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Flight Lessons
by Patricia Gaffney
HarperCollins, 2002

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The problem, one of them, was that circumstances had split her life down the middle. She was always of two minds, the hopeful half versus the skeptic, optimist against pessimist. Or maybe it evened out and what she was now was a relativist, a contingency artist. Either way, it didn't help that at this late date a theme was taking shape, a motif or whatever you called it, a pattern, consisting of Anna walking in on trusted loved ones in bed with each other.

Then again, two times probably made a soap opera, not a pattern. She tried to lift her situation out of the excessively banal by imagining she had a connection with Sylvia Plath. Not that Anna was suicidal. Over Jay? Please. But it did help to think that she and Sylvia -- she called her Sylvia; that's how bonded Anna felt -- shared a context, a setting. Really, if anything, her circumstances were worse, because that London winter of '63 could not possibly have been any colder than Buffalo after a blizzard in early April -- early April, for God's sake -- and poor Sylvia's flat couldn't have been any icier than the windy, rattling loft Jay had left Anna to huddle in by herself while he cavorted with the voluptuous Nicole, whose apartment had a fireplace and central heat.

Jay's idea, the loft. They'd lived in a scruffy corner of it during the first year, the happy time, while he'd used the drafty rest for a studio. Eventually his metal sculptures outgrew it, though, went from enormous to dinosaurian, the ceiling wasn't high enough for the really monstrous ones, they needed a barn of their own. So he'd leased space in an old warehouse on the lake for a studio, and since then, almost another year, they'd had the whole basketball court of an apartment to themselves.

Except for the summer months, they'd spent most of the time in bed. Sleeping, reading, eating, having sex, etc., etc., but mostly trying to keep warm. Had ice crusted on the insides of Sylvia's windows? Had she huddled close to a ticking space heater with a blanket over it and her like a hot tent, and worried about setting herself on fire? If so, Anna could see why the kitchen stove had started to call to her, whisper that it was the warm answer. Lay your head flat on the metal rack, like a turkey roaster, close your eyes. Try not to mind the gas smell. Go to sleep.

Again, not that Anna was contemplating suicide. But she'd been betrayed in the cruelest way a woman could be (no, second cruelest; that life-dividing time at age twenty, that was still worse), and at least Ted Hughes had had the decency to conduct his affairs out of Sylvia's direct line of sight, with women she wasn't friends with or employed by. Some decorum had been observed. A little British restraint, missing in her case. Anna had walked in on Jay with Nicole, her boss, tangled up together in her own bed, three hours after she'd woken up from a laparoscopy for an ovarian cyst. A hospital procedure. Outpatient, yes, but still, she could've died from the anesthesia, people did. If Jay had been worried about her, he'd found a stimulating distraction.

Oh, it was such a stale, tired story, but here was another way she was trying to inject a little dignity into it -- by casting herself in the role of tragic heroine. In a play by...some Greek, Sophocles, Aeschylus, she was vague on her classical playwrights this many years after freshman English. Her mother had died of ovarian cancer at the age she was now, thirty-six, and Anna had discovered Jay's infidelity on the very afternoon she was fully, fatalistically, expecting a call from the surgeon telling her she had the same disease. She didn't, her cyst was benign, nothing to worry about, would probably go away by itself -- but she didn't know that then, and wasn't it all just too much, too full of awful significance, as if indifferent gods were playing with her life, making literature out of it, throwing in metaphors and parallels and corny portents--

No, it wasn't. It was just soap opera. Her life was like a Greek play only if you imagined a collaboration between Homer and Harold Robbins. And now here she was, trying to keep warm in the big, wide scene of the crime, listening to sleet peck at the frosted-over windows and wind slam them around in their uncaulked sockets, trying not to think about Jay and Nicole.

But it was hard when they'd been here so recently. Enjoyed themselves so thoroughly. They must've enjoyed themselves, otherwise they'd have heard the slow rise of the clanking elevator, at least noticed when the rickety metal doors squealed apart. The loft was wide open and wall-less, but Jay had built a two-sided partition to shield the bed from the view of -- well, people like Anna. Intruders. He'd made it from tall, rusting strips of steel, like tree trunks, and painted them with bright birds and winding greenery -- ah, a bower, you thought, how romantic. Until you went closer and saw that the birds had human heads with crazed eyes and mad grins, and they were doing lewd things with each other in the greenery. Then, how surreal, you thought, how sardonic and Boschian. How Jay.

She remembered very little, almost nothing of what she'd seen over the partition of the lovers in bed. Situational amnesia, no doubt, the way a car crash survivor can't remember a thing after the light turned red. Jay must've been on the bottom, because she had a vague picture in her mind's eye of his Rasputin hair crosshatching the pillow like an etching...

Excerpted from Flight Lessons by Patricia Gaffney. Copyright © 2002 by Patricia Gaffney. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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