Within this travel story, there’s going to be an explosion on an airplane. Don’t worry, we’re going to get to it as quickly as we can; successful flights, like successful people, stay up only because they don’t have time to fail.
My shirt was sweated through, and my hat band as well. I’d barely made it to the gate in time, running up to the desk in Fort Lauderdale at an embarrassing gallop through the terminal, after my connecting trip came in late. On Spirit Airlines, one need not consider the prospect of luggage- if you’re bold enough to bring it, they’ll be kind enough to charge you through the nose for it, and sure enough to lose it anyway. Tearing through the airport, confused commuters and elderly couples in Hawaiian shirts staring at me as I roiled past, I had only a backpack to slow me down, which is to say I had not much at all. This is typical.
“Did I make it? Am I in time?” It was 11pm, and the agent at the desk was tired, with deep bags under her eyes, her body slumped to one hip. She looked at her watch. “Go in,” she said flatly, and I walked onto the jetway, the door closing with a resounding thud behind me.
A hyper steward was waiting at the entrance to the plane. “WE’RE LATE,” he yelled at me. “I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR YOU. JUST SIT IN ANY OPEN SEAT.” I wasn’t expecting this sense of urgency, and ran into the first open seat, fourth row on the aisle, and plopped in as I heard the engines sputter and come on, as the steward got a fake life vest and fake seat belt out of an overhead compartment. Honduras, here we come.
Spirit Airlines flies old planes, not cleaned very often, maintained by mechanics who don’t care and flown by pilots who’ve failed elsewhere. The aircraft barely manage, and even through the thick, dimpled windows one can hear the engines buzz with the low hum of mediocrity shared by all the staff.
I love to fly. I love flying. I’ve never quite gotten over the miracle of flight, that the Wright Brothers managed to get us off the ground. “The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors,” said Orville Wright, “who looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, on the infinite highway of the air.” Even if airline travel now has been reduced to a horde of tired, scuttling people navigating across the world, I don’t get tired of watching in the night, as the thousands of fireflies overhead flit in and out of view, an unbroken stream of planes following each other through the sky, like ants across the forest floor, leaves on their back, heavy with duty. In a broad canvas of static stars, it’s easy to spot the ones that, like us, never stop moving.
Sitting in my dirty seat on Spirit Airlines’ overnight flight to Honduras, I couldn’t help but admire the old woman sitting next to me, a tiny, ancient little thing in knitted Mayan clothing that she’d almost certainly made herself. She was sitting on the edge of her seat, to keep her feet to the floor, and was half-nervously thumbing a rosary, the Virgin Mary hanging down, upside down, in the darkness below her.
The plane rolled down the tarmac so gently that the air took time to notice, but eventually, we took off, sluggishly, into the sky. The pilot told us we’d be an hour late to San Pedro Sula in spite of our on-time departure, but that we’d be there soon enough. It’s the tortoise-and-the-hare approach to travel, I suppose: move slow, and get there faster. We all fiddled, bored, as the sassy steward distributed our glasses of tepid water. Out the window, I watched as the plane lumbered low over storm clouds, a light show below us flickering as millions of jolting volts jumped from one pillow to the next, a sea of shocks moving thick below us.
About an hour into the flight, he handed out our immigration forms, that we might not be rejected by the haughty standards of the Honduran government. The woman next to me, who I’d eyed so happily, tapped on my thigh.
“Excuse me, sir, do you speak Spanish?” she asked me in that language. Her voice was so small, so nervous, so unlike any of the old women in my family, all oversized and colorful, that it threw me. “Yes,” I told her, “I do.” Growing up in New York, we’d been more or less adopted by our trillion Puerto Rican neighbors; my mother believed until her dying day that Puerto Ricans were just Italians with better dance moves, and the language was close enough to ours that it was easy to pick up, at least enough to buy groceries and shout at people in traffic.
That’s to say that my Spanish is pretty good, but had flaws then and has flaws now, but nothing that’s held me back in my last fifteen years of travel assignments throughout Spain and Latin America. I still can’t say anything in the past or future tense, which means that I’m obliged to have no memory and make no plans. It’s bad for love, but good for politics.
“Where did you learn Spanish?,” she asked. “I learn Spanish when I am a boy,” I told her, “my neighbors are in the past Puerto Ricans, and I speak to them all the time in Spanish.”
She smiled. “Your Spanish is perfect.” I asked her about what she had been doing in the states, and she told me she had a granddaughter in Georgia she’d been visiting that I would like. She even has a job, Grandma Maria told me, and works in a supermarket called Croga. She showed me a picture of her granddaughter and I confirmed that yes, in fact, she was lovely.
I watched as Maria pulled a worn pencil out of her large, pink and green knit bag, and eyed the form, a small little thing with only five or six questions: where you’ve been, what’s your address, are you bringing in any machine guns or unpasteurized cheese. The usual.
She tapped me on my thigh. “Do you know what this question means,” she asked me, “the government always makes these things so confusing.” Her left hand tightened a little around my thigh, as her other pointed to the spot on the form where it said NAME.
All my world drained out of me, there. The books I’ve read, the books I’ve written, all the places I’ve been and the places I’ve carried with me, all that I’ve taught and learned with words on a page, words that she could not read, words that she could not write, words that she now desperately needed. I looked again at her finger, hovering over nombre, “name,” and would have freely offered her my bones and veins and all of me that might break or spill.
Her hand, on my thigh, tightened again, and I saw that she was trying to meet my eyes with hers. “Okay,” I said, “I think when it says NAME that they want you to put your name and not the name of the airline. So it should be Maria…”
I saw her hand shaking. “Maria, can you do me a courtesy? I really need to practice my Spanish, can I try to write in your form? I would like to practice.” Maria’s grip loosened. “Yes,” she said, “I would be happy to help you.”
We went through the form, and I needed her to tell me everything twice and twice again; I’ve never had any problems traveling, but asking the questions on this form, when one does not know the past or future tense, strained my limits: all the questions on an immigration questionnaire are, of course, about where you’ve been and where you’re going. I’ve been a wanderer all my life, and wanderers have no space for the details: our true language sounds like singing; our true language sounds like loneliness.
I was three quarters of the way through the form- she was explaining to me the groceries she’d brought back in her bag, from her granddaughter’s amazing American supermarket- when the right engine exploded, and the plane began to fall wildly.
Pilots call this a pop-back; it’s not as common as you’d fear, but it’s more common than you think. In our case, the right engine let out a loud, exploding sound, with a brief flash of blinding fire, as the plane fell and dipped hard the other way; out the windows, the left side could see only earth, and the right only sky.
Everyone on the plane began screaming, indiscriminately, as loud as the engine was not. The world is baffled by sounds, sounds that steal from every other sense: sparrows chirping happily in a grove, school-fulls of children chasing each other around the playground, onions sizzling in the pan, engines exploding, passengers screaming.
I briefly floated out of my seat, before gravity and my seatbelt caught hold of me again, and was punched by wonder. When the engine exploded, no one else in the world existed; one questions if they are really alive, or if they have ever really been alive at all. The girls that I’d unkissed, the meals that I had uneaten, the sunny days I’d stayed inside.
The time I lost a tooth and my mother, even by then long-dead, hid a dollar under my pillow only for me to tell her I knew it didn’t come from fairies. The crime I committed in doing it, the theft from her that I made. The things I could not say in the past tense.
The bathroom door in the front of the cabin swung open and the steward, who’d been in the middle of relieving himself, came tumbling out onto the floor. He stood up quickly, and that was all we needed to snap back into the world: a sad, sassy man in a uniform, his pants hanging down, yelling at us to remain calm, to bring us all back to reality.
The plane fell a few hundred feet while the steward screamed at us that it was going to be fine, we were all going to be fine, he was going to be fine, everything was going to be fine, this was fine, all fine. The plane lurched upwards out of its tumble as the pilot regained control, the right engine dead but the left working just fine, enough to carry our weight on its shoulder.
We coasted, the cabin as silent as a stone tablet, for a minute. The lights- powered by current generated off the engine, sputtered twice, and then went off.
In the middle of the new screaming, I looked at little Maria, and she looked up back at me, and we smiled. Her rosary was no longer hanging low in her lap, but firmly in her hand, held high. I, myself, had found the faith to forget my own body, and considered the worst alternative: the warm Caribbean below us, the feel of being washed in warm water before being consigned to a heaven full of almost everyone I’ve never known that the earth failed to keep.
Or maybe, worse, hell, a place where all the people I could have been are always walking in front of me, only slightly faster.
Maria and I continued to watch each other, as she put down the incomplete white immigration form, and offered me her left hand.
The plane listed over, and through the porthole of the pitch-black, shrieking cabin the moon, big and low and full, washed over Maria and I, cool and blue. On our way to bright Central America, the plane had dropped and here we were, two people, one who could not speak the future tense and one who could not write it, holding hands while bathed by selenium light from a heavenly body that can reflect, but never be, the sun.
We could not hear the screaming; in a rainstorm, you cannot hear the animals. Nobody else seemed to notice the moonlight; panic makes people forget their poetry. No one choking on the translucent waves dwells on the beauty of them; no one dries in the desert thanking the sun on their face for the shadow it casts behind them.
Instead, in our quiet, Maria and I held each other’s hands. “Tell me more about your granddaughter,” I told her. “She likes stupid boys,” Maria told me, “she hates carrots.” “Me too,” I told her.
The lights eventually came on; we made our way, so slow it was hard to believe the plane could stay aloft, all the way to Honduras, where during the approach the unexpected sunrise, pink and warm, kissed all of our faces to say welcome. The steward, newly recomposed, even managed to hand out a few more glasses of tepid water. Maria and I chatted all the way through the night, holding hands all the way back to the ground.
The pilot never mentioned anything; when we landed, a man with a mustache came down the jetway, got on our intercom, and addressed the largely Honduran crowd of passengers in Spanish. “Welcome home,” he said, meaning Honduras, of course, but perhaps, also, back to earth, or back to now, back to a place further from the moonlight, where there is, for travelers, no future or past tense. A traveler’s life is one in which home is not a where, but a when; wheres, one can always go back to. There’s always a place that calls. But there is no exit, for when, on the infinite highway.
Images from “Elsewhere” by B. A. Van Sise