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As she stumbled in the craggy grass, the woman pulled her sweaty hair away from her neck. She never felt wrong in her reasons for being angry, but her outbursts always seemed to invalidate her anger. They made it so she had to apologize for the outburst, regardless of the rightness of her anger. She’d thought being the first to apologize made her the bigger person. Instead it meant the other person never had to do it, until the apology began to feel less like an act of kindness, but like something being taken away. It did not mean forgiveness.
She tried to remember the biggest fight she and the man ever had. The one she settled on had been over whale meat. They’d taken a five-day trip to Iceland the year their daughter was seven. On the second night, in a small, traditional restaurant, they had the opportunity to eat whale meat. The man was disgusted by the idea—it was an endangered species, he argued. Not to mention the intelligence of the animal, and not to mention the overfishing crisis plaguing the oceans, and not to mention the ridiculousness of preserving archaic cultural rituals in a smarter, modern world.
The woman shushed him, partly because she wanted him to shut up with his lecturing, and partly because she was afraid of being overheard by locals. There was something pretentious in his criticism, a failure to see that there were varying degrees of rightness, and she told him so in a hushed, hissing voice.
You can’t reject a complex feature of an entire culture, she told him.
Oh, yes you can, the man assured her.
She ordered the whale and then stuffed half of it in her mouth as soon as it was set down on the table. He stared at her plate as though in physical pain. She was surprised that the meat was reddish brown, not white, served with the little round boiled potatoes that came with everything. She had no memory of what it tasted like.
The man said, “Sometimes I think you have no character. Sometimes I don’t know that you actually believe in anything.”
She chewed violently, silverware clutched in her hands. She was confused if she was defending Iceland, which she knew practically nothing about, or herself. It was the first time she’d felt nothing but hate for him, and felt distinctly that he hated her back. Then she did something disgusting—stuck her tongue out with the half-chewed whale still in her mouth. He’d left her at the table.
She was relieved to be able to finish her meal in peace. Back at the hotel, they agreed to pretend to ignore what had just happened. But for a long time afterward he would say, seemingly at random, “I can’t believe you really ate the whale in Iceland.”
Pure momentum kept her moving along the hill as she remembered this, and soon she saw a small crowd of people milling about or leaning on their cars. There was a police car up ahead with its lights silently flashing. She stopped, suddenly apprehensive.
In the car, a new caller was telling the advice lady, “I keep having these nightmares that my wife is trying to kill me. Every night it’s the same: she’s pinned me down with her knees and she’s trying to strangle me with a pillow. Now I can’t stand to look at her in the mornings, we fight more, we don’t want to make love—”
“Do you see? See what I meant about the dreams!” said the man to no one.
He couldn’t believe she’d left him there in the car. At parties, people would talk to his wife delightedly and he would want to shout, “You people have no idea who you’re really talking to.” He was going to have to do something about the friends they shared. He had not called up anyone to talk about the divorce yet, though he had broken the news over email. One coworker had written back, ambiguously, “Another ship leaves the harbor. Where do they go next?” Now the man made a mental note to phone or see everyone, so the women could not hijack all of their friends. A few would pick him over her.
Then he was surprised to see her nearly back at the car. He watched her leap down the last foot of the hill onto the highway. When she reached his window she rapped on it with one knuckle and he rolled it down.
“If you cut through the grass you can just see the beginning of the jam. Want to go see what it is?”
He stared at her, marveling—still, after so many years—at how calmly she could speak to him after screaming minutes before. “What is the matter with you?” he demanded.
“It’s right there,” she said, pointing over the hill. “We’ll only be gone for a few minutes.”
“I’m not abandoning the car in the middle of the highway,” he said.
“We’re not moving!” she shouted. Then, apologetically, “I asked a police officer. He said they wouldn’t open the lanes for at least another hour. There are other people walking around.” She stuck her head down in the window, laying her chin on her hands. “Look,” she said. “I’m sorry. I was mean. Come take a walk with me.”
The man was full of stubbornness and follow-through but he could not strum up either of those qualities at that moment. They had been abandoning him lately.
“I’ll come,” he said, with the tone of one doing a favor. He handed the woman the keys and got out.
They climbed gracelessly up the ugly yellow grass of the hill. The trees at the top of the hill began in a straight, abrupt line, as though the hill had been shaved with a straight razor. It made the man depressed to look at the sides of highways. He felt like he was being watched, not by people but by the cars themselves. They reached the other side of the hill and descended to the gravelly edge of the road, which they followed around a long curve, and he thought about how his daughter would be driving so soon and how frightened he was of her getting older.
He had always planned on having more than one child. There were four children in the picture in his head. In the delivery room, he had cried as much as the woman had. The woman loved the baby very much but was afraid of infants. The man worked in the evenings then, teaching night classes, so they could trade shifts watching the baby. He came home many nights to find the woman crying and the baby screaming and the house in disarray. There was always something cooked down to a blackened mush on the stove. She would say, “She won’t sleep! I can’t make her sleep!” and weep into her hands. The man would clean up and put the baby to bed. He and the baby were delighted by each other.
Things got better as their daughter got older. The woman understood older children, she knew what games to play and how to talk to them. Their daughter’s friends liked her best of all the mothers at their school.
But the woman couldn’t do another baby. At one point, the man had got down on his knees and asked her for another child. She’d said, “Why are you doing this to me?”
They had not discussed this in many years now. Though he was angry that it had played out the way it had, on his better days he was not angry at the woman. She could not have predicted how she would feel after she became a mother. It was painful for her to say she did not want to get pregnant again. Some days he thought it wouldn’t have done any good to have another child. And other days he thought it would have solved everything.
There were things they weren’t willing to do for each other. This was just one thing.
Now their daughter wasn’t particularly fond of either of them.
He thought about this and about how his daughter was getting older all the time, and was alarmed to feel his throat tighten. The throat, he had recently decided, was where people who did not cry stored their sadness.
He stopped when he saw what lay about a hundred feet ahead. It seemed to have risen up out of the ground. A personal jet was lying on the highway, with its tail end blocking two lanes and the tip of its nose buried in some bushes. The plane was lopsided and the right wing was bent, the metal around it crushed and wrinkled. The wheels were still up so it was perched directly on the ground. Just next to the plane was a crane, its massive neck previously hidden by the trees, looming over the scene looking urban and out of place, like it had wandered there by accident. On the other side of the road a few people hovered around two busted up cars with black tire tracks stretched out behind them. Orange cones and yellow caution tape blocked the traffic and a few other bystanders, but it looked haphazardly done. Police cars stood nearby, along with one ambulance and a fire truck—the triptych of emergency, the man thought—but the scene was strikingly still, as though everyone had run out of things to do.
“It’s a plane!” said the woman, and the man was struck by the obviousness of the announcement. Then she yelled, “Hey!” to an idling paramedic a few feet away.
The man just stared. He kept thinking, Who put this here? What is this doing here? The highway was empty on the other side of the crash, sprawled out looking almost apocalyptic, as though the wreckage marked the beginning of a new raw and dangerous world.
“Please stay behind the barrier,” said the paramedic.
“Can you tell us what happened?” she asked, leaning over the edge of the police barrier. The man thought she was practically sucking this experience up through her pores, converting it into an anecdote to gossip about later.
In front of a backdrop such as this, it was clear that he was being unfair to her. For years he had relied almost entirely on her moods, her ability to enjoy things and people, to give his own life meaning. They both possessed so many bad qualities; who would love them next?
The paramedic hooked his thumbs in his belt loops in the universal pose of casual authority. “A personal jet. Six-seater. Crashed over an hour ago.”
The woman put her hands over her mouth. “How many inside?”
“Lady … ” said the paramedic. But then he went on. “A family of four.”
“And a pilot?”
“The father was piloting.”
The woman shot the man a look that was the very image of the word beseeching. He stared back; what did she want him to say?
“Plus the dog,” said the paramedic apologetically. “All this stuff is already up on the news, you know. You can read this on the news.”
The woman interrupted him, “The dog? The dog?” She blinked, looking lost. The man could not tell if she was talking to him or the paramedic. “You never think about animals in plane crashes,” she said. “I never considered that. You think, what would an animal be doing on a plane? But people bring them. They put them in crates and bring them on planes. And then something terrible happens, something a dog would never be involved with if humans hadn’t dragged him into it.”
The paramedic looked from her to the man. Then he said, “I think you’re in a bit of shock. Why don’t you sit down?”
“Is anyone still alive?” she asked.
“Lady,” said the paramedic. “I actually don’t know. The family was taken to the hospital. I can’t say anything for certain. You’ll probably hear about it on the news.”
As he spoke, there was some movement on the road. A diesel semitruck approached with an enormous low flatbed, as long as the kind used to transport shipments of cars. It began the arduous process of turning around and backing up towards the plane. The scene sprang to life as a group of men in orange vests leapt up and started wrapping a giant metal cable around the plane. At that moment it looked more like a turkey carcass than anything else; unwieldy and dead and in need of preparation.
“So that’s how they’ll move it,” the woman said. The paramedic, walking back towards the ambulance, didn’t seem to hear her.
The man took her by the elbow. He did not like looking at the plane, and he did not like bothering people in uniforms. “Come on. There’s nothing else to see here.”
She looked confusedly at his hand on her arm. Her hair was in disarray, and the thin indentation above her collarbone was shiny with sweat. The man pulled her towards him.
As she turned she caught sight of the glint of a piece of metal lying on the ground. Pulling her arm out of the man’s grasp, she bent to pick it up.
“What is it? Put it down,” the man said.
The woman jerked away as he reached for her. He got so nervous around authority figures. The piece of metal was silver and very flat, and about the size of a piece of paper folded in half. On one edge was a narrow strip of black and yellow stripes and the text no lift no step was emblazoned across the top in block letters.
“Put it back,” the man repeated. She locked eyes with him defiantly and, without responding, turned and started up the hill.