Fiction Online


By Rebecca Miller

  • July 05, 2022

My mother always said, “There are no atheists on turbulent flights.”


This was not her line. It was the first line in Erica Jong’s smash hit 1973 novel, Fear of Flying. A writer in the New York Times said, forty years later, that “what most people remember [about the novel is] the provocative expression Ms. Jong invented to encapsulate Isadora Wing’s fantasy, the first word of which is ‘zipless,’ the second word of which cannot be printed, even today, in this newspaper.” I, however, can freely tell you the second word is “fuck.” Isadora Wing was searching for the Zipless Fuck. Sex pure and without trappings. I read this by-then yellowing book at the age of twelve in brief installments, sneaking into my mother’s chaotic room, thinking I was getting away with something, until she found me and asked, “Are you old enough to read that?” That was typical of her— asking a kid how it should be raised. One thing I particularly remember from before my parents’ divorce was, we were at a party at the Hendersons’ house on a school night, and my mother was in her cups. Suzanne could get sexy, disheveled, and sorry for herself of an evening. Later in life I came to loathe her drunken self, but when I was little, I just didn’t want my funny, cutely incompetent mom to vanish, replaced by this other person. On the night of the party, my bedtime had come and gone hours earlier. I got up off the coats where I had been napping and walked into a roar of laughter in the crowded living room. My father, remembering me, looked over at my mother and called out, “She should be in bed, Suzanne.” My mother glared at him for a fat second before countering, “Oh, I’ll drive her. You stay and have fun, Chazzy.” I was only nine years old, but I knew it was a bad idea for my mother to drive a car at that moment. I remember holding on to my father’s waist and looking up at him. I didn’t say she was drunk. It was obvious. I just said, “Please don’t let Mom drive me.” Dad was in the middle of a conversation and waved away my appeal.


It was winter in Kansas City. The moon was bright. I plodded down the Hendersons’ shoveled drive behind my mother, who was taking liberties with a beeline. She swung open the driver’s door of our car; I slipped onto the frigid backseat, where I figured I had a better chance of surviving a crash.


My mother is ten years younger than Erica Jong. She might seem older than her by now, though. Age is so relative, and to my mother it has not been kind. Her bloated, waxy body lurks like a termite queen in swathes of fabric as she trudges through her cluttered house in upper California, cropped hair dyed a puce reserved in the salons, it seems, for sixty-five-year-old women with a great quantity of turquoise budding on their fingers and sweaty strings of it snaked around their necks, as if to say, “Still we rebel, still we are slovenly, still we do not keep our receipts.”


I personally do keep my receipts. I like to know what I have paid and why. On the day I’m remembering, about fifteen years ago, I was in fact on a bumpy flight, the kind of bucking and lurching that makes you feel incredulous that you allowed yourself to get locked into a metal tube connected to absolutely nothing and get hurled through space. The laws of physics are nothing to your basic human need to have earth under your feet at moments like this, and I can see why people start praying. But not me. I hold on to my atheism and wait. That day, it was a quick flight to Fort Lauderdale from Cincinnati, for a medical device conference. I was working for Avista, promoting a new range of asthma inhalers. I had packed in a distracted state. Chad and I had an argument as I did so. I was going to be missing our second anniversary by going to the conference. I could have sent someone junior to me, but frankly I was looking over my shoulder at the time, worried I’d be laid off. The company was downsizing. I wanted to weather the shedding of employees, to seem essential. If I could secure purchases of a significant amount of product at this conference, I was looking at a promotion, and Chad and I were hoping to get married. We didn’t want children. I had never wanted children. Children led to everything I disliked: anxiety about money, depletion of free time, inability to enjoy your life. Chad was the youngest of a fecund six, so there was no pressure on him. My stepsister Gaby (my mother remarried a couple times after my dad) had three kids, so Suzanne had checked the grandma box. I was thirty and excited for all this time I had to become a big success and not have kids.


Once the plane stopped bouncing, I ordered a vodka tonic. Not something I would normally do before cocktail hour, but the conference didn’t really start until the following morning, and I was still pissed at Chad. He had said something while I packed for the conference that had lodged in my mind. He sat on the bed watching me pack and said, in his slow, sleepy way: “You’re lucky you’re cute, ’cause a woman as heartless as you could have some bad luck.”


Once off the plane, I rolled my small suitcase and carried my sample case down the plastic corridors of the airport with that feeling of lightness I always have when I get somewhere new and smell the fried food and fresh-baked cookies and see the people with their slightly foreign dressing habits, in this case the tanned Floridians in their perma-casual outfits in bright hues like aqua and fuchsia and lots of white. Briefly I thought, What if someone here opens fire, which I sometimes consider when walking through public spaces, and I automatically looked around to see where I would hide. The pretzel stand seemed handy; in a flash I was dodging bullets in my mind behind that stand along with a young mother and her children huddled behind me. After the sound blast of rounds being fired and all the screaming, there was silence, and gingerly we walked out into the decimation. I was holding the children’s hands as the young indigent mother clutched the baby. There were bodies everywhere, the floors slick with blood.


My slaughter rescue fantasy evaporated when I saw a sign that said TAXIS. In the cab, I put my head against the cool window glass and watched the palm trees float by, feeling sheepish. I should have been home in Ohio with Chad, not flying to Florida alone on our anniversary to shill asthma inhalers. But, I reminded myself, if I lost my job, we couldn’t comfortably get married, which is what I had told him as I packed. Chad made a living, but we wanted a really, really comfortable life. Actually more than comfortable. We wanted to be rich. So that was my excuse. But the true truth is, I wanted the promotion because I wanted to be promoted. Just for the simple fact of wanting to do well, the way I was always an A student and hated A minuses, was disgusted by Bs; they looked like cockroaches to me, crawling over my school report. I wanted to do well and be seen to do well, and I wanted to be thought of as the best at what I did, and my goal was to one day have my own business and never have to worry about being fired  because I owned that business. That was what I wanted. So Chad saying “You’re lucky you’re cute, ’cause a woman as heartless as you could have some bad luck” was exposing my dearest wish and calling it ugly. Calling me ugly, calling me an ambitious, heartless person. Woman. An ambitious, heartless female. That’s bad, no matter how you slice it.


The hotel had a huge doorway edged in brass. There were tall palm trees either side of it. The air as I exited the cab was warm and calm, and as I walked into the lobby I was just plain happy. There were already medical sales reps milling around in the lobby. I recognized Tom Sanduli. We were both on the circuit. Tom wore a royal-blue suit that didn’t fit right. That was the first thing I noticed. His shoulders were very broad, and the material of the jacket was pulled so tight there was a gap between his neck and his collar. He said, “Hey there,” and you could tell he was glad to see me. We tended to flirt with each other a little at these events. More out of boredom and the fact that we were both not ugly, which kind of threw us together. “Hey, Tom,” I said.


Once I put away my stuff in my room, I hit the gym. I am a gym rat. Short but strong. I looked in the mirror and assessed my abdominal situation. I was ripped. I held the twenty-five-pound weight so my bicep bulged and checked out my manicure. All in all, I was satisfied.


We all convened for cocktails at the bar. I was still glowing from my workout. I cinched that big order for my product with the buyer from CVS, a bronzed older lady named Donna. She already liked the product, and she liked me, you could tell. She said conspiratorially, “I have an idea: how about I order a thousand units of FlowAir from you now, and then tomorrow I can spend an extra half hour at the pool.” We shook on it and I turned around and there was Tom Sanduli with two drinks.

“Thought you might like to celebrate,” he said.

“Were you eavesdropping?” I asked, accepting the cosmo and sipping it. A little too sweet for me, but okay.

“I read the body language,” he said, looking at me over his drink. “You made the sale, didn’t you?”

“I live in hope,” I said.

We kept up this skippy dialogue for a while and had another round. I was really happy about the inhalers. I kept noticing the gap between Tom’s jacket and his neck. I was imagining what a tailor would have to do to fix that gap. I even said something, I think, about him getting another jacket. He was too big for his jacket. Something. I don’t even know what I said. And sort of absentmindedly, like it was a grocery list running in the back of my mind, I imagined him picking me up and setting me on his hips, my legs around his waist, and kissing me. I am a small compact person and Tom is a big person. That was my thought then. But it was more like background noise, it wasn’t a whole thought. Then it was time to go to dinner. Everybody fanned out. I said “See you in a few” to Tom and a couple other reps I knew, and we all planned to sit together.


I went to my room and rolled on some more deodorant, spread on another layer of foundation, and shored up the eyeliner. Pumped up the volume a little. The hotel phone rang, startling me. I answered it. It was Tom Sanduli wondering if I wanted him to pick me up in my room. I said sure, then I put on lip gloss and brushed out my hair. I thought about texting Chad something cute. The doorbell rang. I grabbed my purse, walked over, opened the door, and Tom Sanduli kind of fell in on me as the door shut behind him. At first I thought he must have had a heart attack, or maybe been shot. He felt like a hot sack of flesh. That was only for a split second. Then I realized he was making out with me. I laughed a little, twisting in his embrace, but his face pressed itself hungrily into mine, his mouth opening in his big head, revealing warm wet flesh inside. It occurred to me that he thought it was the two of us doing this. He thought we were kissing. All that witty repartee we had earlier had really gone to his head. I tried pushing him away, but his arms were wooden. I was too embarrassed to actually scream or hit him, because that would be admitting that he was attacking me, and that of course couldn’t be happening. It was Tom fucking Sanduli. We shuffled across the room together for what seemed like forever, like dancers tied together with rope, inching toward the bed. We fell onto the mattress. He was on top of me, continuing to act like a man making love to some woman who wasn’t actually here. He was reaching up my skirt. This was it. I made a decision, one that I have often wondered what if I didn’t make. I grabbed his dick in my hand, got up from under him, unzipped his pants, and blew him. I was aware of his mitts flapping once or twice, swatting at my face half- heartedly, but overall he succumbed without much of a struggle. Afterward, I walked to the bathroom to spit into a tissue and he lay there, defused. “Wow,” he said, or something. As if we had collaborated on some special moment. For a good ten minutes, I laughed with him. I made a special effort to seem happy and at ease. We exchanged a few of our signature quips. Then I looked at my watch and told him he better go to dinner ahead of me; I had to make a phone call.


I called Chad and I was normal, newsy, clipped. He had forgiven me about the anniversary. Across from me was a mirror. There I was. That neat little head, the shiny black hair cut blunt at the collarbone, the deep-set eyes, the quick expressions—laughing, pouting, flirting. Out of nowhere, Chad asked me, “Are you okay?” The tenderness in his voice cut the power on my act. I fell silent; tears sprang to my eyes. My face in the mirror was swollen and slack. I felt myself teetering. Either I start sobbing to Chad, or I get a grip on myself and go downstairs.


I brushed my teeth till my mouth was foaming, put on my highest heels, got in the elevator, and smacked the button for the lobby with the side of my fist. When the elevator doors opened, a blast of merriment from the restaurant hit me; I walked across the lobby into the raucous place and found a long table packed with reps. My seat had been saved next to Tom. I sat down, ordered an appetizer and a Diet Coke. Donna, the buyer from CVS, was seated opposite me, bronzed and observant, her fingers, with their long pearly nails, curled around the stem of her wineglass. I looked at that leathery hand and wondered if Donna had ever been in the same situation as I had just been in, and what she had done if she had. I didn’t talk to Tom or look at him, but after a while I felt his sweltering hand on the small of my back, just idling there. I excused myself then, went up to my room, bolted the door, and took a sleeping pill.


The flight home was smooth as glass, so smooth I kept forgetting I was flying as I picked crumpled receipts out of my wallet, straightened each one out, and put the work stubs into the little ziplock baggie I always carried with me to submit to the company later.


When I got back to my apartment, Chad had let himself in. He had ordered takeout and set out the plates in front of the TV. I changed into my pajamas, snuggled into him, and we watched an episode of something. After the credits came up, Chad looked at me a long time. His cheeks were mottled, as though he had just come in from the snow or been slapped. “Maybe a kid wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all,” he said. Mute, I put my head on his shoulder.


Months later, we walked into a restaurant in Cincinnati and ran into Tom Sanduli sitting near the bar with some other meaty guy. After the jovial introductions, Chad and I took our seats. I tried to concentrate on what he was saying, but I could feel Sanduli behind me; every now and then he guffawed. I looked up at Chad. He was halfway through his crab cakes, staring at me.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked in a tired voice.

“Just a work thing,” I answered. He sighed and shook his head.


Chad left me soon after that over another one of my insensitivities. He moved to Washington State, sells solar panels, has kids. I stayed in Cincinnati and opened my own company. It’s been ten years, and I love it. I love the chemical smell of new carpeting in our offices, and the sound of my heels on the marble floors of the lobby. I love coming home at night after dinner with friends, or a date, or a work thing, turning on the lights so they’re still a little dim, taking off my shoes and putting my feet on the coffee table. My living room has a wall of glass; I sit on my couch and watch the whole of downtown glittering. Sometimes I look around my apartment and wonder at this perfect place, all of which I paid for.


I’ve kept the receipts.



From Total (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 12, 2022). Copyright © 2022 by Rebecca Miller.
Rebecca Miller is the author of the short-story collection Personal Velocity, her feature-film adaptation of which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and the novels The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (FSG, 2008), which she also adapted for the screen, and Jacob’s Folly (FSG, 2013). Her other films include Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and Maggie’s Plan. She lives in New York with her family.