The summer of the last year of our abundance, Joanne and I each decided to pursue a personal passion. I chose to learn Japanese. She took up flying. It was the eighties; such things were possible.
Joanne signed up for flying lessons at the local airport. She attended a series of night classes where she learned aviation’s jargon and rules, and then, with her instructor beside her, she was airborne and flying toward her first solo flight at the end of summer.
Meanwhile, I enrolled in the university’s immersive linguistics program, and moved into the Japanese language complex where I would hear nothing but Japanese spoken for 12 weeks. My professor was a serious young woman from Kyoto named Takahashi Koharu. By mid-summer, I was attending afternoon tea ceremonies at her home. For these one-on-one intimate gatherings, Koharu wore a traditional blue crane kimono and we sat on cushions around a low table on her patio. I was mesmerized by each purposeful gesture she made while preparing the tea. I began dreaming in Japanese. Usually, about Koharu.
Joanne and I spoke every night by phone. She sounded younger. Her tone was confidant and upbeat as she told me about her latest student flight, and all of the funny stories her instructor, Bill Garby, told her about growing up on a cattle ranch with “Big Bill” his cowboy father. “Today, I almost wet myself laughing,” she admitted, and then repeated the story for me doing her best to imitate Garby’s Texas drawl.
Because of my own secret crush for Koharu, I assumed the worst about Joanne’s relationship with her flight instructor. I was jealous. My wife was literally flying high, while I was living like a monk, and fantasizing about my Japanese professor.
“My solo is in two more weeks,” Joanne said one night.
“I can’t believe the summer is almost over,” I said.
“Can you say that in Japanese?”
“Natsu wa attoiumani sugimashita,” I rattled off.
On the day of my graduation, Koharu invited me for a final tea. To my surprise, she gave me a clay tea pot called a kyusu. “For my best student,” she said, with a bow.
After tea, she took me by the hand, and led me into the small garden behind her home. She invited me to sit beside her on a teak bench sheltered by a mimosa tree. “I need your help…a favor, I think,” she said.
“Anything,” I said.
“My life here is good,” she began. “But, I think, just a little lonely. You understand?”
My pulse quickened. “I understand,” I said.
“Good,” she said, clasping her hands together and bowing. “Will you introduce me to a nice man my age?”
On the September morning Joanne soloed for the first time, visibility was rated at 10 miles—with not a cloud in the sky, and a light southerly breeze. “Perfect flying weather,” I called to her from where I stood behind the airfield’s fence. She gave me a thumbs up, tied her hair in a ponytail, and proceeded to perform the pre-flight check of the Cessna 150 she had been flying all summer. Moments later, she climbed into the cockpit, started the engine and taxied to the runway, where she waited to be cleared for takeoff.
Once in the air, the Cessna circled the airport once, and then flew south until it was out of sight. I walked back to my car and opened the door for Koharu. Together we walked into the airport waiting room and down the hall to the control tower’s staircase, where Bill Garby was waiting for us.
“You are proud of her?” Koharu asked, as we climbed the stairs.
I nodded, but to be honest, I was envious. Joanne’s solo flight surpassed my lame linguistic pursuits. While I spent the summer sequestered inside, dreaming in Japanese and drinking tea, she was flying high with Bill Garby. I wondered if it was possible to make love in a Cessna a mile above the earth. Mochiron, the Japanese word for of course, came to mind. Good for her, I decided. If the real goal of our summer was to have the space for an affair, then Joanne had fared better than I. Instead of becoming Koharu’s lover, I had become her match-maker.
The moment they met, I could tell Garby was attracted to Koharu—and from her pleased expression, I was sure the feeling was mutual. She was, after all, getting exactly the kind of man she had described to me during her garden confessional. “Since long time, I dream to marry a Texas cowboy.”
While we waited for Joanne’s return to the airport, Garby explained the workings of an airport’s control tower. Koharu listened intently, although, I’m sure she understood very few words. It was all I could do to remain in the same room with the man who had probably cuckolded me, and, I had little doubt, would soon add Koharu to the notches on his genuine cowhide belt.
At last, I spotted the returning Cessna. In another few minutes, Joanne circled the airport. Garby cleared her for landing and the plane began its final approach.
Even I could see that she was traveling too fast and too high to land safely. The Cessna flew 20 feet above the runway and climbed slowly up and away from the airfield toward the river, where it turned and headed back for another approach.
“Take your time, Joanne,” Garby said into his mic. “You’ve done this at least 50 times, right?” Whatever she replied, made him smile.
Koharu touched my arm. “So sorry, I cannot watch,” she said. “Wait for you downstairs?”
Not once during the summer had I worried about Joanne’s safety. The Cessna was only 10 years old. Garby had been flying since he was 16, and teaching for at least five years. Under his guidance, Joanne had taken off and landed numerous times, in all kinds of weather. But, this time she was alone.
“Looking good, Joanne,” Garby said. “Easy does it, and you’re home free.”
At two hundred feet from the runway, the Cessna was leaning to the right. I glanced at Garby. He was biting his lip, his eyes riveted on the Cessna as Joanne overcorrected causing the left wing to dip within a foot of the tarmac. Somehow, the Cessna righted itself, and hit the runway with a little bounce before it settled on the earth, brakes squealing, as it skidded to a stop 10 yards from the barrier fence.
I followed Bill down the stairs and out the door. As we ran onto the airfield, Joanne emerged from the cockpit, stepped onto the wing, and raised her arms overhead in triumph.
The solo flight was over.