You have two empty seats next to you, an entire airplane row to yourself. You can’t believe your luck. Once you flew business class, on a fluke upgrade. You can’t remember most of it because for the first time in your lifetime of air travel, you slept. You slept for an entire flight. Eight hours on a bed-like seat, with a quilt, not a scratchy blanket. A real pillow.
Now you’re operating on your standard 5-6 hours, but it’s morning, and that’s your time. Two nights ago you didn’t sleep at all, not really, because you were so nervous. Your stomach tight, limbs tingling. A year of waiting, and it was about to end, one way or another.
On this plane, you aren’t sleepy. You breathe in deep as you take off, a superstition you’ve cultivated since childhood: Breathe as you’re lifting off, and you won’t crash. So far it’s worked.
The clouds are like the rings on mussel shells, like scales, things that remind you of the sea, where you’re headed. The Chicago skyline sits calmly outside the window, far below you now, slanting rays piercing the clouds to alight on the buildings. The scaly clouds reflect on the wing. You lean over the empty seats, the only empty seats on the plane, and take a photo. You can’t stop smiling, hot tears in your eyes.
You’ve lost count of how many times you’ve cried this weekend. At least four times during the race, stifled by lungs in need of oxygen, by intense concentration, by the shockwave every step sent through your knee, the one that’s been on fire for a month. Bursting into flame with every step. Just one more mile, you told yourself every time your watch beeped. Just do one more mile.
There’s a special kind of hopelessness to be found in a depressed athlete with long-term physical injuries. Pain of mind, pain of body. Desperate reckonings.
At the finish line, you cry again, but still can’t breathe. You find your friends. You collapse into your friend’s shoulder, soak her shirt with tears. She cries into your neck. It took 26.2 miles for you to stop speculating, for your pride and determination to override your fear. For you to forget about how it used to be, when fast marathons and half marathons and 10k’s were the norm. For you to be in the place that you are, not the past, not the future. Your friend’s black shirt pressed into your face. Your hands gripping her back. Your body spent, the waiting over, the question answered.
“It’s really hard to run through IT band pain,” the sports doctor said. “We can give you cortisone injections, it might get you through for a little while.” Desperate reckonings. Hard, but not impossible.
You pull the hood of your sweatshirt over your head and lean back against the blue plastic of the seat. You have one thought: home. Soon you will be home – your childhood home, where the river curves in front of the house and the marshgrass stands brittle and tall, where the October leaves rain orange and red and the pine needles get stuck in your hair, where the cattails are mirrored in the blue surface of the pond. Home, with your mom and dad, your brother, your old friends. No work, no sport, no alarms, no TV. Rest, you think, and close your eyes on the tears.
When the plane lands and you lean over the empty seats, you see your city, your high school, the islands off the coast. Boats in the harbor, your mom in the airport waiting to hug you. You haven’t seen her in so long. The sun is bright, the sky cloudless. Seashell clouds replaced by sea, stretching endlessly outside your tiny window. The one you have to yourself.
You take another picture.
This was written as an assignment for a writing class to blend genres and/or points of view in a single piece.