I jump, looking up at the flight attendant before me. She's tapping the back of my seat, disapproval in her eyes.
"We're going to need you to make sure your seat back is in the upright and locked position."
I look back down, push the little silver button on my armrest, and feel my back begin to bend forward at an acute angle, my stomach folding in on itself. The attendant begins to walk away, pushing overhead compartments closed as she goes, when I reach out my arm and stop her.
"Can I bother you for a soda water?"
"We'll begin beverage service as soon as we take off."
"Please," I add, grabbing her arm harder as she starts to step away. "If you wouldn't mind. I've been talking all day."
I touch my throat for emphasis, and she looks down the aisle at the other passengers squirming uncomfortably, adjusting their seat belts. Digging through backpacks for headphones.
"Fine," she says, her lips pinched tight. "Just a moment."
I smile, nod, and ease back into my seat before looking around the plane at the other passengers I'll be sharing circulated air with for the next four hours as we make our way from Los Angeles to Atlanta. It's a game I play, trying to imagine what they're doing here. What life circumstances brought them to this exact moment, with this exact group of strangers. I wonder what they've been doing, or what they plan to do.
Are they going somewhere, or are they making their way home?
My eyes land first on a child sitting alone, giant headphones swallowing his ears. I imagine he's a product of divorce, spending one weekend every month getting shuttled from one side of the country to the other like cargo. I feel myself starting to imagine how Mason might have looked at that age—how his green eyes could have morphed even greener, two twin emeralds twinkling like his father's, or how his baby-smooth skin might have taken on the olive tone of my own, a natural tan without having to step foot in the sun.
I swallow hard and force myself to turn away, twisting to the left and taking in the others.
There are older men on laptops and women with books; teenagers on cell phones slouched low in their seats, gangly knees knocking into the seat backs in front of them. Some of these people are traveling to weddings or funerals; some are embarking on business trips or clandestine getaways paid for in cash. And some of these people have secrets. All of them do, really. But some of them have the real ones, the messy ones. The deep, dark, shadowy ones that lurk just beneath the skin, traveling through their veins and spreading like a sickness.
Dividing, multiplying, then dividing again.
I wonder which ones they are: the ones with the kinds of secrets that touch every organ and render them rotten. The kinds of secrets that will eat them alive from the inside out.
Nobody in here could possibly imagine what I've just spent my day doing: recounting the most painful moment of my life for the enjoyment of strangers. I have a speech now. A speech that I recite with absolute detachment, engineered in just the right way. Sound bites that I know will read well when ripped from my mouth and printed inside newspapers, and manufactured moments of silence when I want a point to sink in. Warm memories of Mason to break up a particularly tense scene when I'm sensing the need for some comedic relief. Just as I'm going deep into his disappearance—the open window I had discovered in his bedroom letting in a warm, damp breeze; the tiny mobile situated above his bed, little stuffed dinosaurs dancing gently in the wind—I stop, swallow. Then I recite the story of how Mason had just started talking. How he pronounced T. rex "Tyrantosnorious"—and how, every time he pointed at the little creatures above his bed, my husband would break out into exaggerated snores, sending him into a fit of giggles before drifting off himself. And then the audience would allow themselves to smile, maybe even laugh. There would be a visible release in their shoulders; their bodies would settle into their chairs again, a collectively held breath released. Because that's the thing with the audience, the thing I learned long ago: They don't want to get too uncomfortable. They don't want to actually live through what I've lived through, every ugly moment. They just want a taste. They want enough for their curiosity to be satiated—but if it gets too bitter or too salty or too real, they'll smack their lips and leave dissatisfied.
And we don't want that.
The truth is, people love violence—from a distance, that is. Anyone who disagrees is either in denial or hiding something.
"Your soda water."
I look up at the flight attendant's outstretched arm. She's holding a small cup of clear liquid, little bubbles rising to the surface and bursting with a satisfying fizz.
"Thank you," I say, taking it from her and placing it in my lap.
"You'll need to keep your tray table stowed," she adds. "We'll be in the air soon."