Visible Empire

In preparation for their flight home—having toured the art and architecture of Zurich, Lake Lucerne, Venice—the Atlantans returned to Paris. The trip had been a success. Money had been raised for the Art Association and the Women’s Committee. There was talk that the Cultural Arts Center in Piedmont Park would finally be made a reality. Spirits were more than high, but by the end of their visit, those who weren’t hungover were laid low with a virus that had started in Rome. Don’t drink the water, they’d been reminded so many times. Don’t drink the water. The virus had passed from spouse to spouse, friend to friend, lover to lover. Fifty of them had been in the lobby of the Hôtel du Louvre the night before their scheduled departure. There’d been champagne, dancing, deliberately inappropriate suggestions about partner swapping always met by giggles and blushing, and the momentary quiet wherein everyone considered but then, nearly as immediately, forgot, because the booze was that good, that strong.

Nearly to a person the Americans were dragging on the morning of departure. In the lobby, around 9 a.m., there was an air not of frantic hurry but of devil-may-care. Wives lounged in sunglasses and complained of headaches; husbands sucked on cigars and indulged in shots of clam juice and vodka. The Bentleys alone, with cafés au lait and croissants in hand, appeared unfazed by the effects either of the toxic water or the merriment the night before. Only Mrs. Bentley and her mother would be boarding the chartered jet that morning. Mr. Bentley would be taking a commercial flight a few hours later. If a plane crashed, the boys would still have one parent. And their boys were everything to them, and so Mr. and Mrs. flew apart, though in every other way they were joined at the hip. It was a marriage not of convenience but of genuine and mutual admiration. Raif Bentley insisted on going to the airport with his wife, though his flight wasn’t for another six hours. He watched from the window of the café as his wife and mother-in-law boarded the plane. He watched everyone board, including a young woman called Rita, whom he didn’t know yet and whom he watched climb the stairs into the aircraft.

Rita, for her part, took her assigned window seat with a small flourish, aware of a bustle of nerves in her stomach. The night before, she’d written a letter. She’d written it after the farewell gala, after several glasses of champagne. She’d sealed the letter without rereading it in a fit of—of what? A fit of passion, a fit of youth, a fit of joie de vivre and insouciance. “Bully,” she’d said to herself before pulling back the covers. “Bully, why not?” She popped a little piece of chocolate between her lips and turned off the lights, falling asleep with the soft candy pressed by her tongue to the roof of her mouth.

In the morning the letter was still there, on the bedside table. If not for the tangible proof, she might have forgotten she’d ever written it. But there it was. She was most amused with herself. Between tidying and packing—the curling iron she’d brought, not remembering also to bring the conversion attachment, the postcards she’d collected (like a tourist, but who cares? Call it what it is, she’d always believed, and never regret it)—she picked up the letter, looked again at its sealed back, then dropped it in the trash can. “Silly, silly,” she said to herself. “Silly girl.”

Still, thirty minutes later, after her luggage was successfully buckled and she’d acquiesced herself into the dreaded winter coat she’d been obliged all May to wear, just as she was about to call for the bellboy to take down her bags and add them to those of the other Atlantans, she allowed herself a brief glance at the trash can. There was the letter, unmarred and unopened. “But I meant every word,” she said, again aloud, though truly she remembered not a single thing she’d written. She plucked it from the top of the trash, tucked it into the breast pocket of her coat, and rang for the boy.

On the plane, watching the others find their seats and dispatch their jackets to the stewardess for safekeeping, she was aware most alertly of the envelope that seemed to beat against her chest with a pulse all its own. A woman behind her, thickly accented with the syrup of the South, sang, “Here we go into the pale blue yonder.” And then louder, “Here we go into the pale blue yonder!” To her seat companion—it was the Pepperdine sisters—she said, “I’m ready to be silly. I’m ready to be really silly. If it isn’t fun, then what’s the point?” Her sister said, “Your hair looks great.” “No. It’s awful,” said the chanteuse. “No, no!” said the sister. “I like it. I like it.” The women howled. It would be a long flight.

When the stewardess made another pass down the aisle, Rita coughed. To herself she whispered, “Damn it all, why not?” To the stewardess—lovely, French, haughty, Rita thought her sublime—she said, “Can you post this before takeoff? Would you mind too terribly?”

The stewardess, looking already at the next wave of Americans preparing to find their seats and remove their blazers, said, “Oui. Mais oui. Of course.”

Rita sat back and closed her eyes, a marvelous wave of simultaneous relief and panic washing over her still-drunk brain. If only she could remember what she’d written.

The stewardess, whose name was Camille, put the letter in the pocket of her apron. She meant to leave it before takeoff with one of the uniformed pageboys who regularly traversed the tarmac taking last-minute requests from captains for items forgotten in the terminal. But as she leaned back into her seat—the plane beginning to taxi—she realized the letter was still in her pocket. Ça ne fait rien, she thought. Je vais le poster moi-même quand je retournerai chez moi.

She closed her eyes, the engines roared, and at the coordinated universal time of 11:32 a.m. on June 3, 1962, the plane was finally cleared for takeoff. The pilots aligned the aircraft with runway 08, waited exactly six seconds, then applied full thrust. Acceleration, at first, was typical.

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