|The whole business led my wife to suggest a conference with our dear friends Pam and Becky, who were discreet and worldly and kind. How would they react, unknown – but it was worth a try.|
Hey wonderful people! Can we drag you over for dinner Wednesday? Short notice—but there’s something we’d like to talk over with you.
I prepared the meal—cucumber soup, grilled chicken breast, and a lentil-and-scallion salad. Cooking had been Viki’s thing, not mine, but I’d been stuck at home for months and the kitchen had become a place of recreation. Also, my relationship with my body had changed.
Pam and Becky arrived on the dot, at seven. My illness had made me very small and very light, and they embraced me gently. “He looks so young,” Becky said to Viki. “Where’s Molly?”
Our daughter, Molly, aged five, was spending the evening with Viki’s sister, Maya. Maya and Molly didn’t know what was going on. Nobody knew, not even my physician.
I poured everyone a drink—purified water, in my case—and without further ado Viki announced, “Something strange has happened.” This was planned. Viki is an inarguably sane and well-balanced person with no history of hoaxing or chain-yanking. She is the perfect person to break unfathomable news. It’s not that I’ve ever been the class clown, but my physical weakness had for some reason lessened my authority. “This is all super sensitive and confidential,” Viki said.
“Uh-oh,” Becky said.
“If we’re going to have a top-secret discussion, I’m going to sit down,” Pam said.
We joined her at the table. My wife said, “I don’t know how else to put this.” She moved her hand in my direction. “He’s developed the ability to fly.”
Our friends fell into a silence of incomprehension and alarm—as if we’d announced a religious conversion. Then Pam did a short laugh and said, “Fly how?”
“As in fly like a bird,” Viki said. “Fly.”
“ ‘Bird,’ ” I said, “is maybe taking it too far.”
“I don’t get it,” Becky said.
At Viki’s signal, I fetched my laptop. Everyone turned toward the screen. I played the nine-second clip that Viki had filmed with her phone.
“Let’s see that again,” Pam said.
We all watched it twice more. Both times it showed the same thing: me levitating in that very room and then sort of scooting from the kitchen to the windows of our eleventh-floor apartment with my arms defensively stretched out ahead of me. I reach up with one hand and touch the ceiling. The clip ends.
Pam said, “It’s so, it’s so—lifelike.”
Becky said, “You know what it reminds me of? Mary Poppins.”
They didn’t believe, or understand, their eyes. Again, we had anticipated this. Viki gave me a little kiss of encouragement, because she knew that I was about to do something I found loathsome and embarrassing.
I pushed off with my toes and floated over to the aforementioned windows. It was a clear February night. Through the panes you saw the purposeless, dominating brilliance of the skyscrapers of New York.
When I came down, our guests were looking at each other with horror. Becky’s hands covered her mouth.
Viki said, “We can’t explain it, either. We can only think that it’s connected to his illness.” She said, “Are we ready for some soup?”
The soup went down well. We learned about Becky and Pam’s trip to Maine, and Viki reciprocated with an update about Molly and her adventures in kindergarten. There had been issues with a boy named Andy, but Andy was now socializing more successfully.
This exchange did not involve me speaking or being spoken to. When I say that Pam and Becky were our dear friends, I really mean that they were Viki’s dear friends. They were attached to me because I was attached to Viki.
I brought out the lentil salad. Becky picked up her fork, then abruptly stood up. “This is too much for me right now,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
As our guests made their way out, Pam took Viki to one side and said, “He’s going to need insurance. I’ll e-mail you.”
My volatility had become apparent three weeks earlier. On an errand to buy hydrogen peroxide to clean the bathroom grout, I sprang over a pool of melted snow—and rocketed to the far sidewalk, passing in front of a car that was making a turn from York Avenue. I nearly got somebody killed. I immediately returned home, treading very slowly and very softly. After I’d sat down for a while, trying to calm myself, I decided to take an experimental little leap. I hit the ceiling.
The next two days I spent mostly in bed, too consternated to move. Luckily my presence was nowhere expected. Eventually I convinced myself that I’d experienced a powerful hallucination—a side effect of the medication I was taking, no doubt—and I decided to step out and complete my mission of buying grout cleaner. To be on the safe side, I first hopped on one foot. I took off.
There was no way around it: I’d undergone a transition, or translation. I wasn’t dreaming—although it so happened that in my dreams I never flew. I didn’t say anything to Viki right away. The relevant confession took place only the following week, after I’d spent some time familiarizing myself with certain parameters of my new state (getting airborne; hovering; landing). My kind of aerial motion felt like sideways falling: it was scary, slightly nauseating, and unpleasant, even after I’d worked out that, by a simple but mysterious exercise of volition, I could adjust my speed and elevation. It always felt unnatural and lonely to be up in the air.
One evening, when Molly was asleep, I overcame my dread and my shame, and I sat Viki down and tried to relate what had happened to me. Of course, it took a physical demonstration to bring the facts home to her. Language alone could not effectively represent a state of affairs contradicted by physics, biology, and the history of reality. Neither of us knew what to do about it, in the sense of how to cure me. There was no discussion of what use, if any, to make of my new potentiality. “I think we should talk it over with someone,” Viki said. “Maybe Pam and Becky.” All in all, it was extraordinary how quickly my wife adapted. I’d say that within ten minutes of hearing, or seeing, my epochal news she was asking me what else had happened that day.
“I’m finally done,” I told her, referring to a project that had been plaguing me. I produced communications materials for a financial group. I’d foolishly got involved in drafting the annual report, which wasn’t something you could just wing, given the legal framework. Being away from the office, on account of my undiagnosable ailment, hadn’t made it any easier. The substance of the job was handling various stupidities, my own included.
I was at that time a stupidest, and probably still am. Stupidism is the theory that people are stupid in the measure of their most powerful agency. They’re stupid precisely when we need them not to be stupid. Much as I didn’t want to be a stupidest—it’s dispiriting, for starters—I recognized that it improved my grasp on things. Whereas I used to listen with great respect to what the Treasury Secretary or the C.E.O. of a booming conglomerate or even your regular talking head had to say, now I presumed that they were full of it. It was revelatory. The world makes a lot more sense when you accept that it’s run by dingbats. And once you’ve recognized the nature of stupidity—that it expresses a relation between a person and that person’s situation; that it describes the gap between what ought to be understood and done and what is, in fact, understood and done—you begin to recognize the magnitude of the problem. Stupidity isn’t inevitable or constant, of course, but in the long run it almost always prevails. Alan Greenspan? Stupid, ultimately. Barack Obama? Not as smart as he needed to be, at the end of the day. Joe Schmo? Amazingly stupid.
The subject had a very personal relevance. There was something downright stupid about a flying human being. I felt, above all, stupid.
With this organizing principle in my mind—not to be stupid—I followed up on Pam’s suggestion about insurance. She put me on to a friend of hers, Naomi Patel, who had one of those cute little offices in the Empire State Building. Naomi, according to Pam, specialized in boutique perils. I made an appointment. Viki said doubtfully, “I guess that makes sense.”
It was my first excursion since that fateful near-miss on York Avenue. Viki, who had left work early, held my hand as we walked to and from the taxi. She did this in order to keep me anchored to the ground as well as to convey love.
Naomi Patel was our age—late-ish thirties—and had a very reassuring and competent manner. Her office was on the seventy-sixth floor and offered a view of a silvery and gleaming Hudson River and a silvery and gleaming New York Harbor. I cleaned my glasses to get a better look, because it was that order of spectacle—the order that reminds you of words like “argentine” and “numinous.”
She listened conscientiously, making notes on a yellow pad. When I’d finished, she put down her pen and removed her glasses and said, to Viki, “Have I understood this correctly? Your husband”—a little ironically, it seemed to me, she checked her notes—“has the power of flight?”
“Um, yes,” Viki said. She was making the face that we’d agreed she would make, namely, a face signalling to the insurance broker that she should humor the eccentric husband. We didn’t want the broker to believe that I was truly an aeronaut.
Naomi Patel said, “That is unusual.” She continued, “I’ve handled a lot of dangerous activities—skydiving, wingsuit flying, really far-out stuff—but never this. Huh.”
She reflected for a moment, calculating whether my case would produce a commission and how much work it would involve. You could practically see her brow and mouth creasing into plus and minus and equals signs. Or she was thinking how best to get me out of her office. She said decisively, “You need to think of yourself as a car, or a helicopter. You’re going to need protection against accidental damage to yourself—it’s called A. D. & D., and covers death or dismemberment—and you need liability insurance, in case you cause loss to others. The tricky piece is assessing the risk. We’re going to have to give the underwriters some guidance.” She swivelled to her keyboard. “I’m sending you the application form.”
It seems that nothing can proceed, at a certain point in life, without filling out a form—without boring a new hole in one’s small bowl of time.
That’s O.K. The older I get, the greater grows my respect for the underground deeds that make our lives persistently functional. Nobody told me, growing up, that in addition to a regular career one must embrace a secret administrative vocation. I can hardly believe that for years I lived in a fantastical world in which I gave no thought to ventilation solutions, health-provision networks, wood conditioner, bylaws, credit scores, automatic-payment dates, storage space, and propane.
When we got home, I ate some chocolate-peanut-butter ice cream, for the calories, then made use of the bathroom, then retreated to bed in order to fill out the insurance questionnaire. Viki and Molly were in the living room, cutting paper with tiny yellow scissors.
Please describe the activity for which you seek insurance coverage, specifying the scope of the activity, including frequency, locations, safety measures. State any relevant experience or qualifications.
The assumption, here, was that I would zip around of my own free will. But why on earth would I do that? Who knew how long I could stay aloft? What about the wind, rain, lightning, radiation, and cold? What would I wear? What about my glasses? What about drones and aircraft and wind turbines and electrical wires and chimneys and miscellaneous poles? Any sizable city would be a death trap, basically. As for the countryside, everyone out there was locked and loaded. Anything that moved in the sky they shot. They gunned down ducks and turkeys by the million. I’d have to fly at night, like an owl. No: I needed insurance only for involuntary or emergency flights. Who knew what lay ahead? I might fall out of an airplane. I might find myself caught in a fire or fleeing rising waters. Even then, even in extremis, I would fly only as a last resort. There were systems in place. The parachute had been invented. We had fire exits and flood alerts and evacuation plans. We had disaster preparedness. The great fray, in the real world, wasn’t good versus evil. It was perils versus protocols.
From the bedroom doorway I said, “Hey, Molly. What would you do if you could fly?”
Molly stayed focussed on her work. Even a five-year-old could see that the question was absurd. She said, “I would fly to pasta.”
I said, “What else?” I was convinced that she knew something that I could not know.
“I would fly to you,” Molly said, to her mother.
A day or two later, there was a meeting at the office. The purpose of the meeting was to review the draft annual report. My bodily presence was required, and the C.C.O. himself was also going to be there. I was excited. It had been a long time since I’d gone in. I got dressed up. My one belt, I discovered, was now too long for me, and like a teen-ager I had to punch an extra hole in the strap to accommodate the prong. Viki said, “Why don’t you put on your blue sweater? It makes you look taller. I can’t explain it, it makes you taller.”
The meeting went well. “I have no idea what ‘agile feedback loops’ means,” the C.C.O. said. “I like it.” Everyone laughed. I waited for somebody to credit me with the phrase, but no one did. In fact, and I guess to my relief, I wasn’t mentioned or called on at all.
Afterward I accompanied Valerie Acevedo and Alexis Chen, who were workplace buddies and funny, to the smoking balcony. I didn’t smoke, but to hightail it home right after the meeting would risk giving the wrong impression. This balcony was on the thirty-second floor and had snow on it. The daylight was fading. Across the street, a lustrous tower was filled with white-shirted workers.
“What this place needs,” Alexis said, vaping, “is Acapulco chairs.”
“Which ones are they?” Valerie said.
“You know—with the bouncy vinyl cords. They’re made for the outdoors. Hence ‘Acapulco.’ ”
I started laughing. “Wait—‘Hence Acapulco’?”
Alexis continued, “Well, how did last night go?”
“Fun. Good,” Valerie said evenly.
Alexis made a listening noise.
Valerie, suddenly inspired, said, “It’s like I’m like a restaurant. Like he liked me like he’d like a restaurant. Like, ‘That was cool. I should come here again.’ ”
Alexis said quickly, “ ‘The osso buco was excellent.’ ”
They both laughed and drew on their e-cigarettes. I made a proximate sound, but quietly. I didn’t feel like a party to the conversation; I felt merely privy to it. It surprised me that they were talking about this stuff, because I thought a masculine presence would be inhibitive. Maybe corporate-banter norms had changed in my absence.
Alexis said, “And?”
Valerie said, “Yeah, it was sweet. He was kind of . . . focussed on the details. On trend. What’s that word? Artisanal.”
Alexis said, “Yeah, the craft-brewer thing. Expert but traditional. I’m on the fence.”
Valerie waited a beat, like an actual comedian, then said, very dryly, “Still, it’s been a while since I saw penis.” The two women laughed explosively.
It was at this moment that I did something stupid. I put my weight on my heels and, from my position next to them, rose about three feet off the floor and floated backward into the building. I watched them for a moment. They were talking and vaping as before. They had failed to notice—I say this in all objectivity—one of the most wondrous occurrences in the history of humankind.
When I got home, Pam was sitting at the table. She had not removed her coat. Viki was on the sofa with Molly, fixing her up with headphones and an iPad. That wasn’t normally permitted on weekdays. Something was up.
I decided to make green tea.
- O’Neill, Joseph. “‘The Flier.’” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 2 Nov. 2019, The Flier