How to recognize Earth when it appears to be someplace else

This morning I boarded a plane from Little Rock to Atlanta—that smoggy wonder of a molehill—and sat down in my seat at the back of the plane. It was pitch black on the ground, with nothing able to be seen except the dark men’s dark faces lit up by the flickering red lights of the plane-wings. With a whoosh and a sinking feeling that pressed into my stomach, we lifted from the pavement and waltzed impossibly into the place between earth and heaven. Darkness reigned above, around and below us. The distant ground winked at me with its foggy spheres of warm orange light. I saw the homes of thousands, yet they did not see me. Maybe a woman somewhere cried, and looked out her window at the stars that a hundred people crossed before her eyes. Maybe a child was hoodwinked into wishing on an infinitely falling star that I was captured inside of. But surely the hurtling cylinder went unnoticed by a carpenter, unnoticed by a dancer, unnoticed by my brother. 

The darkness, however dark, didn’t last long. Almost as soon as we lifted above the thin stripe of cloud, there became a glow in the east. It was so faint and weak as to be almost invisible—but darkness is not invincible, and the glow rose. I pressed my forehead to the glass of the porthole and tried not to think of all the foreheads that had touched that greasy visqueen-like plexiglass. First the light was a fuzzy blue, an almost phthalocyanine blue, with just the faintest touch of burnt orange at the rimmed horizon. The old man in front of me sighed and rested his own head against the window. His friend made a loud joke, and the sleeping passengers politely ignored without meaning to. But the sun still rose, slowly as a forbidding matron who wished she was still young. For the sun is an old one, and the eons have treated it well. It’s grown brighter with age, but sometimes it longs for the old days, when the earth was young and there was no growing old. When the sun grows sentimental, it cries tears of purple and pink, lashing out fingers of color to touch the clouds so far away from itself. It seems that it happens more often these days, when the clouds dance around the sky, intertwined with light from a million miles away.

The sky is a game of poker. You lay out all your cards, you place your bets, and then it ignores you completely. Who are you to wish for a nice sunrise? Who are you to plan a picnic and hope that it doesn’t rain? The world doesn’t revolve around you. No, you’re the one who’s subject to God’s sun or rain or clouds. The sky obeys one master, and one master alone.

The sun rose a little more, and the blue became fringed by green. I began to barely see the mountains below us. Lumpy little hillocks rippling over the land.

“Strange,” I thought to myself, “I never knew there was such a pattern to the Missourian mountains. They move like the ridges of a sand bar that’s been eroded by wind and waves and children’s feet.”

At first I shrugged it off. I knew of the alien signs of the cornfields, I knew of the strange patterns that you see in tree bark and sunflower heads. But the hills below did not change. They grew more regular, and the ridges ran straight.

The light grew and the red became carmine. It struck a contrast with the midnight-blue sky with its poignant stars dotted here and there.

The landscape below became brighter, and the mountains were suddenly snow-frosted. And all of a sudden, I had the sinking feeling that I wasn’t on my earth anymore. I still can’t shake it. It clings to me, the shadow of a doubt that haunts me as I fly two thousand miles in the air.

Deus mei, is this truly what the sky is? A repository of vapor and chemicals, with the conspicuous absence of oxygen. Three and a half hours until I land. The suspense is killing me. Though I suppose a lack of suspense would kill me a bit more literally. Will I land? Will I ever come down from this purgatory of space? Will I be forever stuck beside a man with a bandaged hand and a teenaged girl eating balsamicked kale sprouts out of a mason jar? My chest collapses again and I feel my breath saying its farewells.

But it collapses under the weight of beauty. And this will be the most beautiful way to die, to die from otherworldly loveliness.

Who do I love? Who would I want to see again and again without wearying of their words?

The sun kept rising, and I did not recognize my earth. The world is not that regular. It is not that organized. The rivulets do not meander so meaningfully. A terrible fear gripped my heart, for I knew beyond a doubt that it was not my earth. I was not above my home. I was alone in the atmos above a strange planet whose name was unknown to me. My fellow passengers snored, and I screamed silently in my soul. But it was a strange joy I had, for if this was truly not my earth, then God had truly made a world even more beautiful than mine. And I was here. By some twist of the ether, I have been brought to the other world.

The sun rose, and then all my conjectures were dashed against the stony shores of reality. I tried to twist my head around the fact that I was seeing.

Clouds billowed below me. Regular old clouds, with indentions and furrows, full of water and sunlight. It hadn’t been the bizarre terrain of an alien planet, but rather the tops of Earthian clouds. And I don’t understand how they fooled me so completely.

Was it possible that I wanted to be fooled?