I almost cannot stand the sound of small aircraft flying overhead. I am reminded of this by the feeling I get when I hear a single prop engine plane passing over the city, something that does not happen often in San Francisco, I think because the airspace here is so crowded that most non-commercial low-altitude traffic is prohibited without special dispensation. It may be that the rarity has actually increased the intensity of my response, which I cannot explain very well except possibly in terms of what small mammals might feel when the shadow of a raptor flashes over them when they are out in the open. Do I run? Take cover? Freeze?
Panic in Place: I never was in a war zone in which Cessnas were frequent flyers. Unless I was. By “almost cannot stand,” what I mean is that it takes great effort not to jump completely out of my own skin and run around the house throwing knives and trowels. My reaction to the sound of a small propeller engine has worsened as I get older, but I don’t know if that is because of the airspace restrictions here or because I am getting brittle with age. There are other ways in which that seems to be happening: I’m less tolerant of social situations in which I feel uncomfortable and less willing to put myself through experiences where, in an earlier life, I would have dissociated in order to endure them and then endured them as best I could. I do not like to dissociate anymore because when I do there is no particular time frame in which I can expect myself to get back, and, unlike some periods of my life, I’m happiest now when I’m all here.
I cannot actually place this sound in any but a metonymic proximity to any particular traumatic event in my life. On the other hand I have been told by more than one professional that my childhood was in some ways like a war zone, only it was a very, very protractedly quiet and slow-moving war and one in which shots were lobbed wrapped in Bible verses and homilies about how one should feel shame for this, that, or the other thing. Or the other thing over there. Or that one waaaaay off in the distance.
I have flown in a small airplane. It’s even possible that at some point I held the wheel of one, although it was probably my brother who got to do that. For me at the time it was natural as anything: my dad and my brother often hung out at the local airstrip and sometimes I would tag along. We didn’t have enough money for a plane of our own so my dad and brother would strike up conversations with airplane owners, become friends with them, and eventually get to fly with some of them. If I was along and there was room, I flew too. It didn’t scare me then. I was still quite young and quite immortal.
And although I did have what could have been a traumatic experience in one of those light planes, it turned out to be fine and nothing really happened and it wasn’t until we were on the ground that I found out that the pilot didn’t mean to cut the engine right then and was actually looking around for a place to crash land when he got the thing running again. Bubble in the fuel line maybe. They weren’t really sure. In any case I was still too young to take brushes with death seriously. Either that or I had already had the one brush with death that rendered me immune to later ones. I cannot keep a very good handle on the chronology of my childhood between about 8 and 16, but I think that this flight was part of a dealy-bob that our church youth group had going where we were rewarded with fun airplane rides for doing something, although I don’t remember at all what that something was. Obviously it didn’t have anything to do with knocking on doors and asking for money, as I was never any good at that. Selling Girl Scout Cookies was an exercise in terror for me, and usually consisted of my wandering up and down our street, gathering the courage to ring a doorbell and ask if they wanted to buy any cookies and then wandering up and down some more till I could bring myself to ring another doorbell and by the time I had rung maybe three doorbells I was completely worn out. I tended to sell cookies to my family and to myself and sometimes to schoolmates, though often they too were Girl Scouts trying to unload their own, so success there was spotty.
Interestingly, my parents would not go with me to sell the things even though I was scared to death to ring those doorbells. They thought it would do me good to have to do it alone. Many girls’ parents would take their cookies to work to sell them for their kids. My folks wouldn’t do that as it was cheating: if I didn’t sell them myself by myself the money was somehow ill gotten. I’m not sure I understand this reasoning now but I did feel plenty guilty for wishing that I was one of the girls whose parents sold their cookies. Especially if I voiced that opinion out loud.
As far as I can recall, there were no particular flights of light aircraft overhead while I was selling the cookies, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there had been. Because of our proximity to the airstrip, small airplanes were always flying back and forth overhead and at night when I would hear them I actually really wanted to be in them, flying away, anywhere didn’t matter: away was enough.
I can’t really say that I remember small planes flying over our house that one summer when the afternoons were spent in a futile game of nerves as my brother consistently knocked down every excuse I had for not wanting to “play”–what was the code word? Was “play” it? I don’t remember that either. Writing about this is not easy, not because of the memories it brings to the surface–those I’m used to in a certain sort of way or rather they exist with a life of their own no matter how and when and where they get talked about–but because there is no adequate vocabulary for the ways in which the desires that coursed his flesh and made his flesh make itself at home in mine without my ever wanting it there rose up and destroyed pieces of me, one at a time, negotiated its way past every obstacle I could find within me to put up to stop it. In the end eleven year old girls are no rhetorical or physical match for fifteen year old boys especially when they live under the same roof and can promise and refuse those tokens of sibling respect that seem insignificant now but were desperately needed for simple survival especially when the kids are left to “take care” of each other for most of the hours of the day.
What I hear, though, in a single prop engine light plane is humidity, heat, stillness and inescapability: when I asked those planes a few years later to please fly me away somewhere they never sent a rope or a ladder or any signal that they could hear me at all.
I never said anything. I was certain that god and his agents would punish me for simply being available and unable to rewrite the narrative of every fucking afternoon. Having been taught that to be born is to be damned, any move I made outside of the safety of the kingdom was itself bound to condemn me even if I did not want it and did not ask for it, even if I resisted to the point my own mental exhaustion and bewilderment that no help was available: that I could become exhausted was my original sin.
For now, I’ll skip over what happened next and before that particular summer, just letting it sit that before this I could already be found pacing the house in a panic if I were alone and my family was late coming home, having been taught that the rapture was going to happen any day now and that I wasn’t yet fit for transport. The following summer my body was made the home for the desire of someone I didn’t even know except for the interminable amount of time it took for him to do whatever it was he had to do; when I think of it, I cannot remember how it ended–or that is I cannot remember what happened between the time he turned me back over and the moment he said ok you’re on your own. But I can guess. I’m not sure where the airplanes were at those times either but somehow they have become the soundtrack for everything that still reaches out in the dead but palpable silence of a hot and sticky evening sequestered somewhere in a room-shaped cell in my brain, a room with a window that air never moved through and which caught prayers and flung them back down upon the carpeted floor.
Later, a few years later, he took flying lessons himself.