I never buy first class, I accept any flight at any hour, and I purchase my tickets over the Internet three legs ahead from no less than two countries behind.
I average 29 hours each revolution and hit my stride somewhere around hour 58. Now I’m part of the process, part of this thunderous flying beast that drinks heavy fuel and breathes rare air. The pilot could no more leave the ground without me than he could take off without wings on the aircraft.
LON to TKY, FLT 193, 11A
The International Date Line flashes past me like the dotted medians on a highway, and I find I have begun to repeat flight stewards. The safety briefings float in wisps from their mouths like short bursts from a smoke machine, alighting on the seatbacks and merging with the muted southwestern colors of the cabin walls aboard this Boeing 737 non-stop from London to Tokyo.
“If you are unwilling or unable to perform these duties,” says Wendy-who-smells-mildly-of-peppermint-schnapps of the emergency exits located fore and aft, “please make this known to one of us, and we will reseat you.”
The first time I heard that, I wondered if someone who boards an aircraft full of strangers would simply be unwilling to open the emergency exit. (I pictured them seated near an exit hatch, carefully thinking it through. “I am able to open that door, but right now I feel unwilling to do so. Has anyone else felt this way?” Meanwhile, the plane, having thrown itself headlong into the comforting embrace of gravity, plummets toward the Earth at a ridiculous rate of speed….)
TKY to LAX, FLT 63, 11D
I retired from professional chitchat after hour 87 and pretended to play deaf instead. I wish I knew sign language to make it look realistic. Knowing my luck, I’d get a deaf person in the seat next to me. Then I’d have to ignore them, or pretend to be blind. Yeah. Then I’d probably get a blind person in the seat next to me. I wonder what it’s like to fly blind.
Being so cramped is driving me crazy. I feel like I’m drowning in a toilet bowl, trying to sleep with my head against the cold porcelain rim as I’m thrashed helplessly in circles, my arms pinned too close to my sides beneath my toilet-paper blanket to signal for help. I want to scream so badly I can taste it.
LAX to NYC, FLT 45, 15F
I’ve noticed something about the other passengers; they’re all dressed in this weird uniform of the New Normalcy– no complicated metal bindings, and they wear brightly-colored flip-flops and loose-fitting athletic gear with elastic waistbands. They carry water bottles in protective shells of ballistic nylon, and often bring their own pillows. Also, I’m seeing fewer shoelaces. Passengers have become indistinguishable from mental patients; fashion has modified itself to fit the runway of the soft police state.
People getting on in New York City dress like people getting on in Tokyo dress like people getting on in New York, but getting off in Los Angeles. It’s as if the whole world buys their clothes from the back of the same truck on some global street corner. They remind me of an army of traveling lab rats, each toting their own brightly-colored personal Habitrail designed by Swedish architects to fit in the overhead compartment of a commercial aircraft.
Note: Airline stewards must be the Keith Carradine of travel: “You may leave this hotel when you can snatch this overnight bag from my hand.” I have much to learn at the feet of these True Masters of Efficient Time and Economy of Space.
NYC to LON, FLT 123, 16D
116 hours, 49 minutes, and 28… 29… 30 seconds. I sleep during the eight-hour trip from New York to London, dash to the next concourse, and catch the London to Tokyo for another eight, maybe nine hours with good weather and no unforeseen delays. Tokyo to Los Angeles is another eight; Los Angeles to New York is another five. Then I catch the first flight headed to London and do it all over again.
I eat the little origami meals they serve on the planes, or wolf down something from a café close to the next departure gate. As a result, my guts feel like stale shit in a concrete sock. I bathe in the airport restroom stalls during layovers, using paper towels and pink soap from the dispensers. Do you know what a Screaming Eagle is? It’s when you have to take a shit in a toilet you don’t trust, so you put your feet up on the seat, squat down, hold your pants out of the way, and shove your waste out in one quick go. (If there’s not much paper, you should consider holding your ass cheeks apart to prevent matting.)
LON to TKY, FLT 85, 17A
After 140 consecutive hours, I breeze through security check-ins like a phantom; the ghost of a traveler long dead and doomed to haunt the terminal forever. I’m nothing more than a series of impulses with a boarding pass and an ID. I can’t even feel my own body anymore: I daydream about being impaled, or stretched on a medieval rack, in the hopes that my back will finally pop.
Are heightened security measures breeding a new kind of voyeur who can only get off on the X-rayed images of carry-on luggage, the metallic sound of keys, and the smell of stocking feet?
TKY to LAX, FLT 16, 19A
I’m pushing almost 203 hours. I yearn for something beyond my own long-depleted energy reserves to give me the strength enough to see this through. I can’t rely on coffee anymore. Instead, I find myself craving an oxygen mask and a heaping pile of pure cocaine.
I want to organize my life to meet Federal Aviation Administration regulations: I want to shave my head and every inch of my tired body and scrub my skin with powdered cleanser and a wooden brush until I glow like a neon light. I want the kind of teeth-cleaning you can only get from a really energetic dentist. And then I want to eat for three days straight, stopping only to vomit. I want to feel something again.
I want to sell off everything I can’t carry and own nothing that won’t fit into an overhead compartment or under the seat in front of me. I close my eyes and visualize throwing my worldly possessions out of the luggage hold as we hurtle across the dark Pacific Ocean; cardboard boxes full of useless shit I can’t bring myself to throw away tumbling into the jet stream. High school yearbooks, compilation tapes from ex-girlfriends, letters from dead relatives, paperback novels I’ve never read, photographs of relatives I feel obligated to keep. I imagine what it would look like smearing into the surface of the white-capped waves at our present speed from an altitude of 10,000 feet.
When Gandhi died, he owned a writing tablet, a wooden bowl, and the robe on his back. What a fucking show-off.
Ever wondered how often the time of day is represented in binary numbers during a 24 hour period? The answer is 15.
LAX to NYC, FLT 357, 16F
I used to play a game when I was a child: as the plane was building up speed for takeoff, I’d pretend I was right there at the tip of the wing, running like the wind and keeping pace with the plane until the force of takeoff shoved me back into my chair, and the aircraft broke free of the runway at last. I imagined that this other me would leap as high into the air as he could, his fingertips barely brushing the ailerons of the wings, before tumbling back to the tarmac and waving goodbye.
I still do that, only now I find myself thinking things like, “This is it. This is the part in the news broadcast when the news anchor says our flight began ‘experiencing malfunctions’ just after takeoff.” Out of habit, I glance out the window to orient myself in the event I survive the impact and wander away from the wreck. I carry a compass and a dog-eared miniature copy of the SAS Survival Manual in my bag, always.
NYC to LON, FLT 109, 21A
I’ve been on the edge of my seat for almost 232 hours now. During the last flight over the Midwest, a heavyset woman next to me broke thunderous wind and tried to mask it with a liberal application of a fruit-scented chemical, which only made it worse. My eyes watered up, and I imagined for a moment I could taste the hairless void of her lower intestine, tinged with wild strawberry. The rest of the passengers around me reached up in unison and switched on their air jets and began nudging the cloud back toward her, which meant they were shoving it back at me.
I clutched the armrests of my seat and fought with everything I had, willing myself to maintain and ignore the awful mental image of her bowels, and that alcohol feeling on my tongue, even though my lips were iron-tight closed in self-defense. It took all my strength not to claw open the buckle of my seat belt and bludgeon her repeatedly in the side of the head with it.
Suddenly we hit an air pocket, and the plane trembled violently. Then the reading lights in the cabin cut out, plunging us into darkness. A thought came to mind: I was in the unique position to verify once and for all whether seat cushions really doubled as floatation devices. I waited for that divine moment when the oxygen supply margarine dish would drop out of the overhead like the Holy Grail and thought, “Who among us has truly lived until they’ve felt the plastic of the escape slide beneath their feet? Is it made of nylon or hard plastic? What color is it?”
I imagined myself bobbing in the cold, dark sea, waiting for passing ships to spot the flames of the wreckage dancing on the water as I paddled along, my arms tucked through the straps just the way the diagram demonstrated, listening to the frightened screams and moans of other passengers in the dark. Seawater is salty as hell, by the way. You can’t drink much of it, or your guts will seize up.
TKY to LAX, FLT 311, 8F
I finally got off in Los Angeles. I had to. I did it for you, you know. I really thought I could bring you back this way. But when I left the terminal and walked out into the night, nothing had changed. When I called the house, the phone just rang and rang. The answering machine didn’t pick up, and somehow I knew for sure.
I took a cab home and slept on the floor where I fell.
When I got up, I walked around the house and stared at the empty electrical sockets where your appliances used to glow and twinkle like an indoor planetarium.
I never realized how much of the stuff we shared had been yours. And now I’ll spend my surplus 202 hours wondering what to do next, and where you went.
Please come home.