The first thing I noticed about Ahmose when he walked in for his flight lesson was the ticking, which was odd because he wasn’t wearing a watch. It seemed rude to ask about it, though, seeing as we’d just met. Florida Flight Academy was the only flight school in the area with rubber planes, the kind Ahmose needed to learn to fly (for work, he said). He was cute, you know? Maybe 5’ 11’, tan. Nose strong and straight. So I shuffled things around, ignored the ticking as best I could, and took him up in Beluga. He approached the twin-engine the way you’d expect a person to approach a horse from behind—real quiet and running a hand along her side. It was sort of creepy the way his nails left faint little lines in the rubber, but I got it, I understood. She was a new machine.
Learners usually ask about the warm rubber smell, the burning asphalt smell, but Ahmose didn't. Instead he asked about the seats.
These seats, he said, pressing his thighs into one. What are they made of?
I pretended to adjust the seat height so I could check the tag. All that was left was the frayed edge.
A special-order fabric, I said.
It is comfortable, he said and nodded.
What's your flight experience? I asked. I'd read the form; I just wanted to hear him talk. He had a lilting lisp that made me think of his tongue behind his lips.
Some, he said.
Make sure to hold steady, I told him.These planes handle a little wobbly getting off the ground because of the rubber coating on the wings.
I handed him a pre-flight inspection checklist.
Control Wheel Lock – Remove
Ignition Switch – Off
Avionics Master Switch – Off
Master Switch – On
Fuel Quantity Indicators – Check Quantity
Master Switch – On
Fuel Valve – On
Have you seen this before? I asked.
Yes, he said.
We ran through the checklist anyway, turned the fuel valve on for both tanks, and kept the electrical off so that when the engines came on we wouldn’t overload any of our radios.
Make sure your mixture is rich, I said. I directed his hand toward the small, red knob labeled “Mix Fuel.”
Press it in with your thumb like this, I said.
How? he asked.
He took my hand in his. Show me, please, he said, so I did. I shaped his hand around the knob, shaped my hand around his hand, and pushed the plunger all the way in.
Ahmose’s skin was cool. I hoped my sweaty palms would go unnoticed.
Now the Master Switch, I said.
He flipped the switch and turned the key and the engines jumped on.
Beyond the windshield, rope light palm trees stood stiff against the breeze, their plugs buried in the sandy dirt like roots. They'd turn on in a few hours and add their green light to the blue bulbs lining the runway. From high enough you can see thousands of green dots poking at the dark.
Ahmose got Beluga in the sky with minimal trouble. There was a moment where the left wing dipped and we felt it in the cockpit like a faulty hop on a trampoline, but he righted her quickly. He was a real natural, so I asked him if he was sure he hadn't flown one of our planes before and instead of answering he kissed me so I kissed him back because that's what you do when someone kisses you and they hardly speak your language. There we were, thousands of feet above the crisscrossing pavement making out, him with one hand on my hip and me with one eye on our levels. I kept the other eye closed, though. For intimacy purposes. And I thought, wow, here's this man who likes me, and I knew I had to keep him to myself because the other women at Florida Flight Academy would distract him with their perfect lips and hips and eyes. Especially Nancy.
When I asked him later, over spaghetti (he'd never had spaghetti!), why he kissed me, he said it was because the way the light tangled in my hair reminded him of his home country. He wouldn't tell me where he was from.
People often ask me if I'm Puerto Rican (which I'm not) because my hair is thick and dark, and I'm tan and I've got a little extra around my waist. I'm not usually offended by this because Puerto Rican women are loud and beautiful and not all of them are pudgy. But when I tell people I’m from South Florida, they nod like something they’d been trying to figure out about me has suddenly become clear, and I have to wonder if I’m missing something about myself, if maybe seeing myself from a different vantage point would make my whole being, my whole life trajectory, seem somewhat like a maze with a very clear path.
For my 12th birthday, my grandfather gave me an ant farm, a small, green, plastic one with a fake farm cut-out at the top and Plexiglas panes that got smudged all the time. I’d carefully lift the edge of my t-shirt and scrub away the fingerprints.
Not all girls have to play with dolls, my grandfather told me.
My mother’s lips pursed at this. She was way traditional in her approach to raising me. It was my grandfather who told me I didn’t have to wear dresses all the time. (I always snagged the hems on branches, which made my mother click her tongue at me.) It was my grandfather who, in the end, encouraged me to fly.
I spent hours watching my harvester ants dig tunnels through sand. Every couple of days I replaced the damp cotton ball that served as their water source. Once a week I gave them cracker crumbs, watched them carry the pieces all the way to the bottom of the ant farm.
No queen in this colony, Grandpa told me. It’s illegal to import them.
But what about babies? I asked.
I’d been hoping to see pockets of little white eggs. I wanted to watch the colony grow.
No babies, honeybunch. These are all girls here. No guys.
Grandpa ruffled my hair.
From across the room the ants were hardly visible—tiny black dots wandering a series of interconnected alleys.
Despite our make-out session, I managed to end Ahmose’s first lesson on a professional note. I shook his hand and walked him across the sun-baked tarmac to the reception area—and by reception area I mean drywall, high school carpet, and a Goodwill love seat—to confirm his next lesson. A turkey vulture hovered overhead. Ahmose watched it circle while I heaved open the hangar door. Reception was behind a door in the far left corner of the metal building.
Today Nancy, FFA’s appointments manager, wore her favorite low-cut shirt. There were rhinestones involved. Lots of them.
We’re down for next Wednesday, right? I asked Nancy.
She tapped her pen against the World War I-era metal desk and narrowed her eyes, glancing quickly between Ahmose and me. I sucked on my lips, pulled out chapstick. I did not have kissing lips. I had chapped lips.
Yeah, she said. Same time next Wednesday.
Okay, Ahmose said. Same time next Wednesday.
He touched my wrist, nodded curtly, and disappeared out the door before I had a chance to say goodbye, and why would you just walk away like that, so quickly, from the woman you’d just been making out with, hm?
So, said Nancy.
She quirked an eyebrow at me and I bailed, quick-walked right out the door so I wouldn’t have to answer her questions. Because I didn’t have answers.
I like to keep things small. This is why I learned to fly. People make more sense as dots. I like to connect them and sometimes divide them up. For example, Small Red Dot meets Medium Purple Dot and Medium Purple Dot splits his/her croissant down the middle so as to share it with Small Red Dot who ends up with a cup of coffee in his/her lap and the two laugh but don't see each other again until Small Green Dot sets them up. By this point they've forgotten that they've already met, and when they go for coffee this time they'll both instinctively position their cups in the middle of the table. As a child I watched planes slowly small themselves—that's what I called it, "smalling"—until they disappeared. I think that's when I first wondered about loneliness. My mother told me it didn't exist.
My first boyfriend, when I was seventeen, told me during our break-up that he thought I'd marry someone who wore a leather bracelet. He was always saying things like this, even while we were together, how I'd be happy someday with someone who wasn't him.
I don't like leather, I told him. I hadn't told him about my nightmares, dreams where men and women unzipped cows, stepped inside, breathed deeply, smiled, leaving me to call the next group of customers forward.
I ate meat. It was just leather that freaked me out. It smelled funny.
Oh honey, he said, and he brushed my cheek.
The next man, a man in college, said I'd fall for someone with a shoulder bag. He carried a purple Jansport. The one after him (who, coincidentally, did wear a shoulder bag) said it would be a man in Chucks.
Eventually I started keeping a list and sometimes drawing it out to see what my apparent perfect man would look like. Ahmose was none of these things. He was Egyptian, I learned from the news (much later, after the explosion). He wore button-up shirts all the time (as if this would make him American) and a cheap watch. He wore sneakers, always Nikes. Sometimes brown loafers if we went to Olive Garden.
During our second trip up in Beluga, Ahmose ran his thumb along my eyebrow and smiled.
Remember to keep your hands on the controls, I said.
Not because I wanted him to, but because he had to.
We flew in silence for a while and I was afraid I’d offended him. Cars snaked along the highway below us, shiny bits of red and blue and yellow against the asphalt.
My mother, Ahmose said. Back home. She cooks and we sell the skewered lamb. Have you eaten lamb?
I shook my head. No.
Oh, he said.
Ahmose’s ticking hadn’t gone away. If anything it seemed louder.
What is that? I asked.
Ahmose just stared straight ahead into the sky, leaving me to wonder some more about pacemakers and pocket watches and the way my ants march through sand tunnels haltingly, like they have a faulty inner beat.
Back in reception, Nancy asked me if I thought Ahmose’s ass was nice. She did this to clients all the time, asked about bad boob jobs and if a man was hiding abs under his polo, so I wasn't surprised by the question.
Mostly he sits on it when he's with me, but sure, I guess, I said.
Truth be told, I hadn't thought to check. Between the kissing and the teaching-how-to-fly, my eyes didn't get much lower than his chest, which, if I was to be honest, and I'll be honest, was quite nice. You could tell he worked out.
Well, said Nancy. He's got a nice ass.
I could practically smell her spray tan. She tucked a strand of bottle-brown hair behind her ear (four piercings).
Thanks, I said.
I'm not sure why I said it, and judging by Nancy's look she didn't know either.
I think I'm going to ask him out, she said. Are you into him at all?
It was nice of her to ask, I guess. She opened a Tupperware and popped a piece of watermelon in her mouth.
When I blush it's not attractive, and I felt the pigment crawling up my face. I reddened like a cherry bomb and finally managed a nod. I'm mostly a keep-it-to-myself kind of woman. Nancy smirked and tilted her head a little to the right.
You've got good taste, she said. I'd say you've got about a week to make your move, hon.
Then the phone rang and she answered (Good evening. Florida Flight Academy. This is Nancy. What can I do you for?) and I hurried to the parking lot where I sat in my car and watched the sun set and the rope-light palm trees, one by one, begin to glow.
On weekends I sang karaoke with Nancy sometimes because all my real friends left Florida for jobs in Boston, San Diego, New York—anywhere but the swamps, they said, anywhere without this damn humidity (Carol patted her hair down)—and then stayed gone. Specks of my former life flung far and wide.
Tonight Nancy wore red pumps and a fairly modest black dress (unless you count the fact that it put her fake-bake breasts a little too much on display). To the left of the bar a woman in platform shoes screeched out a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with her 50-something boyfriend/father/gay best friend. I ordered a peach schnapps and Sprite and wished I’d had the guts to invite Ahmose out to Panera or something that night.
Nancy put her clutch on the bar.
Been waiting long? she asked.
No, I said. I sucked at my drink through a tiny red straw. The skinny kind usually reserved for coffee.
Why are you wearing that? She squinted at my jean skirt as if she couldn’t see it. Jack and Coke, she told the bartender.
What’s wrong with my skirt? I asked.
Seriously? Aside from the fact that it’s three inches too long and you’re wearing it with sneakers and a boyfriend tee from Target? Unless, she gasped. Wait. Is it an actual boyfriend tee? Is it that guy’s? The ass guy’s?
I felt the heat creeping into my cheeks.
Yes, I lied. My stomach fluttered and for a second I even believed myself.
Nancy squealed. Good for you! You don’t still have all those ants do you? They’ll freak him out and you’ll never get him into bed. And he looks like he’d be really good in bed.
She dabbed on a little more lipstick.
That weird ticking doesn’t bother you does it? she asked. Because I’d be happy to ignore it. And what is it anyway? A watch?
Must be a watch, I said.
Good to know I wasn’t the only one who could hear it. I’d been starting to wonder.
And of course the ants are gone. What am I, twelve? I said.
This was, of course, a big, fat, just-for-Nancy lie. Once, I told her my car broke down to avoid going out and she came to pick me up. Just barged right in while I was crumbling bits of biscuit into the ant farms I keep in my living room. Then she barged right out. I found her huddled in the front seat of her car brushing her bare arms like my ants were crawling all over. I would never subject them to that.
The woman on stage shrilled out the last note of her song.
Excellent, said Nancy. No more ants, lots of booze. Time to sing.
She grabbed her drink, grabbed my hand, and took us both to the stage. I felt a little guilty about lying to Nancy, but it was also Nancy and now she’d stay away from Ahmose. I could take my time with him, and the thought of that made singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” feel much less embarrassing than usual.
During our third flight, I realized that there was something different about Ahmose. He held himself more consciously than American men, a little less weight in the waist, a little more height in the shoulders. He seemed lighter in his movements and less compact, like he was freer to breathe. He had a purpose and seemed to be very aware of it. There was also the ticking, which was practically booming in my ears what with the stuff Nancy said at karaoke. Once we were safely in the air, I made up my mind. I asked him about it. If he was allowed to kiss me ten minutes after meeting me, I was allowed to ask him this sort of question two weeks after he kissed me.
It is nothing, he said. Only, how you say it, genetics.
Genetics? I asked.
Genetics, he said.
He tilted Beluga's nose slightly down so that a brown slice of coastline filled the bottom half of our windshield. Billions of tiny grains of sand blown around every day by waves and wind and sandaled feet.
It’s really loud, I said. Maybe you should get it checked out.
Someday it will stop, Ahmose said. Like it stopped for my father and my father’s father.
He veered left so that we were flying parallel to the beach.
It is not such a very big deal, he said.
Yeah it is, I said. It’s a huge deal. You didn’t fill out anything in the Health Risks section of the FFA form.
My cheeks get red when I’m mad, too. I hate it.
You’re doing it wrong, I said.
I took over the controls for a minute and adjusted our course so that we weren’t drifting into the ocean, then gave them back.
Below, scattered in the sand and in the waves, were Tourist Dots and Local Dots, and there, just beyond the sand bar were upwards of fifty Shark Dots. I imagined the Shark Dots eating the Tourist Dots and some Local Dots and becoming very full and possibly exploding, and then I was thinking about Ahmose again and how sad his fate was and how I hoped it wouldn't happen in Beluga.
You'll need to sign an insurance waiver, I told him. So that FFA isn't held liable.
You know, I said. In case something happens.
Yes, he said. Of course.
And the way he said it seemed a little sad, so I was afraid I might have hurt his feelings.
Tell you what. I have a two-hour break after we're done here. Let me buy you a milkshake, I said, and my hands trembled because I'd never asked a man out before. You've had a milkshake before?
Ahmose nodded. All right, he said. A milkshake.
Ahmose was the kind of man who smoothed his slacks as he walked, but still managed to wear them easily. Somehow I imagined he'd be dainty, refined, about the way he sipped his shake.
Do they drive many cars in New York? Ahmose asked.
We were sitting in my old Ford Taurus, which I hate driving because I have to practically stand to see out the oblong back window.
Not really, I said. At least I don't think so. I think people mostly take cabs or the subway or something. You could pick a person at random here and ask and they'd know better because practically everyone here is from there.
Thank you, Ahmose said.
You're going to love Larry's, I said. It's the best ice cream in town.
The place channels the fifties, and once seated in our red vinyl booth sipping shakes (chocolate for him, strawberry for me) Ahmose began to talk. Doo-wop drowned out his ticking and I think he was happy about that because he talked a lot about the statue of liberty and the New York skyline and showed me his favorite keychain—Lady Liberty in perfect miniature detail. I promised to bring him a guidebook from the library.
Adult harvester ants fall into two categories: winged males or females, and wingless female workers. The ants in the first category have two pairs of wings, one smaller than the other. (All stuff that came with the ant farm my grandpa gave me when I was 12.)
After a large rainfall, the winged males and females swarm up, away from the parent colony. They pair off. In mid-air each male couples with a female. They are two small pinpoints in a cloud of small pinpoints. The cloud is a black smudge against a damp sky.
I began to look forward to Wednesdays because Ahmose and I regularly went for shakes after his flight lesson. He'd talk about New York and I'd talk about planes. How I started flying in high school, before I could even drive a car. How my grandfather drove me because my mother wanted me to learn to knit and balance bills. How I ended up a flight instructor because the pilot pool for major airlines (Delta, American Airlines, you name it) was just too big.
Once, I told Ahmose, when I was just getting used to Beluga I bumped the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami. Just barely, but the wing bounced so bad I thought the plane was falling apart.
Here Ahmose smiled and touched my hand. And you were okay? he asked. Not hurt?
A little whiplash, I said. But nothing serious, no.
This is good, he said.
I smiled. And I thought it was a little strange that Ahmose hadn’t yet nudged a building. Not even once.
Several weeks into our lessons, Ahmose met me on the runway for a night flight. His skin glowed faintly green in the palm-light.
I think I'll have strawberry today, he said. After we fly.
Why don't we just buy ice cream and make shakes somewhere? I asked.
His hand was soft on mine as we walked to Beluga, and I wondered what sort of lotion he used and if it was available in this country.
Because, he said, in my country we do not bring women home before marriage.
I didn't know until the FBI showed up (which was after I found his note in my bathroom) that this wasn't true. I didn’t invite him to my house because what if Nancy was right? What if he saw my ants and left?
Let’s fly south tonight, I said.
Ahmose turned us toward Miami. Six minutes later an endless sequence of faraway lights outlined the city beneath us.
Ahmose explained that he moved around a lot for his job.
Medical supplies, he said. Boss says learn to fly, so I learn to fly.
The Miami Beach pier extended, orange and hazy, into the ink-water.
Take us back inland more, I said.
He fumbled the wheel the way a trained pilot does when demonstrating terrible mistakes to new students.
I told him this and he regarded me with straight lips and honest eyes.
I need you to teach me better, he said. To fly these kinds of controls. This kind of plane.
I said yes, okay, I could teach him if he wanted to learn and I felt sort of sad then because I thought maybe he pretended because he liked spending time with me and who was I to turn that down, me who spends so much time above the ground?
Below us, a neon landscape. Between us, the ticking that would bury him.
When we finally slept together it was quieter than I expected. He paid particular attention to the insides of my elbows. His lips left damp spots across my stomach. Afterwards, we watched the palm tree grow dim behind my venetian blinds. The town was trying to save energy by turning them down after three a.m. Ahmose arched his back, popping vertebrae, then lay beside me breathing.
When I'm with you, he said. I can't hear the ticking.
Ahmose didn’t mind the ant farms.
After leaving the swarm, female ants break off their own wings and bury themselves in plant matter or sand or soil. Somewhere in the ground. They lay eggs. They raise young. They become queens of their own colonies, which give rise to more winged females who, like those before them, will also shed their wings and die.
By our next lesson I could hear it over the engines. Ahmose looked a little paler, I thought, and his hands seemed looser on the controls.
It was a hot day even by Florida's standards and it smelled as though Beluga’s rubber was melting, heavy and toxic. I wondered sometimes if the fumes would make me sick one day.
Take her lower, I told Ahmose. Sweat slid toward his left ear. When I wiped it away he flinched.
What was that for? I asked.
Beluga sank lower and I felt the altitude in my stomach, a giddy feeling I never stopped loving. Tickle-belly, my mother used to call it. Sweat slicked behind my knees.
You okay? I asked. You're dropping altitude a little fast. Pull up a bit.
I'm fine, he said.
But the ticking seemed louder then, and when we landed, and our ears popped, it practically boomed.
I went in for my purse and when I came back out Ahmose was gone. He'd never given me a phone number, but he'd always been on time, always shown up.
The following Wednesday I sat outside under Beluga waiting for him until Nancy came outside and announced that my 4 o’ clock was here. Ted’s Bermuda shorts and floral shirt depressed me.
This was the end of August.
Early in September Ahmose came into FFA looking the same as always, except holding his shoulders a little differently, a little further back, like he was trying to stretch them. He was always stretching after we'd, you know, been together, but this was different, contained.
I wasn't expecting him. It was afterhours and Nancy and I were finishing the day's paperwork.
Speak with me, he said, and gestured toward the door.
I told Nancy I'd be back and followed him outside. Beluga hulked on the runway. I could tell by the way Ahmose stood still, clenching and unclenching his fingers, that he was operating under a restrained sort of panic.
I have done something, he said. Or I might be about to. I don't know.
I closed my ears against the ticking.
Night grew around us, and the palm trees still didn't come on.
What you said the first night, about the way spaghetti must be twirled just correctly? said Amoshe.
I stared at him. I'd been telling him that spaghetti must be twirled a certain way so as to balance the fork toward the mouth for perfect consumption.
Thank you, he said.
He hugged me then, only it was more like resting his arms around me. He seemed tired and I could feel his heartbeat, quick against my chest.
I pushed him away. You left, I said. You didn't call or anything.
I wished then for a ten-minute downpour, the kind of rain that reinvents a person and allows them to live up close.
I know, he said. I'm sorry. He paused. It's been getting worse.
He was right. His hands shook like low blood sugar and nerves.
And because I knew this was it, I let it go.
Let me show you something, I said, and led him toward Beluga.
From the sky everything is smaller. Perspective broadens. I wanted to show him this. I wanted to forget the ticking and remind myself how small I was, how this one moment would feel dimmer in a few months. All the palm trees were out. After the blue glow of the runway we were left with moving headlights and stationary stars. The engines buzzed and Ahmose's ticking grew smaller. That night, in bed, we slept.
Crumpled sheets tell stories. Mine said this:
Ahmose woke early. He stepped into the closet (slightly ajar) and wrote a note. He went to the bathroom, where he left the note. "Thank you." He possibly regarded himself in the mirror, then left his statue of liberty keychain next to the note. After this, Ahmose watched me for a moment, then—and this might be wishful thinking—fixed the blanket on my side. He put on his shirt and left through the front door, knocking over five of my ant farms.
I woke to the phone. Nancy calling to tell me Beluga was missing. I told her okay, I’d be in soon, and then I went into my living room. Harvester ants all over my couch, my walls, my carpet. I tipped the toppled ant farms onto their sides, crumbled a trail of biscuit crumbs. I watched them all, a million tiny brown dots, flock as clusters, and hoped I could lure them back.