Roger and Flight 8124 | Dustin Moon
Canada banned smoking on all national flights in 1994. I know this because I looked it up on my phone while I waited at the gate because holy shit I need a cigarette. The kind of need that makes you question your life choices—a miniature sawing sensation that turns your skin hot. Choices like taking up smoking. I remember when smoking disgusted me. Had it been Charlie’s fault? I can’t remember and it’s not important and that somehow makes it worse.
1994. Ten years too late. So like me.
We board and I hand the nice gentleman at the podium my boarding pass, neatly tucked in my open passport like a bookmark. He inspects it too casually—like a you’re too young for me vibe embodies him (because he’s clearly gay)—and whatever, that’s fine, gets me in my seat faster. And my seat isn’t terrible. Aisle but can’t complain much because the middle seat between me and a woman in a baby-vomit green sweater is a no-show. Everybody takes too long to stow their carry-ons and find their place and then the plane takes too long meandering to its runway, but eventually we leave the ground. I stare at my boarding pass, blank, still too warm, still unsure how a cigarette would cool me but certain it would. And hour one of flight no. 8124 Vancouver to Toronto begins.
No, it hadn’t been Charlie. Not Charlie, when he turned in the front seat, reached back to me with his offer: a puff from the cigarette that had clung from his dry lips. He had watched my face in the rear-view mirror when I climbed into the back of his Jeep, motor idling. He had watched when he blew white smoke and it engulfed the cab despite his open window, how I closed my eyes and relished the aroma. Not Charlie—because when I reached for the cigarette, the spiderweb trail of saliva still connected to its end from Charlie’s mouth stayed my hand, led me to politely decline. So I hadn’t started smoking that night.
Not that night. Not that night.
Good. Yes. Let’s think about that now.
Sybil. I had to focus on Sybil, who I was visiting in Toronto. She deserved my attention. Our siblinghood deserved my attention.
We’d made up at Grandfather’s funeral. Or partially—I don’t know. We talked. We talked and it felt so nice to talk to my sister again. Then the event ended, Mother wanted to leave and she was my ride. Sybil had to go back to the hotel to catch up on sleep, had to fly back to Toronto the next morning. Something about licking her wounds, but I missed that part. I think she’d built the funeral up in her head too much. So like her.
And Harrison? Bless my brother’s heart, but he’s a useless sounding board.
Sybil hadn’t expected to see me and refused to talk to me at first. She came around during the final ceremony. I don’t know why. I think Harrison spoke to her earlier. Maybe he isn’t useless. But we talked. We talked and I apologized and I tried not to cry but I know I did and I said I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you can’t begin to fathom the depths of how sorry I am. And she listened. And she didn’t exactly forgive me but she said let’s continue talking in a more appropriate setting, and I said I go back to UBC tomorrow, and you go back to Toronto tomorrow, and she said I’ll fly you out to Toronto soon.
My seat’s comfort waned as the flight entered hour two.
I clicked my nails on the armrest. Tried to suppress what the chemicals in my brain begged me for. Tried to focus on Sybil but now that only made me a bigger bundle of anxiety, so I thought about smoking again. Thought about quitting. Entertained the idea like Mother entertains new diets—a passing fancy of a thought, everybody wave as it disappears back to wherever it first slipped out from.
Tried to recall my first ciggie again. Had it been Pearl? The best answer was somehow simultaneously yes and no. When would she have even tried? Did she even smoke? Had she been in the Jeep with me and Charlie? Yeah, front passenger. The reason I was in the back. The reason I ventured out at all—determined to live, whatever my fifteen-year-old definition of living was back then. More or less just resolute to change Pearl’s (accurate) perception of me. Get her to stop making comments like, “Why do you need to find a cute boy at school? Don’t you have enough stable boys on hand?” or “You need to snap out of your Royal Tenenbaums bubble.”
Pearl’s family was lottery rich as opposed to Mother’s generational inheritance. Her parents bought the 4200 sq. ft. house across the street from us when I was six. Must be nice, I always thought, to have the same privilege of the wealthy with none of the snobbery.
She’d made that Tenenbaums crack earlier that day. That’s why I agreed to join her and Charlie en route to a party on the outskirts of town. That was the whole goddamn reason for that night.
Christ. Time to accept the inevitable. To try and sit through this long, smokeless flight without replaying that night would be impossible. I’ve always had to pick at my scabs.
Because it hadn’t just been those cracks from Pearl. She was my best friend through grade school since the day she moved in across the street, but our friendship was always this simmering passive-aggressive kind. Like she looked down on me but also presumed I looked down on her. One day she’d be vulnerable and open and make jokes that weren’t at my expense, then she’d harangue me for my taste in clothes, my use of words like jape and paramount. She questioned why I insisted Mother put me in public school. Thought it a transparent attempt to appear normal. Didn’t matter how many times I explained we weren’t billionaire rich, we weren’t even high society; we lived in the goddamn sticks in Parksville for god’s sake. Didn’t matter how often I explained that I wanted to go to public school because that’s what my siblings did. Back when there was less money. Back when Dad was alive.
Who was Pearl to look down on anyone? Her name was Pearl.
I’ve mentally edited and compartmentalized too much of that night. My memory jumps from Charlie and his saliva string—a high school senior Pearl knew better than I did, but he drove a Jeep and he smoked and he had a goatee so he was flush with social currency—to the drive to the house party near the Englishman River. We left the highway at some point, just past the orange bridge out of town, onto a dirt trail canopied by fir trees that blocked out the moonlight. Just the road, trunks, and branches in the Jeep’s headlamps. Then the road worsened and Charlie astutely commented, “Bumpy road, huh?”
And then I felt the first pangs of homesickness. The whole family was at the house that night: Harrison and his girlfriend Jean, Sybil and her husband Evan. And Mother. Can’t remember why. Might’ve been Thanksgiving. Funny what you forget and what you remember. But the night’s goal was debauchery. That’s how I’d prove to Pearl I wasn’t a lonely, pasty, silver-spooned brat with a pretentious mother in a too-big house. That’s how I’d find myself and feel alive: I’d lose my virginity at the party and I’d come of age, just like they do in the movies.
Then: the house built into a densely forested hill near the river. Crowds tapered up and down the slope, using protruding tree roots as steps, making a zigzaggy path between house and river. People clustered near the water, some ankle deep, but most gathered around the house, illuminated by dollar store string lanterns, white smoke thick from cigarettes/vapes/joints. When I saw the place, the size of the party, I knew: I could find a good-looking guy here. I could get laid. I could do it.
I recognized the song that boomed from the house as we conquered the hill in subpar footwear. I said, “Hey, this is Malajube,” but neither Charlie nor Pearl acknowledged me. Charlie waved at people who recognized him.
Inside, in the kitchen, Charlie found a Coke and offered it to me. I wanted a drink drink. I wanted debauchery. But I popped it anyway and sipped. Then I asked if I should take my shoes off in the house, to which Charlie absolutely pissed himself laughing.
Charlie found the host like a bloodhound. Another senior. Parents out of town. Classic stuff. He called himself Winnipeg because, you guessed it, he moved here from Winnipeg three years ago. But the enigmatic charm of that nickname wore off when Charlie introduced us and he asked, “So, you’re a homo or something?”
I soon felt like an experiment on display. Look at the weird kid who comes from that big house near the farmland. Why do they live out there? It’s just him and his mom in that mansion? Look, he’s queer but he can’t outright say it or he might jeopardize his trust fund. Poor thing. Hope he doesn’t break a nail never working a day in his life.
And there was no sense telling them Mother didn’t operate that way. There was no family company to provide a nepotistic paycheque for the rest of my life. She hoarded the money because she knew we lived tenuously on her savings. She had never worked a day in her life. But Sybil had to become a lawyer on her own. Sybil has to pay her way in the country’s most expensive city—solo. And Harrison, far from a success, rents a shoebox in Victoria. I’ll be the same once I’m done with my pointless Communications degree. Mother hasn’t the means or desire to pay for anyone but her and her horses.
The flight attendant pulls me out of my trance. Asks if I would like to purchase overpriced soda or juice. I ask her to fill my water bottle.
I did find a good-looking boy at Winnipeg’s party. His name was Nick. Or maybe Kyle? There are always so many Nicks and Kyles. He wore black jeans and an oversized red hoodie. New to shaving based on the smoothness interspersed with patches. Could’ve been a year older than me. But he was wasted and I was only two drinks in, and he had a hard time staying upright as we made out against a tree closer to the riverbed, and the more his tongue wrestled mine, the more the stench of beer subsumed my nostrils. I pulled away, he looked inquisitive, then he looked worried because he was falling over, and I gripped his hoodie but there was too much goddamn hoodie to grab, and he slid down the tree, chipping bark, until he landed in the dirt, snickering and apologizing. I said I needed another drink, which I did. So I left him. And I felt a touch bad about it. Might still.
I found Pearl again and we chatted about the playlist that blared from an unseen Bluetooth speaker. She asked if I’d gotten any. Said my lips looked red. I said I was cold. She said lips turn blue when they’re cold. I said when something happens, she’ll know. I asked if she’d seen anyone cute. She raised her drink, a purple can, and said the blueberry ciders in the fridge are downright adorable.
Then she said, quite seriously, “You don’t have anything to prove.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
She raised both hands in feigned surrender. “Sor-ry. Never mind.”
But her eyes locked into mine. She could always get under my skin but this was the first and only time she made me feel… unarmed. Like I should feel bad, not because I was worthless but because I had worth and was squandering it. To keep looking at her would’ve made me come undone, so I abandoned her in a panic, raced to find a fresh drink and body.
I found both. A guy with a full beard. Large biceps. Older than me but also shorter than me. A fun dynamic. But he was more experienced than Nick/Kyle, and he knew what to do, where to go, and he found us an unused bedroom on the second floor. A double bed centre stage. Posters of Metallica and Black Sabbath and what looked like Harry Styles (the lighting was poor) festooned the walls. We made out horizontally, I think on some coats, and just when my jeans felt a little too tight, a handful of people piled into the room, giggling, having a right fit, sloppy wasted, then paralyzed at the sight of us. Then one of them said, “Jake?” and my fella jolted off me, suddenly upright.
Jake said, “No?”
I snorted so hard it hurt. Still, a hot flush coursed through my cheeks.
The girl who recognized Jake said, “Oh my god! I’m telling Emma!”
I cabbed home after that. Tipped generously. Don’t know why.
I jangled my house keys in my hand as I approached the door, the inebriation still with me, and then I noticed him: Evan stood at the far corner of the house, light jacket on, hardly recognizable in the night but it was him, unmistakably, with the orange pinhole of a lit cigarette.
We stared at each other for a bit, not seeing each other’s eyes from this distance.
Then I said, “Oh. Hey.”
“Where’ve you been?”
He dropped his ciggie and crushed it under his boot. Mother would have choice words once she noticed the butts around the property.
He removed the pack from his coat and offered it. “Want one?”
I approached him. Took the smoke. He lit it for me and I watched his pupils dance in firelight before he withdrew it to spark his own.
My first cigarette didn’t go down well. I inhaled too sharply. Then came the hacking, the horrible hacking like when something fuzzy is caught in your throat but you can’t force it out, and soon your esophagus turns raw and your head aches. Evan patted my back and chuckled, told me to keep my coughs to a minimum so not to wake Dame Judy Wench (Mother, I assumed).
“Have you smoked pot?” Evan asked.
“No,” I wheezed.
“Visualize the smoke as it enters your body. You control where it goes. You control how long you hold it. Hold it in your lungs longer than you think you should. Then release.”
The flight attendant comes by for another round. This time asks for any refuse I may have. I shake my head—no trash.
Still don’t know why he wanted me. Truth is, I can only guess as much for my own part. Two humiliating failures, desperately hanging onto a buzz that was meant to be a blitz, even more desperate to prove I was wanted, that I could clock my worth through somebody else’s lust. Their judgment, however impaired, would be all-vindicating. And from what I could tell in the shallow porchlight, Evan’s judgment wasn’t even impaired.
But the honest answer is Evan always turned my stomach when he entered the room. He and Sybil hadn’t dated long before they married—maybe five months—so he seemed like this dark and handsome creature who simply materialized, part of the family with little warm-up. We never held deep conversations. We never engaged on a particular issue. He—or maybe I—or maybe both of us kept each other at an implicit arm’s length during family functions. No outpouring of affection (not that such was our family’s style), no cold dismissals, and no polite hugs in between. I didn’t want to keep it that way, but you never feel like your voice matters when you’re the youngest of the clan by ten-plus years. You withdraw into yourself, certain your opinion will be brushed off or eye-rolled out of consideration, because please, Roger, the adults are talking.
But at the same time, I did want to keep it that way. I liked Evan’s inscrutable allure. I liked the way he smiled at me a little differently than everyone else—including Sybil. Maybe now I recognize that as predatory. Or maybe now I’m too immobilized with guilt to analyze any of this accurately. To analyze the reason I’m on this plane.
Fucked up, the destruction we’ll wage to feel a little better about ourselves. God. I wish I had never been fifteen. I wish none of us ever had to be fifteen.
The pilot announced our approach of YYZ. Anxiety swelled in my gut. This would go well. It was difficult to envision a scenario where tensions rose. Sybil will be waiting for me at the airport and we’ll get coffee downtown and we’ll begin the delicate process of reconnecting our lives to each other’s. We had never been that close, my siblings and I. Our family doesn’t get close to anyone. But that made it even more maddening how much I missed them. I missed my sister. And maybe, subconsciously, all this was an exercise of self-soothing, self-forgiving. But I think I love my sister. I think she loves me. I think there’s worth in that. There’s self-worth in that. There has to be.
About the Author:
Dustin Moon is a writer from Victoria, BC. His work has appeared in Freefall Magazine, Pulp Literature, and forthcoming in Acta Victoriana and Fusion Fragment. He lives with his husband and their two hyper puppies.