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Short Story

Sailing Lessons

Like dozens of girls who came of age in the early 1980s, Sasha was smitten by Christopher Cross. His voice on songs like “Sailing”—sincere and gold as early autumn—was a call she imagined her adult life would answer.

Sasha is thinking of Christopher Cross now because he is seated beside her on her flight to Austin, his seat reclined as far as it’ll go. His eyes caught her attention first, squinting at the glare from the silver wing and the Sonoran Desert far below. Now, with his mask lowered to finish a snack, she’s sure it’s him.

“You’re Christopher Cross,” she says.

Christopher Cross, headphones on over his flat cap, mask pulled back up, pretends he’s watching the business report on the seat-back screen. Sasha’s certain he heard her, but she doesn’t feel slighted. How could Christopher Cross know she spent cumulative months of her childhood listening to his albums? That whenever “Sailing” comes on the car radio (rarely, these days), she’s whisked back to her childhood bedroom, listening to songs that felt like the pinnacle of maturity. Adult. Contemporary.

Christopher Cross looks tired. Perhaps he’s returning home from a tour of second-rate venues, or has indigestion from hotel food, or is still suffering from long-haulers’ syndrome. Maybe he wants to be left alone. Sasha understands. She closes her eyes and plays “Sailing” in her head. She’s listened to the hit so exhaustively that she can recreate every note: the opening strings, the glittering percussion, the rise and fall of the three-note accompaniment that rides as though on gentle swells. Even the drums and baseline come to her in the same comforting fidelity as Christopher Cross’s soft, high register. If his voice were a fabric, it would be corduroy.

One lesson “Sailing” taught her is that nondescript overweight men can be over-deliverers, full of surprising melody. She imagines there are scores of men unaware of the service Christopher Cross has done for them—although life and an ex-husband have taught Sasha that heavy plain men can also be full of discord.

As she takes sidelong glances at the musician, an uncomfortable realization comes over her: this man is too young to be Christopher Cross. He’s perhaps only in his late fifties. But don’t celebrities have the funds to keep themselves looking perpetually middle-aged, she thinks, even when they enter their final decades? The man stands and heads to the plane’s lavatory. While he’s gone, Sasha checks his seat and seat pocket, but finds nothing but a bottle of water and an empty bag of chips. Nothing with his name on it. Isn’t this the way celebrities travel: light, with a single platinum card in their pocket? Sasha, flying to Texas for long-deferred family memorials, knows she’s trying to convince herself so she can arrive with a nice anecdote. You’ll never guess who sat next to me on the plane.

A few minutes later, the man comes back up the aisle. He sneezes. Then sneezes again, again, and again. The passengers give each other looks and pull their masks up over their exposed nostrils. The man sits beside Sasha and sighs.

“There’s a cat up there,” he says, annoyed, a voice too deep to ever reach Christopher Cross’s pure non-falsetto register. He goes back to watching the business channel, ticker prices slipping past on the chyron from oblivion to oblivion. She can’t help but associate the stock graphs with case counts. The man stifles a few sneezes. Each time, Sasha feels this stranger might explode.

The lurch happens almost an hour later, at the end of their descent, accompanied by a loud grinding noise, like a wood chipper meeting its match. The pilot comes on the PA and says: we might have had a bird strike, folks. We’ll be on the ground in another minute. Sasha places all hope in the pilot’s nonchalant informality, even as the plane rudely drops altitude. All the video screens in the cabin glitch, then lock to a logo of the airline. People straighten their seats and buckle up. Sasha hears the cat mewing. A man several rows ahead claws overhead at the air nozzle, his hand bleached with light. The man beside her lays his hands on his knees, palms up, as though meditating. Sasha slips a hand into his and his fingers tighten around her fingers, and her fingers tighten around his.

She imagines the plane landing. She and Christopher Cross applaud in gratitude, along with all the other passengers. The pilot comes on and, on behalf of the entire flight crew, wishes them good health and safe journeys as the plane taxis to an open gate. Everyone is patient and kind as they disembark, and their bags are waiting for them when they reach the luggage carousel. Their rides have all pulled up to the curb, their rental cars have all been upgraded at no extra cost, their destinations are all reunions, and sailing over everything, invisibly, the airwaves make promises that, this time, they keep.

“Sailing Lessons” first appeared in Santa Fe Literary Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.