Hello, my love.
I suppose I really ought to explain.
Hours ago (years, maybe; seconds, possibly) I was napping happily in the twenty-third row of a Siam Airways jetliner shooting through the stratosphere between Bangkok and Tokyo.
The plane was all in one piece, at this point, and everyone inside was calmly doing what people usually do during long cross-continent flights: the fortyish Thai fellow in the seat beside me was asleep, head thrown back as if in villainous laughter, snoring in clicks and pops; the Japanese mother and son sitting in front of me were snoozing, too, cocked heads interlocked, just a tangle of fine black hair visible between the seats; across the aisle the Scandinavian girl in yoga pants was sitting all statuesque, eyes pressed shut, ears plugged by earphones, listening to music on her mobile phone and politely eluding the American dude sitting beside her, who, after spending the entire taxi and takeoff attempting small talk (attempting it poorly, too: all first-person pronouns), eventually got the hint and passed the next hours paging angrily through his ragged paperback copy of The Beach and ordering round after round of tomato juice from the tiny Filipino flight attendant, Ireneo, who earlier in the flight had offered me a cup of ice to press against my still-swollen black eye, and who, as I dozed, was somewhere up ahead pouring drinks and distributing cellophane-wrapped sugar cookies.
And me, yes, right in the middle of it all, napping happily, my sweater bunched up behind my head, my collection of Suicide Squad comics stacked neatly on the tray table in front of me, soothed by the lullaby drone of jet engines sucking, igniting, exhaling.
All was well.
All was calm.
And then —
The plane quivered and swayed and dipped and settled.
My ears popped, and from the hundred other passengers in the cabin there came a harmony of gasps, moans, whimpers, wails, and hissing inhalations. But there was a pleasant dissonance to that single note, like the wheeze of a warming-up orchestra, and because I’m an experienced flyer, not prone to panic over some minor spasm of turbulence, I ignored it all, kept my eyes closed, kept sweetly dreaming.
A soft single note rang throughout the cabin: the seatbelt light coming on.
But there was another note, too. Far off, faint, but slowly rising, definitely there, definitely the sound of — what? Something familiar, something mundane, something that was completely out of place here at ten thousand feet. Maybe a teakettle gathering its breath and getting ready to scream?
And then, like a gaggle of waterfowl frightened by a gunshot, the stack of comics on my tray table exploded into flight. Paper wings flapped madly in my face, stapled spines karate-chopped the bridge of my nose. My hands swatted spastically in front of my face, and through the kinetoscopic blink of my fingers I saw my comics dart away (in a V-shape, I swear!) into the bright blue crack in the fuselage above my head.
That’s not totally accurate.
You see, my love, as the plane went through its silent pre-explosion paroxysms, I wasn’t really napping happily. Neither napping, nor happy. My eyes were closed, my arms were folded, but I was only feigning sleep. The truth is (sorry, this is going to be awkward for you to hear) I was in the midst of a grand sexual daydream about a girl I knew back in high school.
Her name was Erin Seeley. She was a biathlete with a svelte boy’s body padded in the proper girlish places. She had the jaundiced complexion and acute features of a figure from a Victorian faerie painting, and I loved her the way that teenage boys love teenage girls: with desperate stupidity, with pathetic hope. How stunned I was by the very potential of her! She sang, she played guitar. She headlined every high school talent show with acoustic covers of Smashing Pumpkins songs. She was smart, too: in English class she made reference to books that no one had ever heard of, that many of us suspected she had fabricated altogether (Love in the Time of Cholera? It sounds so fake). Mysterious, also: she was always absent from school to attend Olympic time trials and fundraising dinners with famous amateur athletes. She won every essay contest sponsored by the local clubs and community associations. She was flown across the country to hold private audience with minor politicians and activist celebrities. Yes, Erin Seeley lived a portentous sort of life, and every girl I’ve met since has suffered in comparison.
The point is, in the teenage caste system, at the age of fifteen, I looked up at Erin Seeley from my disadvantageous position as the new kid in town, recently arrived under dubious circumstances, physically underdeveloped, poorly dressed, socially clumsy, an academic underachiever and hierarchical nobody, and, as I admired her from a distance, she became totemic to me, and remained such, and remains such, even here, even now, almost a decade since I last laid eyes on her. To be with a girl like Erin Seeley is to be cured of your meaninglessness, absolved of your crimes, proven worthy; a perfect girl, in wanting you, can make you perfect, too. And so, when I am feeling ill, or bored, or depressed, or must otherwise pass time in a half-conscious meditative state, while jogging, while commuting to work, while searching for sleep on a long pan-oceanic flight, my thoughts often drift to her.
I’ll imagine running into her at random. At a party, in a restaurant, on the street — doesn’t matter. We’ll chat and laugh and reminisce about those long-ago high school days. I am no longer a doughy-faced teenage wallflower, and she senses the change in me. A current of attraction arcs and crackles between us. So we sneak away from the party/restaurant/wherever and share a tender kiss; later, at her apartment, she drapes newspaper on the floor and cuts my hair and afterwards strips off her shirt to shake out the bristles (we’re already this comfortable with each other); after that, while I’m above her, thrusting, she urges me to go “faster!” and pulls the discarded T-shirt over her face like an executioner’s mask (she’s into this sort of debauchery, I happily discover); months later, we rent a small studio apartment in Paris and make love on cloudy afternoons in that casual, half-drunk, European way (beautifully lit in gauzy yellows, scored by a solo piccolo); months after that, in New York City, drunk and dizzy from the bass beat of a dance club, we conduct Romanesque experiments with third and fourth and fifth parties (in this fantasy world, I’ve been doing a lot of abdominal crunches, a lot of shoulder presses, drinking a lot of protein shakes). We spend the following years travelling the world together, Erin and I, from the slums of Mumbai to the sidewalk cafés of Buenos Aires, and our cross-continent plane trips have become so prosaic, so tedious, that to pass the time we cuddle beneath the coarse airline blanket and she uses her tiny fist to coax from me quiet orgasms while around us the other passengers doze —
— but, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not just about sex. Didn’t you see those connective plot devices, that clever symbolism, that, uh . . . catharsis? There’s a narrative logic to these fantasies, I swear!
Okay, sure — maybe I linger in the most salacious moments. And sure, yes, all that stuff about haircuts and Mumbai slums and gauzy Parisian afternoons is thrown in to make my filthy imaginings seem less filthy (boys will do that, you know: give boring context to their illicit urges to make them seem well-intentioned). I will, however, defend my lechery in this particular case, because my fantasy of Erin Seeley was no functionless act of perversion. There was purpose in my perversion. As I sat there in my narrow seat, eyes closed, listening to the phlegmatic growl of the engines, I was in excruciating physical pain. Each little jitter of turbulence electrified my skeleton. Every shallow half-breath expanded my lungs against quills of hot pain growing from my ribs. Every infinitesimal movement abraded a sensitive cluster of nerves, pebbles of broken glass grinding in sockets, nettles twisting and turning in bone marrow.
Two days before I boarded the plane, I was in a street fight beneath the Phrom Phong Skytrain station in downtown Bangkok. A vicious brawl. A real knock-down, drag-out type of thing. Lead pipes, brass knuckles, stilettos, switchblades. I barely escaped with my life —
Ah, hell, I’ve completely lost the capacity to lie, up here.
It wasn’t really a fight.
Fight implies some degree of mutual participation. What happened two days ago was really more of a beating. The truth is, I was mercilessly beaten beneath the Phrom Phong Skytrain station, and I conjured that well-used daydream of Erin to distract myself from the lingering physical agony. Like I said, a functional act of perversion. What better salve for my broken hand than to sweep it lovingly over the swells and declines I remember so well from my long-ago classroom observations. What better way to drown out the caterwauling of my swelled brain than with the sound of Erin’s arrhythmic breaths building to climax —
But why am I telling you all this? You, in particular? If anyone should be spared the specifics of my lecherous delusions, it’s you, my love. So I’ll skip over what Erin was doing when the Suicide Squad comics exploded into my face (hint: it involves the flexibility she learned as an amateur athlete) and will instead point out that the memories of her from which I built that soothing bit of pornography were the very last memories I remembered in the traditional, fragmented, fleeting, blurry-movie-screen manner —
What was I —?
I was telling you about the crack in the fuselage.
It was, oh, about three feet long, six inches wide. Big enough to frighten to life all the napkins and newspapers and magazines and jackets and hats and plastic wrappers and plastic cups and mobile phones and laptops loose in the cabin, send them all spinning in accelerating arcs, clattering against the walls and seats and overhead bins, which unlatched and puked out a torrent of purses and coats and bubble-wrapped folk art from Chatuchak Market. Teakwood portraits of Buddha cartwheeled over our heads. Elephant carvings rattled against our skulls. Colourful silk scarves swam like eels around our ankles. Ice-cold air blew in our faces. Tendrils of fog spread across the ceiling.
And, then — oh, poor Ireneo.
The intruding atmosphere sucked her up. She fell against the cabin ceiling as if gravity had switched its polarity. Her body sealed the breach, and for a moment she just hung there, limbs flailing, hands reaching. The roar dimmed, the soothing white noise of normal pan-Pacific air travel resumed. I had the strange sensation of being suspended myself, as if I were looking down on her, and thought to myself: maybe this is it? Maybe we’ll pass the rest of the five-hour flight watching her scramble like a pinned beetle against the vaulted ceiling? My eyes met hers and I saw that she was not yet in a panic, not yet in pain, rather calmly considering this strange new circumstance of physics.
But then her mouth tightened. Her eyebrows lifted. Not an expression of surprise, no. Her hair was yanked back and then her purple Siam Airways blouse stretched and strained. Plastic buttons, subject to the gravity her contortions were enabling, clattered to the floor. Her name tag landed near my foot: Ireneo Funes, Siam Airways. There rose the slurping sound of milkshake dregs sucked through a straw, and behind it an urgent, rising whistle —
With a riflecrack, Ireneo disappeared.
The ribbon of sky, now a bellowing blue mouth, had swallowed her whole.
The plane tilted, my face was thrown against the porthole window, and I watched the right-side wing, propelled by a flaming nacelle trailing black smoke, make a break for Okinawa. Now wingless (the other coward abandoned us, too) the plane began to plummet. I was stomach-punched, lifted in my seat, hips pinched by the twisted seatbelt. Looking down the length of the cabin, I could see that the immutable machine that had carried us with such confidence into the sky had adopted a disturbing aspect of liquidity; the fuselage wrinkled in oncoming waves, a reflection of itself in rippling water. The secret of all solid stuff, that it’s just a bunch of tiny particles rubbing together, was revealed in the bending and bowing and oscillation of once-straight lines, and, unable to bear the embarrassment of it, panels in the floor and wall began to flee, bolts popped like bullets, a whole volley of them fired up through the ceiling and pierced some vital structural vein that split the cabin on a lengthwise hinge as if it were a cadaver cracked open for autopsy. Flamelets of black hair flickered madly above the seats.
Next to me, the fortyish Thai fellow was still gape-mouthed, now shrieking, but the sound of his shriek was the roaring nothing-sound of jet engines in the throes of death. The Scandinavian girl across the aisle was still statuesque, still snubbing her seatmate, but her eyes were open, her hands were clutched to the armrests, her mobile phone was jouncing over her head like the hand of an eager, answer-bearing student, tethered still to her ears by the little plastic buds, but then one popped loose, then the other, and the whole thing helicoptered away. Beside her, the American dude jerked in his chair. Everyone jerked in their chairs. I jerked in my chair, and the wild wobble and yaw of the plane scrambled my senses: I saw the screech of shearing metal, heard the stink of jet fuel, smelled the vivid blue hues of sky. My innards took it poorly, too: the saliva in my mouth evaporated instantly, leaving my tongue a husk, my throat a bundle of straw.
We fell and fell and fell and I floated weightless, two inches above my seat, tethered by my sturdy seatbelt. The terrible speed contracted my stomach into a hard little muscle the size of a quarter, and like a collapsing star, drew towards it all my other organs — the whole heavy mass, the whole wet mush of kidney and liver and lung, pressed against my anus from the inside; it felt like being turned inside out.
What does one think in a moment like this? To be honest, few thoughts of mortality or transience crossed my mind. No euphoria, no dread. No thoughts of family and friends. No deductive analysis of the previous week’s events and how they seemed (especially now) a conspiracy to get me aboard this stupid, doomed plane. Even as it’s happening, you can’t quite believe it’s happening; it looks so much less real than it looks in movies; a plane can’t really be made of this fragile, crumbly stuff. A small part of me was certain that this was nothing more than a weird waking nightmare, a fever dream, a hallucination induced by all those painkillers I swallowed in the departures lounge bathroom before boarding, and that if I could just blink my eyes at the right speed, in the right sequence of short and long dashes, I’d awaken to find myself still sitting in the Sala Daeng Police Station, or still splayed on the sidewalk beneath the Phrom Phong Skytrain station, or still at Bumrungrad hospital, uncomfortably folded up in the armchair next to Carrie’s bed, or maybe still standing at the Cambodian border, staring down that cycloptic scam-artist —
— and then another deafening pop, a tremendous whiplash shock, like we’d struck some solid barrier. My head ping-ponged between the tray table and headrest. Stars burst, fires worked. I blinked open my prickly eyes to see, where the front of the plane had been, a serene view of planet earth’s horizon.
The plane had broken in half.
The crack was no longer a crack, it was a vista, a panorama.
The plane was no longer a plane, it was a hollowed-out missile hurtling earthward, wilting flowerlike.
Far ahead of me, a row of seats blasted into the atmosphere. Three chairs and the passengers sitting in them, detached, ejected, flung aside, plunging, gone.
One row closer, another three-seat section peeled free, another trio of passengers lifted into the sky, hands reaching high like rollercoaster aficionados cresting the first big drop, faint shrieks truncated.
My instinct was to escape, so I reached for the buckle of my seatbelt, made to flip it open, but noticed then that my Thai companion was gone, his seatbelt unbuckled, straps unstrapped and whipping around, so instead of opening the buckle I slipped my fingers beneath the belt and held on, as they say, for dear life.
The metal tracks that ran the length of the cabin, upon which the seats were mounted, curled up from the floor in elegant swoops and spirals and beckoned like tentacles.
Across the aisle, the stoic Scandinavian and her American pursuer were gone. Where they once sat, an empty square of floor.
In front of me, above the headrests, sneakered stick-legs kicked at the sky. The Japanese boy wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, and his mother, with her immense motherly strength, was holding him there, playing tug-of-war with the heavens, and just when it seemed that she’d locked her grip, that she was going to save him, FTANG!, they were both gone, just like that, and all that lay before me was horrible height and blinding brightness, until —
An invisible hand plucked me from the chaos.
The three seats in my row exploded from their steel moorings and I was shockingly immersed in white nothingness, somersaulting, spinning, twirling, hurtling, clutching the armrests, a kaleidoscopic collage of blues and browns and greens, the ocean below, above, below, bright sky to my left, the ocean, the ocean, the ocean, the sky, the ocean, the seatbelt straps on either side whipping and snapping as if desperate, like me, to gain purchase on the edge of any precipice, then more ocean, more sky, and, looming beneath my feet, the wingless shaft of the jumbo jet cracked open like an egg, leaking strands of mechanical yolk.
Something soft struck me in the face (a woman’s purse, these lonely months of contemplation have revealed), something hard rattled against my arm (a fist-sized curve of plastic that was once part of the plane’s interior wall), and then a split-second glimpse of a curious thing: one of my Suicide Squad comics, still wrapped in its protective polybag, tucked between the armrest of my seat and the cushion, pinched there and held tight through all the spinning, twirling, etc. — but as soon as I noticed it, fingers of wind shook it loose and it darted away to catch up with the rest of the flock, and that’s when, suddenly —
Everything slowed down.
The downdrafts pushing me earthward were curtly extinguished. The somersaulting became a gentle glide. The smudge of green/blue/brown coalesced to form this serene topographic view.
And everything stopped.
The plane, the flames, the smoke, the clouds, the wind, the waves, the rotation of the earth, the nuclear boil of the sun, the slow spin of the galaxy, the expansion of the universe — it all just stopped, and, as it was minutes earlier, while I was dreaming of Erin Seeley’s busy fist, the world and everything in it was peaceful.
Yes, everything has stopped, everything is frozen in place, and I’ve been left stranded up here in the sky.
But that, my love, isn’t even the weird part.
Not even close.