The friendliest skies are the hardest to fly

On my first flight last week, the attendant was a tight-lipped late teen named MaryAnne with the most extraordinary architecture of copper-blond hair. Five-four with the great legs they sometimes have, the five-four women. They work twice as hard to get half as far and goddamn it if they don’t look good doing it.

I wonder what MaryAnne’s story is. She’s a flight attendant, you could peg her for it – unwashed, hair kept in place by sheer force of will, makeup caked to her eyes and cheeks, both giving up the ghost of her tiredness. Great-looking. I wonder what her story is. There’s a great-looking guy or a domineering dad or maybe just a streak of wanderlust burned a mile deep into her high-heeled feet and overworked calves.

MaryAnne smiles her tight smile whenever we make eye contact. I look up at her bashfully when she walks by. I wonder, is this stretched-out smile, lips and face and hair all different shades of the same astonishing red, is it automatic? I am bashful, but she seems abashed. She must be new. She’s too young for this to be old hat. She reads intently and with chipper intensity every word from the safety guide to the utter disregard of everyone onboard but me. Artificial chipper has me primed for Iowa. She smiles like a gameshow ingĂ©nue when she waves her arms to indicate emergency exits.

That’s it. She’s a tremendous, beautiful chipmunk. She talks about the beverages she’ll be serving with an unmistakable kiss of Midwest, the kiss dripping off that honey tongue. Nebraska, Wisconsin, maybe Iowa. She looks like the millions of girls just like her, each interchangeable but each incontrovertibly special. Girls whose greatest asset – even as the guilt that comes with the drag of age sets in, even as I wake with aches and stand with groans – is youth. Three, four years younger than I am. Seems like half a life.

She walks by offering coffee from a tray to no takers in the first five rows. She makes no eye contact. I say, “I would love one,” and she looks at me with a look that I could misread a million ways if it were a story, and I do misread it, goddamnit, because this is a story. I’ve earned non-sequitur.

“Would you like cream or sugar?” She asks it like she’s imposing. She can’t give cream or sugar to me because she’s holding the tray, trying not to spill as clouds buffet the belly of the plane. I reach over, trying not to touch her arm, but I can’t see what I’m reaching for and my smile sours and I worry because I’m just perplexed but she might misinterpret it, but when I look back up, her eyes are hidden by a phalanx of hairspikes, and she’s already asking the people on the left if they’d like some coffee. And I’ve come away with a packet of non-dairy creamer and a packet of Splenda and nothing to mix it with, and I don’t even want this coffee. I spill Splenda on my tray-table and sweep it onto the floor. All around people are reading Sky Mall Magazine and closing their eyes, not to sleep but just to look agitated. When they’re on a plane, people want each other to know that nobody’s more agitated than they are.

She comes back a bit later. And it’s funny, but when she’s done shoveling ice into my water-cup, she’s explaining to the guy next to me that Diet Coke is the hardest to drink because it’s so fizzy. I’m trying to hear her, but really to understand her – trying to objectify and embody and invade and empathize all at once. But I’m not getting very far.

I wonder, when she pushes the brake on the beverage cart with her foot, is the look one of resignation, or is it still fresh regret? Does she wonder what she’s got herself into, or does she just smart at the fact that there’s nowhere else for her to go? Or maybe she’s just tired. It’s six thirty in the morning, and she hasn’t slept. Her hair is oily, her face is oily, here eyes are waxy and bright, moment to moment the flash sparks and glazes. I wonder where she’s come from on this shit little plane that is right now hurtling us towards St. Louis like a flying balsa boxcar built by retards. She’s probably been on this plane all night. It’s one of those planes with one column of seats on one side and two columns of seats on the other. It’s got to be the smallest jet that can run at a profit. And because she’s just, what, nineteen, maybe twenty, she gets saddled with this claustrophobic little haunt with an aisle that can’t be two feet wide. She’s not hobnobbing with the jetset between here and Tokyo. She’s not pouring champagne and orange juice in first class over Trinidad. She’s not even getting her ass pinched by a well-to-do Texas tycoon who, for all his vulgarity, has a sort of bearish charm. She’s here, beleaguered with 45 similarly beleaguered coach companions who have pressing business than to get to Missouri, and no better way to do it than on a red-eye. And my heart just broke a little bit when somebody pushed the call button. It dinged and she came back, asking, “Did somebody call for me? Did somebody call for me?” But nobody confessed to pushing the button. I almost told her it was me. But I couldn’t think of anything I wanted.

My pen exploded and I’m writing with it, soaking up the dripping ink with a napkin she gave me with the glass of water. I’m trying not to make a mess, because I don’t want to make more work for poor MaryAnne.

I realized I wasn’t really writing about the girl a while after I wrote that, the bit about my pen exploding. She walked by, and I tossed my sticky stick into the trash bag she proffered. I realized that, at this point, MaryAnne is almost strictly a creation of my imagination, when I started thinking about more things to say about her. But I had no pen, so I had to repeat them, mantra-like, etching them into my memory so that I could write them down later. And they kept evolving and stretching and they became unwieldy and I repeated and repeated them and they got longer and longer.

I chanted: She has an efficient face, carved out of a flat front, the features etched in instead of slapped on. Most faces are molded and kilned by happy children in arts and crafts class. But hers is carved by a master into marble, every new line an agony, every decision a moment of madness, austere and without a stroke wasted. Then infused with exotic milks and liquers, art made flesh. The mouth candied, the fingernails caramelized. All good – cherubic and sugary sweet.

I chanted these sentences to myself for a long time before I realized I was no longer writing about MaryAnne. You wouldn’t recognize her if you met her if you read that. She’s pretty enough, but she almost certainly doesn’t look like candy. I don’t really know how tall she is, but I know I want her to be five-four. Her face is just a face – it’s not cut into marble any more than it’s fumbled and kneaded out of putty. I only know who she is because I want to know who she is so much that I’ve made a new version. One that doesn’t exist.

I do this sometimes.

Today is, on the one hand, my last day in Iowa. There is, on the other hand, a 100% chance of snow from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. tomorrow. So on the one hand it’s like Marty McFly said – “Since when can a weatherman predict the weather, let alone the future?” But on the other hand, I’m not leaving Iowa. I got lucky after I met MaryAnne. A half-hour after my second flight was scheduled to board I got an automated call telling me the flight was canceled. Five minutes later, sure enough, a call over the intercom directed us to the red courtesy phones between terminals E8-12. The group of us, the 45, milled around waiting for the first person to make a break. When that happened, the race was on, and everybody started walking as fast as they could without appearing to be trying to walk faster than anybody else, scanning with their peripherals for courtesy phones. I got to one in the first wave and picked it up. It had no buttons. No levers. No dials. Nothing rotary or touchtone about it. It told me, over and over, “Press one to be connected to an agent now.” I pressed every inch of the phone, looking for a hidden Batcave button. Nothing. After thirty seconds or so, a guy named Jeremy got on the line. Good-natured but without an ounce of sympathy, he told me there were two more flights in a few hours, and they were both booked, so I’d have to wait until tomorrow.

“So what the fuck am I supposed to do until then? Just mill around the airport for 24 hours?”

He told me to go to the ticket counter.

By this time the powerwalkers had powerwalked their collective way to the courtesy phone and were antsily waiting in queue. I cursed loudly and told them all, my congregation, that we wouldn’t be able to get out until the next morning. But I left out the bit about going to the ticket counter. A nice, flustered guy, mid-20s, plainly good-looking without being desirable, started talking about how he had been in the airport since the previous afternoon and wasn’t going to stand for this shit. I asked him if I could follow him, and he said sure.

We headed off down a hallway, and it took us ten minutes to figure out that it was the wrong hallway.

When we got to a sign that indicated with fat white arrows where we would need to go to get where we needed to be, I broke right towards the ticket counter and he broke left. “It’s this way!” I shouted.

“Fuck that, I’m renting a car,” he said.

“Oh… well, good luck!” I said.

I was sad. I’d lost my partner in lack, who made it more bearable to be screwed by the system. We constituted our own little system, our own little pissed-off counterculture. And now he was gone. And he hadn’t even asked if I wanted to go halfsies with him on the car to drive back to Iowa City. I felt a mild, stinging betrayal.

So I slowed down but kept on to the ticket counter. Went up three flights of stairs, navigated through dozens of kiosks and thousands of people all milling with equally single-minded aimlessness. And I finally got to the American ticket counter. The line was only a couple of people deep, so in a moment I was called up by a buttery woman with very red lips and huge teeth, so white they were almost purple. She asked if she could help me. I told her I’d need a spot on the flight tomorrow. She said, “We’ll see if we can get you on today.” Then, she did something astonishing. She picked up the phone and put in a call to “Central.” Somebody at Central picked up, and she buddy-buddied with him, cracking up and slapping her thighs and flirting like somebody who wants something and knows how to get it. For me! She did this for me! She asked, “Is there any way we can get him on the next flight out?” And then she looked at me and smiled gigantically and mouthed “Yes!” and I threw my hands in the air and I thanked Jesus. She hung up the phone and printed out a boarding pass and in the 30 seconds that took I stared at her like a dumbstruck mouthbreather. She handed it to me. I took it, and she expected me to walk away, but I just stood there looking at her.

“I want to buy you something,” I said.

“Oh, no you don’t!” she said. “You just want to get home and have a happy holidays!” I threw my hands in the air, I really did, and I said, “Thank you.” I tried to say it as sincerely as I know how. “Thank you.”

If I’d been with the guy who rented the car, I would have let him go first. Out of deference. Seniority. He’d been in the airport longer. He was wearier. He was beat-up. I was fresh. I was angry, but I had fight left in me. But he veered left way back there. And when I got on that plane four hours later, I didn’t see a single face I’d seen four and a half hours before. I talked them out of going to the ticket counter. I unintentionally conned half a hundred poor souls into sleeping in an airport terminal.

And I got home on time.

Now, I’ve been here too long and without enough to do. I saw some people I haven’t seen for a spell, and that was good. But I’ve been snowed in and fogged in, and I’m already a shut-in. I went to a high school reunion, but not my own. I bought three pairs of pants at the mall. I bought three philosophy books that, if I’m being honest with myself, I will never read. These are the highlights. I have the first Pavement album, the second NWA album, an mp3 of “Someone Great” by LCD Soundsystem, and a pair of clock radio speakers. I’ve watched the first two Back to the Future movies a dozen times between them on a 13” TV. And don’t even get me started on pornography.

Seriously. Don’t.

It’s not like this constitutes Buddhafied deprivation, but I’m desensitized. I need thongs and car-bombs and f-bombs in my bloodstream as often as possible or I start to get antsy. The more the better, the hotter the better, and the wetter the better. I’m what Adorno would call a “fucktard.” Or maybe it’s “gothtard.” It’s hard to keep up with the slang today. Pubetard? Goytard?

My best friend from college affectionately refers to me as Hot Red Rod. For serious. It’s my nickname, but only to him. He called me it today on the phone and I felt a wave of nostalgia and gratitude. And though it’s totally non-sequitur, I’ve earned non-sequitur, motherfucker.

So if I’m home tomorrow, it’s on borrowed luck. Luck borrowed from people against their will. Some call it stealing. I call it redistribution. And the good thing about being a good thief is, you only get better until you get caught. And when you get caught, you lie on your back in the dark and wonder how you can do it better next time.

See you soon, bedroom.

1 comment:

CircleGetSquare said...

who calls you red rocket?