“Let’s go to Australia,” said Monti, smiling at her husband. The creases around her eyes deepened, and her laugh lines revealed sixty-five years of happiness.
“What are you talking about?” Ollie said, while perusing his morning paper. He grabbed a pair of scissors and cut out an article he finished reading. He wrote the day’s date along the margin with black ink and set it aside on top of three others.
“I’m talking about taking a vacation to Australia.”
“What’s in Australia?” Ollie asked, turning back to the newspaper which now resembled swiss cheese. He left the crossword puzzle intact. Ollie enjoyed doing them in the evening while sitting up in his bed. Monti was usually beside him reading a book.
“Koala bears, kangaroos. The Coral Reef. The Sydney Opera house.”
“Don’t we have a zoo about twenty minutes from here? I think they have kangaroos and koala bears.”
“Ollie, you know it’s not the same.”
“Ok. So, go to Australia and look at koala bears. Don’t they just eat one type of leaf all their lives?”
“I’m not going alone, you old fool. I meant both of us.”
Ollie gazed at his wife. After forty years of marriage, he still adored looking into her eyes, blue like the clearest sea. “No. I can’t.”
“Why not? What else do you have to do? I’ve only been retired for a month now and I’m getting . . . I don’t know. I don’t feel like myself. I think I’m getting antsy.”
“You know why I can’t go.”
“I know, I know. I recently read an article about this woman who was afraid of flying. She went to an acupuncturist and she was cured in five sessions.”
“I doubt our insurance will pay for that. Besides, that stuff is nonsense. You believe everything you read.” Ollie returned to his paper.
“Do you want to look at some brochures?”
“Brochures of what?”
Ollie folded his paper at its crease and set it down louder than he intended. “I cut out an article last week of a pilot who was fired for showing up intoxicated. The stewardess turned him in because she smelled alcohol on his breath. I can show you the article. I filed it away.”
“That’s good. He got caught. There’s systems in place for stuff like that and the system worked. Besides, I always dreamed of traveling during our retirement.”
“You can still go. No one is stopping you.”
“What if we vacationed somewhere else? We can drive to Niagara Falls. Or the Grand Canyon. Or we could drive to Los Angeles and take a cruise to Hawaii from there,” said Monti.
“I heard something on the news the other day about a ‘staycation.’ Have you heard of this? To save money, people are staying home and just going to different places in their own city. Museums. Aquariums. Fancy restaurants. Just pick a fancy restaurant. I’ll take you there. You mentioned some restaurant once. The one next to the mall, near that bookstore. Actually, I read that that bookstore might be going under. Nobody is buying books anymore. Everything’s electronic now.”
“I don’t even know why I talk to you. I should have married Rob Morgan when I had the chance. He was a world traveler. He would have taken me in a second.” Monti threw a pen at Ollie and watched it bounce off of his forearm.
“Well, call him up then. He’ll be happy to hear from you.”
“I wouldn’t be happy to hear from him. Especially since he’s been dead for a year now.”
“Yes, you old fool. You went to his funeral. You spoke with his brother about the upcoming presidential election for almost an hour. Then you ate that girl’s cookie.”
“I didn’t know it was her cookie. Why do you keep bringing that up?”
“You do remember that funeral then?”
“Yeah. I guess I do. Poor old Rob,” Ollie shook his head.
“We are going on vacation. Together. And not here.” Monti folded her arms across her chest and marched out of the kitchen. She was hoping Ollie would at least comment on her new haircut. She normally kept a tight perm, but now she straightened it in a short bob. She didn’t want to say anything to him, just to see how long it would take for him to notice. It had been over a day and a half.
Monti stomped into her bedroom, her flower-patterned nightgown flowing along with her. Red and orange leaves, pinned down by fat rain drops, covered the balcony outside her room. Ollie watched her as she closed the door behind her.
He would have liked to take his wife to Australia or anywhere else for that matter. They discussed it plenty when Ollie was getting ready to retire from the Plain Dealer as a newspaper reporter. They used to drive from Cleveland to Chicago once every other month to visit their son Lucas and his family. That was about as adventurous as Ollie was willing to get. Their son now did most of the traveling. Monti had had enough of seeing the same highways and flat terrain and Ollie had had enough of his wife’s nagging. Two years after his retirement, she was still waiting to see the sun over a different hemisphere.
The following day, Monti went about her business like it was any other day since her retirement. She dressed and went for her morning walk in the park alone. On her walk back to the car she called Ollie on her cell phone. Lucas had bought her a phone last Christmas insisting she never go walking alone without it. She hated it at first, saying it had too many doodads and such. But she began to love it, especially when she learned how to use the built-in camera and store pictures of her grandchildren.
“Hello,” Ollie answered.
“Ollie, it’s me. I’m walking past this adorable café that just opened up a few weeks ago. Do you want to meet me here for lunch?”
“I’m still in my pajamas.”
“It’s eleven thirty for Pete’s sake. Put on some pants and come over. They even have tables set up outside like a little French bistro. The menu looks delicious.”
“We have plenty of food in the house. What about that leftover chicken you made yesterday. You want it to spoil?”
“Have it for dinner. Ollie, you don’t want to have lunch with me? This is the staycation you talked about.”
“Monti, I don’t feel good. Besides, ‘The People’s Court’ is coming on soon.”
“Fine. I’ll go by myself.”
“You’re going to eat there by yourself? That’s crazy.”
“People will look at you. They’ll wonder why you’re eating alone.”
“Then I’ll tell them my crotchety husband refuses to eat with me.”
“Just come home Monti. I miss you. I want you to sit with me.”
“Fine. I’ll order something to go.” Monti settled on a pear and bacon tarte and cheese quiche.
Once home, Monti curled up on the couch next to Ollie. They ate in silence. She ate her tarte and quiche and Ollie ate his leftover chicken. The “People’s Court” was a rerun. Ollie did not seem to mind.
About a half hour later, a roaring whistle circulated through Ollie’s nose. Monti kissed his warm forehead and turned to her novel.
The next morning Monti was still in bed when Ollie awoke. Not to disturb her, he shuffled to the kitchen alone and instantly missed the days of coffee and bacon at the ready. Ollie shook the coffee maker, opened the top and peered inside. He scrounged the cabinets for anything resembling coffee grains. A small bag of whole coffee beans sat in the pantry near the fridge. He read the package’s instructions and inhaled the bitter scent emanating from the bag. The coffee would have to wait for Monti.
Ollie walked barefoot outside his front door to fetch his paper. He sniffed the dewy newspaper and its inky aroma. Besides the smell, Ollie also liked the snap of flattening it out on the table. It was crisp and cold. His scissors and black pen were at the ready.
He read two paragraphs of the front page and then stopped. A chill ran down his spine and a feeling of utter terror flashed in his mind. Ollie tiptoed into the bedroom and placed his hand on his wife’s uncovered arm. She felt cold. She didn’t respond when he called her name. He expected her to turn around and scold him for interrupting her sleep, or at least beg for five more minutes of rest.
“Monti, wake up.” Ollie shook her arm, harder this time. “Wake up. I need you to wake up.”
She did not stir.
“Please Monti.” He continued to shake her listless body. She remained silent. He combed her hair with his callused hand and noticed how it slid smoothly through his fingers. Ollie laid down next to her icy body and wrapped his arm around her plump waist. He could smell the vanilla scented night cream on her face.
His sobs soaked through her nightgown. “My God Monti. I love you so much. I always loved you. I’m so sorry that I haven’t been a better husband. If you wake up, I’ll go to Australia with you. Today. We’ll go today. Please.”
“Dad,” said Lucas. “I’ve been calling the house all morning. Where are you?”
“Hey Luke,” said Ollie into his cellphone. It was perhaps only the third time he ever used it. He hated talking on the phone. He never understood why anyone would want to carry a phone around with them everywhere they went and feel compelled to answer ever irritating ring. “I’m at the airport.”
“At the airport? Where are you going?”
“Well at the moment I’m not going anywhere. I’m in the car in the parking lot. I’m just watching the planes.”
“Dad, I’m worried about you. Why don’t you move here with Debbie and me? You’ll be with the grandkids every day. There’s even a rec center by us with great programs for seniors. You’ll love it here.”
“I’m just wondering if any of these planes are going to Australia.”
“You need to stop this. Mom wasn’t blaming you. She always understood why you’re afraid to fly. She understood about Uncle Roy. No one blamed you for what happened to him.”
“Damn it, Lucas! My wife asked me one simple thing. She wanted to go on a vacation with me. What moron of a husband would say no to that? She wanted to go to Australia and I couldn’t take her. Well, I decided that I now need to take her. She loved the beach, so her ashes will meet the beach in Australia. I have to. I have to find a way.”
“Ok Dad. I hear you. How about I talk to Debbie? Maybe we can plan for all of us to go. We’ll plan something together.”
“I’d like that. That’s a good idea Luke.”
Monti had once given Ollie an article on fear immersion therapy and he had set it aside as nonsense. Ollie had since dug it up from his drawer and decided to give it a try. Sitting in the airport parking lot seemed like a good first step. He would imagine himself on one of those planes with Monti by his side.
Weeks of sitting at the airport finally prepared him for the next step. He parked his car and strolled along a corridor into the building and to a long row of ticket counters. The chaos of travelers both frightened and mesmerized him. Swarms of people buzzing back and forth irritated his ears. Ollie stood in the middle of the confusion with children running past him and men in suits tinkering with their cell phones as they hurried to their destinations. One man bumped into Ollie’s arm, knocking him forward.
“You can’t just stand there!” yelled the man in the suit as he stomped past. “You’re in the way.”
Ollie stood statuesque and confused as what to do next. The heavy aroma of coffee in the air reminded him of Monti making her own brew. His body began to shake and his chest beat faster. Ollie rubbed his face with his large hands. He looked around, not sure at what, until he gazed upon a dark-skinned woman dressed in a black suit and a crisp white shirt walking in his direction. Her name tag read ‘Adrienne.’
“May I help you sir? You look a little lost.”
“I, uh. I wanted to see if, if, if I could go to one of the terminals and, uh wait for my friend to arrive.”
“I’m sorry sir, but the only people allowed through the metal detectors are passengers with tickets. We have a waiting lounge in luggage claim. You’ll be comfortable there.”
“Does the lounge have windows to watch the planes land?”
“Not really, no. When is your friend landing?”
“Well, I’m not really sure.” Ollie searched the massive hall around him as if looking for someone.
“Ok. What’s his name? I can look it up for you.”
“No. No. That’s Ok. I’m not going to bother you. Thanks for the help.” Ollie turned around and walked out with his beating heart pumping in his throat. Ollie was sure that Monti was looking down on him shaking her head, either disappointed or laughing hysterically.
Days later, he returned to the airport and planted himself where he could stay out of everyone’s way. Ollie watched people in a hurry and people with time to spare. He watched people wait in line to be checked out at the counter and trade their baggage for a ticket. Everyone was going somewhere, and no one appeared terrified to get there. Plenty of husbands were accompanying their wives, some with smiles on their faces. Joking, laughing, yawning. At least a couple of them must have been going to Australia. The process seemed so simple. Check your luggage. Get through the metal detector. Climb into the plane. Go to Australia. Easy.
Some time passed when Ollie noticed Adrienne walking toward him. Today she wore a brown pencil skirt, a beige button-down shirt and her charming smile.
“Are you still waiting for your friend sir?”
“No. I guess not.”
“Security is very tight sir. If you don’t belong here, you need to go home. Otherwise just tell me what you need.”
“Well. This is embarrassing. But, uh. I guess I’m here because I’m afraid of flying. It’s a hard thing for an old man to admit. I thought maybe this would help me get over that. But all this commotion is still too much.”
“I can get you some resources. I have numbers to support groups or therapists, even hypnotists. We also offer a class here at the airport for people with flying anxieties. It’s not unusual.”
“I really don’t have time for that. I just need to get my wife to Australia. She always wanted to go and I never took her. I never took her anywhere because I’m too afraid to fly. Our anniversary is coming up and I really need to do this.”
“I understand. But you also need to understand that if someone finds you suspicious, you could get kicked out by security. There has to be an easier way. Go see your doctor. Come back when you’re ready to fly with us.” Adrienne reached into the back pocket of her skirt and pulled out a white business card. “If there’s anything I can do to make this easier, just let me know.”
Ollie went home and sat at the kitchen table, a handful of old newspaper clippings sprawled neatly on the table. He sat listening to the ticking clock behind him. He remembered picking it out with Monti when they first moved into this home. She loved it because of its unusual brown, thick frame and antique looking face. He thought it was hideous.
The articles before him told stories of tragedy and survival. There were plane crashes where no one escaped death and other collisions where the majority survived to tell their stories. There were exposés of the victims and their detailed ordeal. Other articles concentrated on timelines of the history of flight and vignettes of famous plane crashes, from the Wright Brothers to the unsolved missing Malaysia flight.
A couple of clippings had turned yellow and stiff with age. The back of one article in particular, advertised a brand-new Cadillac for $4,500. The car dealership had since become a supermarket. Ollie turned the clipping over and stared at it. It was half a page in length. A deluge of tears blurred his vision. The photograph on the front page featured a young man looking distraught. He looked about seventeen-years-old. The caption read “‘Oliver Mann, plane crash survivor, weeps over lost brother Roy Mann.’”
Ollie remembered his mother being terribly ill. His father thought it best that his boys live with their aunt while their mother recovered. It was Ollie’s responsibility to care for Roy until his aunt met them at the airport. Ollie reread the editorial. He was quoted, “My brother was only ten years old. I remembered to put my seat belt and oxygen mask on like the stewardess told me. I was so scared I forgot to check my brother. I was supposed to take care of him. How am I supposed to tell my parents?”
Ollie had read that article at least one hundred times before filing it away. Monti reassured him that he was not responsible for his brother’s death. He was only a boy she’d told him. Ollie’s father had commented that maybe Roy would have survived if his seat belt was fastened securely. Monti insisted that maybe his seatbelt was fastened, but the chaos would not allow Ollie to remember. Remembering was futile now.
Ollie read the article for the first time in years. For a moment, he could smell burning fuel and feel heat radiating from his skin. He took a deep breath and laid the article back on the table, fearing his sweaty fingers would smudge the ink.
“Dad, where are you?” Lucas asked.
“I’m on a plane.”
“On a plane? A plane to where?”
“I’m taking your mother to Australia.”
“Are you serious? You said you would wait and we would all go together.”
“I’m sorry son. Today is the first-year anniversary of your mother’s death. Before I finally decide to get on this stupid plane, I’ll be dead. I can’t wait anymore. I took her ashes and I plan to let her lay on the beach for eternity. She’ll be happy there. I love you.”
Ollie pulled out an orange medicine bottle from his coat pocket that his doctor prescribed him to ease his tension. He swallowed a tablet with some bottled water. He put on his headphones, ready to battle his fear along with Mozart and Mendelssohn. With both hands clenched over the armrests, he closed his eyes and thought of Monti. His heart began to race as he heard the motor roaring. I can do this, he murmured to himself. His eyes were shut tight and he breathed deeply waiting for the plane to take off.
Ollie’s medication kicked in. The plane began to taxi down the runway. Ollie’s muscles sank into the chair. His eyes felt droopy. His heart relaxed. The plane took off. Ollie’s eyes closed tight as he muttered a prayer. He felt his body lift into the air. A force pushed him deeper into his chair. He heard a pop in his ear and he shut his eyes tighter. Pop, pop. His fingernails dug into the palm of his hands. Another ten minutes past. Ollie allowed himself to open his eyes.
Monti, I’m flying. You’re going to Australia, he said to himself. Ollie felt exhausted from the fear and anticipation.
A half hour into the flight, the pilot’s voice blared throughout the cabin. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve turned on the fasten seat belts sign and asked the flight attendants to be seated. We seem to be flying into some nasty weather and experiencing some turbulence. It’s going to last for a few minutes, but just relax, and we’ll get through it momentarily. Thank you.”