I’m afraid of heights. There’s nothing I can do about it. If it’s only getting on a plane, I can take drugs, but in my position, when I tour a three-hour show three nights a week, and with the flying number coming close to the end of the show, I have to be alert and in control.
Not many women like me worry. Amy Winehouse, rest her soul, wouldn’t go to rehab. Billie Holiday died of an overdose, practically in handcuffs for possession. I think way too much about all the others who have ruined their careers and given their lives to being messed up—Whitney, Billie, Amy, Janis, especially the black ones like me, not to mention the men, Nat Cole, Jimi, MJ—I’m not going that route.
But as they lowered the flying lines down to the deck of the Arie Crown Theater, I felt an overwhelming desire for numbness.
This must have shown in my face. The stagehand walking up to me had a sympathetic smile on his pale, skull-like face. “Hi. Your tour rep from the flying company has the flu. I’m Baz, the local rep. You ready?”
“No,” I confessed. “I hate flying.”
His pale blue eyes looked into mine with understanding. He hefted the harness. “It’s no worse than a trip to the dentist.”
I swallowed dry nothing. “I have great teeth.”
“So you won’t feel a thing.” The stagehand twinkled at me as if I was merely human. “Why do it?” he said softly. “You can skip the flying part of the act. It’s your show.”
He had a nerve, getting personal with me at this vulnerable moment. I swallowed.
“Ioni, goddammit!” Uncle Chester stomped down the aisle and up the steps onto the stage. “Let’s move! They ain’t gone wanna talk to me, that’s for damn sure.”
At this moment, even a press conference sounded easy compared with letting them strap me into that thing and lift me twenty feet above the deck.
“Ioni?” Uncle Chester snarled.
Slowly the stagehand turned toward him and said, “What is your fucking problem, grandpop?”
Uncle Chester bristled. I almost laughed at his outraged expression. “Outa my face, white boy. You can’t talk to me like that.”
“Get off my stage,” the stagehand said.
The stagehand narrowed his eyes. “I’m the flyman of this house. It’s my job to see that the little lady gets up on cue and comes down in one piece. You’re a safety hazard. Get the fuck off my stage before I throw you off.”
He spoke very, very quietly. I think his crazy-white-guy, light-blue eyes did it. That and the soft voice.
Uncle Chester glared and stomped away.
In spite of the presence of the harness, I relaxed a little.
The stagehand said, “You sure you want to do this?”
Something in his face looked familiar. My breath caught. I decided that it would never do to chicken out in front of him.
“I’m good, Baz. Let’s go.”
He smiled slowly, and I felt even better. “Okay, then.”
He showed me the harness. It was the same harness I’d put on for every show on this tour. I’d flown in it six times in the past two weeks. Yet he went over it step by step, showing me every line, every attachment, naming the parts, explaining how strong they were and how they worked and why they could never fail on me. By the time he was done, I felt as calm as I sounded.
He nodded and held the harness open. I stepped into it. He strapped me up, making the metal parts clink solidly at my back, so that I could feel the steel even if I couldn’t see it.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, feeling for my center.
With my eyes closed, I could hear the crew moving around backstage, checking light cues. I smelled the roses Aunt Maybellyne makes sure are always onstage with me, even in rehearsal. Off in one corner, the dancers were going over their routine for the finale. The thumps of their shoes on the stage came up through the soles of my feet. Inside me was silence and peace.
When I opened my eyes, the stagehand was waiting, being patient, ready for me whenever.
I nodded to him.
He backed up and yelled, “Flying cue, go.”
And up, up and away I went.