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The music swelled just as the plane dove. For a moment the diving and the swell where in sync, a dance, but then the engine stalled. The crowd in the bleachers sighed. Too bad.
Jess looked across the stadium to see the man holding the remote control, to see her man: Mustafa. He was standing under the “34th Annual Model Airplane Contest” banner and her heart leapt for him, just as it always had. But then, seeing the pinch of his lips and recalling a discussion from that morning, her heart sputtered and tripped, landed flat in her stomach.
Even from across the field, Jess could see the grey hairs of Mustafa’s beard twitch with disappointment because although he had landed the plane as gracefully as he could, there was no mistaking it: the competition was lost. She saw in a flash how the evening would play: she chattering to him; he ignoring her. For Mustafa was a serious man – a man of work not words – and he took these projects seriously. What he felt in his heart he forced into creation, made tangible and into things: soaring things-like the planes; and heavy things made of metal. Jess was aware, as Mustafa had made clear that morning, that this seriousness included her. And she knew that despite – or possibly because of – the occasional crashes, in his seriousness Mustafa was capable, powerful, and stern.
“Such an eccentric hobby for a grown man,” her mother had said of the model airplane business, but Jess didn’t mind. Translated it loosely in her mind to, “such an eccentric man for my grown daughter.” He was good with his hands. And she liked this about him – his ability to make things. She liked it especially, when things were going well – wondered quietly what he could make of her. It was when they didn’t go well that she wondered what she was doing with her life, and worried about the fun times she was missing being bound to this moody old Turk.
Mustafa was a welder at the Navy Shipbuilding yard and it was there that they met. She was an intern at the time, working on her third degree (first metallurgy, then French, now an Industrial Management, MBA). She was brilliant, everyone said so. Her curiosity was insatiable. Her mind was capable when applied, and she was nothing short of inspired when a challenge was both interesting and clear. A half marathon, a narrow waist, a thesis, a man, a grade. No matter. If she could see it, she could get it. Still there was a turbulence in her heart. For while Jess loved getting A’s and getting degrees, loved being thin, and getting laid, in the journey of her life it was taking her longer than most to find her path, and there would be no more daddy scholarships.
The day they met, Jess had been on a research excursion. Her team was working on a new method of welding, friction stir welding: a solid-state joining process that left original metal characteristics unaltered. The team had hoped to bring the technology to the Shipyard, but it wasn’t catching on.
Jess had felt intrigued with the technology, but the work, as an intern, was dull. So she mostly flirted the day away, enjoyed holding court as the youngest and the prettiest girl on the engineering team, dressing up in suits and lab coats, enjoying the attention of men too boring for her to date, but nevertheless letting them buy her a beer after work.
For men adored Jess. Loved her for the topics she could discuss – for her willingness to hang, to throw back a beer, to indulge in academic and philosophic tête-à-têtes and then to follow them through short romantic adventures. It was impossible for most men not to love Jess for her ability to learn and vibrantly experience, and ultimately they loved her ability to move on. But Mustafa was not most men. He didn’t want to hang. He wasn’t interested in the fun parts of her, he was interested in the other parts – the serious ones – the ones she herself didn’t understand.
It was one of these men that adored her, one of her colleagues – a family man with circles under his eyes – that approached her about the field trip. He adored her so much that she could – to her great amusement – by just lifting her eyebrow, make him stutter.
“We need to go d-d-d-down to the Shipyard,” he said.
And so they did.
The group of researchers walked around the Shipyard looking awkward and getting in the way, until finally, one of the group walked up to a welder and asked him directly, why he thought there was a hold up transitioning to the new welding method. That man was Mustafa.
Mustafa tipped his head to the side when they asked, then halfway lifted his welding hood, his face first serious when he asked “Why change?” and then dismissive.
Someone in the group started to explain that friction stir welding was already used in many automotive lines and had many advantages over conventional fusion welding.
Mustafa had already started to lower his hood when Jess spoke up.
“For one thing, friction stir welding doesn’t make sparks,” Jess said, flaunting her femininity and betting that among this group of men her voice alone would get his attention. It did. Mustafa turned his full face, with big brown eyes and beard to look at her.
“You don’t like the sparks?” Mustafa said, his eyes lighting up, his voice strong like a bear.
No one knew what to say to a thing like that, and so, the group walked on, except for Jess. Jess stayed with Mustafa, the bear, and she smiled when he lowered the hood. He set to work then, making sparks fly, sending one of those sparks to Jess’ heart, which leapt at the shock.
“You are not a young girl on adventure,” Mustafa had said the morning of the competition, leaning against the sink, coffee in hand, dressed for the airplane show in work jeans and plaid shirt, “first going here then there.”
Still feeling the cold of the ceramic tile on her feet, still dressed in the long T-shirt she used for sleeping at Mustafa’s house, she had said nothing, let her eyes rest on the plane on the table – grey with a rounded black Styrofoam nose.
“You are not a dust-bunny blowing with the wind,” he went on, handing her a cup of coffee that was both tepid and strong.
The grey plane was a favorite of Mustafa’s, one he flew in the yard on Sunday afternoons. When other men would swallow a cocktail to fight the Sunday doldrums, Mustafa would take out the grey plane. Unlike the light balsa wood craft he used for the aerial acrobatics competitions; it was both heavier and more sturdy, in comparison, more like an anchor from the Shipyard, than a plane.
When still she did not offer a response, Mustafa turned away from her and dumped the dregs of his mug into the sink, stood facing the window above it. She raised her eyes to see the plaid stretching across his shoulders, and then past those broad shoulders to see through the window the brown grass of the summer burning out signaling the end of her studies.
Still facing the window he sighed, “You are – ” then shook his head. He did not say aloud the words Jess heard nonetheless, “disappointing me.”
“And how is your grumpy old Turk?” her friends teased.
“He’s brooding at home,” Jess said.
These were her old college friends, whom she still thought of as her best friends, though they were no longer like her. They weren’t working or studying. They were squandering their talents on husbands and children; had ceased chasing their curiosity any further than a school bus stop. And that is why for this night, with this audience, her story of Mustafa still worked so well.
She was boofing a welder, a blue collar man, a Muslim. With this suburban crowd, he was good material, and their blond heads leaned forward. They were afraid of Mustafa and Jess liked how that made them also, a little in awe of her.
So she told them about the welding and the sparks. Bragged about his moods. She told them about the planes and started even to mock the orange work bench. Then she stopped talking.
For her mind had turned to how there at the orange workbench, in front of the airplanes, their wings and their motors, he had pushed her against the orange work bench, then lifted her tiny frame onto it, his big hands everywhere on her, molding her. She recalled how a hammer had jabbed into her thigh, how she felt awkward in the space but loved his big thumbs rolling down the bones of her ribs, like a finger down a comb. When she looked up again at her friends bright eyes, Jess saw that both she and her Mustafa were nothing but entertainment to them, and she realized in that flash what Mustafa already knew. She had been using him and it was coming to an end.
The Sunday night after the competition, Mustafa stood at the orange workbench. Jess stood next to him and saw for the first time that the grey plane’s black Styrofoam nose had been smashed.
Tomorrow there would be another Shipyard tour, three months after Jess first met Mustafa. Jess was nervous about that. The tour would be one of her last internship activities, and it was coming time for her to make some serious, grown-up decisions. She had been soaring along without direction, but what now?
She reflected how somehow Mustafa had continued on with her past all of the end points of her past romances; stayed with her despite one after another inconvenient reveal of Jess’s less fantastic side. He’d caught her with a smoke during a late night studying, observed her collapsed on the sofa after too long of a run, overheard the slight bulimic relapse that couldn’t be helped, but that she was supposed to have outgrown. Mustafa never mentioned these things, but also, he hadn’t left her for it.
Her eyes landed again on the crushed Styrofoam nose and he followed her gaze.
“It cannot be repaired,” he said.
But she took it in her hands, remembering an old lesson in material science. “Put it in boiling water,” she said, “the heat will make it remember its shape.”
He looked at her with a hard gaze that showed his thoughts regarding her had decidedly not changed since that morning’s conversation, but that also revealed a something else: admiration. Jess’s heart answered with a sigh, one full of both longing and doubt.
Jess touched his arm and Mustafa blew some air out his nose. “The tour is tomorrow,” she reminded him. He grunted. She went to bed, leaving him and his broodings alone.
The next day Jess put on her suit as if she was dressing up in her mother’s closet, and toured the Shipyard again with her colleagues. They interviewed the men, one by one, getting nowhere, until they came to Mustafa.
Mustafa didn’t stop his work to entertain her tour. He kept the torch burning and his hood lowered. He didn’t even look at Jess until finally, after she had worried that he might not acknowledge her at all, he tilted his head her way, and the glass in his hood bloomed orange with the light of the sparks.
Jess became mesmerized watching Mustafa’s sparks and the arc they made. She stood and watched Mustafa, transfixed by a man – her man – at his work as he created a weld with a graceful, old-fashioned fan of sparks. She stood and watched Mustafa’s sparks exploding, even as her tour moved on.
She watched until she felt her heart leap just as it had the first time she saw him, away from the whimsy in her chest, and toward the welder. She watched Mustafa work until she trusted him, watched him until she became a spark herself, flying through the air, first rising then falling, and finally sputtering as her spark-self bounced once on the rubber mat by Mustafa’s foot and extinguished.