Letter to Mike Scalise

On a flight from somewhere to somewhere else,
the woman next to me vomits into a bag.
She’s polite about it, as if trying not to disturb.

The bag fills up, she seals it
in a separate Ziploc, and puts that in her purse.
Then she starts the process all over.

And this, Mike, reminds me of two years ago,
when you and I left Vermont, flew to Detroit and—
just before landing—heard the pilot’s voice
crackle over the intercom,
like the narrator in one of those documentaries
where everything ends tragically,

saying, Our landing flaps are malfunctioning.
And then, But don’t worry, we’re trained to land without them.
And then, There will be emergency personnel on the ground.

The quiet that followed filled the cabin like lake water
until everyone was still. I didn’t know
that kind of silence was possible.

I think about this, because as the woman next to me
heaves, again, I offer her a Dramamine to help.
She says, No. It’s not motion sickness. It’s my nerves.

She means she’s afraid. And I want to say something
comforting, like: I understand. Fear of flying is totally rational.
Many times, I thought I might die. Let me tell you about
the day my buddy Mike and I flew to Detroit and—

I don’t say this, of course, because trying to say something helpful,
but making everything worse, is a decent metaphor
for how I got to this point in my life.

She had trained for this. It takes practice
to have extra airsickness bags, Ziploc bags,
and an oversized purse. Just like it takes preparation

to land a plane without the appropriate landing gear.
And it takes a careful skill to shut up
when you know what you’re about to say
is like leaping with a parachute that will never open.

But Mike, how do we get to the good part of the story,
the part at the end where we don’t die,
if we don’t tell the part that comes before?

This too, is a map of my life: brief moments of elation
made possible only by the uncertainty that preceded them.

The plane that lands like a miracle bird,
the smoke that smokes upward from the brakes,
everyone silent, too scared to move. And then you,

one row behind me—you’re yelling, We’re not dead!
We’re not dead! We’re not dead! And like a flame,
the plane bursts into applause.

Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems: Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013), and Contradictions in the Design which is forthcoming from Alice James Books in November, 2016. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Necessary Fiction, Brevity, Southern Review and elsewhere. Currently, he’s the 2015-16 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.