I’m so uneasy with reality that I find planes comfortable. I surrender myself, resigned, to movies I don’t want to see and food I don’t want to eat, as if practicing a disciplined spiritual routine. A samurai with headphones and plastic knife. Suspended, my cell phone off, I enjoy the nirvana of having nothing to decide. That’s what flying is to me: a way to postpone the numbers that get through to me.
The last call I got before takeoff was from Clara. I was at the Barcelona airport and she asked anxiously, “Do you think she’ll come back?” She was referring to our cat, Única. “Any tremors?” I asked. Cats can predict earthquakes. Something—atmospheric vibrations—tells them that the earth is about to open up. Their chance to escape to the great outdoors.
Cats are seismological forecasters. Females are indoor cats, especially Angoras. That’s what we’d been told. But Única had already run away twice, and there had been no earthquake.
“Maybe she’s picking up on emotional tremors,” Clara joked over the phone. Then she said that the Rendóns had invited her to Valle de Bravo. If my flight didn’t get in on time, she’d go on her own. She really needed a weekend of sunshine and sailboats.
“Are you ever going to take a direct flight?” she asked before hanging up.
My life zigzags. For some reason, the cities I fly to always require connections: Antwerp, Oslo, Barcelona. I work for the company that produces the most insipid water in the world. That’s not a disparaging remark: you don’t drink our water for the flavor; you drink it because it’s so light in your mouth. A weightless luxury.
The planet’s always thirsty. Everybody has to drink something. And some demand the additional pleasure of weightless water.
I travel a lot to places that buy expensive water, so jet lag is my normal state. I’ve gotten used to deferred perception, things I see when I should be asleep. I read a lot during the long hours spent in transit, or think, staring out the plane’s little oval window. I often come up with ideas that strike me as mystical, but after landing they evaporate like liquid.
We take off late from Barcelona. We’re circling over London now, behind schedule. “We’re in a holding pattern,” the pilot informs us. No room for us.
The plane leans into a leisurely curve. We’ll circle like fruit flies until a runway clears. A glorious autumnal light makes the fields below glisten, the Thames shimmering like a knife blade, the city reaching out toward unexpected limits.
London’s an hour behind Barcelona. That time that hasn’t yet passed will help with the connection, but I don’t want to think about it. I’ll have to get the bus from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4 as if diving into the frenzy of an amusement park. I think about O. J. Simpson before his murder charge, when he excelled in his role as a man desperate for success, gaining yards, running on the football field and in ads where he was about to miss his flight. That’s what I like about airports. They’re all internal tension. The outside world disappears. You have to run to your gate. That’s it. Gate 6 is your only goal. O. J. was made for that, for running from interrupted phone calls, breakups, absent looks, bloody clothes.
The captain’s voice has been replaced with landing music. Techno-Flamenco. We circle, thousands of feet up in the air, as we clockwatch. How many connections will be missed on this flight? We’d worry less to different music. But in some remote office somewhere, someone decided that those sidereal gypsies made good music to land to. And maybe they do: the sound of modernity and oranges. Music for arriving, though not for waiting indefinitely, as gates close down below.
I’ve missed enough connections for Clara to suspect it’s all part of a plan. “That much bad luck just isn’t normal.” Frankfurt was closed due to snow. Barajas due to a strike. I’ve had to sleep in hotels where you feel like you’re wasting a good opportunity to commit suicide. You go from the seductive provisional order of the airport to the filth of what one should never endure. A rented bed in a place where no one is hoping to see you again.
Clara’s only partly right: my bad luck is normal, but not that bad. Once, beneath a rose-pink sky, I missed a flight out of Heathrow. The subsequent hotel was actually pleasant. Jumbo jets trundled down runways in the distance like shadow whales, and in the lobby I bumped into Nancy. She’d missed her flight, too. We worked for the same company in far-apart cities.
We had dinner at a pub where the Chelsea game was on. Neither of us likes soccer, but we watched the match with remarkable intensity. Those were borrowed hours. Nancy has extraordinary blond hair that looks like she washes it with the water we promote. I’ve always liked her, but only at that moment, in that time outside of time, did it seem logical to take her hand and play with her wedding band.
She left my room at dawn. I watched her silhouette on the cold street below. In the distance, a triangle of purplish lights indicated the intersection of two airport access roads. The control towers looked like two misplaced lighthouses, their radars spinning in search of signals. I inhaled Nancy’s perfume on my hand and was struck, like almost never before, by the artificial beauty of the world.
We saw each other again at meetings and conventions without alluding to the missed-flight encounter. When Clara suggested that my delays weren’t accidental, I thought of that lone episode and spoke in a way that incriminated me, like O. J. as if, when he put on his wife’s assassin’s black glove for the jury, it fit perfectly. I wanted to run, but I wasn’t in an airport.
“Is there someone else?” Clara asked. I told her there wasn’t, and it was true, but she just stared as if I was a TV with no signal, broadcasting snow.
Now here I am flying over Heathrow again. What are the chances that Nancy’s missing a flight, too? If we bumped into each other, could we ignore that geometry?
Nancy never implied that a repeat encounter was possible. Still, I couldn’t be indifferent to her uncertain tone when she said, “You know where you’re going when you take off, but heaven knows where you land.” Then she leaned back on my chest.
I flicked through the airline magazine. Alluring landscapes, the face of a famous architect, and then, totally unexpectedly, an Elías Rubio short story. Though he’s getting published more and more these days, coming across him is always an unpleasant surprise. Clara almost married Elías. She’s got a style that’s very attractive to men who aren’t married to her. I can’t read a single paragraph he writes without feeling he’s sending her messages.
I couldn’t think with that techno-Flamenco blaring, there wasn’t much time until my connection, and I was trying to come up with excuses that would prove to Clara that I hadn’t missed my flight on purpose. I needed another problem. That’s why I read the story. Elías is a reality-sucking leech. That’s partly why I’m so uneasy with reality.
The first time Única ran away we put up posters on telephone polls, left our phone number at the local vet’s, and went on a radio show about runaway pets.
Female cats don’t run away, but ours ran away. One afternoon, Clara asked me again if it really didn’t bother me that she couldn’t get pregnant. She’d just had a cup of Indian tea and her words smelled of cloves. I told her it didn’t and thought about the cat’s absurd name—Única, “only child”—which Clara had chosen with a bold stroke of humor and which, over the years, had morphed into a painful irony. I looked down. When I glanced back up, Clara was staring out at something in the yard. It was getting dark. There was an opaque, misty glimmer coming from behind a bush. Clara squeezed my hand. Seconds later, we made out Única’s coat, sullied during her absence.
That night Clara stroked my body with fingers like dry rain. Or at least that’s how Elías described it, having included the scene in its entirety in his story. The title was odious: “The Third Party.” Was he referring to himself? Did he still see Clara? Did she regale him with that sort of detail? The vile storyteller described one of her nervous habits very well: the way she twists her hair into a ringlet. She only lets it go when she makes a decision she can’t explain.
I continued reading and felt a chill down my spine: Elías was predicting our cat’s second disappearance. After making up with her partner—a third-rate talcum powder salesman—the heroine came to see that contentment was nothing but putting an end to anguish. The cat’s return had completed the picture: everything was back in place; still, real life demanded some kind of change, a fissure. The woman was reaching for her hair, twisting it into a ringlet, and letting it go. Without telling anyone, she was picking up the cat, taking it to the country.
Had that really happened? Did Clara get rid of the cat so she could blame it on my absences or prepare for her own? Elías was full of revenge fantasies (he was, after all, a writer), but the material for his story hadn’t come from his imagination. There were too many factual details. What did Única represent in the story? Was the woman setting herself free when she freed the cat? When Clara called me in Barcelona she talked about the cat as if speaking in code. It was only now, suspended above London, that I was realizing it.
Holding pattern: if I don’t get back on time, she’ll spend the weekend with the Rendóns, the couple who, one day long ago, introduced her to Elías Rubio.
The screech of metal: landing gear. I can still make my flight. Terminal 4, Gate 6.
Is Clara starting to predict my missed flights the way cats predict earthquakes? What does she miss, when she misses Única? What time is it in my country? Is she taking her hair and twisting it into a ringlet? Will she let it go before I reach my gate? Will dusk be rose-pink over Heathrow? Is someone else missing a flight? Is our plane displacing another plane that could still have landed on time?
The turbines roar deafeningly. We’re touching down. I feel my body numb, aware of segueing into another logic.
What happens on the ground. The geometry of the sky.
Translation of “Patrón de espera.” © Juan Villoro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.