A famous actor and a young woman are seated together in first class. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. 2,664 words. Illustration by John Mann.
The only thing Richard hated more than planes was being talked to while on a plane. He’d forgotten his noise-cancelling headphones somewhere in the first class lounge in Atlanta, which was an ever disappearing dot on the horizon. His red-eye flight back to LAX had been delayed two hours, and even though his first-class seat reclined into a bed, he was still not happy.
“Sir,” asked a flight attendant, “do you mind if this girl sits here? There’s been an… incident at the back of the aircraft and she needs to… sit up here for the rest of the flight. It’s the only seat that’s empty.”
“Okay,” said Richard, thinking he wasn’t old enough to be called sir or mister.
“Thank you ever so much. She’s a big fan. Thank you, Mr. Mayfield.”
Richard grumbled a reply that was inaudible over the thrum of the jet engines, and the flight attendant left to do whatever flight attendants do when Richard couldn’t see them. The girl was really a young woman and looked about 21 and had blonde hair cut into loose waves that spilled over the tops of her shoulders like cascading honey. She held her chin a little higher than most anyone he’d seen that day and it stood out to him, along with a curious squint and pout combination that made her look almost like a child taking a test.
“Are you Richard Mayfield?” she asked.
“Yes. Yes, I am.” Richard knew what was coming.
“I’m Jackie,” said the stranger who was no longer a stranger.
“Hi, Jackie,” said Richard, and he turned away from her to face the window.
“I love your movies,” Jackie said, “They don’t play them much in town. There’s a theater in Hinesville that plays first-runs. Me and my girlfriend Casey — that’s girl-space-friend, not girlfriend like Ellen — we go to Hinesville and watch all the good ones that play there. I really liked you in that dance movie.”
“Yeah,” she said, “that one. I read you studied salsa dancing for six weeks just to learn that dance at the end–”
“–Thanks, Jackie.” He kept his face turned towards the window.
“You’re welcome. I’m heading to a funeral,” she said. “In California.”
“It’s not nice,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s quite sad, actually. My uncle died of a heart attack.” Jackie didn’t say he was shaving and then he died. There was a part of her that wished it was more dramatic. Death. His death, anyway. Like he’d been driving really fast or he’d fallen off a horse or something. She couldn’t remember any movies where Richard Mayfield had died.
Richard turned his head but not his shoulder, looking at her over the collar of his Dolce & Gabbana jacket. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Was he old?”
“No, he was 52. No, wait. 53. I don’t know who decides to die at 53 but there you have it,” she said, repeating what her mother had said about it. “I guess you never choose when you’re gonna go.”
They were quiet for a while. Richard thought about how long it would be until his next cigarette. And how old he was. He’d just turned 32.
To his surprise, he started another conversation.
“What happened back there?” he asked her.
“At the back of the aircraft,” said Richard.
“Some guy shit his pants,” said Jackie. “Just like that. Totally normal guy. He tried to get up and go to the bathroom and I guess he was just too late. Had his hand on the seat rest in front of him and…” she trailed off.
“Poor guy,” said Richard.
“It was pretty funny,” said Jackie. “But he didn’t seem to think so.”
“Can I ask you something? What’s it like being famous?”
“Well,” said Richard, fully turning to face her and resting on an elbow along the fully reclined first class seat, “what’s it like not being famous? You should–”
“–It’s pretty boring not being famous,” said Jackie. “That’s why I asked you.”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“Can you answer, please?” said Jackie impatiently, “I haven’t got all day.”
“The flight is six hours. We just left Atlanta–”
“–I know we did.”
Her rudeness surprised him, especially because he was making an effort. Richard realized there was no escaping her questions. He never liked conversing with fans because what he told them always wound up on social media. He hated sounding arrogant or egotistical on Twitter. Or, worse, stupid.
“Imagine you’re in a crowded room, and then everyone turns to you. And you don’t really have anything to say. They just stare and expect you to do or be something. That’s what being famous is like,” Richard told her. “I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody. It’s… pretty lonely. People expect you to talk to them at parties. On planes. People think you owe them everything. They kinda just want to knock you down. There’s always some who want to watch you fall.”
“That sounds really terrible,” said Jackie, sounding sincere.
“It is, actually,” agreed Richard. But instead of pretending to go to sleep, he asked her, “What do you do?”
“I work at a car dealership. I answer the phones and greet customers and direct them to the salespeople,” responded Jackie.
“You’re hot,” said Richard, “I bet you could work anywhere.”
“I read in one of those tabloids that you’re a major flirt,” rebuked Jackie. “And besides, I have a boyfriend.”
“He’s a lucky guy,” said Richard. He wasn’t sure if he meant it. Maybe he did.
“He is,” said Jackie, “He’s on tour.”
“What does he play?” said Richard.
“He plays the gun, silly. He’s a soldier.” Jackie didn’t say he had just left the military base outside of Savannah and was going to Afghanistan, or Iraq, or now maybe Syria, any day. Her mind and her voice seemed to wander back to Savannah. “I live on Broughton Street. Really nice there. Had my apartment since I was 17.” She also didn’t say that she thought we’ve been at war too long. That she didn’t even know what we’re fighting for.
“I almost enlisted,” said Richard. “Thought about flying jets like Tom Cruise.”
“In real life or in a movie?” she asked.
Richard couldn’t believe she’d never seen Top Gun. It made him feel older. He changed the subject. “What did you want to be when you were growing up?”
“I wanted to be a dancer,” said Jackie. “I used to be able to lose myself in just twirling around.”
“Why’d you stop?”
“Why does anyone stop?” said Jackie. She didn’t explain that you either become real good, like professional or whatever, or you become just someone who knows how to dance really well. She never got professional good. She just remained regular good. And the best she could hope for anyway in Savannah was opening one of those dance studios in a strip mall. Not really much need for it with the economy being what it is and all. “I coulda gone to New York,” she boasted. She opened her mouth to say something more but nothing came out. After a while she said, “I never wanted to live in New York,”
“Mischa would hate you for saying that,” commented Richard, “She loves it there.”
“Who’s Mischa?” asked Jackie.
“My girlfriend,” said Richard.
“Oh,” said Jackie, “I knew that. I read about you and her. What’s she like?”
“Can you keep a secret? Between me and you?”
Richard was certain she wouldn’t. But he wanted to share with her in the darkness.
“She’s kind of a handful,” he said. “She spends a lot when she’s shopping. It’s not that I mind. It’s that she hides how much. Couples should be open about this stuff. Anyway,” he said, looking around the first class cabin, “I’ve probably said too much. What’s Savannah like?”
“It’s great,” said Jackie, the edges of her mouth breaking ground on a smile.
“I should go,” he said.
“You should. What’s Hollywood like?” she asked.
“Los Angeles or Hollywood?”
“Hollywood,” said Jackie.
He was starting to enjoy the conversation. Because she wasn’t making him talk about himself now.
“It’s big. It’s confused. It holds the full spectrum of humanity, if you ask me. It’s rich. It’s poor. It’s beautiful. It’s a mess,” he said. “It doesn’t make any apologies for itself. Other cities do. Hollywood doesn’t really give a shit.”
“Isn’t that weird?” she asked.
“Isn’t what weird?”
“Living there,” she said.
“I mean, it was when I was younger,” he said. “But not anymore.”
“Savannah is pretty great,” she volunteered. “It’s too damn hot in the summer but when it’s winter, fall, spring — oh, man. You’re missing out.” She thought about the Spanish Moss in the trees… the people… the food. “You can drink on the streets, and everyone says hi to each other.”
“That sounds terrifying,” said Richard.
“It’s not if…”
“If what?” he said.
“I mean,” continued Richard as if she hadn’t interrupted him, “people have this idea that Hollywood is going to solve them. It’s not your first grade teacher. You’re never going to impress it.”
Jackie was now in full Savannah drawl. “I find it pretty strange that you’re talking down someplace that gave so much to you. Weren’t you working at a sandwich shop before you landed your first part?”
“How did you know that?”
“Yeah, it’s in like the first paragraph. My friend Casey has a big crush on you.”
“Tell her I said hi,” said Richard, “Do you want to take a selfie to show her–”
“–No,” said Jackie, thinking Casey’ll hate me for life. She’ll get jealous. “She looks at you like you’re not a person. Like you’re a thing. I think that’s no good at all.”
“Like I’m not a person?”
“Yeah,” said Jackie. “Like you’re a thing in her head. Like she wants to own you. She thinks she deserves you or something. I think it’s gross. People’s brains are pretty weird. Guys are worse about it. They think they can have a woman just cause they, you know,” she motioned masturbation.
"People try to own you?” asked Richard.
“Please. That thing you said about everyone looking at you? Every time I go to the Kroger, I get leered at by men. If I smile at the guy who bags my groceries, he thinks I’m gonna suck him off behind the deli counter later. People think I owe them something. And other girls ain’t gonna help me because they just wanna watch me fall on my ass. I mean, with all due respect,” said Jackie, “being famous sounds an awful lot like being a hot girl.”
“I’ve never thought about it that way,” said Richard.
Jackie had to admit to herself it has its perks, though. She got her ’87 Dodge transmission fixed for $225 because she wore a low cut blouse. “You pick your battles,” she said.
A short while passed in silence between them. The person across the aisle started to snore.
“You never finished telling me what Hollywood was like,” said Jackie.
“It’s kind of like flying,” said Richard. “It used to be very glamorous for a select few. Nowadays they’ll let pretty much anyone onboard if they buy a ticket. In certain parts of the plane it’s cramped and uncomfortable. It can really make you hate flying if you’re back there in coach. But up here? You gotta admit, it’s pretty great. All the perks. Do you want a drink? Anything you want.” He pressed a button. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“It’s OK, I guess,” said Jackie, determined not to succumb to his charm.
The flight attendant appeared next to them, all smiles from ear to ear, dripping with professionalism. Asked Richard, “Can I get a Jack and Coke and can my new friend here have the same?”
“I’ll just have a Coke,” said Jackie, staring straight ahead.
“Sure thing,” said the flight attendant, disappearing into the first class galley.
“What good is it being up here if nobody can afford it?” countered Jackie. “I mean, it’s all well and good you have a nice seat and a drink whenever you want it, but nobody else can.”
“Well,” said Richard, “they can’t afford it. Life is like that.”
“I just don’t see the point when everyone else is having such a hard time,” Jackie said matter-of-factly. “Besides, all that separates you and coach class is a thin curtain. I hate that thing. You can see through it.”
It’s like a movie screen, she thought, separating actors from the audience.
“Maybe they make it thin so that people can see the first class passengers enjoying themselves,” said Richard.
“I never thought about it that way,” said Jackie.
The flight attendant brought them their drinks. Jackie’s Coca-Cola came with two cherries on the end of a swizzle stick. She ate them right away as soon as the stewardess had gone. She began looking around for food. Would she get the first-class meal, too? Yes, certainly, if Richard Mayfield asked for it for her.
She decided to be more pleasant to him. Since he was used to being fawned over. “What did you want to be? Before you became an actor,” Jackie asked.
He hadn’t thought about that in a while, and he held his chin between his thumb and forefinger on his left hand. A director had said that made him look smarter. “I think I wanted to be a pilot,” he explained. “I was attracted to the idea of setting the controls where I want to go. That’s why I now want to get my own movie to direct. Then I’ll be in full control. I guess that’s what I want. To be in control. I want to pilot my own movie just like I’d pilot a plane. There’s something about watching the world go by from way up above everyone else.”
“But what if you crash?”
“There are computers and a million things in that cockpit. Thousands of little devices whose sole job is to not fuck-up. No plane falls out of the sky. Do you know how many things have to go wrong for that to happen?”
“So you wanna be the guy that everyone thanks when they get off the plane?”
“Why?” he said. But she didn’t answer. Because the seatbelt sign came on, and the pilot announced the plane was about to hit a bumpy patch.
“Goddamn,” swore Jackie.
“Bumpy patches happen,” reassured Richard, “It’s part of the flight.”
“But I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, nervous.
“You’re shaking,” he noticed. “Is that why you’re scared? Because you don’t know what’s going on up front? Just accept the fact that you’re not in control. If you want full control, you have to accept that you have none.”
The bumping was getting bad. She turned to him, and he saw she had started to cry. He kept talking.
“Worrying isn’t going to get you anywhere. Think about it this way. Have you ever ridden the bus? Every one of those bumps is nothing more than that. We just think they’re bigger than they are. Our mind can’t fathom flight so we make those bumps into much bigger problems when they’re really no bigger than a foot or two each way, Think about the way people’s heads sway on the bus. They aren’t nervous. They’re doing the same thing we’re doing.”
The turbulence became worse. Jackie’s drink spilled, and further back in the cabin someone began to scream. The man who had been sleeping across the aisle clutched rosary beads and began to pray words that neither of them could hear. The first-class flight attendants strapped themselves into their jump seats, and the plane began to creak and yaw from side to side.
“No plane just falls out of the sky,” Richard repeated. “You’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.”
And then they weren’t.