Author's Note and Disclaimer: The mission of this couplet of stories ("Just an Earth-Bound Misfit, I" and "Can't Keep My Eyes from the Circling Sky") is to retell the story of "Persuasion" in a modern context, with modern values, in a respectful and faithful way. This couplet of stories also makes tribute to Pink Floyd's 1987 song "Learning to Fly" from the album "A Momentary Lapse of Reason", and hence the use of the song lyrics to form the story titles was a deliberate choice on my part, to pay homage to the song. "Persuasion" and its characters belong to Jane Austen, not me. In this story, I have also taken ample creative license when referring to actual names, places and events. The purpose of my depictions of real life institutions, places and events are to lend better context to the story, so factual accuracy may not be 100% (though I do strive for faithfulness in spirit).
Chapter 1 - Jetrosexual
March 2009, Punta Gorda, Florida
The mercury was climbing to 80 degrees, and there was nary a cloud in the sky. This was the type of Florida morning that would typically send the Elliots cowering indoors, for God forbid that they should get a patchy tan, or worse, freckles! Anne, though, was an Elliot in name but not in spirit, and so she had no reservations about soaking up the balmy Florida sun. In fact, she relished it. Anne always planned her pilgrimages to visit her father and sister such that her trip would end with the Florida International Air Show, such that the Air Show could serve as an enticement to get her through a week at the Elliots' Florida condo.
Perhaps "sufferance" would be a better word to describe the yearly visits, for the Elliot lifestyle was completely not Anne's cup of tea. At nearly sixty years of age, Walter Elliot was still an incorrigible dandy with his baby-white Botoxed face; perfectly slicked hair with never a strand out of place; and skin-tight Zegna and Armani outfits. Amongst the circle of wealthy retirees in which the Elliots moved, it was often rumored that Walter Elliot was gay, never mind that he did have three daughters. Elizabeth, her eldest sister, was tall, willowy and blonde – everything that Anne was not – and an entire bedroom in the condo had been fashioned into a giant walk-in wardrobe for her endless array of clothes, handbags and shoes. Current-season Versace, Dior, Chanel... it was like stepping into the latest issue of Vogue magazine. Depending on Elizabeth's whims, Anne would either be dragged along on her endless facials and hairstyling sessions, being coiffed, primped and preened until the real Anne became invisible, hidden away within a solid shell of makeup and hairspray; or she would be simply left to her own devices at the condo, forgotten, while the pair went on their society rounds. Anne infinitely preferred the latter, for her wallet protested less that way. Most of the time when Anne was dragged along to the preening sessions, it was because she was expected to foot the bill for all three of them – and afterwards, they would invariably parade her around the Florida country-club set, trying to pair her up with some kind of namby-pamby scion or other.
The Air Show was always a welcome breath of fresh air after a stifling week with the Elliots. Every year, Anne contacted local nonprofits to lead a group of high school students on a tour of the show site, where she would expound to the students the background stories behind each aircraft, both the old and the new, displayed at that year's event. Finding ways to get youths excited about aviation was the least she could do to pay forward the way in which the sky had served as the canvas for someone who had been – and still was – very special to her, to weave his biggest dreams. She especially had a soft spot for teenage girls – being bookended by two vapid sisters sapping away at her time and energy all her life, she felt it all the more important that girls should be encouraged to consider options beyond "housewife", "stay-at-home mom", and "arm candy" for their future. This time, she had ten high school girls with her, and they were camped outside waiting for the highlight of the day – the US Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic display.
Shading her eyes with her hand, Anne looked up toward the sky in anticipation of the day's signature performance. A deafening rumble rolled through the general hubbub, and the crowd fell silent as six white Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft rushed into view in a perfect straight line, and then swept out in curves as they fanned out in different directions directly overhead above the captivated audience.
If she blanked out the constant roar of the engines, Anne thought, the aircraft had the grace of kites – actually, kites on steroids – floating about in the sky. The F-16s soared, swirled, and dipped in the air, leaving snow-white lines, shapes, patterns in their wake. No matter how many times she'd watched it before, this precisely timed, intricately choreographed aerial ballet never failed to re-ignite Anne's excitement about aviation. She always chose to bring high school students to the Air Show because she believed that no other magic bullet could be more effective to spark their enthusiasm.
It was time for the final formation. Two aircraft swooped down in mirrored arcs, forming a heart shape in the air. The last cadenza of the display was the whoosh of a third aircraft as it wheeled around and shot upward into the sky, right through the middle of the heart shape. The aircraft's trajectory traced out the image of Cupid's arrow, piercing right through the heart.
Anne did not even have to see the number painted on the aircraft to know exactly which one it was. It was #5, Lead Solo, piloted by Major Frederick Wentworth. He would have to be the one who performed the most fearless gravity-defying stunts of the whole bunch. Even though Frederick was medium-sized compared to the others, he naturally stood out amongst the line of pilot photos that ran across the top of the Thunderbirds poster because of the drive and fire evident in his facial expression and the way he carried himself.
As the aircraft receded out of view, the spell lifted and the milling crowd slowly came back to life. A line of people, mostly children and teenagers, but also some women in their twenties and thirties, quickly formed before the reception table where the pilots would gather to give autographs. Ditching their picnic lunches, Anne's group of girls scrambled up and made a beeline for the autograph queue, posters in hand.
Having landed and parked their aircraft, the pilots entered in single file and assembled before the snaking line to sign autographs. From Anne's vantage point, she could see Frederick in profile like an Adonis, his relaxed, confident posture displaying how much he was enjoying the attention. He fairly soaked up the adulation as the girls and women jostled and clamored for his autograph. All they know about him is just the external shell, Anne thought, while I, I was there behind him all the way as he grew from just a raw boy into the man they see. Yet now, I am no closer to him than they are – in fact, I can never even be as close as them, for he must never know that I am here and I could never approach him directly again. But there was no place for bitterness, for Anne knew full well that their current estrangement had been completely her own doing.
The girls were skipping back to Anne with their signed posters.
"Major Wentworth is a fox and a half!"
"Wooh, Freddy boy! Sex-y!"
"Miss Elliot! I got an extra poster for you! It's got Major Wentworth's signature. See, see, see? Isn't he the cutest of them all?"
Anne wished to heaven that all the tittering and ogling would stop. The irreverence in the way they referred to Frederick – her former best friend and soul mate – irked her to no end. So much for her noble intentions of inspiring girls about aviation – it just had to be the pilots, not the planes or even the visual impact of the flying display, which became the primary source of excitement for the girls. In fact, the entire affair made a mockery of her high-flown aspirations to challenge gender stereotypes, Anne thought.
"C'mon everyone, let's get going." Anne had allowed herself enough time for woolgathering. Now, she'd better get down to business and round up everyone to the static display. The collective groan only further reinforced Anne's irritation at the girls' obvious interest in nothing but the pilots. Especially since she felt like she'd explode if she heard anything more about the charms of one particular pilot.
To keep her mind fixed to the task at hand, she reminded herself of the line she used every time she needed to fend off those misguided matchmaking attempts on the part of Walter and Elizabeth: "Well, looks like it's time for me to come out with my true inclinations - I'm a jetrosexual. Every day, I spend my day surrounded by airplanes and that's enough for me."
It would have to be enough for her - for now definitely; perhaps even forever.