I don’t control where I fly to in the night.
I arrive at the airport, shoulders tense from trying to sleep with my knees curled up under my chin, disembark, and follow the clanging of suitcase wheels over the jet bridge.
They’re waiting there for me. No one else. This interaction is made for me, tailored to tuck into my sulci, hug my hippocampus.
Really though, they’re there, a man with packages wrapped in brown paper and a boy, and they’re waiting. For someone, for anyone, for a person, and there I am. Newly arrived.
I take all this for granted when it is happening. Not until the smoke is settling on the mountain road around us—me and the man with the lame leg who intercepts me as I step off the jet bridge—not until we are looking down into the valley together, down at the airport and the flames shooting into the sky, not until then, when the man’s boy—his son— is banging to be let out of the trunk, it isn’t until that moment that I wonder how I ended up here. With them. On this mountain road looking down at the airport from the outside. Then I’ll remember: just as I arrived, as I disembarked, stepped off the jet bridge, this man and this boy met me with a stack of packages, and asked for my help. At the airport, most things are certain. Delays are to be expected. Rerouting is unavoidable.
The airport is crowded. I wander around the terminal, across stained carpets, beneath low drop ceilings, my voice competing with intercom announcements. People swerve to avoid me, swerve to beat one another to the restrooms, swerve to keep their rolling suitcases from colliding with security guards.
I lose track of them—the man and the boy. The packages aren’t heavy, just awkward and they jab the insides of my arms: responsibility, responsibility. I don’t concern myself with the addresses, only the names. Macfarland. Macfarland? Macfarland!
I’m not sure when this next bit is:
The security checkpoint is clogged, rows of people reaching down to untie their shoes. I say to the boy:
—There weren’t always security guards, y’know.
—There were security personnel. And only around the metal detectors and carry-on conveyor belts. They were harmless.
—We were harmless.
—Innocent until proven guilty. We were allowed doubt.
—What about the terrorists?
—The terrorists at the airport.
—It was the same airport. The same people at the airport. We were at the airport.
Or something like that.
I haven’t just momentarily lost sight of them—the man and the boy—they are gone, absorbed into the crowd that encompasses the entrance to the Duty-Free shop. I don’t want to be seen with this man’s brown paper-wrapped packages calling out to strangers in the airport. The airport should be a haven of certainty, a place you only go when you have a clear purpose. Depart here, land there. The airport should be a relief, a place with an inflexible schedule and limited choices.
Possibly these packages are important. Possibly these names are people. The corners continue to jab at the soft part of my arm, the inside part above the elbow. Pretend they’re your mother’s packages. Pretend each of these packages is a package intended for your mother. That each of these packages is filled with the food babies eat in her country that they don’t sell in this country, that food she used to bring to this country in her suitcase when she returned to this country via an airport like this one and you’re just trying to help her, your mother, in order to help her baby, you, fall asleep with a full stomach of warm gruel. A woman in line outside the women/wheelchair bathroom bounces a baby beneath a shawl on her shoulder, the baby cries, the shawl trembles. These packages could be hers, the woman’s, packages.
She doesn’t turn around; she just continues to bounce the baby.
The corner seam of one of the packages comes open. Seeds spill out. I am followed down the corridor by a trail of seeds. I am broadcasting seeds in the airport. What sort of seeds grow in airports?
This is another dream I once had: I stabbed my best friend’s mother in the chest as she stood by the counter in their kitchen. She crumpled to the ground. The corners of the kitchen faded into blackness as though all that existed were these cabinets, these drawers of knives, this counter. I remember it clearly. Even the edges of my vision deteriorating into darkness have a strange lucidity in my recollection, a thickness that resides inside of me like a swollen tongue. Those dark corners feel, are covered with papillae connected by cords carrying their Schwann song up to my brain. That moment and that feeling are stored in there along with all my other “real” memories. They have made the same journey from short term storage to long term and have survived there for years. This dream I had about my friend’s mother became real. I killed my best friend’s mother. I stabbed my best friend’s mother in the chest as she stood by the counter in her kitchen. This is real.
The man and the boy are beside the airport-priced snack bar, hurrying toward baggage claim. I dodge a toddler on a leash, a man in a suit, another with oversized headphones, and arrive panting.
—Nobody’s claiming these packages.
The man has crutches now. The packages I didn’t take have been transferred to the arms of the skinny child. Should he really be working like this? I touch my teeth. They wiggle under the slightest pressure from my fingertips.
We near baggage claim carousel one. People lean on their 25 cent luggage carts, yawning, tense as one usually is when anticipating the safe return of a hastily packed life. An old woman with white-blonde hair descends on us from nowhere. She corrals us into orbit around the conveyor belt. She is of a lumbering height, tall, thick, and Baltic—she looks like my mother. She looks like she has come from the same island as my mother. My mother has those exact clip-on earrings, and that scarf with the golden thread whip-stitched around the edges or she did some time long ago when she still wore clip-on earrings.
Or was that the woman with the curly hair? The other woman—my mother—was her hair straight?
As we near baggage claim carousel one an old woman with curly hai—
As we near baggage claim carousel one, an old woman with white-blonde hair descends on us from nowhere. She corrals us into orbit around the conveyor belt. It is she, with the white-blonde hair, she who resembles my mother. She who wears the same earrings my mother wore, has the same scarf with golden threads whip-stitched around the edge that my mother wore, has the same angle to her neck that forces her to look out from under her brow, that same tired look from a lifetime of travel that settled on my mother’s face before I thought to remember her face unwearied.
I catch the boy rolling his eyes at me as if to say, I told you so. I told you this was a bad idea. I told you this woman would never be able to help deliver these packages. He says all this with his eyes circumscribing their sockets, no other part of his face is visible over the packages loaded up in his arms. Suitcases tumble down onto the conveyor belt. I cough and a tooth shoots out of my mouth and onto the floor and I quickly clamp my lips shut. I can’t wipe the blood from my chin without dropping the packages.
The woman is chasing the man in circles, yelling.
The man waives his hand about dismissively.
The woman snatches a package from my arms and says something that sounds like woolen blankets. Is it filled with woolen blankets? Blankets made of wool like the wool from the island my mother came from, spun from sheep like the sheep on that island, the island where my mother traveled to in the space between her departures and arrivals at the airport?
—Macfarland? Blood dribbles onto the packages, a few drops fly onto the floor.
My teeth are on the ground. My teeth are falling out.
The blonde woman, the woman who resembles so closely my own mother, rips the top off the brown package labeled “Macfarland” and pokes her head inside. Luggage rains down onto the carousel. New arrivals. The boy hasn’t seen that we’ve paused here by the carousel, how could he over that stack? With the white-blonde woman now distracted by the Macfarland package, the man escapes toward the exit holding the crutches out at his sides like skeletal wings.
This was earlier:
—Why is that room filled with smoke?
—Because of the people smoking.
—It used to be the entire airport that smoked and the smoke smelled like welcoming pineapples when you got off the plane.
—Because we all loved to smoke. And because pineapples are a symbol of welcome.
—Because back then we could sit all together and wait for departure all together, smoking and watching the plane refuel on the other side of the windows at the gate, even the ones who weren’t traveling and we could
The three of us. A tableau of delay: drooping man, chatty boy, bloodied mouth me and also: another seed mountain forming at our feet.
My left ear burns as it does when I am embarrassed or angry. The man sags between his crutches. He looks at me pleadingly, patronizingly.
—Not even for five bucks?
I look down at my feet. Pigeon toes agree. I certainly will not massage your leg. We stand frozen by the automatic sliding doors sliding open and shut, open and shut under a green sign with white lettering: TAXIS à
The boy’s begging and banging won’t stop. The tinny sound and the metallic flashes poking through the clouds of black smoke mix. In this instant in the future, I miss the boy’s incessant questioning. I can’t pull these sounds apart. It’s the shrapnel in the pink sky banging—not the boy. It’s the pink clouds in the pink sky crashing into one another, clanging, denting, aching in the sky.
I have seen this man before. Before, he had a limp, but no crutches. He was limping 6,000 miles from home, nowhere near an airport, but certainly brought by one. He was limping down the hallway to our classroom—we were taking the same class—he was shorter then, not younger, just shorter, a different form of the same man, but I look into this airport-package-man’s eyes and I remember him from a different arrival, another flight. Like déjà vu. Like déjà vu tinged with disgust that may have been earned by someone in a different body. Like déjà vu caused by two memories pressed up against one another too long in the brain and both memories being catching.
They, this man and this boy, dodge between the yellow taxis pausing along the curb. Bodies in, drive off. Bodies in, drive off. It’s been a long time since I have been collected from the airport by anything but a cab. There was a social scientist who said the distance you accompany a guest on their travels should be proportionate to the length of time you predict them to be absent. And if so, in the case of death, do you then have to follow the deceased forever, into a waking abyss, or if you are in the presence of them when they die, does inhaling their last breath count as completing the journey to earthly reintegration of bodily elements at their side?
The sidewalk is uneven. I’m going to drop the packages. I’m trying really hard not to drop these packages. As we go on, they are heavier or I am weaker, or possibly both. We pass lots of cars, we pass kiss-and-ride, we pass a toll booth and duck under the boom barrier, and then finally, we come to the man’s car.
—We’ll find the owners of these packages elsewhere.
I agree. The owners are not here at this airport or were at some point, but are no longer.
The packages fill the back seat.
The boy we put in the trunk.
The man climbs into the passenger’s seat and sits between his crutches. If he were to fly through the windshield he would land upright on those crutches. I imagine him flying through the windshield and landing upright between his crutches. I can still remember the imaginary image of him arcing through the air, landing nimbly, between outstretched crutches—ta da!
The road snakes around, skirting the lot. We exit onto six lanes of highway, overpasses crisscrossing above us. The evenly spaced pines on either side give way to low, lonely suburban businesses, and these grow closer together and taller, and sidewalks emerge and then widen. The city. We have come to the city. And there are the stately, staid government buildings, there are the hot dog carts, and over there across the intersection are bearded bicyclists ignoring traffic.
I cut left to avoid a chunk of cement as it tumbles from a gaping hole in the Chinese embassy.
—You did that, says the man. He points at the hollow, roofless ruin sandwiched between store fronts. For Sale.
I try to keep my eyes on the road.
—I didn’t do anything to the Chinese embassy.
Or did I? Or we did. Or maybe that was a different Chinese embassy. The voice that emanates from my toothless mouth is so unrecognizable, metallic, and yet it comes from within me, and so it seems reasonable that any act or thought might be mine, no matter how foreign it feels. Maybe that was a different airport, a different dream. I have no control over the places I fly to in the night. I am not solely responsible for their construction, shoddy or otherwise. They are cobbled together in similar fashion to every other aspect of my reality as it exists in my memory. But I feel like I may have done that to the embassy, or have been part of it, may be responsible for that jagged hole. I have a distinct memory of a congressional hearing.
I should be offended. But the words are so familiar, feel so commonplace, so natural and neutral in my new mouth. The words tumble from my empty tooth sockets.
—We need to go back to the airport.
—Yes, the airport.
—Port. Port! Get it? Plug in. Move through.
—Yes, exactly. We need to get back to the airport.
The highway takes us through and out of the city, up and around a mountain. The airport is visible in the valley below on our left. It’s a modern building, a hive of tinted glass encircled by buzzing jet engines. I scan for an exit to turn around. The farther from the airport we drive, the less I feel the pull of responsibility for these packages. I feel the weight in the rear of the car, the boy pinned over the wheel well by centrifugal force as I take a turn too fast.
I see the airport out the window, again.
—We’re driving in circles.
—We’re not driving in circles.
—Don’t you think we should give up?
—Do you mean that you think we should give up?
—Look, there’s the airport, again! We’re definitely driving in circles.
And we are, there is no doubt, on our left in the valley beside the mountain is the airport, again, the reflection of the clouds on the darkened glass a wavering, strobe like camouflage.
A plane spins in the pink sky like a maple key.
The airport explodes in shards. Black smoke shoots up into the pink sky like daggers. Like sooty wounds across fleshy sky. It’s my fault. This time I’m sure of it.
This happened: On the couch in the night, my mother, her blunt blond bob scraping her tense insomniac shoulders, her knees drawn up under her chin and the light from the TV flickering off the wood paneling, mistook the color corrected World War II footage of the History Channel for the news. Luckily, she had never learned to dial 911 in all her years in this country. So instead, she called my grandmother across the ocean to alert her to the troops alighting on the shore.
—You have to get out, you have to get out! she screeched into the phone.
To my grandmother, it must have recalled her brother’s cries a half century earlier, as he sobbed his goodbyes into the telephone receiver, his comrades shouting in the background for their turn to call home as they watched the Nazis advance over the water toward their barracks, which were semi-deserted for a holiday.
And just like that, my mother’s mistake hitchhiked into my grandmother’s reality.
But now: cars careen around us. The packages. No one find out about these packages, these woolen blankets and seeds and boxes of baby gruel in the back seat. Someone give me a glass of milk for these teeth in my pocket.
—It’s nothing to worry about.
—I just didn’t know.
I sob. Have I paid rent? Do I have overdue library books? I haven’t spoken to my mother in weeks. There’s so much to do. So many packages.
—What? What is it?
—I’m just paranoid. I’m always paranoid around the airport.
—They’re driving much too fast, he says.
It’s as if he hasn’t heard me. But I agree. Everyone is driving much too fast. There are no lanes, just a steady stream of cars sluicing the side of the mountain.
The boy bangs. The boy bangs. The boy bangs.
Several cars have pulled over on the side of the road. Drivers dot the cliff face; drivers scrambling to get away.
—Let’s pull over, he says. I hate to defer to anyone in moments of panic. I hate to defer to him in moments of panic. There’s always a him to defer to in moments of panic.
He reaches for the wheel.
—Pull over here.
The scenic overlook is packed with cars. A Maserati screeches in behind us. The driver gets out, looks around, down over the valley at the airport and at the smoke. I have no need to get out, I can see from here the cars driving into the mayhem and the cars escaping up the mountain.
It is as the body of the driver of the Maserati flies through the air that I ask myself the question I knew was coming: how I ended up with these packages? The steady rhythm of a boy maybe 12 banging to be let out of the trunk, which I’ve somehow had a hand in locking him into, keeps time in the background. The driver’s body hits the pine wall, then rolls back into traffic. Here comes another car. And another.
Over his body, over his body, over his body.
I jiggle the key in the trunk’s lock and the banging grows louder, like the boy is kicking on the inside. I kick back—at the strip of metal where the bumper had been, I kick not just once, several times, again and again, and though I’d like to release him I’d just as soon keep kicking. The lid pops open, my kicks having had nothing to do with it, it’s been unlatched from inside, and out comes the boy up into the air like a snake-in-a-can, up and out into his father’s arms. I’m jealous of the boy, I’m jealous of every child in their father’s arms. I have more kicking to do. The strip of metal resists denting. The smoke and the smell of rubber are dissipating and I finally remember: I carried the packages, because he asked me to.
The man puts his son back in the trunk. Shuts the lid. He’s ditched the crutches by now. He hobbles back around to the passenger side door.
—He’s fine, he says over his shoulder.
There’s more banging. The airport burns. The Maserati man’s body is barely recognizable; a truck pulls in to the overlook and parks on top of the trampled pile of flesh.
We turn on the radio. We begin to drive.
This was the smallest of the explosions that night.