By Jennifer Lee
The woman had flown in many planes before and knew that most people conflated travel with adventure, movement with insight. The flutter in her chest was just the engine’s vibration, she told herself. There was little chance she’d encounter wisdom or epiphany or even spend the flight making out with a handsome stranger, like in that Gellhorn story. She folded her tray table and focused on seeming inconspicuously obedient.
The flight attendant was a heavy-legged, frosted blonde who demeaned the passengers with a honey-coated voice and stainless steel smile. “Will you please let others by, sir. That’s it, there you go.” “Well, ugh, this bag is just too heavy. I’ll have to call someone to check it in.”
“Darlin’, let me get that for you.” A tall man reached around the stewardess, plucked the offending bag from the aisle, and chucked it into the overhead bin.
“Thank you! Why, aren’t you a gentleman,” responded the flight attendant, suddenly girly and coquettish.
He pretended to tip an invisible hat. “Anytime, Sugar, anytime.”
Oh, please, thought the woman. Girlfriend, where’s your pride? The man had a generic boy-next-door face that made her imagine neighborhood women filling his pockets with homemade cookies, teachers who whispered him the answers, groups of cheerleaders giggling in his general direction. He wore a tailored jacket, showing off his broad shoulders and a trim waist. His hair was short and dark and he kept rubbing the stubble on his cheek and chin. The woman thought: A person like this couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say.
Of course he would sit next to her. He smiled and nodded, “Hi there, Lady,” expecting welcome, and she returned the smile, to her immediate chagrin. How easily she had succumbed to him, just like everyone else. She withdrew into the corner of her seat and looked out the window. It didn’t matter that she’d grown up, left home, gotten a job, lived independently. She still was that despicable thing: amiable. Amiable without consciousness. Amiable because girls are supposed to be like that.
Boy, she’s sure pissed at somethin’, thought the man. She wore her clothes like she resented having to think about something so prosaic as appearance, her shirt untucked and slightly wrinkled, but the cut and quality of the cloth was fastidious and elegant. She had that Han Chinese look: oval face, porcelain skin, shiny black hair that cascaded halfway down her back. She would smell like jasmine or hibiscus and have a neat little triangle of pubic hair that would require no trimming. She’d have a standard, Mid-Atlantic accent, but she’d speak with a slight hesitation, as if checking every word before sending it out into the world. A child of immigrants with a chip on her shoulder who took everything way too seriously. He had no patience for that. But her hands were beautiful and her brief smile was like sunrise and he liked that best about her. Too bad she’s in a foul mood, he thought mildly to himself. Then he forgot her.
He looked around her at the California sky and the foothills and he relaxed and thought of nothing. He had been gone two years and without ever admitting it to himself, because he had taught himself to avoid certain emotional corridors, he hadn’t expected to come back.
He had grown up in rural Maryland. When he left home for college he realized that outside Appalachia everyone assumed he was illiterate and inbred. He worked in finance for a few years and hated the way the bankers called him boy and made cracks about him sleeping with his sister. But when he went back home he was embarrassed by the poverty, the obsession with high school football and Fox News, the dearth of books and the narrow band of music, the same old people wherever he went.
He moved to China almost as a joke. He did it to horrify his parents and impress his friends, and maybe a little because he imagined long-fingered geisha-like creatures lingering in the alleys, just waiting for the touch of a foreign man. It was the farthest he could think to go, and he never meant to be there for long. He just wanted to be free. He was free. He would always be free. He got on the plane in Shanghai yesterday without thinking about what would happen. But once he landed in San Francisco and tasted the coffee and heard music on the radio and heard the language, so comprehensible, something heavy loosened within him. Maybe I’ll come back to California, he thought, if things get boring in the East. California girls … And he smiled to himself and put his headphones on.
After a period of restless activity, the plane began its slow separation from the gate. The woman sat in her seat and watched the impatient crawl of traffic along the 101, wondering if California might slide off into the ocean while she was gone. It wasn’t something she thought about while she went about her daily life in Silicon Valley, only something she considered when she left. It would be awful, of course, but she always spent some time imagining the aftermath—everything to be rebuilt from scratch, a new kind of camaraderie between the survivors, a reordering of priorities.
The ground crew stood at a safe distance, waving, their eyes on the plane. For some reason this simple act moved the woman, and she waved back, though there wasn’t any way they could possibly see her. She felt air against her neck and turned to see that the man was waving as well. He waved as she had, keeping his eyes on the ground crew, and it moved her.
He wore brown, weathered cowboy boots. No doubt he had some girlfriend waiting for him. More likely, she told herself, one on each coast. His girlfriend would like those boots, and find them manly, and would hold his hand and be pleased to show him off. Why can’t I be like that, the woman thought. What’s wrong with me? Other people seemed to fall in love so easily, to be happy making trips to the mall or the grocery store, to accumulate cars or pets or jewelry. She had only had two boyfriends but both had made her feel restless and irritable. First Henry, always so easy to get along with; they fit together so well that people mistook them for brother and sister, which made her angry for some reason. Then there was Brian, always grabbing her ass in public, possessive in a way that both excited and shamed her. There was something too facile about Brian—his pet phrase, “chillax,” his wardrobe of T-shirts, his ridiculous nickname, Baloo—that made her skeptical when he proclaimed his love for her.
She rubbed her head with her hands. She tugged at her hair. Forget it, she told herself. You’re overthinking, like you always do. Just forget it.
She’s not in a bad mood, thought the man, she’s crazy. Crazy, or in some sort of trouble. He didn’t want any trouble. Freedom had become the art of not being responsible for anyone else’s shit. He leaned back and swallowed a tablet of zopiclone. Within a few minutes he was asleep.
In sleep his face was thin and his breaths shallow and irregular. He dreamt of diving through a dark, endless ocean. The water was warm and salty and alive with the unseen, and he was afraid and thrilled as he felt the pull of the tide through his fingers, thinking of mermaids and lost cities and sunken wrecks. It was a ridiculous dream that he always forgot as soon as he woke, though the feeling of it would linger for some time, making him cold and sweaty and unsettled and also strangely alive to the possibility of magic, to some ancient dream of the sublime.
This dream had come upon him in those nights in China. He had been lost in the beginning, alone and afraid. But he quickly found that his face and charm worked as well in China as it did everywhere else. Maybe even better. He told himself that he was an ordinary man, in the right place at the right time, that he would never again be poor or common. In the dead of night he wandered the alleys of Shanghai, which seemed to writhe and dart, always startling, always disturbing—in search of what, he didn’t know. The ugliness of the world offended him, but it had nothing to do with him. He took off to Spain or Thailand when the mood hit, telling himself he was free. But in his dreams he went to this other place, this ocean where he was immersed, choking, fighting, searching for myths.
The plane leveled and the passengers relaxed, looking in quick intervals at the seat belt sign, checking to see if the bathroom was occupied, asking each other: Is there food on this flight? Are you going to D.C. or connecting? Excuse me, what’s that smell? How did you book your flight? Man, I could really use a cigarette. Just quit, you know. My doctor said I was putting myself into an early grave.
The woman watched all this and was reassured: she was sure she was better than them. She longed in some vague way for Adventure, but she suspected, in some uncomfortable part of her lower back, that she was a coward.
The man snored softly in his sleep. His cocky, coiled energy disappeared and he was puppy-dog sweet. His mouth flickered into a smile and he mumbled something, then reached for her and held her arm, pulling her closer and placing his head on her shoulder, nestling there. She allowed herself to be pulled in. This was not amiability, this was kindness. His hair smelled of something textured and earthy, like bark. With her other hand she stroked the hair, brushing it off his forehead. His hands felt right on her arm, strong yet gentle. She felt that something of him had anchored in her abdomen, warm and heavy. He stood on a beach and smoked a cigarette and the mermaid was out there, perfect and unknown and only visible in glimmers. He paddled out as far as he could go. He could smell her in the salt and feel her through the slipperiness of the living water. He knew she was waiting for him, and once he reached her he would be safe.
The flight attendant brought a blanket. The woman tucked it around his shoulders. It seemed to establish them in some long-term sense and she worried about how the man would react when he woke and saw them curled together like this. Would he be offended, would he think she had taken advantage of him? She removed her hand from his hair. She straightened in the chair. He clung to her; she was just sitting, passive.
When the man woke he didn’t know where he was, only that he had come from some place far away, and that he had gone there completely. He lifted his head and saw the woman and she was soft and her hair shimmered and he wanted to draw her mouth to his, but he hesitated because he couldn’t remember if she was his or not. There was something like terror in her eyes, which he could not interpret, and he backed away until he could recall who she was and where he was.
The food cart had reached them. The flight attendant handed them each napkins and a pack of pretzels. He knew how to handle this. He winked at her. “Hi, Sugar. You doin’ okay over there?”
She smiled and winked back. “Making a living, what can I say? What can I get for you?”
“I could use a real drink, you know what I mean?” He could tell, with about 90 percent accuracy, what a woman would be willing to do in bed. This one would be energetic and down for the mildly dirty stuff. The flight attendant looked out over the cabin and slipped him a bottle of something and a Coke. He could feel the steam of disapproval from the woman next to him. He winked at the flight attendant again.
“You’re an angel.”
She smiled and frostily asked the woman, “And what can I get for you?”
“Just water, please.”
The flight attendant frowned and poured half a glass of water, then held it out without looking.
The man took it out of her hand and said, “Darlin’, I think she needs somethin’ more than that, you know what I mean? I’m afraid I’ve overstepped my boundaries over here. Lay my stink-ass head on her beautiful shoulder.”
The woman was feeling shaky and weak from the memory of his body, but the word “beautiful” returned her to her boundaries. Did he think that she wouldn’t see through him, with his “sugar” this and “darlin’” that? She disapproved of him but she also wanted to feel his body against hers once more, and this made her edgy and angry. She accepted the cup but she put it on her tray table and did not drink from it.
The man held up his small vial. “Cheers,” he said, and tipped it into his mouth. He nodded toward her book. “Whatcha readin’?”
The woman didn’t trust herself to speak so she showed him the cover of All the Light We Cannot See. Then she worried about seeming standoffish and explained, “Won the Pulitzer,” and thought, crushingly, My God, you just can’t help but be a bitch. She knew that she had lifted her chin and looked down at him, her back prissily straight and her knees pressed together. She just didn’t know how to relax around a person like this, who was liquid limbs and mobile mouth and shot charm from the hip.
“So, is it good?”
He waited and watched her.
She had been grappling with some half-formed idea while reading in the airport and now, in his patient silence, she watched his hands and found the words. “The thing about child narrators is that you have to master that sense of scale—of looking closely at very local, limited places, while having a curiosity and imagination that is galactic in size. Doerr does that really well.”
She heard her own words and thought, Geez. Who wants to hear that kind of thing?
But he responded with his body: he nodded, and shook his finger as one knee bopped up and down. “Did you just come up with that, off the cuff?” This is good, thought the man. He had his music and his poetry, but he hadn’t met anyone who could talk for a long time. His face got him into clubs, bars, parties, office buildings, onto advertisements. But he never made it into the anterooms of the party, into the carefully kept gardens, into the rooms of mahogany and crystal, into the hidden echelons of a cultured, literate class of smooth-skinned women and sages.
He held up his glass. “Cheers, smart lady.”
She took that as she needed. She had always believed there was a catch—either she was smart and shrewish and dislikable, or pretty but ornamental, or some other combination that was betrayal of some part or another. Her life had been all anticipation and preparation and this just happened, without calculation or strategy, when she dared to put into words what she was really thinking, and it was like magic. She opened her bottle and clinked glasses with him and took a small sip. Warmth moved from mouth to throat to stomach to the picture of walking hand in hand, lying together intertwined on a sofa, introducing him to her friends.
“Do you live in San Francisco?” she asked.
“No. I was just connecting. I live in China.”
She watched him swirl his drink, noticed the wariness on his face, and it meant something else now.
“What are you doing in China?”
“Come on, Lady, that’s everyone’s first question.” He didn’t meet her and ask, What are you doing in America?
She felt her body stiffen, her chin tilt up.
“I went there after college because I was interested in Chinese poetry. I thought I’d study for a year and leave; but I ended up staying.”
The flight attendant interrupted. “Do you two need anything?” she asked, and winked—winked!—at the man.
He shook his head. “No, thank you, Darlin’.”
“Maybe you just stay for the girls,” the woman said, meanly, but also wondering if he was one of those men.
He grinned at her and nodded. “Of course, Lady. Chinese women—they taste like vegetables.”
She laughed, in shock, delight, and confusion—did he mean what she thought he meant? Yes, of course he did. She felt the heat and the swelling below before she could even process the words, before she could even determine she probably shouldn’t be laughing. Taste like vegetables. Taste like vegetables. But would she?—would she taste like vegetables? Her brain, she could vouch for. But the other parts of her body—she wasn’t sure about those.
“And white women? What do white women taste like?”
He made a face. “I don’t know, but it’s not good.”
“Well,” she laughed, “my mom says you should always eat your vegetables.” But she was thinking: it’s the milk. She had drunk a lot of milk as a child, and once she hit puberty her mom had wrinkled her nose and told her that all that milk was making her smell like an American. The woman was thinking of his mouth on her, tasting her, and in one version it is thrilling, it is the kind of passionate, zipperless sex where their bodies come together with unselfconscious pleasure. And in another version she’s shy and she thinks she doesn’t taste right and she’s painfully aware that he has slept with more people and that he’s disappointed.
The man thought, There’s only one way to deal with these women who want to know what a smile will mean six weeks from Sunday. He kissed her. Her hair was silky and wonderful, and her mouth was wet and soft and she tasted of ginger, and it was good.
Wait, the woman thought, but then the kissing became a world unto itself. Everything seemed easy: adventure was within reach. He would only need to hold out his hand and she would leave it all behind and follow him around the world: Paris, Istanbul, Moscow, Cairo. But what she imagined was the two of them in China. Holding hands, he led her through an ancient alleyway and up a rickety staircase, the smells of cooking oil and garlic and sesame surrounding them. An old lady sat in the hallway and she looked like her grandmother. My neighbor, the man said, and knelt down to take the old lady’s hand and speak with her in fluent Chinese.
The man lifted the armrest and the woman folded her body into his, imagining his hands on her skin, wishing they were not on an airplane. She felt brave. She would go without telling her parents, because they would say, Why do you want to go there? We escaped so you could live a good life. She’d learn the language and come back, triumphant. He would have no expectations of her. People would see them together and have no expectations of her. They’d eat street food and rub shoulders with the locals. Maybe they’d travel to Mongolia, sleep in a yurt, go to Tibet, help in an orphanage, do something meaningful.
Oh yeah, the man thought. Maybe later he’d take her to a nice hotel with starched sheets and they would have some fun. She probably spent all her time with men who wore pleated khakis and graduated from Ivy League schools and knew nothing about how to pleasure a woman. He wouldn’t spend time with people like that. They would stay at a hotel and talk about books and he’d make love to her until she could no longer walk straight.
The flight attendant interrupted them. “Please fasten your seatbelt, Miss,” she said. “Looks like you had a good flight.” The man laughed and the woman was ashamed.
“Oh, come on. Lighten up.”
“I just hate flight attendants.”
“Well, once when I complained that the fight was delayed, the attendant told me that I could go and buy my own plane. And another time, one of them corrected my father’s pronunciation of Coca Cola.” She had never spoken about these incidents before, but she thought he would understand.
He smiled at her with tolerance, like she was a child.
“Do you think you’ll stay in China?”
“No, Sugar,” he said, looking past her, out the window, into the clouds. There was something possessive about the question that he didn’t like. “As a buddy of mine said, it doesn’t matter how well you speak Chinese, you’ll always be a talking monkey. There’s only so much you can take.”
She was such a fool, such a fool. He lowered the armrest and they moved apart, each in their own thoughts. The heat of her body mocked her. She had thought that he was the answer to some question she hadn’t asked, that he would know what she needed before she knew herself, that he might unlock some wild, untamed desire, make her orgasm over and over again, like in the movies. But it would be another decade before she figured out the series of things that needed to be done to make her come, and by that time she would have given herself up as defective.
The passengers shook off the dream of flight as the green forests and the snaking Potomac River came into sight; they began to plan the fastest way off the plane and into the rental car line or to baggage claim. The man stood in the aisle to let the woman off first, and she gave him a sad smile and awkward wave, and said only, “Take it easy.” She walked off the plane and into the concourse as fast as she could, conscious of him behind her, thinking that he might stop her. But he didn’t.
The man admired the shape of her ass as she left. Like a good song, she spoke to something he could not say, something that gave life pleasure and depth. For a moment he considered turning around and getting back on the plane, avoiding his parents in their shapeless jeans, clutching their worries and uncertainty and disapproval. He felt the weight of the days and hours of travel by the smell of it on his clothes. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. It’s just that I’m so tired, he told himself.
Jennifer Lee recently moved to California after eleven years in Seoul and Shanghai. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and an MFA from City University in Hong Kong. Her fiction will also appear in an upcoming issue of Drunken Boat.