An aluminum vehicle that is able to fly by gaining support from the air–this is what the word plane used to mean to me. I thought about them when one flew above me in the blue summer sky, a tiny greyish shape that inevitably leads anyone with a fertile imagination to indulge in a thousand theories about who the strangers in the sky are, where are they coming from and where they are going, and why it is I will never meet them. I watched as that shape, which seemed almost too tiny for what it really was, flew away from where my eyes could see and told myself a thousand different stories about people I would never know, and then, almost as if that fraction of a minute had never really happened, I forgot. As easily as it went, my mind returns from whichever two-second journey it went on this time, and once again I am home.

Until, of course, I am not. The very thin line that separates infrequent thoughts from the grand subjects of our lives began to erase itself the moment I sat in seat 32A.

“Are you going home or leaving home, sweetheart?”

The question had come from the woman in the seat next to mine. She smelled like that strong flowery perfume my grandmother loves to wear and seemed to be part of the peculiar fraction of human beings who have yet to realize that most of us do not want to make pleasant conversation on planes – but still, of course, I smiled at her the most genuine of my smiles, because on this specific day, on this very specific plane ride, it felt, for some strange reason, as if this was the most important question anyone had ever asked me.

Was I going home or leaving home? I don’t remember what I told her. I don’t remember what movies I watched to fill the achingly long hours that stretched all the way from the warm Rio night to a windy morning in Ohio. I don’t remember if the connecting flight was in Chicago or New York, and I don’t remember the name of that stranger who spent too large a fraction of those eleven hours telling me the most uninteresting tales about how her son was getting married next spring and how desperately her daughter needed a haircut. What I remember is, almost exclusively, the deafening quietness of home fading away.

I remember it all so vividly, the sound of my little cousins laughing at some movie that ends like every children’s movie, my sister’s distant yell from across the wall about a borrowed pair of pants, and my father’s jokes that with the years became funny simply for the ironic lack of any laughable punchline. The sight of the sun setting behind the grey and green skyline, its repeatedly extraordinary beauty framed by my bedroom window. The pictures glued by tape on the wall across my bed, one for each important date, collected since I got my camera wrapped in yellow paper for my fourteenth Christmas. The blurry view of my dog asleep by the foot of the bed. I remember catching the scent of my grandmother’s chocolate brownies, and the taste of my father’s homemade pizza – improving a little with each attempt – and the soft touch of the wind on my face on those lucky late winter nights when, for once, it was actually cold. It had never been so vivid, so painfully obvious – and yet, when I closed my eyes as the plane took off and reached for it, all I really grasped was air, empty and cold and with a slight smell of that flowery perfume. I reached for home, but when I looked through the small window of the plane down to the city where I had grown up, it had already faded.

Was I going home or leaving home? I don’t remember what I told her. If another old lady who hadn’t gotten the memo about small talk in planes were to ask me again, I would have no choice but to laugh. “Both,” I simply must reply, and then smile stupidly at my average-level-wit in answering a question for which there is just no answer.

“Both.” The echo of the word was the sound of the crisp wind on the days that separated the Ohio fall from my first real winter; it was my best friend’s laugh and his voice telling me the same stories over and over again through the phone; it was the desperate typing on my keyboard, the silly sound of proudly and unapologetically calling myself a writer; it was the soft melody of songs I have never heard before, the unknown sound of my own accent to my ears, and the silent void where one day would be the names of people I had yet to meet. The echo of both was the unrecognizable quietness of a life that has yet to be.

This is what the word plane used to mean: a vehicle almost always made of aluminum – due to it being a metal both strong and lightweight – that is able to fly by gaining support from the air. I thought about them casually and unpretentiously, only once in a while and not even a little more than that. And then, of course, the plane became everything. Those twelve long hours when I am forced to sit next to a stranger I will never see again and remember I am claustrophobic became the single thing that connects one half of my life to the other, the thing that makes them one. They take me from the beginning of spring to the end of summer, and draw a thin line between past and future, almost invisible from anywhere except when sitting at 32A, staring down through the window at whatever it is home means.

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