“15 hours, the emergency exit seat.”
Charlotte Fen exhaled this through her teeth as she pushed her way through the crowded airport. She ran her sweaty palms over a pair of dirty jeans that must have originally been a man’s, because the bottoms were cuffed to expose her boots, a combat-construction hybrid. She was ceaselessly muttering.
Most people called her Lottie, because she said Charlotte sounded aristocratic.
Jo-burg Airport spinning like some bad trip, too loud, too fast.
She repeated sentences to herself, like fragments from a song or poem.
If you asked, she might tell you that she was trying to memorize them for later use in something solid, or she’d say she was working on a book.
Lottie knew what she must look like to others, with her rugged clothes and murmurings, as if she lived beneath a bridge, or on a park bench, but people saw her that way because she intended on being seen that way.
She saw the symbol for the ladies room and headed for it.
Her reflection in the mirror never looked half as shaken as she felt. She displayed only a cold indifference. But she smiled at herself and thought she almost looked at peace — that is, except for her eyes.
“There is a list somewhere, of eyes, of the lights that occupy them, and how they appear when the light has left.” She that out loud, while glancing at the feet in a stall behind her.
She bent towards the glass, relaxing the muscles in her face as she pressed a line of charcoal halfway across her lower lids, adding a quick dab of concealer to hide her dark circles.
Her hands were shaking for lack of something — sleep, a cigarette, maybe food. She chose to ignore the tremors, instead using her hands to wrap up her thick dark hair, with its two dreads she kept hidden beneath the tangled waves at the nap of her neck.
Inhaling, then exhaling, she walked back into the main terminal.
She was thinking of airports and rivers as streams of people throbbed around her …
“not stagnate like ponds and pools — apathetic, they let you sink — nor nauseating like indecisive ocean waves that try and spit you out. No. Rivers pick you up and pull you along, an eager older brother teasing and jostling you, taking you somewhere not even he has been.”
She’d already written this, somewhere, in the margin of a book or on the corner of a napkin, and out of it she was forming an airport analogy. She loved the spontaneous, evanescent camaraderie of the transit world.
But her destination was never in sight, and she told herself she stayed in the river because dry land made her sick. She liked to think of herself as the restless mind that propelled those epics of darker days in uncharted waters, on borderless maps, except that now the grid had built a cage around her.
” The lines of longitude and latitude bind the earth like meat in a butcher shop’s string nets. Quartered and stripped, dissected and bled, it hangs defeated.” She said this aloud, too, but in a tempo akin to poetry. She wished the world still spoke like Whitman’s poems or Austen’s prose, so she amused herself by narrating her life in eloquent english. Alliterations and metaphors coated reality, making it safe, making each day just a page in a book, or something to be shut and put away. An hour till her flight, and another chapter closing.
“Things get small so fast,” she thought. A tightness grew across her chest as if her heart was inflating…
A man bumped into her, because she was preoccupied with metaphors for the way it felt when the city she was in began:
“closing up like some kind of jar, suffocating her.”
“I am so sorry,” said the man.
“No, my fault,” she answered and she looked directly into his eyes, another method she used for calming herself. It was like stealing breath, to watch him skip a beat.
As a child, Lottie had read many books about witches and mermaids, so it was a habit to pretend she had their powers, and what she realized was that if she believed it, most times her victims did, too.
Finding her gate, she collapsed in a seat near the wall of windows, the thumb of her right hand caressing the tattoo of a bird in flight on the back of her left. It made her think of her dear brother, Ben. Almost a year ago, he had told her he was gay. He was her best friend and maybe the only person who pulled her from this sickness of self-narration.
“You read too much, Lot,” Ben would say when they were young, teasing her when she was unable to emerge fully from whatever book she was reading, camping for nights on end in the backyard with their German Shepherd while the pages of Jack London’s collected works grew bloated with outdoors humidity, or speaking with Jane Austen’s quick wit till Ben assumed a British accent and played along. And then came Steinbeck’s Cathy.
“Ole’ Cathy really screwed me up,” she smirked
Ben had been her link to reality till his coming out had gone so badly. Not with Charlotte, of course, who he knew would love him no matter what, but with their mother who had raised the two alone. Her strong willed spirit would have made her smile at the thought of Charlotte with a woman, but it left her angry at the idea of her son with man.
Her own husband left while Charlotte was still in the womb. He had split and disappeared for three years, until one May he was there again, in a minivan. A high blond ponytail in the passenger seat, and a five-year-old boy with his eyes. He walked to the door with a key and a letter that he shoved through the mail slot where it fell at her mother’s feet, who had …
“stood like a warrior at a gate to meet with any kind of attack.”
Any kind, but that spineless letter that had sabotaged her defense like a grenade with its simple cowardice.
Her eight-year-old brother had run out the back door and met his father on the pavement in front of the garage. The burly man may have been moved for a moment, but he was guarded by that stony stare his daughter would unknowingly inherit. He put his hand on the shoulder of the dark eyed boy.
“Be the man around here, will ya, son? Look out for those ladies in there.”
Then a little voice came through the van’s open window.
“Daddy” was all it said; he got in the car and was gone.
… leaving a sobbing boy whose voice copied that word “daddy, daddy”.
Ben had always been gentle, but Lily, their mother, did not seem to understand why he would choose to be with a man over a woman. She said many hurtful things to him, taking it all very personally.
Since the confession, the three of them had not been in the same house. Ben, hurt and angry, moved in with his lover, and Lottie saw a change in him, a bit of his gentleness hardened by the world’s judgment, and a bitterness seemed to lock him away from everyone, even herself. She could not stay to watch him turn into this man she did not know. She hit the road and hadn’t slowed down yet. Always writing, or thinking about a book she had failed to start. Interjecting herself into other people’s stories and lives only to disappear when things got too deep. She missed her brother.
Lottie’s thoughts were fighting for memories of Ben from their childhood days, when suddenly the feeling of another’s eyes prickled along the skin of her face. A young South African girl sat two seats down from her, staring. Lottie’s instinct was to turn her head in stiff pivot back to the view of the tarmac, but the girl had already jumped at the acknowledgment.
”Hi,” she said through brilliant teeth. ”You’re style is awesome!”
Lottie’s lids fell heavily over her dark eyes and a side smirk thanked the sincere girl. Again she sought rescue in turning away, but as she did so the face with those happy eyes slid a seat closer.
“My name is Bianca.” Polished fingernails extended; a dirty hand reached back.
“Name’s Riley,” Lottie claimed with a Brooklyn tinge added to her words.
A whisper said, “The game was on.” Exhausted and sad though she was, Lottie loved a good role-play with a naive stranger, and here, in this moment, she could lose herself and become Riley, a world traveling journalist/filmmaker from Brooklyn.
The gimmick continued; the girl swallowed it all.
Bianca’s big brown eyes were shining in admiration
“It is so cool you are a journalist. That’s what I am going to America to be!” Her South African accent took away some of her naivety, as any British sounding accent often does.
Lottie replied in an incredulous tone, “Well, then, in that case, let me give you a couple pointers.”
“Be assertive in all your class projects,” she said, “especially the mass communications classes. You gotta jump on your specialty immediately, or you’ll end up writing the contents page for some low class magazine.” She chuckled and stared out the window as if it were a screen projecting a memory.
“Well, are people in the States nice?”
“Nice? Ha. Ha. Yeah, their real gems if you don’t pay attention to what they say, or do, or – for that matter – how they think.”
“But you’ll be fine, just figure out how to turn off the sweetness, ’cause as refreshing as it is, in normal conversation, it’ll hang ya out to dry quicker than T-Swift drops a boyfriend.”
Lottie held back a snort at her own reference to a pop culture figure she comfortably knew little about. Bianca laughed nervously, then added:
“Well, I am tough. I can handle it.”
An amplified voice called out, “Zone 4.”
“That’s me. Good luck, Bianca.”
She got up and walked away.
“Hope like that, who knew it still existed,” she thought as her ticket was returned, and walked through the chilly passageway to the plane.
Scooting sidelong down the crowded aisle she saw the faces already there like a muted TV, happy, frustrated, tired. Her jaded smirk crept back up her neck to her lips, but it never reached her eyes. Her ratty backpack smacked an unaware traveler, who feigned forgiveness at her cold apology.
“I will make them hate me,” whispered a voice in her head and she nodded assent to the visible world.
“A little melodramatic don’t you think?,” she answered the whisper.
”Maybe,” it seduced.
There was her seat, emergency exit. Only room for two, side by side closest to the stewardess cabin. Closer to the bathroom. She glanced at the ticket. “Ah, aisle seat. Perfect,”she grimaced.
“Why,” asked the whisper, “did you ever think you would change?” Her eyes flew open again.
“I am not going to listen to you for 15 hours!,” she spat at the crooning voice. The Whisper was another reason to narrate, to maintain a steady stream of consciousness to drown out the voice that was always there accusing. The narrator and the whisper battled most times, but every once in while they teamed up …
“like Batman and Catwoman, troubled hero with a seductive villain.”
Again, she smiled at the ignorance of the fellow passengers who hadn’t heard the whisper or the scream, probably because they had their own to entertain. “I wonder,” she thought, “if you get close enough and place an ear to their ear could you hear them shout at their whisperer?”
A girl about her age sat nearby with a book splayed over her knees. Lottie was transfixed. The girl’s every movement was so steady, as though preordained. Then the girl’s eyes lifted and locked on Lottie’s. So much light came out of them.
“I will snuff them out,” hissed the whisper.
The girl smiled and shook her head. Lottie was taken aback. “Had she heard? Impossible. She was shaking her head as if to say ‘Don’t you love these long flights?” Besides she was probably reading a Bible.” Lottie seemed to be perpetually hounded by women with Bibles and shiny eyes,.
She scoffed. “Don’t make yourself look crazy.” She sat back and tried to listen to the internal dialogue around her.
“You should have stayed!,” said the man’s mind behind her
“You will see them soon.”
“You will die if he goes.”
“You hate her. You are hated.”
“A coward, hopeless.”
“Alone, alone, alone.”
And the whispers rose like steam through a kettle and Lottie stared ahead blinking less then most. She put on her head phones.
Suddenly a voice.
“Um … I’m at the window.”
Her head tilted up slowly, and saw him, handsome with the shadow of a beard and an accent to sink into.
She chuckled at him beneath heavy lashes, and moved her knees aside to let him pass.
“He is yours,” said the whisper.
“I know,” she whispered back.
He muttered and when he shifted about looking for his seatbelt his knuckles touched her hip. He pulled away quickly.
Lottie liked it. “Let us see” she thought. “Expensive watch, hmm nice jacket.” She visibly winced: “Tennis shoes, that’s a strike against you.” She couldn’t keep a mocking smile off her face. ”And oh so nervous.” He shuffled again in his seat.
He glanced up for only a moment.
“Uh, yes, when they said emergency row I thought that would mean a bit more leg room.” An accent smooth and soft came from his well-shaped lips.
“Oh, beginner’s mistake,” she chuckled.
“No, I fly all the time, but usually first class.”
Her eyebrows rose. He was being serious.
“Oh, the recession’s affecting you, too?” Sarcasm.
The back of his ears were red. He hadn’t meant to sound pompous.
“I … uh”
“It’s OK. You can pretend you’re part of a case study.” She feigned a whisper, but smiled, coaxing him to glance up at her.
“Oh no, welcome to the other side of the tracks. Or perhaps I should say the other side of the curtain.”
Her voice changed to that of a Disney tour guide. ”Please be aware of the colors you wear, avoid exposing the contents of your wallet, and you may want to remove … your watch,” mouthing the last two words and looking around with suspicion.
He smiled, perfect teeth.
“Well, I guess with you between me and the great unknown I should be OK.”
She smiled and sat back, but in a new mood. “Boring” she said to herself, “not worth my sleep”
A traveling airliner is like a high school, a cramped space with no choice of who is going to surround you, a painful bus ride from the reality of one type of loneliness to another.
10 minutes later.
Lottie was no longer interested in the accent, muttering at a consistent rate. She pulled a pair of pants or rather some fabric from her bag and began sewing.
The accent stopped murmuring. She felt his eyes.
“What are you making?”
“Because for 15 hours I intend on ignoring everyone around me.” Said without the slightest hope of seduction. She would have been proud of herself, but his chuckle suggested he found some flirtation there to hold on to. She had not meant to let it slip.
“Oh. Very good. I was hoping to be seated next to someone painfully boring, and get some sleep.”
“Damn it all,” she thought. “I have got to get him to shut up.”
She twisted her body to look at the young man as directly as she could; she could tell it unnerved him. He looked at his lap, not meeting her eyes, fiddling with the airplane care package of toothbrush, headphones, and blanket.
Charlotte Fen was strangely beautiful. At first glance you would think she was only attractive in theory, determined by the way she carried herself, confident but ill-kept, messy hair and neutral clothes that, though utilitarian and worn, hinted at good taste. At second glance, though, she’s striking, with dark features and piercing eyes. Photographers often prey on her because of this. But at a last glance, she was pretty, not amazingly so, only comfortably, her attitude the thing that made her desirable.
The accent was taking his second look as she spoke.
“Where ya headed?”
“New York, then Massachusetts” He continued his study of the complementary bag.
“What on earth is in Massachusetts?” Over attentiveness, first defense.
“Uh … Harvard” His pretty lips spread into a smile at his own answer, knowing her inevitable reaction. Yep, there it was, the immediate laugh of scorn.
“Harvard, of course.”
“Mmm, you know most women are impressed at that.” The accent coaxed.
“Yes, well, I believe that. So what year are you?”
“Graduated, actually. Going back to begin the master’s program in business”
“Trying to make that money?”
“Hoping to get filthy rich.”
His tone was confident, but she smiled because she was winning. His posture stayed nervous, eyes still down. Textbooks he can deal with, money, women that follow money, those things he knows. Lottie is light-years from his expertise.
“So you don’t like making your own clothes?”
Her brother would have found him attractive.
“I prefer to buy them.”
“Yes, yes, that makes sense.”
She felt him watch her intently as she sat weaving the needle in and out of a hopeless mess of material. Then he quickly glanced back to his hands, and was silent.
Lottie was hoping he would stop looking now. She knew his thoughts and, as flattering as they were, she wanted silence. She could hear the whispers in his ear, and her whisperer responding. It was deafening. He was thinking of a way to prolong the conversation and she could feel his efforts. The panic in her chest that had been staved off by her submission to the gentle voice was rising again and the more she tried to ignore it the louder it got. Pain pressed in …
“like cold restricting hands.”
She willed her eyes to go vacant again so as to dry the tears that might have fallen to her chest.
She wanted to turn and tell him what she really was, who she really was. To yell and tear about the plane, hit him for looking at her like that, tell him why it burned her skin.
She had been living like a siren all these years and somehow, in this last ocean something went wrong maybe she had gotten weak, or the sailor had been too strong, but somehow she was beached, she had been dragged up on to the shore where she was drowning and flipping, half groping for the waters edge, half waiting to evolve into something of the land.
The whisper sounded raspier now. “Don’t mess it up.”
“Why? I don’t even want this one.”
“Because you can. Don’t show him tears. It’s not attractive, dear.”
“I don’t care.”
“Yes, you do.”
Her eyes clamped shut, she curled her lips in and bit them together. “Just shut up,” she whimpered.
But she couldn’t tell him what she really was, because she too often denied it to herself.
Maybe if he just looked her in the eye for a moment he would see that the light was out. For a second she even desperately turned to the girl with that book over her knees. “She knew! She saw. She could hear them, too! She could tell him the truth!”
“No,” croaked the whisper. “She has no idea what you’ve been through. You are more than she can see, better than she’ll ever be, more complete. More of a woman. Embrace it.”
“Fine,” she resigned. “Just give me a second”
Lottie’s mind moved backwards through the seat, through the tail of the roaring plane, and took her to the sunny banks of a childhood with her brother Ben. The whisper rarely traveled here. They were young, and the sun was bright. Oh, she loved this memory. The creek was bubbling and brooding over smooth and mossy rocks. Ben was shirtless and grinning, she was stripped down to her underwear and tattered tank. Hands full of mud; she slapped it down on Ben’s bare chest. He shrieked after her, they splashed under a canopy of green giants, whose delicate fingers were performing shadow acts upon the water top. Her laughter was so loud and so genuine, she kicked up water like useless diamonds to the sun, and Ben lay on the rocks painting pictures on his chest with mud and clay, his toes beneath the cool stream, presenting his finger paint to God.
The pain in her chest spiked. She could not wrench herself quickly enough back to reality, and she hit a place somewhere in between, in her own yellow lit room, older, only underwear this time, no sun, no stream, no Ben, just two cigarettes still burning by the bed and a red light clock reading 5 A.M., tussled hair and tender thighs, and someone’s absence felt strong. Here the whisperer lived.
“This is where we live.”
Lottie opened her eyes. They were circling the tarmac now, preparing to take off. The engines roared and seat belts clicked, children questioned, and a reverent silence fell.
She glanced to her right at pretty boy staring out the window, his fingers finally still.
The overhead announcer said the usual, with few to none as an audience.
Back to the needle and thread. She began to sew, nodding along to a song on the iPod that should have been turned off. The motion must have pulled his attention back to her, because she felt his awareness again, and his hands went back to the zip lock bag which at this point seemed sufficiently broken, and now presented him the amusing task of fixing it.
“What on earth does he have to be fidgety about? Good looking, intelligent.” She shook her head baffled
The plane tried in one last burst of energy to lift its obese body from the earth, fighting gravity like the bird on Lottie’s hand often seemed to do, fighting her prison of flesh; it now looked up sadly at her, and if she could have cut it out and freed it she would have.
“Well, here we go,” said the accent
He was looking at her hands again; she knew he would see her nod, so she spared her tongue the trouble of response.
“How does one go about making shorts?”
“Well, one first finds fabric.” She lifting the mass of grey, and, pulling her ear bud out, “I didn’t have too many options out there in the bush…”
“Wait, I’m sorry, the bush you say?”
“Yes, the bush of Zambia. I’m afraid you wouldn’t have liked the living conditions.” she glanced at his 1950’s pompadour and shrugged. “Nowhere to comb your hair.”
“So how long were you there for?”
“Little over eight months.”
“Brave of you, wiping orphans noses?”
“Not so much, more getting an education.”
“Interesting take, so you didn’t go on a humanitarian cause?”
“No, I came to take a break from America, I needed air and space, selfish, I know.” He raised his eyebrows, and she felt his interest peaked. His silence prompted her to continue.
“I could make up some heartwarming tale of my inner magnanimity for the African people and how it was for their benefit I came, to resurrect and rescue villages” her voice now sanctimonious “to aid and nurture. but really I was just looking for peace and quiet.”
“Selfishness a quality too few admit to and too many live by, I enjoy to hear one willing to claim it, though I hardly find bush living self-indulgent. I rather like progress myself.”
“Have you ever been?”
“The bush?” She winked.
“Never, born and raised in South Africa, but never set foot in a hut. Do you judge me?”
“Not in the least. I condemn you to an ignorance your Harvard has no cure for.” She smiled.
“My, my you don’t think it, you say it” He laughed.
“Only in hopes that you’ll hear it. Not many do.”
“Distracted by your charm, no doubt.”
“Oh, I hoped it had not gagged me yet.”
“Very good.” The whisperer was laughing now “I will leave you to it.”
Lottie’s heart hit her stomach. “No.” She was stuck and his next words solidified it.
“So may I buy you a drink over dinner? We could discuss further your revulsion at my life style choices.”
Her smile was now awkwardly frozen, as her mind reeled for a way out of the trap she had woven with him.
“Well, I had intended on a dinner date with Dylan.” She held up her seriously out-dated iPod Nano.
“Very good. He is a kind of a ‘stick it to the man’ guy. Didn’t think you’d approve,” she said, letting out a patronizing tone.
“They teach us to learn the potential instigators of free thinking, so as to be better prepared to snuff out the ideals. As for dinner, I would be interested in hearing an explanation and defense of his lyrics.”
“With the chance of indoctrinating you, I can’t refuse, bound by my loyalties … and seat belt.” He was her kind of addiction: fast talking enough to force her into response before she was able to shut the door, like Ben when they were reenacting Pride and Prejudice.
“Just keep the upper ground,” she thought. “After you eat, go straight to sleep.”
“I warn you now” he said, “ I have a specially ordered meal, so it will be arriving before yours. I hope it won’t be a cause of dissension.”
The drink cart was making its way down the aisle.
“A specially ordered meal?” She couldn’t think of anything clever.
Lottie would have laughed louder, but for the sake of a sleeping woman across the way, she let out a silent shaking response.
“A Jewish, South African, Harvard grad. Who’d have ever known I’d be so lucky.”
“Yes, it’s very fancy, but I am hardly a practicing Jew. I only order it when flying to expedite the process. On land I love bacon.”
“And I was afraid you too had convictions. I am glad you clarified.”
“Honesty does seem the route tonight.”
A silence hit the heated air still in motion from their words. She hated this, she was tired, tired of silly flirtations, she wanted to sit back and let the tears come down her face and not be bothered by a man of wit and charm, pretty green eyes and perfect teeth. Her responses were habitual. Too used to being the center of every man’s fantasy, she easily morphed into an object of his most secret longing, just as for Bianca she had become Riley. For this man she was his wild opposite, the gypsy for the clergyman.
“I don’t want to do it anymore.” She was searching for the exit. This is when a cigarette would have been awfully nice. “I just want the stream, and innocent Ben with mud pies and blackberries. I don’t want to seduce anymore!”
“Ssh,” said the whisper. “You know you love his attention.”
Her mind whirled back again to another home of the whisper, a futon on the floor and a dark figure running to the blinds to hide her from the world, he was ashamed of she, her feeble protest, and his unfriendly hand across her mouth.
“Enough!,” Lottie thought, fighting back.
“Well, then control this one, since you could not control the others I gave you!” The whisper simmered down.
“It is too late for me.” She again let the realization sink in of what she had allowed herself to become.
But tonight, though, she could pretend to be anyone. In retaliation, to the whisper that layered lies on her tongue, she would be, Charlotte Fen, through and through. The scar on her arm would be the burn from a McDonald’s deep fryer, just a memory of a high school part time job, she would tell no lies or anecdotes to try and entice. She would be herself because all her many characters were worn out, trying to recover and sort themselves out from their years of service.
The drink cart had rattled to a stop by her side.
“I’ll take a Chardonnay.”
Two little bottles of wine appeared in front of her.
“An appletiser, please,” the voice next to her, sounding purely amused at his own order. And Charlotte couldn’t help but turn to him and smile. He was baiting her.
“I assure you it’s delicious.”
She shook her head and opened her wine. White wine was out of character for her and she would have preferred red or, better yet, beer, but something in the back of her head knew red led to that embarrassing grey toothed smile that you never catch quick enough, and beer, well, she had had a number of good brews at the airport bar and now wanted wine with her dinner.
“No, really, try it.”
He was trying to get her to sip the “appletiser” as he held his little plastic cup to her.
“OK, OK.” She laughed despite herself.
Taking a little sip of the neon green liquid, she immediately scrunched up her face.
“Gah! .. that .. is disgusting.”
“Really?,” he said, genuinely surprised. “Everyone loves appletiser!”
“No, no, it’s bad, real bad.”
Now he was sniffing it curiously.
“Well. have you ever tried Amarula?”
“No, though at your recommendation I don’t think that I ever will.”
“Oh, no, I assure you, you’ll love it.”
He called the flight attendant over importantly, asking in Afrikaans for a couple of bottles of Amarula, informing him that his seat partner had never tried it. The two hovered over an amused Lottie, like mischievous schoolboys.
It was only now that she really caught the delicious scent of his cologne, begging her to lean into the chest of this dark man and disappear.
… and the whisper chuckled.
Lottie shrank back from the tantalizing smell and pulled away from his arm, which had pressed against her as he leaned in to conspire with the flight attendant.
He had felt her tense. Immediately he was back in his corner, eyes to his broken pouch zipper.
The whisper hissed something at her. She knew the gist of what it had said.
“You do know that you have destroyed it, don’t you?” Relaxing, she leaned toward him to overcompensate for the moment before.
“No … watch.” He twisted and pulled at the bag zipper till it was back in working order.
“Oh, well done, now let me see.”
There is that innate competitiveness in women such as Charlotte that will turn even fixing a zipper into a game.
She had broken it again and was working quickly to reinvent the fastest way to fix it. The still nameless stranger was fully engaged in watching her quick fingers. Then suddenly with a little pop and gasp she tore the zipper clean off, an irreversible error. It had been an accident, but she knew it looked deliberate.
The most genuine laugh she’d had in awhile escaped her lips and tightened her stomach, and the owner of the zipper was laughing hard as well, a real laugh, not the forced kind men give needy girls.
She tossed the bag back into his lap and settled back. It wasn’t even that funny, but it was just ridiculous enough to keep a chuckle in her chest.
“Mr. Aschner.” A flight attendant was standing at their aisle with a little airplane mea, tradition in a package.
“Oh, thank you.”
“And for you and the lady,” he said it with a wink that made Lottie want to find the way out again.
He handed both of them cups of ice and several little bottles of Amarula.
“Well if we are to have drinks and dinner together, I should think an introduction is necessary. Samuel Aschner, Harvard grad.”
“Charlotte Fen, community college dropout.”
“You can call me Sam.”
“I call you corporate.”
“Fine, I call you commie.”
She loved his boldness and knew it was not normal for him, just by the look of terror in his face at his own quick rebut.
The food cart was almost there, and Sam kindly refrained from eating till her chicken arrived.
They sipped their drinks and Lottie was letting the whisper fill her head, as she felt the wine and liquor slow her defense.
She peeled back the aluminum topping, and Sam pulled his many, many layers away from the religiously pure tray that finally revealed a larger variety of offerings than on Lottie’s plate. However as they ate it was clear who had made the better choice. Sam began to laugh at himself.
“How much for the rest of what’s on your tray?”
Lottie smirked. “Not a chance. It’s called, eat your greed and impatience.’”
The alcohol was loosening them both up.
There is that very interesting moment when you begin to listen to that whisper, and I know I have not properly introduced what or who precisely that “whisper” is, but I do not doubt you know it well, the voice within that calls out your destruction lest you listen to it.
Lottie was listening to it, hearing it plan her moves, letting it partake in her wine, but it was never intoxicated, and it’s voice only grew louder as she moved closer to a warm buzz.
She felt the sensitivity in her fingertips heighten and her self-awareness lessen. That desperate ache was easing away with every sip; she flirted and bantered with the South African.
They told stories like people who were really interested in one another. They pretended they were in a movie or some book. She twisted her hair and the hardness she had tried to maintain began to give way, and his hands stopped fidgeting and his eyes met hers when he spoke. The night grew longer and later and the distance between earth and plane was greater, between reason and oblivion, careless, carnal action, the gap was insurmountable. She had made her choice to hear the whisper and drown in it.
Lottie began to sense an emotional pulse running through Sam’s body as the friction increased and they avoided touch, and she realized …
“He is human?”
She often forgot, when out in the world, the humanity of others was like hers the capabilities of sorrow, of memory, of thoughts beyond that moment. And right then as they were loosened by alcohol and freed by distance from the earth, she caught her breath at the vulnerability that sneaked into his teasing eyes. It made her blush, like you would if you stumbled in the kitchen on Christmas and your single mother couldn’t pull the heavy turkey from the oven and it slipped, and her tears were for more than the fallen bird.
She looked down ashamed. She had seen it and he too looked away and chuckled.
“Tell me secrets, little commie.”
Her eyes flashed and hardened. “No,” she thought, “not with you, this is not heart talk, we flirt to forget.”
“I don’t shave my legs.” It was one of the moments when walls go up and arms extend to ensure safe lines are not crossed, and her face split into a smile.
He laughed a submissive laugh that knew she was setting a standard and he even nodded to say, “OK, OK your way.”
“Tell me a secret, corporate.” Her eyes were warning, though, not to go to deep.
He dropped his voice and asked her not to laugh, “Would you believe me if I told you I sing opera, and very well?”
While he had been whispering, Lottie had leaned into his shoulder, and now put her forehead against it to hide a smile and a little laugh, another wall to solidify their interaction as purely physical and present.
“Will you sing to me now?,” she coaxed, pretending to hold back laughter.
“Not a chance.”
“Oh, opera, I don’t know much about the modern opera scene,” she said with a tone of melodrama.
“Well, now, just wait.” Sam was pulling an iPad from his carry-on, and handed Lottie an ear bud. Her arm was now pressed against his, though her hand retained a fist. Then an Italian man began expressing familiar but unknown things in a language and tone wholly new to Lottie and she liked it, more than she would care to admit. Her eyes closed and she thought the sound felt like nature …
“like the man who sang it couldn’t speak but only sing, as if unsung words to him would be as dry land to a fish.”
It was maybe too honest, she thought, and she wished she were alone and that she had more to drink, and that she could be allowed a chance to cry.
You know what that is like, to have tears glue your eyes shut, and lock your lashes. Why couldn’t she escape it? She breathed deeply through her nose, and tried not to look at faces that appeared on the back of her eyelids.
The songs continued. Sam had looked up at the end of the first excerpt to hear her thoughts, but now he had stumbled upon her proverbial kitchen and fallen turkey.
She knew it because she could feel him tense, she felt his eyes tracing her face, now that he was free to do so, and she almost flinched at what he saw.
It had been about a year ago when her friend, Paul, had told her what she looked like with her eyes closed. He had been a friend with benefits through the years, a warm bed and someone easy to talk to, though he never got possessive. He was the male version of herself, so like the same side of Velcro they could never stick.
It was soon after Ben had come out to their mother and all hell broke loose, so she had needed a place to stay as she passed through their hometown, not really on speaking terms with the woman who disowned her brother. She had somehow ended up with Paul after a long night at their favorite pub. She remembered waking up to see him looking at her with a strange expression.
“What?,” she croaked through a hangover.
“How old are you?,” he asked frowning.
“You know how old I am!” she said with groggy irritation.
Paul was over a decade older than she, and she had only been seventeen the first time they’d been together, and her age was as a rule, something they never spoke of. Charlotte had always seemed older to him.
“You look so young when you’re sleeping.” Paul was still having some type of strange epiphany, looking at her like she was stranger in his bed.
“Shut up,” she groaned, “my budding youth has never bothered you before.”
“Yeah, but you don’t look that young when you’re awake.”
Lottie was staring daggers at him. She remembered the anger and fear in her chest, how she had worked on making sure no one ever saw her as young, as vulnerable. Paul had always reinforced this, saying at times how he was convinced of her actually being older than he was.
Paul laughed. “You don’t look that young now, it’s those damn eyes, girl, they age you half a decade, not to mention that tongue of yours.”
She scowled at him. “So what? Now you’re feeling guilty or something?”
“Well I’m not gonna lie. You freaked me out when I glanced over to see a 15-year-old in my bed.”
“Oh, really, I look 15?” She sat up and pulled the blanket around her and tried to get out of bed.
He was laughing and tugging her back towards him. “Maybe I was dreaming.” She was still struggling to get away from him. “I had to have been, ’cause right now you look ancient.”
“Oh, thanks!” She scoffed, but let him pull her back.
She thought of Sam now, looking at her, catching her as Paul had done, looking so young.
It had not been so very long that they had sat in silence, but she hated the thought of his stomach twisting in guilt, wondering how young she really was, so she sat up and pulled the earbud from her head.
“Very pretty,” she side-smirked.
“And so you loved it.”
“Loved it, very moving.”
“You know what I think?”
“I wouldn’t dare to think myself smart enough to.”
“I think you sing.”
It hit a nerve in her, but her face never faltered.
“I think I need another drink.”
He laughed, it was late in the dark airplane, and they, so submerged in their tug o’ war, had almost forgotten where they were. The attendant who found the Amurala was walking past with a trash bag, and Sam stopped him.
“Dien jy bier, gereelde grootte bottles?”
“Ja, een oomblik?” The attendant seemed to like Sam very much, and whatever it was that was said between them produced several full sized bottles of beer. Lottie was genuinely surprised; she had never seen them served on a flight before.
They drank until they entered that careless mode of bar side manner, trying to keep their voices down.
“So you really think we all just want to be rich?” Lottie had now pulled her feet up under her so her knees touched his leg. Trying as she might to keep the whisperer at bay. It never seemed satisfied, always critiquing her smile, pushing her to touch his hand, chastising her for being too cruel or too sweet.
And constantly it whispered of times before, of past flings, and even of past romances. She felt all of them crowding her and caressing her. A kiss of her fingertips, a stroke on her bare back, some were gentle, many were painful, and occasionally searing, a hand over her mouth, and the pressure of a cold hard floor, a ceiling fan with a missing light bulb.
Sam talked charmingly; Lottie may have thought him boring if he hadn’t let little bits of memory climb into his eyes.
“What is it?,” she interrupted.
“What is what?,” he asked, puzzled.
“What is that pain I keep seeing in your eyes?” Her voice scared her; it was a tone she only ever used with her dear brother Ben.
“I… uh, “he laughed. “No, I don’t think so.”
He moved in closer, and the whisperers of both of them were begging silence into sensuality. He was dragging her, the flailing mermaid on the beach, closer and closer to the water, and she could feel the licking waves.
“Just like all the others,” the whisper in Lottie sang, and she swung her head away from him.
“Ah, you rich kids.”
He laughed again “Oh, we rich kids, huh? Do you really want to know?”
It was too much. She wanted to break out of the pretense, either with sensuality or real conversation. That’s how it always goes in these scenarios – you silence the tension with lips, lips that confess or lips that quench and silence, with deep pressure against flesh.
“I do.” She broke.
Sam looked at his watch. “Today, two years ago my brother died.”
“No” It’s all she could manage, it wasn’t what she had expected, and she hardly believed it, but staring at him though, she saw truth.
“Yes.” He smiled, but it didn’t touch his eyes, so much like hers, with no light inside.
Silence overtook them once again, both regretting the moment before, wishing they’d chosen flesh.
The whisper told her hand to move, and she reached out and touched his arm, but it was not empathy, it was not compassion. The touch screamed, “Shut up, I don’t want your pain.” It said, “Lose yourself inside me, let’s forget the planet underneath us and what has happened there.” The touch was anger, and his body absorbed it and responded, “I will gladly bury the past in you.”
So much anger bounced around them that the air was static.
The lights in the cabin had long been off, it was late or very early. They were hovering above time zones, where the clouds saw no need for them.
“I’d say we were on our third date, Charlotte.”
“Call me Lottie.”
“Well, Lottie, have I convinced you to look more kindly at the upper class money-mongers.”
“Who sing opera, and play … what was it, cricket?”
He was smiling at her because they now both didn’t care what the other thought of them. They had just crossed an invisible barrier.
He knew that she enjoyed the company of the man in central park with the long dreads and yellow fingernails, who he had always found repulsive.
She knew that he laughed at clubhouse bar sides, with the men she most despised.
They would put those differences aside up here, above the wealthy and the poor, they would touch the skin of their opposite, taste the one they claimed to hate, they would prove for a couple hours how fickle humans really are. The whisperer always knew it, that they would equalize by compromise, cheating on who they said they were.
Knowing that they may see one another one day on the solid earth below. She in her boots and over-worn jeans, with some shirt she’d made. He with his suit that cost too much, a briefcase, and shiny shoes. They would walk past each other and take a second glance, he’d recognize the tattoo on her hand, she’d hear his easily distinguished accent, answering a well-dressed companion and know him right away. But they’d keep walking, as if they’d never met, they’d pass within inches of one another walking opposite directions, the way they always walked.
That’s what they said to one another as he leaned into kiss her, maybe not in words but who can be sure, because they both heard it and both knew the other had as well.
He pulled her close, and it was pain wrapped in pain, cadaver on cadaver.
Airplanes are an uncomfortable place for such affairs, but this was not love, it was the sharing of hate, of pain, so the bit of discomfort seemed almost right.
“Well, you’ve done it again,” said the simpering whisperer as Sam went to the lavatory to wait.
Lottie was silent, she didn’t want to talk any more, the fight that had been in her to resist the game had crumbled, her mind thought of nothing, could think of nothing, and for this she would pay dearly later. But that pain that had been pressing in on her had subsided, as if the needle of her fix had just slipped into a vein.
So she got up to follow Sam, and as she pushed in the lavatory door she saw the siren in the mirror, and then she saw him looking at her, this hungry sailor, with eyes full of all the things that made her happy to drag him to the deep after he was so gracious as to carry her to the water.
Four hours later.
She woke up, and they weren’t touching. She wondered, had it all been a dream, some drunken fantasy?
But he stirred as she did and he glanced at her and she knew it had all been very real.
The sun was bright, level with their window …
“perched on the wing of the plane, like a bird on a branch.”
She thought of the birds in her front yard when she was a child, the ones that she would try and get close to, with pieces of her chicken salad trailing her feet.
“Eww!!,” Ben had screamed. “You’re making the birds cannibals!”
“What’s a cannibal, Benny?,” she asked horrified.
Ben’s voice was mischievous, as he looked at the wide-eyed six-year-old.
“It’s when people eat other people! So I guess it means when any animal eats the same kind of animal. And what kind of animal is a chicken?”
“A bird!” screamed Lottie.
“So you are feeding a bird to a bird, Lot, making him a cannibal, and that’s just evil.”
Little Lottie was waving her arms at the birds that had gathered to eat the scattered chicken.
“I’m sorry,” she yelled, “go away. Go away don’t eat him!!” She was now grabbing the little bits of shredded meat, and the birds had flown up into branches to watch her curiously. Ben, shaking with laughter, tried to comfort his sobbing little sister.
“I didn’t mean to be evil,” she hiccupped.
The grown Lottie in the airplane smiled to herself.
“I haven’t changed too much,” she thought, and glanced at Sam who was pretending to look in his bag. “Hungry birds still eat chicken salad.”
“Oh, how surprising, you stayed the night.”
Sam just smirked.
“He is not used to this,” thought Lottie.
“It’s OK,” she said, “don’t be awkward, I don’t expect you to write or anything.”
“Oh, dear I had already started drafting my first letter.”
“There you go, you’ll be fine,” she thought.
The last couple hours of the trip felt forced and uncomfortable, and he had done a very good job trying, but she’d have rather he be silent.
She was trying to enjoy the silence of the whisperer, because she knew it wouldn’t last forever.
And there was something else in these moments she loved. It was hope. Not sure why it came after a quick fix like Sam. But something like it always reared up with the sun and told her to stop shredding herself into bits and spreading her flesh to cannibals. Something much less hissing than the whisper, warmer and kinder.
They finally landed at J.F.K. She and Sam walked side by side through the narrow gate, both itching to leave the other, to keep their non-verbal agreement, it was …
“like wearing a pair of underwear for too long.”
They looked so strange next to one another, he so tall and well groomed, she with dark curls left un-brushed for years, tied up by beaded dreads.
Finally the signs pointed him through immigration, and she to where they’d welcome her home.
“Well, this is good-bye,” she smiled.
“Uh… yeah, I guess so,” said Sam, and he pulled her into an awkward side hug.
“OK,” she laughed, and patted his back.
She turned away and walked, not once turning back. She felt him watching her as she walked, the questions and accusations he was flinging at the back of her head.
This was not a fairy-tale, he would not run after her, they would not fall in love, or write letters. She knew what he must feel in his stomach, guilt, fear of what he never thought he’d become looming in his face, whispering of what he was.
She did not expect to feel his hand on her shoulder for him to turn her around and say, “Let’s try this the right way,” because she knew too well these arrangements.
And so Charlotte Fen kept walking, on tiled floors, away from a storybook romance, away from what could be. She walked in reality and thought of how ironic it was, how soon the pain would be back. How she was so much more scared then she always looked, how she wished she had the courage to look afraid so someone would realize she was falling.
But the whisper said …
When she finally got past baggage claim and made it through the door to the outside, she stopped and pulled her cigarettes from her backpack. There was a calmness of submergence. Her hands had stopped shaking. She felt nothing at all as she sank without so much as a twitch.
“Could I have one?,” asked a feminine voice behind her. The sound came from somewhere above the warm water in which she now was sinking.
Lottie turned slowly as if she was afraid she would find nothing, learn that she had finally lost it and another voice had joined the whisper in her brain. But there she stood, the girl from the plane, the girl with a light in her eyes, a glow on her face, the one who challenged the whisperer with a smile, she was asking for a cigarette, she was looking at Lottie like a friend.
Lottie didn’t say anything but handed the girl one slightly smushed cigarette, and when they touched, she felt weak, weaker than she’d ever felt, and once again she was thrashing and as she inhaled the smoke.
“It felt like drowning” …
But she was fighting, fighting for the surface.