The Pilot’s Instructions

Karen E. Bender
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

We were sitting in the plane, waiting to back out from the gate, while the flight attendants prepared the cabin for takeoff. Perplexing airplane sounds arose from unknown locations–inside the plane, out on the tarmac, in the air. It was afternoon–through the small window the sky appeared blue and clear in a way that was both joyful and aggressive. The pilot made an announcement. “Good afternoon, everyone. Please turn off your phones or put them in airplane mode.” I looked up. My fellow passengers were packed in their seats, hunched over their electronic devices as though they were all engaged in a form of prayer.

I listened to the pilot; I turned off my phone.

The cabin door slammed shut. We pretended lack of interest in the person sitting next to us, though of course brimmed with many perhaps untoward thoughts about that person, trying not to touch each other’s elbows or thighs. We all faced the same way. East. We were concerned about not reaching our destination. I didn’t like flying, being strapped into a seat, gripping the plastic armrests as I looked at the world we had been separated from, briefly, far below.

I sat by the window; the passenger to my right was texting. She was long and thin, a piece of stretched gum, and appeared to be in her twenties, with short dark hair and a streak of blue on one side. The precise waviness of her hair made me think of my sister, Janine. This thought passed through me and then vanished. Her leather boots were nicer than my sneakers. She gazed at her phone with a contemplative, tender expression. Her fingers flew.

The flight attendant strode by, tossing us tiny, bright packets of pretzels. “Turn off small electronic devices and put your phones on airplane mode,” she said, glancing at the passengers. How casual she was! As cheerful as carbonation, she trusted this plane, this world. There was no formal examination of the phones. It was assumed that we understood the danger. I was embarrassed that I did not. And I saw danger everywhere. In fact, I had had a dream the night before that the world was about to end. It was an unoriginal movie end, with galactic disturbance and a star moving too close to earth, but everyone knew that these were the last few days of life. It was unclear what horrible death awaited us, but it could involve fire engulfing our sweet, fragile bodies, and the sky was turning an orange gray, and we didn’t know how much longer we would be able to breathe. I woke up sad and trembling. What horrible truth was the dream trying to tell me, which was sometimes a more frightening idea than the dream itself? What did the dream know that I did not? But nothing came to me. So I just got up and made breakfast, the fried eggs lacy and sizzling, bubbling in a way that reassured me.

Most of the passengers followed the flight attendant’s directions with gracious obedience; I saw other phones go dark, little dying people releasing their last breath.

The stranger beside me texted with a manic quality that was almost sexual in its focus, until she saw the smiling flight attendant walk by again, at which time she placed her phone facedown on her leg. It was a brilliant and somehow diabolical gesture. When the flight attendant had moved far enough away to miss her illicit activity, she picked it up and resumed texting. Her phone was not off. It was also not on airplane mode.

Oh my god, I thought, she will kill us all.

The pilot’s instructions should, I assumed, be followed for a reason. I was a polite person. But I did have some people I loved whom I had scrabbled together, some family members and a few friends, and I could not bear the thought of us separated by a wall of death, not necessarily because I would miss them, which was what everyone said, and yes I would, of course, especially when everyone was behaving well, but also because I could not bear the idea of others missing me. I wanted to be generous, but more, I wanted to have a use. Love was a form of usefulness, after all.

Plus, there were other things I wanted to do. I did want to lick frosting off cupcakes and feel air on my face and the touch of my husband’s lips on my neck; I had school dance performances and recitals I wanted to attend. And I did not want to miss any orgasms expanding in me like a slow jellyfish, not one.

She continued texting.

I looked at her hands. Thumbs working hard. Fingernails painted a bright blue. Privileged hipster. I wanted to detect a history of ease in her, as though it would explain her cavalier attitude. Or maybe she had traveled her own rough path. The flight attendant was at the front of the plane, a non-enforcer of the pilot’s instructions, strapping herself into a flimsy foldout seat.

And why was this passenger continuing to text? Was her message so important she would risk the lives of us all? Was it a declaration of love so absolute it surpassed any that I had felt? Was she a terrorist or perhaps just in love? What would happen if a terrorist were in love? Would he or she have second thoughts about taking down the plane? I eyed her texts. I saw a photo of a plate of spaghetti, not a particularly appetizing one, sent into the ether.

The plane began to move backward. I watched the world slide by, the men in the orange vests standing on the asphalt, waving the vessel back. The planes resembled long, impassive animals, but they were, surprisingly, not alive. The man waving the rods, his face blank, a little sweaty, with no emotion I could discern.

Stop texting, I thought. Stop texting. Please. Put down your phone. Put it down. Now, I tried to tell her, firmly, with my thoughts, but she apparently didn’t listen.

I did not want to be a fool. I did not want the entire plane to laugh at me. But. I did not want her to kill me with her texting, either–such an innocent-looking action, and yet.

If my life were in jeopardy, what part of my life would I speak up for?

Oh, the obvious things that people might say: the act of sitting down and eating dinner with the children, now tall as skyscrapers, and here or not, pushing out into the world, the hopeful illusion that I could nourish them when I handed over a plate with a meal on it. The feeling of my husband’s hands around my hips, or even more, before, the silver line of desire that propelled us forward, the sorrowful, bright wound of longing in one’s throat, the attempt to finally leap out of ourselves. A workplace I could depend on, not just for some months or a year but many, knowing that I had a place to go and that they appreciated what I had to contribute.

There were times when I didn’t want to be alive. I’ll admit that. A few times when a plane lifted off and I didn’t necessarily care if it landed or not. I didn’t will it to crash, but I didn’t buckle my seatbelt. This felt like a statement, and a grave one. This sorrow could be sparked by surprisingly mundane things. I don’t even want to admit what they are, as they would make me look more fragile than I actually am. But even tiny things can sometimes plunge one into darkness: the intimation that you are stupid by a person whose opinion you respect. The discussion with your mother in which she revealed, after a little too much wine, that she had been more excited about your sister’s birth than yours, not that yours wasn’t special too (she added), and that was a little bit of a joke in the family, but also not; sometimes you wondered if your mother thought about this later, after what happened to Janine. The fact that your child, who was eighteen and living in another state, did not inform you of his new phone number after he dropped his phone in the sink. When he called you (after several days) and you yelled at him (with a dark panic that rose up like a snake), he did not talk to you for weeks. The way your body insulted you, in new and clever ways, as you got older, the times you looked in the mirror and thought you were you and other times thought you were not. Your good ideas for designing better child-safety seats, which was your job, ideas that you were sure would save lives. The way you suggested these ideas, and how your superiors considered them but then quickly said no. Too expensive. Too impractical. No. And when they hired that guy who made the exact same suggestions, but in a deeper voice, they said, Oh, of course. Love that. Yes.

The sensation, in short, of helplessness.

The plane kept backing out.

I remembered when I had not spoken up. Countless times, really. The afternoon, when I was eleven, the lawns brittle but gold in the dusky light. My younger sister, Janine, darted into my room while I was getting dressed. I was just pulling my shirt over my head when she saw me, and she had never seen my breasts before. They affronted her in some way. She laughed, a sharp, terrible sound, as if I were now ridiculous, and ran out. I stood in that room, hearing that sound, and my shame made it seem my skin might peel off. She was going through a hard time then–no one on our street liked her. It was just a decision everyone made at once. I had heard one girl named Laura discussing her in soft, mocking tones and didn’t correct her because I wanted her to invite me over to her swimming pool. What was the strategy to be asked to step into that shimmering blue water?

That afternoon, Janine had been walking down the street and four of them were on their bikes. She stopped, watching them. I did too. I didn’t speak. I was frozen too, I told myself. They would ride around her, I told myself, they would. Nothing else would happen to her. I felt my brain both slow down and speed up so it was, for that moment, useless, and thus I was useless, and then one of them hit her with her bike then swerved away, and she fell, with a cry that meant she was wounded in another way, and then I ran to her. Her arm was limp when I lifted her up, and she was weeping, and her arm had a dark skid on it and was broken, and the others circled around her with their bikes and watched, like vultures. I rushed her to my parents very dramatically, exclaiming with outrage about what the other kids had done, but my shame was a hard nut residing in me. I had not spoken up to stop it. For years later, I thought my sister looked at me as though I was a clear container and she could see through it to some animal running around inside.

And I remembered the time, not long ago, a co-worker called security on me. I had done nothing but wait in the office for a meeting that had never been scheduled. I just hoped that if I sat there long enough, it would begin. I had worked at the company for six years, and the supervisor of my department, a man with a head the precise shape of an egg, had said a week before, looking down, shyly, as if he were asking me on a date, that they would not be able to pay me for my work anymore. They were tightening their budget. I had done nothing wrong. I thought of showing him my checking account, wondering if that would make him change his mind, but I did not. I thought about what he said, and the next day I walked into the office because there was no one watching, and I sat in the conference room waiting for the meeting that I was not supposed to attend because I did not work there anymore. I sat with my files and presentation, waiting five minutes, then ten, then fifteen, walking around the room and touching the black vinyl chairs, wondering who would be sitting in them, what they would think of me, then noticing the secretary watch me through the glass, walking in and asking, her voice trembling, “Are you waiting for someone here today?” She had put in my termination paperwork the day before. I should have said, “Arnold,” the head of the department; “I would like to meet with Arnold to discuss plans for the week.” Just saying that in a determined voice would have made them think, Yes, what idiots we are, we must promote her and fire these other three employees instead! But I did not speak up. I sat in a chair, waiting. A couple of flies began to buzz around me, as though I were dead. I swatted them away, but they kept coming, with a curious intent. The security guard, a man named Henry, came into the room, examining me with a puzzled expression, for he had seen me walk into this office many times before, but now I was not supposed to be here. And the security guard stared at me in shock with, I thought, the same expression as my sister; perhaps he, like Janine, running into my room many years ago, had seen something peculiar and troubling in me.

I still felt the guard’s hand, firm, on my shoulders as I walked out. He had a large hand, and his grip was oddly paternal, but it was just firm enough to tell me I was not allowed there anymore.

That was another time I had not spoken up for myself.

I thought of, years ago, the time I drove around, looking for the person I thought I loved. I was too embarrassed to ask him the location of the restaurant where we were supposed to meet. We knew each other as classmates at our university, where we both took courses in beginning French, and practiced ordinary conversations in which he was a shopkeeper and I tried to buy an orange, a baguette, and a chicken, and then I was a doctor and he tried to ask for a shot. This was a few months after my sister had been killed (a bike accident, rushing off from her job, wearing no helmet, the part I did not understand), and I was in a daze in which I did not want to converse in English, which was my language of daily life. It just felt wrong to say anything in this language at all; it described nothing precise about the world. I took French because I liked the way it sounded. I met a student there who wanted to practice with me after class. There was something in our fake conversations which made me feel ridiculously alive, as though we actually briefly became the shopkeeper or coffeeshop owner or doctor or teacher in the study guide, even though we could barely sound out the syllables, though sometimes we would, and it made me think that our conversations in English would free me in the same way, that we would become larger and more beautiful versions of ourselves. The way his bronze hair gathered in the sun made me want to touch it.

And then one day, after our semester had ended, he asked me to go to dinner, in French, and then he said to meet at this restaurant, at this time; he laughed in the way that made me think we understood each other, and I thought I understood all of it, but I was so full of anticipation and the hope that I would feel differently talking to him, I said yes, I would meet him there. But he was not at that restaurant, and when I called him he said, “I am here.”

In French.

But he was not there. I didn’t want to use English. I said I would be there soon. But where? I got in my car and drove around, but I couldn’t find the restaurant. And I was so set on not asking him in English, not revealing how much I did or did not actually understand in French, I called back and asked him, “Where are you?” in French.

He sounded a little weary and gave me the address.

So I drove around that night, making stops at the restaurants on the street he mentioned, and then other neighboring regions, but he was nowhere to be found. I just drove around the city, through the darkness, and felt the permanence of his absence, and of my sister, and that night I felt a little bit of myself vanish. I never saw him again.

I didn’t speak up the right way, or in a way that was at all effective, when my mother asked me to find out what had happened to my sister. The accident happened when Janine was riding her bike from the optometrist’s office where she worked. We had many questions about the accident. Why was she riding away so fast? Where was she going? Why was she not wearing a helmet? Did something happen at the optometrist’s office so she was rushing away in fear? Or was she just, more boringly, not looking where she was going? My mother sat at the kitchen table and repeated these questions, every day, her longing a shovel, digging into air. She wanted to scold my sister, but there was no one there to scold. Here I was, with my mother, in the sour light of the den; Janine was not in the other room, and never would be, and we sat, waiting and not waiting, in that peculiar frozenness of the living after a death. I listened to my mother ask in a circular way what had happened, for we did not know how to think, neither of us. I wanted to do something. One day she said,



“You should go ask,” she said. “Go to the office. Find out.”

She wanted this from me, so I did it. I am a shy person, so this assignment was not easy for me. I went to the office and pretended I was making an appointment for a new prescription. But my eyes were 20/20 and had always been. My sister was the person in the office to help you choose frames. She was excellent at figuring out how frames would transform your face.

I remembered when we were maybe in our twenties, looking for Janine’s first pair; she was strangely excited by the idea of getting glasses. She thought they were a form of self-revelation. Janine’s face was small and delicate, and most pairs we found were too big for her face. Finally I found a pair that seemed completely unlike her–a pair of circular plastic frames, in burgundy–but when she looked at herself in the mirror, her face lit up. “Yes,” she said. “Yes! I love it.” She looked at me, setting the frames evenly, and she did seem somehow transformed, older. She looked happy to be who she was.

“Now you,” she said, and though I didn’t wear glasses, she picked out a pair of frames that were blue and fancy in a way I would never choose–“This.” I put them on, and the glasses revealed in me a sweeping authority; others would certainly now listen to me.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. I appreciated the fact that she could see this in me. She bought her glasses and we walked out.

Where was that moment now? I missed her, terribly; how I wanted to stand with her on that moment, a floe of ice.

It seemed impossible that the office was open and operating as usual, though that was their right. Janine had worked in this office less than a year. When I walked in the receptionist greeted me as though I were simply a patient; she saw nothing similar between my sister and myself, even though we shared the same eyes. With that greeting I felt not just the finality of Janine’s absence but the ephemeral nature of the receptionist herself, the potted palm in the corner, all of us. It was a cold slap. The receptionist showed me into the examination room.

Who did it, I thought, as I met the optometrist’s assistant, who put drops in my eyes, and the optometrist, who peered at my eyes through the metal contraption. I was a few inches from their faces. Their eyes resembled eyes. They simply went about their business, asking me which letter I could see more clearly. This or this.

This or this.


What was the explanation, I thought. What happened to Janine? Why did she bike off that way? I pushed away the optometrist’s machine and sat forward.

“I don’t need these,” I said.

They looked at me, wary and surprised.

I said my sister’s name. I said, “What happened? We want to know what happened. Why did she ride off so fast? Do you know? We want to know.”

This was, of course, the first problem. I was not strategic or smooth or intelligent; I did not have the time for it, I just blurted it out in this ineffective way. The optometrist and assistant glanced at each other; I could not penetrate their expression, whether it revealed fear about my sister or about me. They said Janine’s name.

“Oh, that was terrible,” said the optometrist. “She took her bike, and my god.”

“We were just talking about her shoes and where she bought them,” the assistant said. “And then. Oh. I’m sorry. That was such a shock.”

They stood, perplexed and human, mouthing sympathy, but they didn’t have an answer for me. I peered at them, looking for evidence of knowledge or wrongdoing, but I saw nothing in their faces that would tell me more.

“I wish I had known her better,” the assistant said, wistfulness in her voice.

This was her answer. More questions pressed into my throat, and I wanted to ask the one that would shake them, that would give me some bit of information on anything, for my mother, about what had happened. I wanted to ask them why I had not been able to help her that afternoon when we were children, why I had been so poisoned by my own shame. I wanted to ask it all. But I didn’t, as they seemed sad, too, standing there, rumpled, hands empty.

I drove home and wanted to pick up something on the way; I rushed into the supermarket and bought some apricots; I was halfway home when I remembered that this was Janine’s favorite fruit. When I walked into the house, I saw my mother on the couch, gazing at me with a dreadful hope. I handed her an apricot, and she held it in her hand for a moment, feeling its softness. Their sweet orange fragrance floated into the air.

I didn’t like the silence between us, so I said, “They said she was in love.”

My mother’s face shifted slightly, a little bit awake. “With who?”

“They didn’t know.”

We sat together in this flimsy, manufactured shelter–of what? This wouldn’t solve anything; there was nothing to learn. My mother slowly ate her apricot; she seemed a little bit comforted. Each day melted into the next.

But I was aware of my failure in finding out why my sister had ridden off that way. I felt that curdle within me.

That was years ago; I wasn’t sure why I was thinking about this now. But here we sat, the stranger who had hair like my sister’s, and I waited for her to follow the pilot’s instructions so that we could all continue to live. The plane was poised at the runway, about to take off. She still texted, sending off messages.

The flight attendants were chatting; one had flown all night from Madrid.

The inside of my palms were a little wet.

I imagined myself making a joke about her phone; perhaps that would make her stop. “Hey, don’t want to send us off to Antarctica, do you?” I could say, referring to the plane’s navigation system. I was not, despite my obsessions, a weirdo; I could be funny. She would laugh and nod and instantly turn the thing off.

I watched her fingers move across the phone. I wondered whom she loved and who loved her, and whom she wished she could talk to, and whom she could not.

Which tweet, which word would lead to the plane malfunction? To our end?

She glanced up at the window and then back.

“Please pull down the shade,” she said, flatly.

I was surprised by her voice. Clipped, like a substitute teacher’s. She had no problem asking me for anything.

I took a breath, but the words wouldn’t come.

The aircraft parked at their gates, the dark windows along the sides, the people peering out at the dingy air, the large men on the asphalt waving them to their futures. What were they eating, I wondered.

“What?” I asked.

“Can you?” she asked. “I don’t like to see the plane take off.”

I quietly processed this request. This was what she feared. How could she be afraid of that while willfully ignoring the pilot’s instructions? Everyone’s fear was its own intricate and rule-bound world. None of it made sense.

I tried to think about how to respond to this.

“No,” I said.

She stared at me.

“And why not?”

“I want to see us take off,” I said.

“Seriously?” she asked. She twisted around, with some difficulty, in her tiny seat.

The stranger beside me had no idea that she looked familiar, or dangerous. I couldn’t stand it anymore–I wanted to grab the phone and tell her, Don’t bring down the plane. Let it float to its destination. Let me out.

“Stop texting,” I said, quickly. “The pilot said to stop.”


She looked at me coolly, the way a person does when she can suddenly see all the way through you, to the booming raw heart of yourself. I tensed.

Then she laughed.

“They always say that,” she said. “Don’t believe them.”

“Why not?”

“It’s silly.”

“We’re about to put this thing in the air,” I said, curtly. “It’s not natural. I always believe them.”

“It’s how the airlines maintain power,” she said. “It’s totally fake. But they make us afraid and dependent and then we pay exorbitant fees for our luggage.”

She appeared cheerful and resolute in these theories. But why? How were these issues connected? Was this in Consumer Reports? She had clearly thought about this; she delivered it with an earnest face.

“I don’t believe it,” I said. “And I want the plane to stay in the air.”

She regarded me with a long, gooey gaze of pity; then she sighed and pressed her thumb against her phone. It shut off.

She had done what I had asked. The phone was off, and the plane was perhaps safe. Relief rushed through me like sweet air. Perhaps I would get to my destination. I would have another day.

The plane began to rush forward, with a purpose. We held still in the solemn way that passengers did when the plane was about to lift off the earth. My teeth trembled.

Then I thought–why had I been so afraid of this texting? Why did our fear land any particular place? And, finally, more to the point, what was wrong with me?

“Thank you,” I said. I loved her, immensely, for a moment. This feeling leapt out of me briefly, a leopard that had been caged.

“Now,” she said. “Can you pull down the shade?”

“Yes,” I said. “I will.”

I glanced out the window. The plane was coasting. What else could I ask for? How much could I ask for?

I held the little foil bag of pretzels the flight attendant had tossed to us. I wanted a pretzel at that moment, so I tore open the bag and chewed one, noisily. The texter looked at me, with a mournful expression, and I realized she was hungry. Her pretzel bag was nowhere to be seen. I silently held out my foil bag and shook a pretzel into her palm and we sat beside each other, crunching the pretzels. It was a pleasant sound. We sounded exactly alike.

Bright light came through the curved square windows and shadows trembled on the inside of the plane. The sun fell upon all of us, trapped in our seats, the light lovely on our hair. I could feel the speed in my jaws. The stranger beside me closed her eyes. I put my hand on the window shade, but before I shut it, I looked outside. There was the world, below me. It was endless and silent as we rose. The mountains looked like islands in the ruffled, white-cloud sea.

Karen E. Bender is a novelist and short story writer. Her collection of stories, Refund, was a finalist in 2015 for the National Book Award. The collection The New Order was published recently.
Originally published:
October 1, 2018


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