On a Red-Eye Heading East
By: Ken Elkes
Find the audio for this story at my YouTube Channel: HERE
Last weekend, Daniel spent 43 hours straight with his daughter Esme. Nearly two whole days. Nearly. Now he is 30,000 feet up on a red-eye heading East, looking at a picture she has posted online – a ‘selfie’ and a shadow of his face. He is not tagged.
Planes, hotel rooms, toilet cubicles off quiet corridors. These are the sliver-thin places where he finds a little home, like a fisherman standing in a fast flowing river, hoping to hook something beautiful, reel it in, hold it for a while.
He spends these moments ‘liking’ her uploaded images – the lemon cake drizzle she made, Esme with a ginger-haired girl he doesn’t recognize, her new patent-leather shoes. Or typing funny comments about cold feet, hair braids, boys in spectacles; thumbing love into the holy blue glow of the screen, as if a string of 0s and 1s were invisible threads that joined them.
Another flight, a few weeks back. A stewardess, greying and flat shoed, saw a picture on his laptop. She asked: “So, is that your daughter?”
The picture wasn’t her, not really, he said. None of it was, the patchwork of messages and posts and the slow, twitching images of video calls.
“Zoom in. Just zoom in and see just how pixelated she gets,” he said.
When she turned away wordless, he regretted his candor, the potential rudeness. He was relieved a little later when she brought him a whisky, unasked, leaned in and told him it was on the house, saying she had kids, was divorced, and understood.
Today the stewardess is different, young and brisk, and he sits quietly, held down by the weight of the laptop and the phone, silent, in his pocket.
Finally, he lets himself think about last weekend. That fat, cold Friday, Daniel had driven through a blizzard to his ex-wife’s house and taken Esme back to his too-hot, too-small new place where they scoured peanut butter straight from the jar and gazed at the ghost prints of birds in the snow.
When the snow relented, Esme insisted they go out, so they bought a plastic sled and drove out to the hills near to where he grew up. When they crossed a bridge at the foot of the slopes, Daniel stopped and told Esme about how snow changed the sound of everything.
“Listen to the stream, I mean really listen to it,” he said and was silent for a long time, until Esme pulled on his hand, said she wanted to have fun.
He watched her sail down the hill, time after time, worrying about the cold and the night and what they should eat when they got back.
Then she said, “let’s build a snowman” and they worked together, heaving a great ball of snow around the bottom of the hill, a lesser one for the head. He gave up his scarf and his hat and Esme made a face from twigs. When they had finished she adjusted the cap to a better angle, and then patted its belly.
“Looks like you dad.”
Against the hum of the plane’s engine, Daniel remembers how, as they were leaving, he turned and saw the swathe of grass they had exposed all round the snowman, bright green, incredulous in its color.
He stares out at the vast fields of clouds that stretch, white and unending, to the horizon. He thinks about what lies below.
By now, the snowman would have melted and the deep, bright grass would be an unremarkable piece of field. Maybe someone walking there might just see a hat and scarf, a pile of twigs. They might wonder, just for a moment, about who left them there and why.
He didn’t take a picture of the snowman, neither did Esme. There had been no profile update, no location marked, no online record uploaded, filed or shared. But when Daniel closes his eyes he can hear the trickle of a stream dulled by snow, the sharp pipe of his daughter’s laughter in the cold air. He can smell crushed grass and he can feel the wondrous weight of tiredness in his limbs as he carried his own sleeping daughter to bed that night.