Flying Lessons

I.

One time when I was seven, I got lost at this shopping mall and this small Russian boy came and took my hand. He was slightly different than how I'd been picturing my rescuer. First off he had a Hawaiian-Punch moustache. Second he had a twig in his hair. "That's one responsible man you've got there," my mom said after he and his mom helped find her. The boy smiled shyly and mentioned something about a pet turtle. Meanwhile I tugged at my mom's hand and told her I was hungry. She nodded. This wasn't so much a request as an informing of relocation. Ten minutes later, our moms were talking over lattes while one table over, my rescuer shouted at me through a mouthful of fries. At one point he leapt onto his chair, squinted through his straw, and told me to quick, take the wheel for a second while he spied on the other pirates. I said, what wheel. We ended up being best friends for the next five years.

His name was Vadim. I liked the school-nights he came over the best. He'd finish his peas and ask in an Oliver Twist if he could "please have some more." The second my mom's back was turned, we'd stuff handfuls of Belochkas into our mouths. Then after dinner was when my mom usually put on her specs and left the scene for the night. Vadim would quietly open the back door and we'd run around through people's backyards, pretending we were two of the Lost Boys. Even though I always thought he looked more like Peter Pan, grinnign at me from behind that dorky curtain of white-blonde.

While Vadim went around and had his adventures, I usually got distracted. I was always getting new experiment kits, so I spent most of my time outdoors observing the in our backyard, whereas Vadim could mostly be found harassing them. At any given time you might see me marching around with my clanging belt of jars, looking for bugs, whereas you would probably see him lying on the grass, grinning, bugs lodged in his teeth. But he was a smart kid. He'd sit up and say something like, "look, a firefly!" and then lift his eyebrow in that conspiring way of his and say, but maybe it was really a faery, and lure me away from my studies with that crazy grin of his followed by some crazy rescue mission in Neverland.

Later when the stars came out, we'd sneak up onto the roof. The first time I absolutely refused but Vadim said "come on" and took my hand, and that always sealed the deal. We'd both lie back and I'd make myself sit still as he told me what they called the same stars over in Russia. Later, I'd poke and tickle him under the arms while he did impressions for me—of Captain Hook or the genie from Aladdin or funny people back in Moscow and he was so dumb and goofy we'd both crack up. He was the most magical person I'd ever met. Then one year his dad got a job with a new firm and just like that he moved away, to someplace in Iowa. Then later I found out he'd left that place too and gone back to Russia, but the address I got didn't make any sense, so that was that.

II.

Last night at dinner my sister showed her her ring again—the one from Dr. Dangerous—and we stayed there late talking about destiny. Gina, who's basically a sexy version of me, doesn't believe in destiny. She says it's all about paying attention and "going with the flow." I told her it's pretty cool, though, that you can lay back and flow past the ten million doctors in the world, and end up going to the one who's going to be your husband.

III.

I never thought about destiny that way—that is, actually existing—until this year. A few days before the start of school I was shopping at a grocery store a few blocks off campus. After a few minutes I got to the check-out line, looked at the person in front of me, and felt my heart nearly stop. Then it went back to normal. It just took a second or so more of looking—the normal clothes, the sharp, thin cheekbones, the short, wavy blonde hair—but now I was sure. It wasn't him. Just a really good look-alike. This guy was some suburban track star, not some half-naked thing who ate borscht.

Then on my first day of school I saw him again, outside one of the theater building. He was leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette and talking to a group of girls. He was wearing faded jeans and an American Eagle t-shirt. Yeah, now he was definitely becoming a kind of Americanized version of Vadim. A few minutes later, when the teacher was at the very end of the list, the kid walked in and slid into a seat in the back. The teacher gave him a "you're-late" look, turned to the next page on his clipboard, and read the last name on the list.

I'm not really sure what happened after that. All I know is someone said a name and suddenly my heart was ticking like a gift that was getting too excited and something vaguely magical was gaining in the room even though all around me, no one else realized, no one even knew, but there he was, and his hair was suddenly so soft and white and familiar falling into his smile as he went "pre-sent" so that I couldn't even look, I had to look down and draw in my notebook, shading and spiraling and zigzagging and trying not to look up and then looking but then getting scared, so that by the end of class I had a whole world of patterns pressing itself tightly against one boxed name in the center: "Vadim Zukov."

V.

Minus the flying lessons, I've only had something like that happen to me, where it felt like it was meant to be, one other time. I was nine and woke up one morning with a bad cold so my mom gave me a peck on the head, turned on the t.v., and told me to have lots of soup. After I'd finished my soup, I looked up at the t.v. and started paying attention to what was on it. It was this show about doctors. In the show there was this woman and she was trying to save this patient and even though he was really rude to her, she ended up breaking all these rules to save his life. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen, seeing her save him like that. That night after everyone had gone to bed, I snuck up onto the roof. There were so many stars, but that wasn't why I was giddy. After that, I was hooked. All I wanted was doctors and hospitals. This was what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a doctor. I knew it like I was a girl, like I had dark hair; like it just was.

VII.

Once at a family reunion my favorite aunt said something about how scary it is seeing someone for the first time in a long time. Scary, she said, because at a certain point you realize how disappointed you are—that your worst fear has come true; when they were once the life of the room, now they're just average. What she didn't tell me is that there's also another kind of reuniting—the kind that scares you because it isn't disappointing.

"Megan Parker?" Vadim said, leaning with his back against the doorway as the rest of the class swarmed out around him. Now I couldn't take my eyes off him. With those loose American clothes and those delicate Slavic features, he was like something half out of an Abercrombie ad, half out of a tavern. Eventually I achieved movement. Vadim laughed as I came closer and a whitish strand of hair fell into his eyes. "Fuck, it is you." I meant to smile but nodded instead, then found myself looking away as we waited for more kids to hurry past. Then back for another look. It was the weirdest thing. In many ways, he was a stranger. Well, except for the parts where I was suddenly reminded of that little shirtless kid who used to drop out of a tree in front of me. I adjusted my bag, then looked back to catch him staring at me. He smiled. This time, I smiled back.

Vadim stared at me, then suddenly titled his head back in laughter. "God I feel like I'm dreaming," he said. "You go here?" He looked like he was about to say something else, then swallowed instead. Presented with the possibility that this kid was actually just as messed up by this as I was, I found myself feeling a little more confident.

"Of course," I said, attempting a casual tone. "I had to stay in Chicago. The Field Museum's got the best bug collection by far."

"Man, I can't believe it," he said. "It's you. Well, a slightly taller you." He smiled, still a little nervous. "You look good in heels."

I smiled, though I already knew this. Looking at Vadim's clean, pretty locks, it seemed we'd both picked up a few tips. I smiled. "And you're not so bad without a nest in your hair." Vadim smiled.

At one point it occurred to me that despite the fact I knew his name, I was actually speaking to a stranger—this beautiful, confident individual I'd never met. Except at the same time, there'd be those little reminders. The sweet things that insist on going gray with you. The way his hair still spilled into his eyes, his excited grin as he watched me answer, taking everything in. The way I had to look away when I said "Okay" after he asked me to get a bite to eat because there something so unnerving about the way he smiled at me as he waited for my answer—a little too playful, too certain of himself—that made me realize the most troubling thing wasn't that Vadim was suddenly back in my life. It was realizing that even if we somehow got over the awkwardness and became friends again, he wouldn't just be Vadim.

V.

"If you had a magic carpet that could take you like anywhere, where would you go?" Vadim and I are walking back from intro to acting. All around us the ground is covered in a thin layer of snow. If I were with anyone else it'd just be that dumb Chicago stuff, but I'm not, so I can't stop staring.

I search for something to say. Then I realize the honest answer: nowhere. Wandering across this strange, snowy campus with Vadim, I think I just might take a gun to that carpet if it tried to take me anywhere. But of course Vadim doesn't want to hear that.

I look at him. "Antarctica, I guess. They just discovered a new arctic bird there." On que, it starts snowing.

Vadim playfully flicks the ball at the top of my hat. "Aw, there's the little dork I remember."

"Actually, we prefer nerds," I say. With that, I skip out into the falling snow and stick out my tongue and catch a snowflake. I turn to see Vadim watching me with a smile. To make my heart slow down I casually toss my scarf back over my shoulder and ask, "What about you?"

He jumps onto a bench, walks to the end, kicks off some snow, then hops down. "Probably one of those nudist beaches."

I'm running my hand along the railing, so I take a bit of snow and fling it at Vadim. He laughs, defending himself. Then he brushes himself off. "But soon as I get bored, I'm out of there," he adds. "Off to the North Pole."

I look at him, confused. "The North Pole?"

He adjusts his hat. "Yep. Got some sleigh-jacking to do." He gives me a sly look and motions with his finger for me to move closer. I do. Then he leans in and whispers, "They say he's got a cocoa-machine this year." Now he's grinning. "With little reindeer marshies and everything."

I smile. "Right. Except you realize this sleigh would still have everybody's I-Pods and basketballs and stuff."

Vadim gives me a playful grin. "You forgot lingerie."

"You know, it really comforts me to know there are people like you out there."

"Yeah, me too." I can't help but smile. Vadim looks at me, then sighs. "I guess I could always stop in Antarctica on the way back..." He looks down. "You know, I could drop off some gloves for some needy folk." He looks at my gloves some more, then smiles. "Although I must say the holes are kind of cute." He slips his finger through one and I feel a light, giddy sensation in my stomach. I don't think I'll ever get used to those fingers.

For a second I have to focus on keeping my feet going straight. Then I turn to respond. "Thanks, but us freezing researchers actually don't require your charity." I point to the sky with a serious gloved finger. "We've got global warming."

Vadim smiles. "Clever nerd..."

I meet his eyes, then turn away to smile.

When I come back into it he's talking about our theater class. By the time we're passing the soccer field, we're both really into it, doing impressions of different people. Of course we each have our specialties. Vadim loves it when I do this blonde sorority girl. That girl is definitely a trip. I think it's the combination of wearing bright pink to class every day with this high elfish voice, like she sucked in a helium balloon at birth and the effect never really wore off. She's nice, though. I mean I like elves. Vadim's really good at doing this quiet kid, Oster, who is skinny and pretty gross-looking and a bit creepy. Every time you look at him he's always doing weird things to his notebook with scissors. Either that or he'sstaring at you from behind his greasy locks. He's the kind of kid who makes you appreciate metal detectors.

This is why I don't feel guilty at all about sharing my new Oster-secretly-being-a-serial-killer theory with Vadim. For all we know, this kid is. And to my delight, Vadim adapts his impression by hunching over in this hilarious, Igor-like way and hissing, "How dare they smile in my presence...well we'll just see what they think when they meet my secret weapon, 'Oster's Toxic Hair-Fumes,' mwahaha!" as someone quickly walks past us. I turn to look and immediately recogize the dark, swinging ponytail. It is the serial killer himself, Oster, who is walking fast like he just heard us. Vadim and I stare at each other with raised eyebrows for a second before he says, "Whoops," and we both start cracking up. For a second something pauses inside me as if something's not quite right, but it's hard to think when the boy you love is laughing.

But the strangest thing is it's not just Vadim I've fallen in love with. Lately I've fallen for acting too. I am particularly fond of doing impressions because it means being other people. Lately I'm not sure I want to be a doctor anymore. I mean here I am getting ready for the whole med school thing and yet something about being a doctor feels hollow when I think about it. Signing up for new lab sections might as well be signing up for the army. It also doesn't help that Vadim continues to encourage me to give up med school and become an actor, saying ridiculous things like now that he's seen me perform, he'll only be on Broadway if I'm starring with him.

IX.

As much as I adore the kid, Vadim has this slightly evil way of somehow making "goodbye" turn into five more minutes of talking. The result is that the second after I leave him, my casual walk finds itself turning into a mad sprint to catch the bus. Luckily, years of chasing after butterflies has its perks.

I find a seat in the back and get to work on the bio reading. After a few minutes the bus stops and I get distracted as the man next to me gets off an old woman takes his place, with snow chasing in behind her. She looks ridiculous, bundled up in her huge gray scarf, like she's hibernating in some wool nest. Only in Chicago. I watch as a guy opposite me takes off his hat and shakes his dark curls free as he looks out the window. He's cute, with hollowed, rosy cheeks. After a second or two he looks over though and sees me and smiles. I quickly look away. At the next stop he gets off. Two stops later, I pull the wire and hop off. After a few blocks of deep-sleeted sidewalk, I turn into an old red-brick building, climb up the steps, and press number four to be buzzed in. I'm stripping off my gloves when a wiry, red-headed Russian woman with bright green eyes opens the door, looking at me sharply over her hawk-like nose. "You're late," she says and shuts the door.