A loud monolog in a Los Angeles hotspot, already in progress: “…I mean really! Why should we care if a movie pissed off an entire country? The publicity generated will bring us eleventy-nine wheelbarrows of cold hard revenue carted in by a conga line of Spanish hookers (gestures around him) and definitely the best seats in the house for Sunday brunch, am I right? Hey, garçon! Yeah, I said it; don’t roll that glass eye at me! Do you have any idea who else I’ve pissed off this week? Does the name KOREA mean anything to you? Well, then I’d suggest you step lively with the cocaine omelets and puffer fish waffles! And we’re gonna need more coffee! Haven’t you heard? We’re living (in) the dream!”
Gather round, kids. It’s a very special episode of Flying Time. This week, it’s ORF to ORD to HOTH. We’re presently on the tarmac in Chicago, awaiting permission from the Sky God. I have seen many things and been many places, but no matter where I go or what I do when I fly, I never once expected a foul-mouthed, wisecracking, no-nonsense New York cop with an itchy trigger finger, an aversion to Eurotrash terrorists and a never-say-die spirit to board the flight and plop himself into the seat next to me.
I take one bud out of my ear and speak after a long pause, blinking in disbelief. “Oh, great. You’re that guy, aren’t you? The Nakatomi Plaza cowboy…”
John McClane, hard as nails but gifted with more depth and dimension than was expected of most ‘80s action heroes lets out a weary sigh and a slow nod. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“Uh, listen…” I look around. “Is there gonna be some… you know, some shit? On this flight?” I’m visually assessing the other passengers for their usefulness as allies, foes, or fodder, gauging the distance to the exits, and trying to remember the precise or at least the useful contents of my backpack.
There’s a long pause, and a sidelong glance of resignation. “I hope not. I’m just trying to go somewhere, same as you.”
“Okay. Okay, that’s good.”
“Yeah. That’s good.” I put my ear bud back in and lean back in my seat.
Moments after take-off, I experience a terrible pain; a sudden stabbing, tingling sensation bursts into existence just above my left eye, possibly the result of hallucinating John McClane into existence. It feels like I tripped and fell face-first into a bear trap lined with hypodermic needles and fishhooks; an unwelcome sensation experienced only one other time in 2014. I was on a return flight from AK coming through DFW, when I thought I was giving birth to the Devil through my forehead. I did not see Detective McClane at that time.
Three hours later, everything has gone pear-shaped. We were ten minutes from HOTH when the pilot decided the tail wind was too great to land. “Uh, sorry folks we’re gonna turn back to Chicago…” As he spoke those words, the stabbing pain returned. John McClane did not.
(Remain calm. This is nothing. You’ve been maced, gassed, and divorced. You can handle this…) Back at the customer service counter, there’s one representative per 25 harried passengers. No one in a 50-yard radius is even remotely happy. The next confirmed flight departs on 24DEC, 1030. My debit card isn’t working so I can’t get a coffee, I left my medkit at home (again! Lesson learned!) and the child to my immediate right won’t stop screaming.
“Atlas, I need you to behave, now, Atlas, come here, no Atlas, listen to mommy, Atlas, give me your hand, no, Atlas don’t climb on that…” The mother was harried, worn. Suddenly my night seems like cake in the face of what she’s dealing with. Atlas is doing everything except shrugging.
Thank fuck for the USO and free turkey sandwiches. It’s now 0300. I was stuck here during the blizzard of ’11. I remember pacing the corridor just beyond the door from where I’m sitting now as I talked to a girl on the phone for hours. She meant everything to me and it was a very hopeful conversation. I never wanted it to end. By the time we hung up, I’d forgotten about the snow, about the delays, about everything but her voice and her laugh, which always made me feel good. That was a million miles ago. Now she’s just another rose-colored shadow.
The weather report is calling for whiteout conditions in this area tomorrow. I’ve got a friend in the area who’s promised me her couch and a go at her whiskey. If only we’d left on time! But the pilot wanted to wait for extra fuel, which, as it turns out, we needed because we missed our window to land and had to fly back. I bet the Psychic Friends Network never saw that one coming.
I dozed off in a recliner directly beneath the roaring chill of an air conditioner without a blanket. I did not sleep long, but dreamed fitfully of a woman who can unhinge her lower jaw and cast it out like a spear, latching onto her victims with her perfect teeth as she flagellates them with her eyelashes, which writhe and whip like sea anemone. Eventually her prey ceases to struggle, calmed by tranquilizer darts fired from her cheek guns, which emerge with a whirring click and proceed to pump her quarry with enough narcotics to drop the lead horse in the final stretch of the Kentucky Derby. The feeding begins. It’s a strange old world we live in. CUE RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH
Post HOTH, I’m sitting through the preflight safety brief on the return leg to ORD. I’m comforted by the pilot’s voice, the calculated rundown of airspeed, travel times and temperatures reaching back to us from somewhere beyond the locked cockpit door, the demarcation line of responsibilities. As I soak in the numbers, I study the face of the flight attendant. Her name is Nikki, and she’s beautiful. She has generous dimples, auburn hair and awkward ears, all of which serve to highlight the clean lines of her jaw. She smiles with her eyes when she speaks, which causes them to glitter like wet gemstones. Would I drive Nikki to the hospital in the middle of the night if she needed me to? Would I hold her hand in public? Would I surprise her with lunch or tickets to a show? Could I make her laugh? Yes, I think I would, and could. Would she care equally for me? Hard to say, probably not, but it’s a moot point to begin with as we exchange little more than pleasantries when she brings me hot water for my tea.
This is the extent of my relationships as of late.
Dear 9-year-old me,
On January 5, 2015, at the age of 43, you will be sitting in a tavern in Norfolk, VA, with a good friend and co-worker. You’ll be eating macaroni and cheese with chicken dusted in truffles and drinking a glass of merlot you can barely afford. You and your friend will have spent most of the afternoon and evening walking around your neighborhood playing a virtual game on your smart phones; a combination telephone, video player, jukebox, notebook, calendar, bank, file cabinet, compass, and world map condensed into a device small enough to fit comfortably in the left front pocket. The game is called Ingress, and it’s a combination of Othello, Capture the Flag, and Assassin. You have all of your teeth, all of your hair, and you are still in good physical condition with the exception of the lens in your left eye, which is artificial. You have seven tattoos, and you drive a brand new Volkswagen Beetle that looks like a blob of mercury, or a small silver spaceship. You travel, shoot, write and laugh for a living.
That’s gonna have to do for now.