to find her way back up to the hotel. She is afraid of being
lost, and afraid of asking questions of strangers. She loves him. She
hates being at odds with him. The flea market was a bad idea; she
should never have suggested it. He disapproved of it, and of her. And
now she has made him angry again; he may leave her. At any time he
may leave her. He is easily angered at her. She starts to weep from despair.
She is always doing things wrong. They have been married
nine years; she has not managed to give him a child; he may leave
her. They are always fighting. She will die if he leaves her. She knows
this is irrational; knowing it does not help.
Nat keeps on driving, the corners of his mouth turned down in
disapproval. She is so extreme, Ella, so wildly intemperate, and so utterly
unfair. Her complaints are wounding: he feels that his life is
given over to making her happy, that all their decisions are made on
her behalf. He’d thought she’d like the trip to Italy, and she had
seemed to. This is the way she acts: at first she says nothing, later she
complains bitterly. It’s completely unfair. He loves her. He is easily
wounded by her, he is outraged by her when they fight. She is irrational,
messy, late. She maddens him. He is completely absorbed by
her. He cannot wait each night to see her, to see her turn her head,
to listen. He waits to hear what she will say; he is endlessly interested
by what she will say. His body needs hers. They are joined, which
makes all this so excruciating: she levels these wild charges at him, as
though she were dismissing their connection. How can she? How
can she take such extreme positions over something as trivial as the
flea market? These trips seem to be more pain than pleasure. How
can she act so brutal and miserable to him? He never thinks of leaving
her; she’s at the center of his life.
At the end of their fights everything is somehow righted. A great
calm happiness floods through them both, like a neap tide rising and
moving through the fields, smoothing out the rutted landscape like
liquid silk. This is hard for them to remember when they’re fighting;
it’s hard to believe it’s a possibility.
Nat swerves more now, across the traffic, into the slower lane,
then he swerves again, cutting out of that lane too. He pulls off the
highway altogether, onto a tiny semicircular pullout, edged haphazardly
by whitewashed stones. A rocky hillside rises steeply above it;
just ahead, on the road, is one of the low stone tunnels that perforate
Italian mountains. The tunnels are pitch-black inside, narrow and
claustrophobic, and the cars race through them at supersonic speeds.
Their car was just about to enter this one, and the traffic beside them
continues to slide smoothly and hypnotically into the small black
mouth, which is like that of a monster. But just before they are
sucked into the dark maw, Nat pulls completely off the road and jerks
the car to a stop in the turnout, the corners of his own mouth turned
Ella sees his disapproving mouth, his lowered brows, his fierce
eyes, and she turns away, to the window. A sob swells her chest: whatever
he is about to do will be terrible. She is afraid he will hit her,
though he has never done this, or threatened to. She is afraid he will
reach across her and open the door, and tell her to get out, to clamber
onto the steep rocky hillside rising above them. Then he will pull
the door shut and drive on, vanishing into the black tunnel and leaving
her there forever.
Nat puts the car into neutral, jerks on the hand brake, and turns
off the engine. He turns to Ella, his brows still dark. He leans awkwardly
across the tiny car, across the gear shift, and puts his arms
around her. He pulls her as close as he can, the upright gear shift between
them. He holds her against him and strokes her head, her silky
They’ve gotten themselves into this terrible trough of unhappiness,
and this is all he can think of to get them back to the other
place, where they remember each other. He holds her tightly inside
the circle of himself, pressing his cheek against her head. He feels
her collarbones against his chest, her shoulder blades beneath his
hands. Her hair is shorter now, but still silky.
Ella feels his arms close around her, she breathes in the familiar
smell of his skin, and she closes her eyes in relief. She feels her whole
body yield, give way. This is more than she had hoped for. It is everything.
They have been married for nearly a quarter of a century, and they
have stopped fighting. Something between them has steadied, and
they no longer frighten each other. Instead, they trust each other.
She is less intemperate, and when he gets annoyed she finds his exasperation
amusing. She waits it out, smiling, and smooths his hair.
He finds her exaggerations funny; she no longer infuriates him.
They look different now, of course. She is still small, nearly childlike,
but her waist has thickened, and her face bears a mask of fine
lines. She is no longer beautiful, but pleasant-looking. Her hair is
now short and iron gray, thin and straight, with bangs, like a felt helmet.
One knee gives her trouble, and sometimes she limps slightly.
This morning, standing in line at the airport, waiting at the ticket
counter, Nat saw her lean over to rub it. The sight made him feel tender,
and he thought of her moving, with him, toward age, and toward
the dark curtain beyond. He takes comfort in knowing that they will
approach this, whatever it is, together.
His own body has thickened as well, and his hair has receded. His
forehead is rising slowly, like a cliff from the sea. This disappoints
him: his father had all his hair until he died, at eighty-one. Nat’s hair
had once been thick and springy—it was his secret vanity.
Ella doesn’t mind his baldness, no longer notices it. She is so
used to his face—the deep lines from nose to mouth, the dense eyebrows,
the neat pouches beneath his thoughtful eyes—that it might
as well be her own. She barely sees herself in the mirror now, her
eyes fading, her lips blurring. They have been living together for
decades now, and they belong to each other. They have forgiven
each other the dreadful acts, and they appreciate the generous ones.
They admire and enjoy each other. They have grown together into
this marriage, adding year after year to the trunk of it, each line encompassing
the one before. The years in which they fought are now
enclosed, entirely and forever, by these later ones, in which they do
not. These are years in which they simply love each other, years in
which trust is dominant.
Today they’re on a flight from Boston, where Nat had a business
meeting and Ella saw her sister, to San Francisco, where he has another
meeting. After that they’ll go on to Los Angeles, to see his
daughter Beth, who is a screenwriter. As far as they can tell, she is not
a really successful one, but who can read the cryptic signs of Hollywood?
Beth is funny and bright, always full of optimistic talk about
meetings and development. She was angry about the divorce when
she was younger, but seems to be over it. All three of them have lived
it down, settling into enjoyment of one another’s company. Her
boyfriend—though is boyfriend the right word? It’s hard to keep track
of the correct word now—anyway, the person who is around more
than anyone else, is a psychotherapist/mystic/studio musician named
Ralph. He, too, is bright and funny, and if they lived in the East they
would have regular salaries and health benefits, instead of this handto-
mouth existence. Or maybe not. Maybe they are both simply outside
the world of regular salaries and health benefits, and so it’s a
good thing they’ve found each other in West Hollywood.
Ralph and Beth have promised to take them to their favorite sushi
restaurant. Ella doesn’t like sushi—why do people still eat raw flesh,
five hundred thousand years after the discovery of fire?—but she eats
it with Beth. She loves Beth, and in some ways gets along better with
her than Nat does. Nat gets frustrated by Beth; he wants her and
Ralph to get married and get jobs with health benefits. Ella finds this
funny and touching. She thinks of it now and she reaches out and
smooths his shoulder. He is the beloved. She feels grateful for his solicitude,
the way he wants to take care of them all, herding them
toward shelter like an anxious sheepdog. At her touch, Nat looks up
from his book and smiles at her.
They’re sitting in business class. Nat works for a large management
consulting firm, and he’s flown hundreds of thousands of
miles. They both benefit from all the times he’s been weathered in at
O’Hare, fogged out of Portland, delayed at Dallas/Fort Worth. Now,
when they fly together, they enjoy these wide comfortable seats, the
kindly attentions of the flight attendant, the little compote of warm
nuts after takeoff.
They haven’t taken off yet; they’ve taxied out onto the runway
and are waiting in line. Not for long, though: the skies are clear, and
it’s after Labor Day, the summer traveling peak over. Their stewardess
has taken away their jackets. She’s in her fifties, slightly stocky,
with a wide, pleasant, animated face, slightly pockmarked. Her short
hair is dense black, maybe dyed.
During the safety video it was she who put on a life jacket and
stood in front of the cabin. She made smooth, ritualized gestures, setting
the oxygen mask neatly over her nose, pointing out the emergency
exits. No one watched her, and Ella wondered if this was
because everyone had already heard these instructions, or if it was a
subliminal superstition, the fear of naming dangers. The idea that it’s
bad luck to allow the idea of peril into your mind. By doing so you’re
calling danger into being, so the less you think about safety measures,
the less likely you are to need them.
Maybe to counteract that superstition, Ella pulls out the plastic
safety-instruction card from the pocket in front of her. She studies the
people, tidily life-jacketed, who are sliding down the chute in an orderly
line. Their faces seem lively and intent, not frightened or unhappy.
It’s broad daylight, and the chute rests on flat ground. If this
really happened, Ella thinks, there would be clouds of black smoke
and bursts of orange flame. Or maybe they would be sliding into the
ocean, at night, in blinding rain and huge swells. Disasters take place
in perilous conditions, storms and darkness, not on clear days under
blue skies. In any case, it wouldn’t be like this—orderly and pleasant.
Ella, feeling she has somehow triumphed over the card, slides it back
into the pocket.
All the stewardesses have disappeared now, up front, perched
on their tiny provisional foldout seats. The sky is blindingly bright,
cloudless. They are in a line of planes, all huge and motionless. Heat
waves shimmer up from the tarmac, and the planes seem to tremble
slightly. The pilot’s voice comes over the intercom.
They’re number four, he tells them, and it won’t be long now. He
speaks with a slight southern accent, and his voice is reassuring. The
reason that so many pilots are southern is that so many southerners
go into the military, and so many pilots are ex–Vietnam War veterans.
This comforts Ella—these men are seasoned by dangerous exploits,
which they have come through unscathed. Their experience
is like a bright shield over their passengers. They have always made
the right decisions.
The plane taxies slowly to the end of the runway, turns ponderously,
revs its engines, and then begins to rumble down the long concrete
strip. As the plane gains speed, the engine noise mounts and
mounts, and when the cabin falls silent with the universal respect
given to takeoff, Ella is gripped briefly by nerves. She reaches for
Nat’s hand, and he clasps hers firmly and reassuringly, without looking
at her. He is not a nervous flier; he flies too often.
The rumbling, hurtling plane nears the end of the runway, racing
toward the moment of breathless suspension, the moment in
which the arcs of speed and lift and burden all intersect, precisely
and miraculously, and the wheels leave the ground, and they suddenly
rise up, without pause, smoothly and astonishingly into the
clear blue air. The landing gear folds noisily into the belly and the
plane banks hard, tipping over the rows of dark buildings of Newark,
now so tidy and precise. They have done it; they have made the transition
from earthbound to airborne, and there is something great and
self-congratulatory about this moment. They have all succeeeded in
this death-defying venture.
When the stewardess reappears with the lunch menu, Ella is no
longer holding Nat’s hand. She used to be a very anxious flier, but
that has changed, too. She feels remoter, now, from the danger of flying.
Once, without Nat, she flew through a thunderstorm, lightning
bolts sizzling off the wings, the fuselage jolting horridly with each
shock. Her heart had thudded in her throat, but she had suddenly
thought to herself, though she is not religious, “You are in the hand
of God.” At that her panic ceased.
Since then she no longer becomes so frightened during flight.
Fatalism, or some sort of calm, has entered her. She is in her fifties,
and she has certainly lived over half her life. She feels less responsible
now for the care of the world. If she vanishes, the world will rumble
along without her.
Right now she is absorbed in her book, and they are climbing
smoothly toward thirty thousand feet, heading slightly northwest,
toward San Francisco. The stewardess smiles professionally and offers
her a menu. Ella takes it, smiling back. She wonders how long
the stewardess will go on working. It’s a brutal life, they say, especially
if you have a family. You’re away so much, and you get bloat, and
your cycle is disturbed. Plus you’re on your feet all the time: Ella
thinks of her knee, which will at some point, her doctor says, need re-
placement, though she’s putting it off. She wouldn’t be able do this
job, but these women must like it well enough.
Ella’s reading Anthony Trollope, Nat a book about Alexander
Hamilton. She likes the symmetry they create, likes feeling that, together,
they are responsibly covering the field of letters: she, fiction,
nineteenth-century, English; he, politics, eighteenth-century, American.
What more can you expect of a marriage? She sinks peacefully
into her book.
At first she hardly notices the disturbance, since the noise level on
airplanes is already so high—the loud drone of the engines, the staccato
voices of video earphones, the conversations around them. But finally
it becomes intrusive, and she looks up to see a dark-skinned young
man in a pale T-shirt, with a red bandanna tied around his head, coming
down the aisle from first class. He has something in his raised
hand, and he is shouting at them angrily. It’s the anger that is most apparent,
and confusing. It’s directed at them, the passengers, for some
reason. What is he shouting? Behind him there seems to be a cloud
of black smoke: is something on fire? Is the plane on fire? He is shouting
at all of them, though the words are too big, right now, to understand,
it’s hard to sort through the information—the smoke, the rage,
the T-shirt and bandanna, who is he?—but his anger is very clear, and
his insistence. He is motioning at them urgently, gesturing at the back
of the plane. He’s angry at them all, he’s beside himself with rage. His
rage, the chaotic energy of it, is confusing and frightening. The front of
the plane is where the pilots are, and where the stewardesses busy
themselves. The front of the plane is the seat of authority, but no one
in uniform appears—where is the captain, with his reassuring southern
voice, his heroic war record? It seems that this dark-skinned man
now represents authority. That’s where he’s coming from, the cockpit,
and the black smoke is billowing behind him. He’s shouting.
“Get in the back!”
Some people stand, bewildered. “What’s going on?” People are
asking him questions, but the man is not answering; instead, the
questions turn his face darker, thunderous. He has large liquid black
“Get in the back,” he says ferociously. “There’s been an accident.”
“What kind of accident?” More people stand, alarmed, wanting
to know, wanting to help.
Behind the man their stewardess suddenly appears, the stocky
black-haired one. Her pockmarked face is contorted with purpose.
“Help!” she shouts. Her voice is high-pitched, frantic. “Hijackers!”
The man swivels instantly; his arm shoots out and he seizes her
by the throat, his arm snaking around her neck. They are directly in
front of Ella, and Ella can see the woman’s hand shaking, held helplessly
across her chest. The hijacker’s elbow is raised high in the air,
and he holds her chin up. “Don’t move,” he hisses. The stewardess
wears a navy cardigan over a white long-sleeved shirt. There is a gold
bangle on her wrist, and her hand is shaking. Ella can hear her
breathing: slow and strained.
The hijacker looks around. He looks to be in his thirties, with
high cheekbones and a broad, slightly crooked nose. His teeth are
very white, and his shiny black hair falls over his forehead. No one
moves. Behind him, the first-class cabin is full of smoke. The stewardess
swallows convulsively. Her chin is still pulled high by the hijacker’s
arm. Ella can see the shifting of her throat muscles beneath
the skin. The hijacker tightens his grip, and her eyes roll upward,
then close. She swallows again, with difficulty, and her hand goes up,
reflexively, to his arm. Ella remembers the smooth ritual gestures she
made during the safety video. The hijacker hisses at her again, then
pulls her chin up, further exposing her throat.
What he has in his other hand is a small straight blade, Ella sees
its brightness, and he sweeps the blade across her throat. The pale
skin parts easily. The smell of blood is very strong, and the rush of it
overwhelming, disorienting. It floods out, dark, and in pulses, down
her white blouse, which is now crimson, each wave of fresh blood
darkening the blouse, the sweater. The stewardess is trying to scream,
though her voice no longer works; she makes shuddering noises,
sounds of breath and moist tissue. Her arms are all right, and her
legs. She grabs at him, and kicks, but her movements are perfunctory,
jerky and spasmodic, and she is not really, now, kicking at the hijacker.
She is kicking the way the body prepares itself for death, the
way it jerks itself loose of its earthly connections. She kicks and struggles
fitfully, and the hijacker, with each jerk, holds her more closely,
clasping her to himself like a demon lover, the blood pumping out of
the terrible dark place on her neck. He holds her closer and closer to
his own breast, which is now covered with streams of her dark blood.
The blood is on their arms, it is on the carpet, it is everywhere, and
the air reeks. The hijacker’s eyes are black and brilliant, and he stares
at the passengers without blinking. The stewardess is still plucking
with her hands and struggling, and her throat makes terrible attempts
at speech. Shudders of air move through places where air was not
meant to go. There are moist sounds of tissue smacking and flapping,
heaves and gasps, a kind of sob.
“Get in the back,” the hijacker says. His eyes are hypnotic with
It seems that they have no will, now. It seems there is nothing for
their weakened bodies to do, now, but stand and move heavily, without
a will, down the aisle and back into the tourist section. There
they can see rows of faces looking up at them, confused, alarmed.
Alarm is spreading, deepening, across the faces. There are cries and
questions, some screams. The hijacker is behind them, still holding
his dreadful burden, the heavy body of the stewardess. The smell of
the blood—thick and ferrous—makes Ella feel faint. It’s a smell
she did not know she knew, but she does. She knows it. The body
Nat is ahead of her, and she reaches down low, for his hand.
There is nothing now but fear. Just behind them, in first class, there
is smoke and chaos. Beyond that, up in the cockpit, is beyond contemplation.
The mind dares not go there. It is too dangerous to call
it into being.
“Nobody move,” the hijacker shouts at them. He is beside himself.
“Nobody to move.”
The rows of faces stare up, stunned.
The plane is doing something, it seems to be descending. They
are nearing another city, rows of buildings are reappearing. The engines
seem louder now—are they going faster?
Ella and Nat are standing helplessly in the aisle—there is
nowhere for them to go. Behind them is the hijacker, with his mad
eyes. Ella is right ahead of him, facing the rear of the plane, and she
presses forward, against Nat. She doesn’t want to touch the hijacker,
or the body of the stewardess, whom he holds in front of himself like
a shield. The stewardess seems to have stopped moving. The smell of
the blood is rich and sickening. Ella moves her feet to one side; she
doesn’t want the blood on her shoes.
They can all feel the plane shifting now. The smoke in first class
is drifting into this cabin, acrid, dense, alarming. Ella’s eyes sting,
and she closes them. She leans against Nat’s back, pressing herself
against his spine. She knows his back intimately, and now she pictures
its beautiful slope. She knows where the scar is, on the left side,
where he fell in a baseball game as a teenager, long before she knew
him. The bluish mark, where a BB went in. She knows exactly the
texture of the skin, beneath his gray suit, his blue shirt. She puts her
nose against his suit and breathes in: she knows exactly the smell of
his skin, rich and comforting. She sets her cheek against his shoulder
blade, leaning on her good knee.
The plane is definitely descending now, and they’re over another
urban landscape, streets and buildings in a bewildering pattern.
Don’t hijackers want to go somewhere else? Don’t they want to be
taken to Cuba? Palestine? It’s New York, she can see the Triborough
Bridge. Why are they headed here? Ella feels her body tighten, she is
panting, and her stomach is clenched. The roar of the engines seems
deafening—is it really louder, or is it fear that makes it seem so? She
thinks of the plastic card, the orderly evacuation down the spotless
chute. Behind her, the hijacker is still holding the slack body of the
stewardess, and when he moves, Ella can feel something—his elbow,
or her lifeless wrist—against her back, and she cringes, trying to move
Now the hijacker is shouting again, but not in English. It’s in another
language, guttural, unknown, and there’s another hijacker, she
now sees, across the aisle, with a red bandanna around his head,
shouting too. What they say is incomprehensible, but it’s the force of
it, the loudness and intensity of what they say, that cows the passengers,
defeats them. They are wild-eyed, they are in some kind of insane,
triumphal trance, the hijackers, and one of them holds the
dead bleeding body of the stewardess, the woman who was supposed
to care for them, to minister to their needs. She has been murdered,
and the hijackers are screaming at all of them, and the tourist cabin,
too, is now filling up with smoke.
The plane is going insanely fast—they can feel it, dizzying,
hurtling low, just above the city buildings. Ella cannot see where
they are but it is somewhere in New York, no longer a tidy cityscape
seen dreamily from above but a nightmare landscape seen too close
and too fast, and her whole body is going too fast, her heart, her
lungs, her pulse, are going as fast as the plane. Nat, in front of her, begins
It’s over, Nat can see that. Everything is over. It’s strange how, as
the plane speeds up, his mind slows down. It’s oddly calming. Everything
is over, everything falls away, now, all the intentions and crises
of life, the small things, his report for the meeting, the conversation
with Beth, getting the car inspected, all of these don’t matter, and
the large things—what were the large things? None of them matter,
now. It’s all moving faster and faster, and here they are, all of them,
trapped together, their doomed faces staring ahead, stunned, caught
in this thundering, rumbling, accelerating plane, and he thinks, his
mind slow and calm, that this is, really, what they all faced every day,
hurtling through space together on the spinning planet, rushing, unaware,
toward their final moments. And the spinning planet has been
spinning like this, as it is now, for all time, sweeping through the endless
black of space on its long elegant loop. It will go on, though for
him, for them, it’s all over, whatever happens. There is time now to
do only one thing, the last thing; he’s grateful that there’s time and
he’s conscious. Gratitude floods him for this.
Nat shifts carefully, keeping his head low, avoiding the wrathful
gaze of the hijacker, who is shouting something over and over at the
top of his lungs, some sort of fanatical chant, and now the other hijacker
is shouting it too. They seem, mystifyingly, to be flying through
the buildings of Manhattan, and the engines are whining unbearably,
their pitch is rising higher and higher toward some unthinkable
climax, but before this, and just before the plane opens the black
maw of its own tunnel, Nat turns and takes Ella in his arms.