Image: From the cover of Landing (Hispabooks).
He died while we were landing.
During takeoff I had noticed how his hands were riveted to his knees and how the veins beneath his skin seemed to be thickening. I hoped he wasn’t in pain. As soon as we were airborne, he relaxed. The cabin lights shone brightly. Although I normally wouldn’t, I talked to him. I asked him if he was afraid of flying. He said that he hadn’t flown in ten years.
He was on his way to visit his eldest son.
“My Dutch son,” he said under his breath.
His speech was broken, as he searched for words in an invisible dictionary that seemed like it hadn’t been cracked in years. His sentences unspooled like snippets of a poem with an unusual rhythm. Although all three of his sons had been born in the Netherlands, he said with pride, only the eldest was truly Dutch. It was as though the latter two had received more Spanish genes than the first, Arjen. Perhaps the choice of his name had influenced his future from the very start. If they had named him Simon or Robert, like the other two, he never would have had to spell out his name in Spain, and he would have felt much more at home in his father’s country. But no. They named him Arjen and now, forty-four years later, his home was in Amsterdam, whereas his brothers lived in Barcelona.
He spoke to me as if we had known each other a long time. There was a familiarity about his demeanor, which was both appealing and discomfiting. Without my prompting him, he offered that he’d been born in a town somewhere in the heart of Spain. In the sixties he’d emigrated to Holland for work. Initially it wasn’t easy for him to pick up Dutch, but then he met a remarkable woman; he knew he wanted to marry her, and that he’d have to learn her language.
He paused briefly, savoring the memory for a moment.
The cabin crew passed by with the bar cart. He opened his tray table and asked what there was to eat. I told him that airplane food was no longer free, and he looked at me incredulously. I showed him the menu, and he realized he didn’t want anything after all. He whispered that he would just be eating to keep himself busy; he said that I was also keeping him busy by listening to his stories, and he continued his tale.
For ten years he had been the happiest man in the world, he said. Holland was a good place to live and the summers in Spain were hot, a time to focus on family. Until his wife became ill. At first they didn’t know what was wrong. Eventually the doctors said that a warmer climate would help. The boys were between the ages of six and eleven when, in the seventies, they filled the car with their belongings and moved to a town north of Barcelona.
He was silent for a moment, gazing at me. I looked at him: those eyes that had once been dark brown were now light gray, brimming with experience. I realized I almost never spoke with old people, and that I almost never sat next to them. I couldn’t recall the last time I had looked at, and admired, an elderly person.
He said that it had been so long since he’d been to Holland that his Dutch had gotten rusty. He said this as though I wouldn’t have noticed. I told him that he spoke Dutch very well, and he swelled with pride.
He had put a wooden box down on the seat between us. He had brought it to show his eldest son.
Then I plugged in my iPod and went to sleep. When I woke up, the pilot was announcing that we had begun our descent. I turned off the music. My seatmate became agitated again. His hands clutched his knees, as they had during takeoff. I looked at him once more, he smiled at me, and I silently wished him a happy landing before looking out the window at the landscape slipping past.
When the wheels touched down on the asphalt I felt an angel sigh in my ear.
The vehicle came to a halt and everyone on the plane began preparing to get up, putting on jackets, reaching for their luggage. His body remained in the same position, his hands glued to his knees and his head leaning slightly forward. I looked at his face, touched his shoulder, and felt my heart shrink.
We were united in silence, people bustling all around us. I knew that everyone had arrived home safely, except him, and I felt alone. Much more alone than usual. We were in row twenty-two. Soon there was no one left on the plane and a stewardess began to check the seats. She did it with confidence that the plane was empty. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted her attention, or if I wanted more time to say good-bye. To make myself invisible I shrank down in my seat. I looked at the man and tried to remember everything he had told me. Maybe there was a son, a daughter-in-law, and some grandchildren waiting for him in the arrivals hall. I was overcome with guilt: I had become the person who had heard the last words of their father and grandfather.
The stewardess was startled when she saw us. She asked me why we had not left the aircraft.
“He’s not moving.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think he’s dead.”
The stewardess moved her hand toward the man’s head, but an unseen force prevented her from touching his body. Instead, she moved her hand above his head, toward the panel beneath the overhead luggage compartment. She pressed the red button over and over again nervously.
“How long has he been dead?”
“I think he died while we were landing.”
The stewardess kept staring down the aisle.
“I’m going to get some help. Would you stay here a moment?” she asked, wavering. I nodded.
She walked away and I suddenly felt like I needed air. I got up, leaned forward, and tried to get out of my seat. I pressed the button on his armrest and pushed the back of his chair. That gave me a little more space to climb over his legs. I grabbed my bag and the newspaper I had bought at the airport in Barcelona and lifted one leg over him. I leaned momentarily against the seat back of the chair in front until the toes of my right foot touched the floor of the aisle. I quickly lifted my left leg and shifted all my weight with a little hop. I nearly fell into the seats on the other side of the aisle, but at least I hadn’t had to move the man, and I hadn’t bumped him accidentally, which is what I had been most afraid of.
I looked at his face from the other side. He looked like a different person. I didn’t even know his name. I only knew the name of his dead wife, Willemien. And those of his sons, Arjen, Simon, and Robert.
I noticed the box again, still lying on the middle seat. I grabbed it. Then I removed my small suitcase from the luggage compartment and put the box inside it.
In the other compartment I found the man’s jacket and a suitcase. I left his luggage on the seat in front of him. I resisted the impulse to touch his shoulder once more, I promised him that I would take good care of his box, and I left. On the gangway I ran into the stewardess, who was approaching the plane with two uniformed men. I told them I didn’t know the passenger and that I was in a hurry.
“I think you need to stay until the police arrive,” the younger of the two men stammered, while his eyes appealed to his colleague for support.
“Why?” I asked. Apparently it was a difficult question. The men looked at each other until the older one said:
“Know what? Give us your phone number and if the police have any questions they can call you.”
I gave them Ana Mei Balau’s business card and left. I took the train home. Outside everything was dark and silent, flat and orderly. Inside it was full of people who had been to work and were returning home on a regular old Monday. I found an empty seat in front of two girls who were chatting. I always tried to sit next to loved-up couples or chatty girls. I was silent all the way home, no one tried to engage me in conversation. That day I also decided that from then on I’d always sit near young people. I didn’t want to experience someone dying next to me ever again.
Copyright 2016 Hispabooks.