Off the Shelf: Unlearning to Fly by Jennifer Brice

Unlearning to Fly cover image Read the beginning of Chapter 1, "At the Airport: A Romance" from Unlearning to Fly by Jennifer Brice:

"My father proposed to my mother in an airport. I like that sentence so much, I can hardly bear to revise it. But I must. The second time my father proposed to my mother, it was in an airport. The first time was in a car. They’d met three weeks earlier, when my father’s brother, Sam, asked my mother to be my father’s blind date for his own birthday party. He was twenty-seven and she was twenty-five. Back then, Al Brice was holding down three jobs: a mechanic for Pan Am, an afterhours fueler for a jet fuel-supply company, and a logger for his family’s fledgling land-clearing concern. Carol Heeks was a public health nurse who’d arrived in Fairbanks in July of 1961 at the wheel of a blue Plymouth Valiant. A New Yorker by birth and temperament, she was unwilling to spend the rest of her life in a frontier outpost so unprepossessing that a person could drive the length and breadth of it—as she once had—without ever realizing she’d arrived.

Hence the need for a second proposal from my father.

And a third.

Nursing and romance don’t mix. On her first day of work, my mother’s supervisor, Mary Carey, made that abundantly clear. If Miss C. Heeks (known to her former patients at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital as “Cheeks”) had driven all the way from the East Coast for the purpose of finding a husband, she could repack her suitcases, slam the trunk of her powder-blue Valiant, and head back to the East Coast. What was needed at the Fairbanks Public Health Center in July 1961 was one more dedicated public health nurse, a woman whose sensibly clad feet were meant for pounding the pavement, not dancing the night away; a woman whose calling was to care for other people’s babies, not to beget any of her own. What was needed, in short, were more suppliers of medical services, not more consumers. Mary wouldn’t tolerate any giddiness over boys. She herself cut a formidable figure: a woman of girth, stature, and intellect. Mary Carey had several chins to go with that Dr. Seuss name, but she wasn’t jolly in the least. Had she made herself clear?

When my father showed up at the airport in his white mechanic’s overalls to “press his suit,” as my mother would say, she felt a welter of emotions: flustered, flattered, confused. She didn’t say yes or no. Everything about Alaska seemed strange, including this man who kept saying he was in love with her. Was she in love, too? Enough to give up her job? Maybe. No, she couldn’t be. Oh, she didn’t know. The only thing she did know was that she had to board Pan Am’s red-eye flight to New York. Her brother, Bill, would pick her up at Idlewild Airport. From there, they’d drive to Vermont to spend Christmas with the family. In retirement, her surgeon father had reinvented himself as a gentleman farmer. Carol thought of the spread in Vermont as a kind of refuge. There, for the first time in days, she’d be able to think clearly about Al Brice, about herself, and about where she belonged—or didn’t."

Jennifer Brice is an associate professor of English at Colgate University and the author of The Last Settlers. Her work has appeared in such journals as the Gettysburg Review, Manoa, and River Teeth.

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