Christopher Rabley: “Touch Me Strong”

In a terminal at JFK Airport, tunnelvisioned and sharp-breathed, I thought I might faint, back-flat on terrazzo. Ahead of me passengers stood in rows, some barefoot, dotted aside bulky trays that snaked. The TSA agent stared at passports dull and shifted hopeless. Another blared monotonous. A baby cried hot.

Twenty-one years ago, Mum was killed in a plane crash: Singapore Airlines #006, bound for Los Angeles from Taiwan; just before midnight, the flight crew raced the plane down the wrong runway during a typhoon. My fear of flying ended three days after the crash, when they still hadn’t found Mum; whatever she went through I could also: now, three years after Covid-19 hit New York, I have changed.

I tried to ignore damp KN95 fiber-cotton paneling my face and lips; the giant building ballooning air still, stale, and stagnant; crowds of people.

Take me down, down to where I once knew,

Touch me simple, in the trees, branches and leaves, rain, sun and breeze,

Take me past the pain, to the cool, quiet, and smooth, slow, sound and soothe,

Touch me close; body, mind, love, and soul; Touch me, strong.In a double-doored lift, a man jabbed a finger in my face and stared at me blank. Until the door behind him opened; head bowed he faded into chaos banked by megaphonedgates, beam seats and mini restaurants selling coffee and alcohol.

My imagination took over, and I saw myself snap his finger odd, the expression on his face.

I sweat beads, on my forehead, down my back, chest.

In a souvenir shop, a thin-lipped man told the shopgirl to look at his mouth as he argued over a hat emblazoned “The Big Apple” in cherry red- he spoke Cockney, she Harlem brogue.

I wondered why anyone would argue over the price of something in an airport shop.

I need a breeze, anything.

In my aisle seat, on the plane, I sit rigid. A boy pinballs his bag against rests. A woman, bodycon-squeezed and wearing petite flip-flops, leans against my seat to moan.

I look to see where the exits are, then close my eyes.

I remember Mum’s flight.

In seat 17D, on the upper deck, Mum showed pictures of her grandchildren to other passengers; before her plane left the gate and cabin lights dimmed; before it got quiet, except for a typhoon that cracked rain against aluminum skin painted fancy, rocked the plane.

In seat 17D, Mum was dressed in her favorite outfit for overnight flights, a pajama suit.

My mind races, almost uncontrollable.

Mum’s flight crew used maps and landmarks to pick their way to the runway, struggled to control the plane from the wind; sped 750,000 pounds: black coned lights that flashed split-second on construction equipment.

In the main cabin, fire shot down both aisles and gorged on passengers, bursting them into torches. Skinless, some passengers screamed, ran, and clawed. Flight attendants, in dainty sandals, braved a melting floor.

I think about when I was a child, one morning in bed in The Bahamas; the lime-green curtains with giant yellow hibiscus painted on loose knit, beaded brilliant by the sun, wafted lazy by the breeze.

On the upper deck, the bang of the plane crashing into construction equipment was a thud. A flight attendant opened an exit door; the wind tore the chute from the plane, flew it like a loose kite. Flames shredded the other chute thin.

On the upper deck, a steward put a damp cloth over his face and helped people on the staircase. One passenger crawled atop seats as if demented. Another slid on his belly down the stairs, beneath the smoke, and died.

On the upper deck, the staircase became a chimney, open exits vents.

I think about how the cotton bedsheet, billowed by the fan, kept me warm;the hum of the lawn mower outside; scent of cut grass; the sough songed from palm trees edging crab grass matted giant.

Outside Mum’s plane, giant flames licked smoke dense and visible even though it was night-time: fire raged almost independent from the elements; smelted a fuselage that slumped.

On the staircase, sandwiched tight among passengers, Mum lay dead; her left side burned without a trace. Mum was sixty-two years old.

Outside Mum’s plane, foam blew aimlessly from hoses held by men in giant boots.

I think about my nanny who looked after me since the day I was born in The Bahamas, Lela, my second mother; how she sat next to me the time I didn’t leave my bed or speak; how she held my hand and whispered love soft; how she told me the lord put my voice next to my heart for a reason.

Cabin air cools my body, head, and skin.

In my aisle seat, I understand. I don’t need to know why the man jabbed a finger, why the other argued over a hat; Mum didn’t climb the torn chute almost thirty feet; why, right after the flight crew instructed upper-deck passengers to take the stairs, they fled out the exit and shimmied themselves to safety.

My mind is clear.

I hear.

I feel.

Heels tap muffled against a hollow floor, a lever clicks, and the flight attendants arm the exits. We motion backward, smooth, slow, as the tractor-tug pushes us from the gate.

Hoses above our heads blow white noise.

Rubber wheels rumble soft across a grooved taxiway. My body leans and buildings become shapes that flash then blur. The plane tilts and rolls its wheels snug. Beneath, strokes of green-brown, black, white, and silver-gray flash to aqua and navy blue.

Engines purr.

In a cabin, fuselage-bounced, I sleep. Calm.

Take me down, down to where I once knew,

Touch me simple, in the trees, branches and leaves, rain, sun and breeze,

Take me past the pain, to the cool, quiet, and smooth, slow, sound and soothe,

Touch me close; body, mind, love, and soul; Touch me, strong.

Christopher Rabley has written and published short stories and is working on a novel The Secret Sleeps Next to Me. Born and raised in the Bahamas he attended preparatory school in England and later graduated from University of Miami School of Law. He lives in Queens, New York.