Everything She Can’t See

The little girl is full of questions
and asks them all, one after another,
as if, having waited the full four years
of her life so far, she can’t keep them down
any longer:

Yes, sweetie?
What’s that?
A telephone.
Can we call Daddy?

Two rows ahead, I eavesdrop on the girl
and her mother, traveling with me
this New Year’s Eve. It’s boarding time,
the plane still tethered to the terminal,
passengers still cramming carry-on bags
into the overhead bins and snapping them shut.

Tomorrow, the year 2000 will emerge
from the merely theoretical. Tonight, this plane’s
only half-full. I imagine everyone on the ground
battened down for disaster, for the worst-case
scenario even worse than this last year’s buzz
of computer crashes, power grids de-gridding,
nuclear meltdowns, haywire missiles, anthrax bombs.
But us—we’re flying tonight, each for reasons
we hold tightly against imagined calamity.

What’s that?
That’s the luggage. They put our bags
on the airplane. Can you see our bags?
What’s that?
That’s the safety instruction card.
It shows you all about the plane.
What’s that?
That’s the raft. If the plane lands on water,
we get to go on the big yellow raft.
Doesn’t that look fun?

Mother and daughter go through a lively list
more thorough than the flight attendant’s
quick, robotic performance—oxygen mask,
life jacket, smoke detector, seat cushion.
The mother is so patient, as if she, too,
has been waiting for her daughter’s awakening.
They catalogue the plane, learn each piece.

Finally, the telescopic corridor retracts,
and the plane begins to move. After long moments
of taxiing, pausing, waiting our turn:

Mommy! Mommy!
I can’t see the airplane!

An hour earlier, Mom must have shown her
this plane, through the plate glass.
There’s our airplane, she must have said.
Can you see our airplane? We’ll get on the airplane
to go see Daddy. And the girl must have seen
that it was enormous and beautiful, and already
the questions must have been churning inside her.

I can’t see the airplane!

Honey, Mom says, we’re in the airplane.

In quarantine after being the second man
to leave his boot prints on the moon,
Buzz Aldrin watched footage of the celebrations—
moon parties, throngs in Times Square, billions
glued to TVs inside of which he bounced in the dust.

There were barbecues, cocktail parties, dances,
debates, dire predictions—meanwhile, he and Neil,
hundreds of thousands of miles away, alone
and bagging lunar samples. And Collins,
in the command module, the farthest away
from all of us on the far side, orbiting solo,
photographing earthrise—all of humanity
(minus him) in one picture.

Neil, Buzz said, we missed the whole thing.

The girl is quiet for a bit—working, I imagine,
on this conundrum—the problem of perspective—
until the flight attendant comes with pretzels and pop,
and then she snaps back, new questions about
the beverage cart and the bottle opener and the tray-table
all tickling the back of her throat: the loneliness
of not knowing, the thrill of asking,
the intoxication of answers filling her up,
the joy of naming everything she can see,
the delirious immensity of everything she can’t,
everything that surrounds and contains her,
holds her, carries her home.

Author: Liz Ahl