Vertigo

(another true story)

rating: +36+x

1 Jan 2012, 5:54 PM
US Airways flight ███
Somewhere over western Ohio

I always request the window seat when I fly commercial. The view out that little porthole just never gets old. Maybe I look like a little kid, craning my neck to peer out the window and smile in wonder; if I do, I'm too caught up in the loveliness of it to care.

"I can see my house from here" really doesn't begin to cover it. As the ground falls away, familiar things turn into minutely exquisite models. The grey and brown of an Ohio winter merge into intricate patchwork beauty, and the orange glare of the sodium streetlights separates into a million discrete points of glitter.

The clouds are best of all. As we climb off the runway, I always lift myself against the great soft weight of acceleration to watch, because to climb through the cloud cover is to loft into another world. The jet's speed lends me parallax and perspective, turning clouds from a painted backdrop into a landscape in their own right. I've seen traceries of cirrus become a wispy maze of floating cotton ribbons, like something a Moorish dancer would twirl through the air. One summer afternoon, the looming thunderheads turned into the very Pillars of Creation, without a single light-year between us. It's magical beyond anything in a fairy story.

This time, as we climb away from the airport, the flat sullen gray of an overcast December is transmogrified into a rugose plateau. The clouds lie mercilessly level, their flatness enforced by some atmospheric thermocline; to me, they look like a rocky tumbled moonscape stretching to the horizon. The last glow after sunset lights them in ethereal slate and faint gold. Their plain is broken here and there by rifts and ravines, mere gaps in the cloud that would let the people below glimpse blue sky. From up here, though, they are black crevasses: the last evening light does not break through to the ground. I gaze through the widest ravine and glimpse a scattering of streetlights below. They glitter brighter than the stars.

Perspective abruptly upends itself.

It isn't a moonscape I'm seeing: it's the roof of a cave, or the underbelly of a titanic Laputa. Stone blocks out the sky. Where earthquakes rip it open, the glimmer that wins through is not streetlights but ancient, livid constellations. As long as I cower in the safe grey caverns, the malevolent gleam of the stars stays at bay, but through these rifts I can stare down the Things Outside. For a moment I've locked eyes with something vast and terrible, and my wild stare is the only thing keeping it away —

— The girl in seat 22E coughs.

I blink, and perspective rights itself again. Clouds roll by below the window. The last of the gloaming is fading down to night, and the streetlights glow orange far below. Small children chatter and whine two rows up. I suddenly need to pee. All the banalities of air travel have reasserted themselves as abruptly as they vanished.

It's getting dark out there now, and there's not much to see, so I go back to my reading. If I keep glancing sidelong out the window for the rest for the flight, though… Well, can you blame me?

Someone ought to be keeping a watch.

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