by Susan Pohlman

The last to board the crowded plane, a woman bustled toward me, nervous and sweating. Her exaggerated movements didn’t add up; something about her was odd. Wistfully, I glanced at the empty window seat beside me.

“Sorry,” she said as she climbed over me.

“No problem.”

“I don’t fly often,” she said. The lenses of her glasses magnified doe-brown eyes. Salt and pepper curls framed her pale face.

“Hmmm,” I murmured, too tired to encourage her.

She buckled her seat belt and sat upright, a beige leather purse perched on her knees. “Do you?”

“Do I what?” I asked.

“Do you fly often?”

“I guess so.”

“For your job?”

“At times.”

“I’m going to see some relatives.”

“That’s good.” Undeterred by my short answers, she removed a brush from her handbag. I hoped she didn’t pull out nail clippers next.

“Don’t worry, I’m not the type to talk your ear off,” she said as she brushed the back of her hair with intensity.

“I didn’t think so,” I said. I laid my head against the seat and closed my eyes. A few minutes later the plane accelerated and lifted into the air. Her hands tightened around the purse handles as she took a deep breath. After exhaling on me, she began to hum, rather loudly, “The Music of the Night.”

“What do you do?” she asked.

“I’m a writer. You?”

“Oh, I don’t work. Not anymore. I stopped before… How old are you?” How old am I?

“Old enough,” I fake laughed, opened a novel, and began to read. I would nip this in the bud right here.

She opened a Zip-Lock Bag of candy, unwrapped a few Hershey Kisses and smacked her lips as she enjoyed them. I stared at my book, willing myself not to become queasy from all the mouth noises and finger wiping. She removed a photo from her purse and slid it across my tray table.

“She was thirty-seven.”


A pristine ballerina stared at me from the photo. My heart wobbled.

“She was a serious dancer.”


“She’s beautiful,” I said as I studied the young woman, poised on the tips of satin toe shoes, auburn hair pulled taut into a bun.

“You would have loved her,” she added touching my arm. “She taught extreme sports in the off season. Spirit. That’s what she was known for. People loved her spirit. Filled the room.”

I slid the photo back and looked into her wounded, magnified eyes. My insides twisted.

Of course, I hadn’t recognized what made her different. How could I when my own daughter was safe and happy? Grief can rearrange a person. The weight of sorrow can pull you left of center. Shame crept, pink and blotchy, up my neck.

“It’s been three years.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Breast cancer.”


“Now, I told you,” she said waving her hand at me, “I’m not one of those types to talk your ear off.” She proceeded to describe all the disturbing details.

We soon settled into silence. I could concentrate on my novel about as well as she could concentrate on the prayer cards she kept pulling from her purse.  After a while she slid a folded newspaper clipping across the tray table. “Since you’re a writer.”

I unfolded the yellowed rectangle and read a tribute to her daughter, indeed an established dancer in Los Angeles.

“This is wonderful.”

“We couldn’t afford a proper obituary by the end. All of our money was gone. The church supported us through so much of it…but her friend, John, he knew the writer.” She carefully replaced the clipping. A few more Hershey Kisses disappeared.

“You know. The worst day…”

I braced myself.

“…was the day she lost her arabesque.”

Her arabesque? What about her breasts? What about the day she lost her life?

“That was the day we looked at each other and knew. A dancer needs her arabesque.”

We nodded to each other, our eyes moist.

“Your sharing this with me will give it back,” I said as the wheels scraped the runway.

“What do you mean?” her eyes glinted like I was the director of the Joffrey Ballet Company.

“Her arabesque. Your sweet ballerina danced into my heart, and when a writer says this, it means that one day, she will dance across a page…and into readers’ hearts forever.”

She blinked back tears. “She had a spirit, you know? The kind of spirit that would fill a room.”