It wasn’t that I was being particularly nosey. The petite young woman in front of me in the security checkpoint line was holding her iPhone right up to her face, and I had a clear shot over her shoulder. The text jumped out at me. She was reading a long block of blue text she’d just gotten from someone who was telling her how he was toxic to himself, and there was talk of therapy and self-help books and so forth. And then came the accusations. Trust had been broken. She’d stabbed him in the back. She was a wretched, terrible, depraved human being and Karma – it would get her. I stood there reading, thinking about how cute and innocent she looked compared to what the text was asserting. And then she got called to the other checkpoint and I threw my stuff on the conveyer belt and went on through.
I sat down in the boarding area and faced the tarmac. Standing in front of me just to my left were two middle-aged American businessmen, both with cropped hairdos and scientifically manicured goatees, talking about investments and global strategy, using terms like ‘bang for your buck,’ and ‘paradigm shift,’ and ‘drinking the Kool-aid,’ and ‘come to Jesus moment.’ Their conversation had a very sane and reasonable tone. They were talking about what they knew about, what they felt a womb-like comfort with, what titillated the will and fed the bone marrow and intestines: money. There was a raw power and elemental force in the thing. Standing there with their loafers flat on the floor, their soft white hands fluttering about, the subject never wavering. “As if,” I said to myself, “they’re going to start talking about tulips or Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (pictured above).”
It was now time to board.
I got in front of the line, got checked through and made it to my row before anyone else. I threw my backpack in the overhead. I sat down in the middle seat, put my seatbelt on and opened Sherwood Anderson’s The Egg and Other Stories, wondering who’d be squeezed in around me. I didn’t want to look up to see whoever it was approaching. They might read the dread or disappointment of seeing them in my features. Or vice versa. No, best to keep your head buried in Mister Anderson, I thought.
Sometimes he pounded his fists on the table in the chop suey joint. A string of oaths flowed from his lips. Sometimes tears came into his eyes.
“How ya doin, man?”
It was an American in his fifties with glasses and long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. I said hello and he eased into the aisle seat next to me. Then I thought about his greeting. It seemed rather casual considering that he had no idea if I even spoke English. Well, I thought, we are going to London, and we are flying British Airways, and all the attendants on the plane are speaking English. He’s probably just reveling in the fact that now, after having spent too long on German soil wrestling with the German language and feeling inferior because of it, he’s in a place where English once again reigns supreme. It means he too reigns supreme.
Someone behind us was saying something to someone about buying vodka tonics and my co-traveler spoke up. “I’ll take one,” he said. He then lifted his little leather case on his lap and began fumbling through it. I thought again about his greeting. He’d addressed me as man. Is that not very American? I know a German whose English is poor, but he always uses the catch-phrase ‘Hey maaaaan,” which he said he learned from some American servicemen living in Berlin before the wall came down. Man. I think the word actually puts a wall up, implying unspoken societal norms and expectations, especially when two men who don’t know each other well use it on each other.
In my twenties, I lived for a while in a small apartment with a friend from high school who’d recently become a cop. Let’s call him Frank. Frank had a flattop and a mustache, like most cops. And he loved the word man. Not only did he use it as a form of address quite often, the items he’d purchase always seemed to have the word man in them. He had an Ironman watch. He ate Hungry-man frozen TV dinners and Manwich Sloppy Joe sauce and had an assortment of Craftsman tools. And if he didn’t love the band Manfred Mann, he should’ve. Frank was a good-hearted fellow, but if you ask me, he was too hung up on proving he was a man. Was it because he was homosexual, latent or otherwise? I liked to think so, even if it wasn’t true. He was more interesting that way. It made him somehow better.
All the seats on the plane seemed to be occupied except for the window seat to my left, so I undid my seatbelt and told the American next to me I was going to move into it and stretch out a little.
“Go for it,” he said. “You’re not offending me.”
The plane took off, ascending out of misty Berlin, through the clouds and up into the clear and sunny skies. Then we leveled out, the seat belt sign came off, and every once in a while I’d glance over at my co-traveler to see what he was up to. At first, he was looking at some photographs of himself and a woman and a little girl. Then he slipped the photographs back into the manila envelope he’d got them out of, and a laptop was produced. He opened it, called up a document with words on it, and a bar graph in the middle, and began looking it over. It made me wonder what he did for a living. He seems like kind of a free-spirit, I thought. An arrogant free-spirit. He’s probably self-made, owns his own business. Probably a successful one. Something in IT. I wonder how long he’s been in Europe. I wonder where he’s from. I’m going to guess Florida. The long blond ponytail, the casual arrogance – that’s Florida. Probably South Florida. I went back to Sherwood.
To get it in some way down, something felt.
A man was too much in a cage – in some way trapped.
A man got himself trapped. All this business of making a living.
Mark – I found out later my co-traveler’s name was Mark – spoke up when the flight attendant rolled up with her drink cart.
“Is this stuff free?” he asked, kind of rudely.
“Only the water’s free.”
“I’ll take a water,” he said.
He pulled down his tray table, put his laptop away and produced a book. The title of it was Red Army Faction Blues. He began reading, sipping his water. About five minutes later, he’d finished the cup, and got tired of reading. He put the cup and the book on the seat between us, lifted his tray table and dozed off. Bastard. I could never sleep on planes. Well, I wasn’t tired anyway. I continued with Sherwood.
A little while later, we flew over the English Channel, then started into our descent and Mark woke up. He picked up Red Army Faction Blues and put it on his lap.
“Where you from?” he asked.
I told him Florida. He was from Florida too, as I’d suspected. Hollywood, Florida. Born and raised. But he’d been living in Berlin with his wife, a German, since 2006, and was now going back to visit one brother in Colorado and the other in San Antonio.
“Do you miss the States?” I asked him.
He said he did. He said Americans were much more friendly than Germans. “You can talk to them just like we’re talking now. It’s easier. Plus I miss the backyard barbecues and the Mexican food.” We then started telling each other our backstories, though I never asked him what he did for a living. Mostly I talked, and pretty soon we were flying over the city of London. I got my iPod out my pocket, looked out the window and took this photo of the Thames.
I didn’t miss the States.
No, that’s not true. I sometimes did. I missed the Florida beaches, the Keys. I missed the Mexican food. I missed the comfort of familiar surroundings and familiar people. People I knew through and through. My people. I did miss them. But in another way, they’d gone so deep in my soul – all the pain they’d brought me, their laughter and love – they were never very far away. They were what I was made of and there was no escaping them.
But all these miles away – here, there was something else. A feeling of newness still. Something undeveloped or waiting to be born or found out.
I looked out the window as the plane came down into busy Heathrow Airport and the wheels touched the ground. What am I even doing here? I asked myself. This isn’t real. Not the beautiful young British woman waiting with her mother for me in arrivals. Not my four-year-old son back in Berlin, nothing. None of this is real. I should be doing what I’ve always done. I should be 4,400 miles from here in an oily little shop in a mad little Florida town renting out construction equipment. Shouldn’t I? Wasn’t it always supposed to be like that for me?
I consulted Sherwood Anderson and his story For What?
What was the use? He had wanted to say something he’d never be able to say. “I’m a shipping clerk in a lousy warehouse and I’ll always be just that, nothing else.” It was a child’s rage in a grown man. He picked up the canvas on which he had been at work all day and threw it far out into the stream.