For years he wouldn’t remember the ride to the airport, or the asphalt-colored August sky, or the distressed stretch of highway that led from Burlington, New Jersey to the air base in Dover, Delaware. Aaron wouldn’t recall sitting in the back of the rented Chevy, in a full seat by himself, or Serena weeping quietly beside him, or Amelia reading Oliver’s Story in the front seat next to Mom. Dad had already gone — “AWOL again,” Mom joked — flying ahead weeks ago to get everything set up in their new apartment.
But in the future these memories would come to him at odd times, in the mental fuzz before waking, or when looking up at a sky that was overcast the same way, or when observing himself in an airplane bathroom mirror, and he would feel the unwieldy shape of his life.
Right now, in the car, he tried to picture Frankfurt, but could not bring anything into his mind other than the German alphabet Gee-Ma had taught him. “Ah-bay-say-day-ay-eff-gay.” Otherwise, he pictured a vague, undeveloped mist, which was an accurate prediction of what the weather would be like for the next several years of his life.
“Will I have to speak German in school?” he asked.
“No, Aaron, I told you, you’re going to an American school.”
“Will they have American food?”
“You can pack a lunch.”
“You can also shut up,” added Amelia, “while I’m trying to read.”
He had been given a camera and several rolls of film for his birthday a few weeks before. Walking toward the airplane — the C-5, one of the soldiers at the airport had explained to Amelia, was the largest in the world — Aaron snapped a picture.
“You’re not a Soviet spy, are you?” someone behind him said. Aaron turned and saw it was another soldier, this one a girl, not more than a few years older than Amelia. Her uniform was chunky and green, unfeminine as a cinderblock. Her skin was brown and her eyes were beige as a polished stone.
“Maybe I am,” Aaron said.
She smiled. “Don’t make me turn you in.”
“Is he bothering you?” Mom said.
“No, no.” The girl soldier’s eyes apologized. “We’re just kidding around. I’m Sharon, from Texas.”
“We’re from New Jersey,” Mom said with her clipped, Scottish accent.
“Don’t sound it.”
They climbed, then, the steep ladder that led to the plane’s great interior.
“Stay behind me.” Mom gathered her beige — like Sharon’s eyes — skirt into a bunch and cautiously placed her heels, one after another, on each rung, convinced the entire US military was peeking at her underwear.
Inside were tanks and personnel carriers, a space half the size of a football field.
“How does this thing fly?” Sharon asked.
“Like a brick,” a voice behind them answered.
They ascended another ladder to a windowless chamber at the top of the aircraft, which resembled the inside of a regular passenger plane except for the olive drab seats that faced backwards.
After take off, Aaron fell into a half-dream, half-awake state in which his untethered imagination portrayed skeletons and math problems, ocean waves and bird claws. The faces of his friends, boys he knew he would never see again, spoke to him in incomprehensible German. His sisters whispered in the seats behind him, their voices concurrently soothing and aggrieved. Amelia kept saying it would be all right. Serena kept crying, saying no, no it would not.
Nothing, Serena repeated, will ever be all right again.
When he woke up, fingers of light poked at the books and magazines of the few remaining awake. Aaron’s mother’s head lolled back against the seat and her mouth hung open like a drawer, her uneven teeth on far more embarrassing display than her underwear could ever be. Aaron released the catch on his seatbelt and stepped over her exposed, white legs, then walked down the aisle with the intention to pee.
A hand reached out and grabbed his arm. “Hey, it’s me,” a whispering voice said, “Sharon from Texas.”
“Hey,” Aaron said back.
“Long flight, huh?”
“Do you know what time it is?”
She moved her watch, a Mickey Mouse, to a pool of light. “One in the morning.”
“Do you know how much longer it will be?”
“Five more hours. What’s your name?”
“Have you ever been on an airplane before, Aaron?”
“Not one like this.”
“Ever been to Germany?”
“This is my first time outside of Texas.”
“Grew up in Corpus Christie. Went to basic in Fort Worth. Now they’re sending me half way around the world.” When Sharon spoke, she held back an embarrassed smile.
“My dad’s already there.”
“Do you miss him?”
Aaron shrugged. “I really have to go to the bathroom.”
A moment later, he looked at himself in the mirror. He would see this image again and again over the course of his life, alone in an airplane toilet, eyes probing the contours of his face with the detachment of a stranger. He felt compelled to say hello.
His reflection would reply, but decades later.
Then he felt something odd. It was that dull sensation he’d noticed lately. Standing in his Virginia backyard a few days before their trip to Burlington, watching the boys next door — Tanner, Kevin, Mark, and Boo — play touch football without him, he’d been overcome by it, in fact. In Beach Haven, where Gee-ma and Pops had taken him and the girls for the day, he’d felt it too. On the boardwalk, Aaron had used his father’s old pocketknife to carve his initials and four sevens — it was 7/7/77 — into the soft wood of a piling. And now, in this airplane bathroom, he wished he could see the waves of the Atlantic from the same New Jersey shore. He was already halfway across the ocean, it occurred to him exactly then, flying backwards, facing that beach from the wrong way.
“Do you want to play cards?” Sharon asked when he returned. “This seat is empty.”
He sat next to the girl soldier and she taught him to play Go Fish.
The jets roared.
At some point his mother came to say, “Oh there you are.”
“I’m sorry,” Sharon said. “You must have been worried.”
Mom smirked. “I knew he couldn’t have gone far.”
The plane shook then, and Mom’s hand reached out to Sharon’s shoulder.
“You all right, ma’am?”
“Yes, thank you.” Mom righted herself. “But Aaron, shouldn't you let this nice young lady get some rest before we land?”
“Oh he’s not bothering me,” Sharon rushed to say. “And it was my idea to play.”
However, they didn’t play after that. Instead they stared at one another while Sharon told him about her family — her father, mother, brothers Terrell and David, and little sister Kate — until Aaron finally asked how old she was.
“Nineteen,” she replied, “in a month. You?”
“Twelve … a few weeks ago.” Then he realized: “You won’t be home for your birthday.”
This puzzled Sharon, until she smiled and asked, “You still have that camera?”
“It’s in my bag.”
“Can you get it?”
Aaron went back to his seat and found his mother sleeping again. He slipped his hand into his bag and located the Kodak. Checking the film, there were seven pictures left. He handed it to Sharon, when he returned, but she shook her head.
“Oh no,” she said, “I meant you’d take a picture of me.”
“Okay.” Aaron wasn’t sure why she would want this, but he stood up in the space between the seats and she offered him a half smile, her beige eyes wide. The flash ignited a groan from the soldiers sleeping behind them. “Sorry,” Aaron said.
“You’re never gonna see me after this.” Sharon was smiling completely now. “After this plane ride, we’ll say goodbye and that will be it. But you will always have is this picture.”
Which is when Aaron felt it again, but sharp this time — like a cut.