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Sunday, February 19, 2017

The One

No matter how insular, the moment Air Force One accelerated down the runway to liftoff it was impossible to ignore the engines screaming, straining, pushing toward the moment where the wheels slip from the asphalt and rest on air.

Trump did not hear the engines. Fastened loosely in a recliner near a port window, he heard the Florida crowd cheering each word slipping sharply from his soft lips. His eyes were closed though his face was turned toward the open plane window--all the better, as he hated watching the earth sink away from him. He hated liftoff.  Loved the race down the runway, loved the final push against gravity, but hated the moment where things went from Earth to nothingness.

"Raaaaaaaaaah!' Air Force One's engines screamed. And in his mind, Trump heard the crowd of Florida.

"The media lies to you," he'd said. "But I will tell you the truth!"

"Raaaaah!"

Once the plane had leveled and the engines--the crowds--became silent, Trump opened his eyes to see the blankness of the universe from his window. He lifted his tilted head from the recliner's headrest, touched his hair back into place. Inhaled. Popped off his seatbelt, which split apart like a broken rubber band.

"Look at this shit," he mumbled. Melania, a few chairs up and reading a fashion magazine, glanced back at her husband, then followed his gaze, a gaze more general than direct. "Look at the beige. The blue. The leader of the Free World needs bold colors. No wonder we've been so soft for decades. For decades." Trump stood, one hand on the back of the chair before him. "For decades. It's psychological, Mel. The Presidents have for years been forced into dullness. I want bold."

Melania returned to her magazine. She hadn't the benefit of hearing the Florida crowds nor the plane's engines. She certainly wasn't listening to her husband's words. In her ears were earbuds. She was listening to Beyonce's Lemonade at the suggestion of her new Chief of Staff, someone named Reynolds.

Trump lumbered into the aisle, turned away from his wife to the back of the plane. A steward lunged out of nowhere to catch him as he stumbled. "Not yet got my sea legs," Trump joked, taking the young man's hand and pulling it toward him, almost sending the steward into his own stumble.

With some effort, the steward--who was named Eduardo, not that Trump ever asked--assisted Trump on the unsteady journey from the main cabin to the Presidential cabin. The Presidential cabin was Trump's term for the area of the plane where there was a bed, desk, and television. After three weeks with Trump, Eduardo knew to steer Trump toward the bed. He helped lower Trump stomach first onto the mattress, then left without a word.

Trump lifted one hip and shoved a hand into his pants pocket, fished out his phone, and brought it up to his face. The screen popped to life. Icons of apps swam in a blue sea. He selected the one most resembling a bird, and waited for a moment.

Then he began to type, a letter at a time, first one thumb then another punching against the alphabet as if he hoped to crush each letter.

Eduardo, meanwhile, walked along the aisle to Melania's chair. He stood beside her for a moment, waiting, watching her flip through her magazine. He cleared his throat, first politely, then pointedly. Sighing, he bent a bit and, careful not to touch her directly, waved a hand against the air near her face. Melania jerked a bit, then plucked the earbuds from her ears. Beyonce's diminutive voice could be heard, bitter and sweet.

"Sorry to--" Eduardo began.

"Yes, please, to have a Diet Coke." Melania forced a smile that seemed more of a sob. "Do not of course tell President. He is to sleep."

"Yes, ma'am." Eduardo, and all the staff both grounded and airborne had learned that "He is to sleep" was Melania's way of asking if her husband was now monitoring social media. "He is very much to sleep."

Melania's smile became less of a sob and more of a relief. "Good. He... needs to sleep."

"I'll be right back. Sure you don't want anything else?" Eduardo returned upright. "We do specially stock--"

"Diet Coke. And do not say words." She nodded firmly, then returned the buds to her ears.

Eduardo moved to the front of the plane, passing random people not in his charge. He got to the kitchen, opened one of the refrigerators, and found one of the three cans of Diet Coke left in stock. As he brought out ice and a water glass, another steward, Pen, entered.

Pen assisted the flight crew. She'd been a part of Air Force One for almost as long as the first wing had been affixed to the fuselage. During the first Bush administration--the father, not the son--she'd been offered a promotion and refused. "We see what you do," George I had said during a particularly long flight to Geneva. "Barb and I would love you to come work for us back here."

"Thank you sir," Pen had said then. "The most important thing to me is to take care of the person flying the plane. And all due respect, but when you're in this plane, you're just a passenger. I can better serve you by serving the cockpit."

So Pen, for years, was the steward who made sure the cockpit was served. Eduardo, in 4 years, had only seen her three other times.

She always made him nervous. Her history with the plane was, to him, a marvel.

"Hey kiddo," she said.

"Hi." He smiled, and wondered if his smile, too, seemed more of a sob.

"Hard times." Pen wasn't asking a question. "I know. I'm sorry."

"They're okay for now."

"The times?"

"No. My family. They're--"

"Okay for now. Good."

Pen reached into a cupboard and retrieved a bag of chips. "Glad to see you." She stood for a moment, looking at him. Pen was a sharp woman--sharp features, sharp uniform, sharp voice. But she softened for a moment and whispered, "Very glad."

Eduardo watching Pen leave the kitchen, heading back to her duty. Then he cracked open the can of Diet Coke, poured it into the water glass. Cracked the tray of ice and dropped cubes in. Listened to the fizz, which sounded like a crowd of people cheering him on.

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