Katie flew again tonight. She woke me up when she crawled into bed, and soon after she fell asleep, I quietly slipped out of the room. I saw evidence in our apartment of her flight: black yoga clothes shed on the floor made a trail down the hallway toward the living room window, where under the sill lay her ballet flats, haphazardly shed in the sleepy stumble to the bedroom that she makes after a night of flying. Her discarded clothes had taken on the scent of the Manhattan grit outside our windows. Katie absorbs the city’s smells when she flies; they cling to her the way a telling perfume clings to a guilty shirt collar.
I returned to the bedroom, lit blue from the alarm clock, and I slid under the sheets, inching my way toward the bare outline of her sleeping body. I had already seen the time, and couldn’t avoid calculating how long she’d been out. As she slowly breathed, I watched the violin curve of her body rise and fall to its own musical time. I reached out and I fell asleep with one arm resting on her. It is in moments like these that I feel as if I, too, have flown.
* * *
In the morning, I took a ferry to Staten Island and from there, took a cab to the easternmost part of the island where my friend Adrian kept a small apartment. He greeted me at the door with his arm in a sling, bruises and cuts on his face and a bandage on his forehead. I asked him what happened to him, but he didn’t answer. He closed the door behind him and began walking.
I followed him across the street to a coffee shop where a large man watched us from behind the glass. We took up an empty table on the sidewalk, and soon ordered from a curt waitress who, after taking our orders, slammed the door behind her, and when she brought our drinks, she set the cups and saucers down on the table so hard that the porcelain rattled and our coffee spilled. The other patrons turned their heads and murmured under their breath.
Adrian and I drank in silence; I had yet to broach why I was visiting him, although he knew why I was there. Lately, I had come to visit him for only one reason, which made me feel like only calling on a friend who owns a truck when furniture needs to be moved. Seeing Adrian injured made me feel even more self-conscious about coming out to Staten Island on such short notice. Most people would not have answered the phone or the door, but Adrian and I were stuck with one another, doomed to remain friends until one of us had the decency to die.
Soon, the large man who’d been watching us from inside the cafe stepped outside and barked at Adrian. He spoke in Italian and gestured toward the balcony outside Adrian’s apartment across the street. Adrian looked down at his coffee and said nothing until the man went inside. I asked him who that was.
“Fausto.” He shrugged. “The manager, I think.”
The other patrons watched us, and he changed the subject.
“So how long is it now?”
“Last night?” I hesitated before going on. “She was out for six hours.”
“She’s still there, so things can’t be that bad,” he told me. “You still have time.”
I felt guilty every time he and I talked about Katie behind her back, as if I were auctioning away pieces of my wife. But there was no other way of talking about Katie—and long ago, about Adrian’s wife, Quinn—without divulging the details of her flights. In the beginning, the wives had made a point of introducing all of us husbands to each other, encouraging us to be friends. The wives knew that we would need a support system, though we never became friends so much as we remained a fraternity born of necessity, and over the years, I have lost contact with all of them except for Adrian.
We spoke about Katie like a specimen under our microscope. But this was far from reality; any assumption that our wives were able to be studied at all was an illusion we upheld, a coping mechanism disguised as a hobby. We’d married women who could fly; for better or worse, Adrian and I belonged in each other’s lives.
Maybe you, as well, have heard of the sightings in New York, or are aware of the vocal fringe of people who claim that they have seen women soaring over the five boroughs like large, winged birds. Or maybe you’ve seen the blurred photos online yourself, the photos that sit on crackpot websites and are shared on social media by bored enthusiasts. Looking at these pictures online, I’ve laughed at the lengths to which strangers have gone to explain the fantasy of my wife; the truth is that her flight is only a small part of who she is. The rest of the time, she is my domestic partner, and our time is largely spent like other married couples—talking about what to eat, where to take trips, what movies to watch, whose turn it is to take out the trash.
“And this morning?” he asked.
“I heard her alarm go off. She woke up, she showered, ate toast with me, then left for work like everything was normal.”
We listened to the tangled noise of boats sounding their horns and drivers honking at one another. Staten Island always made me slightly nervous, as if I were visiting a minefield. Talking to Adrian also made me feel this way; it made sense that he lived there.
The manager returned with a broom and yelled again at Adrian, making a sweeping motion and then jabbing with its wooden end like a joust. I stood up and dropped cash on the table and told Adrian we should go, but he didn’t move. This small battle drew the attention of strangers, and drivers slowed down to see about the fuss. A man at another table spoke up and said, “Friend, I don’t speak a word of Italian but I think he wants you to vacate pronto, you know?”
Adrian swallowed the last of his coffee, stood up and waved a dismissive hand toward the manager before walking off.
I followed him to the water’s edge, a shoreline made up of large, seaweed-strewn rocks dotted with foam coffee cups and orange plastic shopping bags. He stared at the tugboats and container ships that glazed by on the surface of the cold water, and seemed to be on the verge of saying something else, when I realized he was waiting for me to speak.
“Should we go up to your place?” I asked him. “So we can talk?”
“We can talk out here.” Adrian sighed. “But I don’t want to talk.”
“I know I always come out here like this.”
“You do,” he said. “You do always come out here like this.”
“You’re the last one I can talk to.”
The other husbands I’d lost touch with or I could no longer reach. Felix first changed his voicemail to a request to be left alone, and the number was eventually disconnected. David was serving life for driving under the influence and killing two pedestrians. Luís went off the grid entirely, rumored to be living as a hermit in the Hudson Valley. Yuri was committed to a hospital ward in Connecticut, where he now lives out a wordless, glassy-eyed life. And Vince took his own life with a handful of sleeping pills and a running engine in his garage in Hoboken.
Which left Adrian and myself. This was the other reason I still came to Staten Island to see him. It wasn’t that I needed to know how long Quinn’s final flights were before she was ultimately gone for good—that, I already knew—it was that I needed to check on Adrian. Because just as the wives could not escape their fates, nor could the husbands, each one of them involuntarily releasing his grip on reality and slipping headlong into irreversible loss, and I knew that he was next, and that his sanity was a portent for my own.
“I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t be,” he said. “You have your own problems.”
Quinn’s longest flight while still living with Adrian had been seven hours. It was the same story as the other wives. Rather than being a coordinated effort, it was simply a progression of their gifts, which is to say that it was a progression toward the inevitable. Though the wives all departed for good at different ages, Katie’s final, permanent flight is as inevitable as is a thirty-four-year-old turning thirty-five.
“Take my advice. Lock the windows.” He emitted a bitter laugh and winced at the sun that had just been freed from passing clouds. “Chain her to the radiator.”
“I can’t do that.”
He pointed to a balcony three stories high.
“See that balcony up there?”
I nodded. The French doors were open and a curtain blew in the breeze.
“That was the last place I saw her,” he said. “Did you know that she didn’t even say goodbye to me?” He waited for a response; I somberly said no, even though he’d told me this before. But he’d never before told me what he said next. “And did you also know that if you jump from that height, you can’t kill yourself? You only break your arm and a few ribs.”
I started to speak, but he cut me off and began to walk back to his apartment.
“Clip her wings,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s what I should have done.”
* * *
Katie does not have wings; none of the wives ever did. But I understood what Adrian was saying, though, exactly how I was to figuratively clip her wings I wouldn’t have known. I understand very little about how my wife flies; she does not have any physical qualities associated with creatures of flight, and for all other intents and purposes, she is entirely human.
I didn’t know that she could fly until after we were married, when she confessed in a drunken, romantic daze one sleepless night that she could lift herself off the ground and hover in the air for a few moments, and that she’d always been able to do it, ever since she was a girl. Her parents never knew about the gift their only child had. Back then, it had just been levitation, an ability that had been with her so long, she simply accepted it early. My pressing questions got me no further. To her, it would have been as if I had asked why she was double-jointed in her left thumb, or why she needed glasses to read.
Katie was in the living room with a bowl of popcorn resting on her lap. She was looking down at her phone while the TV played in the background, and when she looked up and saw me, she leapt from the couch and ran to me, wrapped her arms around me and squeezed tightly. I felt her smile against my neck.
“I’m in the best mood.”
Katie has dark hair that hangs down over her forehead, and large, brown eyes that narrow when she smiles, and always looks to be on the verge of breaking into laughter. She works for an antiquarian library on the Upper East Side. Monday through Friday, she haunts the archives, tagging items in a climate-controlled basement and logging them on a computer. She exchanges items between other libraries like hers throughout the world, and sometimes acts as a verification consultant. It is as grounded of a job as you can find.
“Guess who got a promotion today,” she said. “If you can believe it.”
I congratulated her and we reveled in the good news. She had been given the title of curator, finally, after five years of collecting dust in the same position. Now she would give university lectures on behalf of the library, talks at conferences, contributions to an industry magazine. She told me she hoped there would be renewed interest in her doctoral thesis on nineteenth-century bookbinding preservation, and I told her I was sure there would be.
“By the way, where were you?” she asked. “I thought you had the day off.”
For work, I play drums in several jazz outfits throughout New York, and I travel from club to club and the occasional studio session more hours than I actually drum. On the days and nights that I do work, I sleep little and my diet often consists of sidewalk kebabs and free cocktails. And when I am not looking in on a friend who has attempted suicide, I spend my days like you: checking my email for messages I’m not expecting, reading a few pages of a book I will never finish and devoutly clicking every alluring link online.
I told her that I’d been at music stores pricing new drum heads, and halfway through this excuse, she interrupted me with the happy news that she’d bought champagne on the way home.
We had an attrition problem when it came to champagne flutes, so we drank from coffee mugs like the poor college students we were when we first met. We talked about which credit cards could be paid off with her raise and what we could do the coming weekend to celebrate. The talk was all of earthly matters, distracting me briefly from the knowledge that Katie can fly.
* * *
Soon she began to fly less and less, and our home took on the atmosphere of a soldier’s return from war. We held hands walking down Manhattan’s sidewalks. We rode the subway and I no longer worried about what would happen if her flight lifted her to the ceiling of the moving train. I’d begun to feel more like an everyday husband and less like a brother in a fraternity of the bewildered. Katie and I resembled the couples we saw on television, the men and women of sitcoms and furniture ads. I was the oafish man who spilled orange juice on the sofa, and she was the quick-witted woman who cleaned up after me. We had never been that man and that woman before, and it felt as though we were actors who had assumed new roles in a limited production.
Some nights, she accompanied me to work, where she sat in the back and watched me drum and pretended to enjoy jazz. She sipped a watery gin and tonic and listened to the staccato conversation of horns and drums, and even befriended a trumpeter’s girlfriend named Marcy and made plans to meet her for coffee. Marcy was a flight attendant and training to become a pilot, Katie told me, in a voice that seemed to say, It’s a joke only if you think it is.
One morning, I received a phone call from a detective named Farley asking me to come to a police station in Staten Island. I knew what had happened before I even arrived: Adrian had died, and there being evidence that I was something of a friend of his, they surely had questions for me. At the station, Farley led me to an office with a sagging couch and a crooked corkboard. I counted five almost-empty mugs of coffee that doubled as paperweights to stacks of folders on the desk. He collapsed into a rolling chair and squirted drops into his eyes, and when he began to tell me that Adrian had hanged himself with a noose attached to a balcony railing, it looked as if Farley was crying.
He slid a small plastic bag across the desk, and through the clear film, I could read a handwritten note that said: Paul, Save yourself before it’s too late. Adrian.
I handed it back to him and stared down at the carpet.
“He’d not been the same since his wife left him,” I said, which was true. “Her name was Quinn. She and my wife had been friends.”
Farley leaned forward and placed his palms on his desk, interlacing his thick fingers. “And the note?”
“He was under the impression,” I added, hoping to put it as gently and broadly as possible, “that I should leave my wife so I wouldn’t become miserable like him.”
The detective frowned, not accepting this.
“But on the walls of his apartment were these photos, of . . . those women who can supposedly fly. Appears to have developed something of a fixation.” He leaned back, his chair whining. “Did you know he’d been in the hospital with a broken arm and ribs?”
I nodded and told him I’d known about the injuries.
“So the way I see it is this—that he’d grown obsessed with these so-called flying women, tried to fly himself, and then,” he jabbed the air with a pencil, establishing an order of events, “when he couldn’t, he decided that the only solution was to take his own life.”
* * *
Inside the apartment, Katie knelt at the coffee table surrounded by paperwork and she told me without looking up that she had a big report due by morning and would be working well into the night. I feigned a headache and told her I was going to lie down. In the bedroom, I closed the door behind me, slid into bed and pulled a sleep mask over my eyes. But the absence of light only made me dwell more on Adrian and the noose that had strained his balcony railing, and I fell asleep wondering if I was stronger than him, if in Katie’s absence I could evade the kind of grim ends the other husbands hadn’t.
I woke up to a shaft of light entering the room. Katie sat down next to me and pulled back my sleep mask and placed a hand on my forehead. She would have made a terrific mother. And I suddenly felt sorry—not just that she and I would miss the chance to have a family—but for her, that motherhood would pass her over, that she would not know the sorrows and pleasures of raising children and sending them out into the world.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. “This isn’t a headache, is it.”
She pressed her hand to my chest, five fingertips grazing my unbuttoned oxford. I felt soft thunder rattle through me, clap following clap, and I knew I was incapable of walking away from this conversation. Katie has a way of liberating the truth from me, and after a moment, I looked up, ready to tell her anything.
“Adrian’s died,” I told her. “He hanged himself. Last night, I think.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.” She lowered herself to the bed and held me. “I liked him.”
“That leaves only me. I’m the only one left.”
“No.” She forced a smile and gripped my shoulders. “It leaves you and me both.”
“I know we never talk about this.”
“You can ask me about it.”
“Where will you go?”
“I have these dreams sometimes.” She stroked my face as if I were ill, softening the truth with her bedside manner. “They get stronger as time goes on. Dreams of a place that’s . . . hard to describe. I don’t know where it is, but I think I know that’s where I’ll go.”
I could smell the perfume she was wearing, a brand I bought her last year. I immediately recalled last Christmas, the winter when she was only flying three hours at a time. Time with Katie has been marked by these bittersweet increments. When she could only fly one hour at a time, we’d just returned from a two-week vacation in London. And when she discovered she could fly for three hours, we’d been to New Jersey for my father’s funeral.
“Have you been purposefully not flying?” I asked her.
She leaned in and kissed me. Her hand lingered on my chin.
“I want to stay as much as you want me to stay.”
We left the bedroom for the living room and turned on all the lights and played music while we waited for a pizza to be delivered. We tried our best to ward off the blues. Wine bottle after wine bottle was opened. I spilled cabernet on a cream-colored rug and neither of us cared. We danced to a radio hit from when we were in high school, back when I was hopelessly uncool and she was a girl who could levitate.
I woke up hours later to a muted infomercial flickering over us like a silent film. Katie was staring at the screen, her glazed eyes fixed to a diamond bracelet on a rotating display.
“I was asleep earlier,” she said, sounding ashamed, as if she knew what I was thinking, “but something on the TV woke me up.”
“You said you sometimes dream of this other place.”
She slowly nodded, and I knew it was where she had just been. I told her I wanted her to describe it for me, so that if she ended up there, I would at least know what it looked like.
“It’s like this planet, but different.” She closed her eyes and searched for a description. “Another earth, only there are no roads or buildings or people. There’s no pollution. The sky is always clear.” Katie opened her eyes and looked at me, half of her face lit by the TV screen. “There are oceans and forests, deserts and beaches, clouds and canyons.” She trailed off, appearing embarrassed by these riches, too red-faced to list them all.
* * *
Things continued this way for a while. Months passed and to my knowledge, Katie did not fly.
I’d long gotten out of the habit of asking her if she had flown, the way husbands learn to not ask sensitive questions of their wives, and for Katie’s part, she had never gotten into the habit of reporting to me when she did. I never saw any evidence of her flight during the pedestrian months that followed Adrian’s death, and I never felt her wake me upon returning in the middle of the night. Things began to feel normal, and without planning to, she and I had transitioned from the celestial to the ordinary. We celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Eve under the canopy of common bliss. And soon, my memories of her flight became more hazy, as if it were a dream we had both shared, a collective fantasy.
This illusion of normalcy was shattered one night in the spring while I had been working. All night, I had been at a club in Harlem, and I’d just finished playing a five-hour set with two different bands when I looked at my phone. It was almost two in the morning, and in the last thirty minutes, I’d missed fourteen phone calls from Katie as well as one text message asking me, plainly, to call her when I got the message. My heart raced as I listened to the line ring, the phone held to my ear so hard it almost hurt. She picked up, sounding calm, and told me she’d explain everything when I got home. I hailed the first taxi I could find and ran up the steps to our apartment and burst through the door like a father arriving late to the birth of his firstborn.
Katie greeted me at the door with a prolonged hug, burying her face in my chest. After a moment, I felt her pulling me upward, and I realized that she was rising off the ground and using me as an anchor. She held my hands tightly until she came back to the floor on two sure feet, and I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and held her in place.
“I can’t stop it anymore,” she said.
Our eyes met. She had a cut on one cheek and one side of her forehead was scraped. As we walked to the living room, I noticed she carried herself with a limp. She sat down on the couch and pulled my legs up over her lap to sustain her, and she told me that after leaving her office for the evening, she’d involuntarily lifted herself to the ceiling of a stairwell, where she remained until she dropped to the floor after seven hours. I held her and consoled her as if she’d been splashed with a puddle on her walk home or been yelled at by her boss.
I wanted us to stay positioned as we were forever. I wanted to weigh her down and drag her with me through the world, to yoke her unto myself, both of us waiting on line at the post office or standing in the kitchen waiting for water to boil or wandering like nomads through the supermarket aisles. I thought about the grounded life that lay before me—the menial tasks accomplished by foot, as well as the countless stairs I was sentenced to ascend. Now it all seemed so boring and lonely.
Finally, she turned to me and we both knew what neither of us could say. She took my hand and led me into the bedroom. I held onto her wrist while she changed into her black yoga clothes and ballet flats. When she needed both hands, I held onto one of her ankles. It was as if she were alone in a hot-air balloon basket, and I was on the ground trying to secure the ropes.
I guided her through the living room and she raised a window and with my hands gripping her sides, she pulled her hair back in a tight bun. Her eyes and cheeks were wet and she laughed at herself and wiped her face and stepped into the window, facing me. I could see that her body was pulling itself upward and she held onto the window frame with white knuckles. I lifted myself to stand on the sill next to her and gave her one long, last kiss, my hands cradling her face like the first time our lips met, and I whispered goodbye and told her that I loved her, and that I would always love her, and that I would miss her.
She stepped backward out the window, lifting herself into the air.
Immediately I ran out of the apartment and onto the sidewalk where I could still see her in the sky. I half-walked and ran down sidewalks, past kebab carts and newspaper stands. I stepped out in front of idling delivery trucks and snaked my way through a sea of bar patrons exiting en masse, zigzagging through Manhattan’s punishing grid.
I did not lose sight of her, though I soon became aware that I had company. A group of young women in their early twenties were also following her path, looking down at their phones and discussing Katie’s trajectory. One of them was filming her. They didn’t acknowledge me, nor I them, but after a few minutes, we came upon the FDR Drive, and beyond it, the East River, and suddenly we could go no farther. The traffic, even in the wee hours of the morning, presented an obstacle we could not overcome. We collapsed on the sidewalk.
The girls with me were not out of breath, but rather seemed to be invigorated by the ordeal, and I gathered that they had done this before. They sounded like air traffic controllers. Checking their glowing phones, they confirmed that the last time they’d seen Katie fly, she’d gone southeast where they lost track of her somewhere over Staten Island. They called her “the seventh one.” Finally, one of them looked over at me, nodding upward to the sky.
“So you believe it, too?” she asked.
Catching my breath, I nodded.
“I’ve never seen you out here before.” We introduced ourselves; she told me her name was Dana, and nodded to the other girls who stayed glued to their screens. “Been a while since we’ve had someone join us. No one else really believes it. Even when we have videos and photos. They say that even the proof isn’t proof.”
“Maybe people think it’s too good to be true.”
“It’s because New Yorkers never look up,” she said. “Mostly, it’s tourists who see them.”
“So this is a hobby of yours or something?”
“Ever since the redheaded one used to fly above Brooklyn,” she said, referring to David’s wife, Claudia, “but we haven’t seen her in a long time.” Dana pointed toward where we’d last seen Katie. “She’s the only one anyone sees anymore, the seventh one.”
I asked what she meant by this.
“Only been seven,” she said. “At least in the city, as far as we can tell. There used to be a time when we’d see four, maybe five a night, back when we were in high school. It makes you wonder what happened to the other six.”
“Maybe they’re all flying to the same place,” I offered. “So can I ask—why do you do it?”
“Some people chase tornadoes. We chase women.” Then she looked down at her phone. She was watching the video that she’d taken, and she angled the screen and scooted closer to me so I could watch the footage as well. “Or maybe we’re jealous and wish we could fly, too. What about you? Why do you do it?”
We watched the video in silence, the only sounds coming from the city around us and the city captured in the six-minute clip.
“I guess I’m jealous, too,” I said.
I gave Dana my information to forward the recording to me. She suggested that I come out with them again the following night. She said I was the first man they’d met who believed the so-called myth, and that they could use a Y chromosome on their side. We said goodbye and I walked the long way home. I wanted to get a hotel room. I wanted to leave New York, the east coast, the country, even the planet.
When I could walk no farther, I returned to our apartment, and the first thing I noticed was the open window in the living room. Some of her paperwork had blown down the hallway, conference notes and acquisition reports, the stuff of dull permanence. I collected her things and stacked them neatly under a coffee mug. I walked over to close the window, but left it open a few inches, enough for Katie to open it in the event she returned. And for a long time afterward, even in the winter, this was how the window remained.
Trent England is a playwright and author of short fiction. He has published over twenty-five short stories, two of which have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Originally from the US, he now lives in London with his wife and son. More information about him can be found at tengland.com.